Potentiality

The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum (1822) painted by John Martin (1789-1854)

Epistle 21. Posted on 2019-06-10.

Conceive of the cosmos as consisting purely of matter or bodies, such that each body is merely a spatiotemporal region of the cosmos. I further implore you to consider that referring to any body requires one to demarcate it from other bodies, and the denoted body consists purely of a conjunction of causal powers. Anything independent of causality does not participate in causality, and therefore does not participate in the cosmos because, by definition, it would have to be independent of the cosmos. Everything participates in causality as a conjunction of causal powers.

Some of the causal powers of a body are active, while many are latent or passive. For example, a sodium molecule has a causal power that enables it to form salt, but only when combined with chlorine. If that salt molecule never encounters chlorine, of course it will never become salt, but more importantly, its causal power that enables it to become salt exists as part of the molecule, although it remains latent. Its capability to become salt is regarded as passive, because something active is required for that to manifest and happen. This causal power is also regarded as imperfect in the sense of being incomplete, because something is required to complete it, in the sense of perfecting it. The cosmos itself is perfect, needing nothing else to complete it.

Every causal power exists in potentiality, which is to say both that it is physically possible and that it has potency or power. It is potent in two senses: it is capable of acting and of being acted upon. When a passive causal power is completed, it is actualized. When chlorine interacts appropriately with a sodium molecule, it completes the potential for the sodium molecule to particpate in becoming salt. That actualized potential is now obvious as a grain of salt.

Potentiality and actuality originated with Aristotle (384–322 BCE), most notably in his Metaphysics (Book 9 or Θ). In 9.3, he compares his approach to that of the Megaric school. His report on Megaric potentiality sounds related to Diodorean modality, also to Stoic modality due to discussing external hindrance. Certainly the Stoics were aware. I see value in applying these Aristotelian insights to conceptual possibility in Stoicism, just as essence relates to conceptual necessity. I like to think of this as the completion of the modal description of bodies, as an inevitable extension of Stoic physics, or more likely, as part of it that is no longer extant.

Each quality is perfect, complete, active, and actualized. Each disposition is imperfect, passive, and exists in potential, but may also be completed, active, and actualized.

For example, Weary Wes is awake, and so he is disposed to be awake, and this disposition is actualized. While he is awake, Weary Wes has the potential disposition to be asleep, but this disposition is not actualized and requires an active cause to trigger this passive potential. When Weary Wes becomes tired enough, exhaustion actualizes his potential for sleep, and Weary Wes becomes disposed to be asleep.

Just as everything conceptually necessary is a species of everything conceptually possible, essence is a species of potentiality, and also of actuality. Since there is nothing physical that is not also causal, I wonder about both the physics and metaphysics of potentiality. As for physics, since a passive causal power is inherently part of matter, how does it contribute to it? All things being equal, does a body have more mass or gravity when it has more potentiality than another? Or, are these properties strictly actualized?

Change and Purpose

Actualization is the purpose of every potentiality, and retaining actuality is the purpose of any actuality. And any actualized causal power also contains potentiality. For example, I have a neighbor whom I refer to as fastidious Fred. Fastidious Fred is himself an actualized potential, and yet he is incomplete and progresses toward old age. Everything is incomplete because everything changes, progressing toward a new state of both actuality and potentiality. For every actualized power, there are many potential powers that are not actualized. Change is the reaction to imperfection, the attempts to perfect imperfections, and every change completes an incompleteness, but leads to other incompletenesses. Every new perfection results in new imperfections in the same spatial region. And thus, change is continuous.

Each actualization is a completion and perfection. It is the potentiality that succeeded in fulfilling its purpose, where other potential causal powers did not. Each of us lives because the right potentialities actualized. The cosmos is causal competition for actualization, and to retain actualization. Actualization is natural selection. Actualization is more than manifestation, it is literally the empowerment of a causal power.

Purpose, then, is defined with actualization and is connected intimately with change. Each actualization is an empowerment and each de-actualization is disempowerment. Some empowerments are more empowering than others, creating numerous potentialities and actualizations. As each body is a collection of causal powers, each body is a collection of potentialities, as well as causal empowerments and disempowerments. Therefore, everything that exists, exists fundamentally in potentiality, and it does so to increase its causal power, to actualize its potential. Why did that sodium molecule become salt? Because that was the purpose of one of its potentialities. You share the same cosmic purpose with everything else: causal empowerment.

Actualize Your Potential

To me, actualize your potential sounds like a maxim spouted by a life coach or promulgated in positive psychology. This smacks of the Army in the 1980s, advertising Be all that you can be. All of this compels me to pause. Notice also that it is quite different from proposing to maximize your potential, which could even imply sacrificing most of your actualities. To wit, a return to the womb would impossibly maximize your potential at the expense of actuality, as an example. Yes, it has been downhill in aggregate for your potentiality ever since.

Nonetheless, it is important to consider the actualization of potential. Each of us exercises judgment, deciding some of which potentialities to actualize. Other potential powers, such as aging, actualize quite independently of one’s judgment. Therefore, since life is short, time is precious, and every judgment has consequences, it is important to improve one’s judgment to improve one’s life and make the world a better place — while you are able.

When sodium becomes salt, it is actualizing its potential to become salt, and when greedy Deedee takes from you, she is actualizing one of her potentialities. Clearly, all potentialities are not created equally. Greedy Deedee is, herself, a mass of potentialities that were predisposed to actualize, and taking something from you happened to be what nature necessitated at that location in spactime and under those circumstances. Her potential for generosity was overpowered by her potential for greed. In her last moments, as greedy Deedee ceases to be, her human potentialities become overwhelmed by other potentiailities, and something else participates in the causal competition for actualization in the cosmos.

But for you, which potentialities should be actualized, or which actualizations should be retained in actuality? Which is most empowering? Which potentials will you opt to actualize? This is a question of prioritization, which is best described elsewhere. But suffice to say, the wise are led by reason. Ironically, it is the other half of conceptual modality, the manifestation of necessity as essence, which is used mainly to reason through priorities. Of these conceptual modalities, the study of possibility (and its manifestation) sets the cosmic stage, and the study of necessity provides the script to your part in the cosmic play.

Vale (pronounced WAH-lay is Latin for Farewell),

Ron Hall

Ron Hall



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