Resonse to Ben Bavar on Act and Potency, Part 2

In the previous post, we examined a critique of the Thomistic view of act and potency from Ben Bavar (a cohost of Real Atheology) and offered a response. Bavar maintained that potency, in order to be real, must itself be something actual. Our response, however, contended that act, qua determined being, must be really distinct from potency (undetermined but determinable being); and that the latter must be truly non-actual. If this is denied, the result is either that real change cannot occur, or that we are faced with a strict logical contradiction (in that something is both determined and undetermined in the same respect).

We also indicated in the previous post that Bavar, in one of his own most recent blog posts, had already dealt with some points similar to those we had made. In particular, Bavar has critiqued the idea that act and potency are “parts” of a thing. In this post, then, we will be taking a look at some of these further points from Bavar.

Recall from our response that we referred to act and potency as really distinct principles of being. This is basically what Matthew Su means when he refers to them as metaphysical “parts” or components of a being. He writes:

A part is just the object of a real distinction within a thing. It’s what allows us to posit more than one real feature of things: we avoid contradiction between saying that it is both X and not-X, by saying it is ‘partially’ X and partially not-X. And these must be real metaphysical parts, if the attributes do different metaphysical work . . . Now since act and potency in a thing are irreducible to each other, that is, a thing is not in act in the same respect in which it is potential, if a thing is in some sense both in act and in potency, it has act and potency as real parts” [1].

Now, we are often inclined by custom to think of a “part” of a thing in a spatial or otherwise quantitative manner. For instance, one might say that my arm is a “part” of me because it is spatially connected to me, or because it occupies a portion of the overall space which I persist in as a whole. But there are other kinds of parts than simply the material/spatial/quantitative; indeed there are parts which are much deeper and more fundamental to the being of a thing. We might call these “metaphysical” parts. For the Thomist, such metaphysical parts would include things such as matter and form, substance and accidents, essence and existence, etc. Many Thomists will also typically call these “principles,” as I have done. On this point Klubertanz writes:

“There are various types of components in a whole being . . . Integral parts usually are quantitative parts of an extended (and measurable) whole. There are other types of components which are not quantitative in character, which cannot be discovered by direct sense experience, and which are not capable of existing as distinct beings after the division of the whole. Such components we will call ‘principles,’ that is, intrinsic or constituent principles” [2].

It is in this sense that act and potency are “parts” or principles of being. As we defined in the previous post, act is the principle within a thing by which it is determined to some specific perfection; while potency is the principle within a thing by which it is undetermined but determinable to some specific perfection.

Now, Bavar summarizes Su’s argument like this:

  1. A thing that’s in act and in potency is not in act in the same respect in which it is in potency.
  2. If a thing that’s in act and in potency is not in act in the same respect in which it is in potency, then distinct parts account for the thing’s being in act and its being in potency.
  3. If distinct parts account for the thing’s being in act and its being in potency, then the thing has act and potency as distinct parts.
  4. Therefore, the thing has act and potency as distinct parts [3].

And then, he provides a “parody” argument:

  1. Freddy’s sweater, which is red and green, is not red in the same respect in which it is green.
  2. If Freddy’s sweater, which is red and green, is not red in the same respect in which it is green, then distinct parts account for Freddy’s sweater’s being red and its being green.
  3. If distinct parts account for Freddy’s sweater’s being red and its being green, then Freddy’s sweater has red(ness) and green(ness) as distinct parts.
  4. Therefore, Freddy’s sweater has red(ness) and green(ness) as distinct parts [4].

This parody is meant as a kind of reductio ad absurdum, meant to show that we shouldn’t accept Su’s original argument because it would also commit us to accepting the conclusion of the parody argument, which conclusion is supposed to be absurd or at least counterintuitive. Bavar explains:

“Now, Thomists may not be inclined to see this conclusion as absurd, but I think many others will, on account of the counterintuitiveness of things having their colors or color properties as parts. After all, it’s more natural to think colored things have parts that are colored than to think they have parts that are colors” [5].

So the “absurdity” to which the original argument is reduced is the fact that it is apparently counterintuitive to say that a thing has colors as parts, rather than having parts which are colored. But I think this slips back somewhat into thinking of parts only as corporeal/spatial/quantitative/material parts. As people conventionally use the term parts, Bavar might be correct; but not in the sense we’re using it here. As many people would conventionally see things, the “parts” of the sweater are perhaps the stripes, or more technically the pieces of fabric which make up the stripes. It is these pieces of fabric — the “parts” of the sweater — which are each colored; and not the colors which are parts.

But, once again, this account seems to conflate tangible/sensible/physical parts with parts simpliciter. On this view, if we were to actually cut the whole sweater into pieces, the “parts” would be whatever is left over — in this case, strands of fabric. Since you can’t keep cutting the sweater into smaller and smaller pieces such that you finally reach “the color red” as something left over, lying on its own separated from all the other bits and pieces, it must not be a real part. But as we already saw from Klubertanz, “parts” in the metaphysical sense as Thomists use it typically “cannot be discovered by direct sense experience” and “are not capable of existing as distinct beings after the division of the whole.”

So what should we make of Bavar’s parody argument? Is it true that we cannot make sense of an object having colors as parts, rather than just parts that are colored? It seems to me that it is not a sufficient explanation to simply say that an object such as a sweater has colored parts, and leave it at that. For these further “parts” will in turn have distinct aspects which must themselves be parts. What does it mean to say that a part is “colored”? It seems to me that it just means that the part in question has a color as a feature of it. But its having this specific color must be distinct from it being what it is. Take, for instance, the strands of fabric which make up the sweater. Some of the strands of fabric (in the example given) are red, while some are green. Each strand of fabric is not its specific color qua strand of fabric, for then every strand of fabric would have to be the same color, which is obviously not the case. In other words, it is not in virtue of being a strand of fabric that the strand of fabric is a specific color. So we must say, for each strand of fabric, that its being a strand of fabric and its being this specific color are distinct aspects of it; they are not identical aspects of it. But this is pretty much just what the Thomist would mean if he were to say that “being red” is a distinct part of the strand of fabric. For the Thomist, saying that the sweater has “colored parts” does not escape from the need to posit its being specific colors as distinct parts of its overall being.

But how can it be the case that red or green are real parts of a thing? Bavar has more to contest on this point. First he writes: “The color red is not entirely contained in any particular red thing, so how can it be part of any particular red thing?” [6]. Then he indicates a possible solution to this issue by pointing out that it is perhaps possible to distinguish “red” from “the color red.” Just as we can say that water is a “part” of a beverage, without having to say that the whole substance water itself is contained in the beverage (since the whole substance of water is spread across the entire globe); perhaps we can say that red is a “part” of the sweater, without having to say that the whole color red is contained in the sweater but is instead spread throughout all red things. But Bavar doesn’t think this works, because of an important disanalogy between red and water. The disanalogy is that the whole substance water is a specific amount with a specific volume which can be actually divided (i.e., a certain amount/volume of water can be taken out of the whole and put into something else, such as a beverage). But, as Bavar says, “it’s awkward to speak of red as coming in amounts, volumes, or units” [7] that can be divided or split into smaller amounts. So it seems strange to speak of some “red” being in a thing as a part of it without redness as a whole being in it. You can’t split redness into “some” red and put it into a thing.

So this brings us back to the previous problem: “The color red is not entirely contained in any particular red thing, so how can it be part of any particular red thing?” A further aspect of this same problem, Bavar continues, is that “it’s even harder to argue that color properties like redness (as opposed to colors like red) are parts of material objects in space-time, because properties are commonly viewed as abstract objects that exist outside of space-time” [8]. Redness itself is a universal/abstract property, which is distinct from any particular instance of red. But, as Bavar goes on to argue, it seems very difficult to think that an abstract property such as “redness” could be a part of an object such as a sweater that we could point to.

How should we respond to these points? We can begin by once again contending that Bavar is using the term “part” in a different sense than the Thomist, and hence much of the confusion. Bavar at multiple places seems to conflate X’s being a “part” of an object such as a sweater with X’s being “spatially located within” a sweater [9]. But, for the Thomist, as we have seen already, a part need not be something with spatial location or quantitative extension; indeed it need not be something we can point to or experience via senses at all.

Let’s take a further look at the parody argument. If a person is wearing a sweater that is both red and green, then it is absolutely undeniable that the sweater cannot be red in the same respect in which it is green. So its “being red” and its “being green” must be two distinct aspects of it. But if these two aspects of the sweater are really distinct from each other, then there must be two distinct principles within the sweater which explain the distinction between the two aspects. In other words, that by which the sweater is red must be distinct from that by which the sweater is green. And “that by which the sweater is red” is a principle within the sweater; as is “that by which the sweater is green.” So within the sweater we must posit two distinct principles which account for the sweater being two different colors; and this is what the Thomist means by “parts.”

In the parody as Bavar presents it, the conclusion states that the sweater must have “redness” and “greenness” as two distinct parts. But these terms come with significant baggage. In a contemporary philosophical context, these terms would seem to indicate the universal/abstract properties of redness and greenness, and that is how Bavar takes them. But they need not. “Redness” can just refer to “that by which the sweater is red.” For the Thomist, this would be the form of redness, which is in the sweater as a particular form, and not as a universal. This form is qualitatively the same as the form of redness existing in other particular things, but not numerically the same. Further, it only exists as a universal when it is abstracted by the mind and exists therein.

Now to fully extrapolate the Thomistic doctrine of forms/formal causality and to give an adequate defense of it would take a much larger project, which is beyond our scope here. My aim here is not to argue that the Thomistic account just given is true; it is rather to say that if one accepts the Thomistic account (as I do), then the objections offered by Bavar against the act/potency principle as understood by Thomists need not be problematic.

So redness/greenness (when understood correctly) are indeed real parts of a red and green sweater; and similarly act and potency are real parts of beings.

There is still more of Bavar’s post which we have not touched at all; but we will have to leave that for future posts. To be continued, then . . .

Notes

[1]. Quoted in Bavar’s post, which can be found here: https://realatheology.wordpress.com/2019/05/27/attacking-feser-again-su-me-pt-1/

[2]. Klubertanz, Introduction to the Philosophy of Being, second edition, Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2005, page 87.

[3]. Bavar’s post: https://realatheology.wordpress.com/2019/05/27/attacking-feser-again-su-me-pt-1/

[4]. Ibid.

[5]. Ibid.

[6]. Ibid.

[7]. Ibid.

[8]. Ibid.

[9]. Ibid.

2 thoughts on “Resonse to Ben Bavar on Act and Potency, Part 2

  1. Okay, please help me out because it appears I’m missing something. It seems to me that the parody is disanalogous because red and green are accidental properties of a sweater whereas act and potency are intrinsic principles. Created beings are by definition composites of act and potency but are not by definition green, red, or any other color.

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