Sunday, February 7, 2010

Reflecting on Essence and Existence

I wanted to address some of what commenter "AT" says in this thread, not because I have a burning urge to refute him, but because this is a topic I'm none too sure of myself and I'd like to reflect on it. So I hope our commenter will forgive my using his remarks as a springboard. He writes:

To say something that doesn't exist has a potency to exist doesn't seem to make sense. If true this would mean the things created by God had a potency to be created. Where would this potency come from? Not from God because in God there is no potency. Also, creation was a free act of God and didn't depend on anything else.

I think that many theologians would admit that "the things created by God had a potency to be created". This potency doesn't come from anywhere except the intrinsic properties of the essences themselves. Now, the commenter makes two claims, each of which is true in one sense and - according to some theories at least - false in another respect.

1) The potency to be created cannot come from God because there is no potency in God.

I think we need to distinguish, as Faber does, between active and passive potency. God can't have passive potency whereby something other that himself can cause anything about or in him. But God can and does have an active potency to cause things other than himself.

I think that we would want to say that the "creatibility" of essences before creation comes from God, not insofar as he has the ability to create them, but insofar as he understands them. That is, the active potency of God to create (in the example) a rose, comes from, and is logically posterior to, his understanding of the essence of a rose, whether or not he decides ever to create any. "AT" says in another comment, "I think you will agree that God knows things which have never existed, don't now exist, and will never exist. In what sense could they be said to have a potency to exist?" To which I reply, that have a potency to exist insofar as they can exist but do not. It can't be the case the essence of a rose in itself is posterior to its existence, since it had to be an "existible" object, intelligible to the mind of God and willable by his will, in order for it to be created. This is because a rose has an intrinsic intelligible structure, a nature, a quod quid erat esse, which can be grasped and expressed whether there is an actually existing rose. This essence exists in the mind of God as an exemplar, a divine idea, and the existent rose is conforms to it, in a way analogous to the way the concept of the rose in our minds conforms to the essence as existing in the real rose.

To show that the essence pre-exists in the mind of God, before God decides to create it, we can advert to the (presumed) fact that there are other possible kinds of flowers which God also knows about, but has never created and will never create. The essences of these flowers remain externally non-existent, in the sense that there are no such flowers, but there still are such essences, in the sense that they are possible and God knows them to be such.

2) Creation is a free act of God and doesn't depend on anything else.

From the foregoing we can infer that creation, while indeed a free act, does depend on something else, namely the prior understanding of what is to be created, not as a cause of the act of creation per se, but as a sine qua non. For if the essence to be created was not an intelligible structure and if it were not already understood in the mind of God, God could never will to create it. This is no way compromises the freedom of divine action, since the act of understanding something as creatible in no way determines that it should be created, but it is a necessary condition (as Faber said a little while back, it's an essentially ordered co-cause).

The difficulty of the "real distinction" is that it treats essences as though they are the matter of existence. Just as matter, according to St Thomas, does not exist until actualized by some form, so form does not exist until actualized by existence. Can an essence, like the nature of a rose, be thought of in this respect?

But if we don't want to think of the form or essence as a potential principle, then we have to grapple with this separability criterion - which amounts to the claim that the essence can "exist" in the mind of man or of God, but without "existing" in its own right. Since the essences of elanor and simbelmyne "are", in the sense that I can tell you what sort of flowers they are and what their natural habitats are and what are the differences between them, and yet since they do not exist, since the flowers are fictional and there aren't any, it seems that it isn't true that if there is an essence then a thing of which it is the essence exists.

There's lots more to think about here, and perhaps I'll come back to it soon.


AT said...

Just Thomism says, "Note that logical possibility is a narrower sphere of discourse than verbal possibility. Just as we are particularly prone to think that something is really possible because it is logically possible, so too we are prone to think that something is a logical possibility because it is a verbal one." here that I think is apropos to my view on potentiality of non-existing things. And I think it is relevant to the Scotus view (which I believe I read on your blog and hope I got right) of the notion that the conception of things in God's mind is logically prior to his willing them. Stated in this way, no one could object, as long as this is understood "according to our way of thinking." Because in reality there is no distinction between the intellect and will of God. So to think that what God knows therefore has a potential to exist doesn't seem right (which the quote I gave from Aquinas seems also to say). If it's possible to reach agreement on this (it probably isn't) then discussion could proceed on the potential to exist of "sensible natures" and the essence/existence question.

Lee Faber said...

Actually, for Scotus, the production of creatable essences is not "according to our way of thinking". But I don't think the distinction of intellect and will actually matters here. The production is into intelligible being, which is being secundum quid, or esse obiectivum, not real being. One needn't say that because God knows a creatable essence it has a potential to exist, or is in potency to existence, but only that such an essence has the kind of being an object of thought has (ie. an object of divine thought). I would think the contingency of creation (an act of the divine will) would rule out positing a necessary connection between the objective being and the subjective being (esse subiectivum) which the created essence would have upon its production in real being outside God (or 'existence' as you would say), thereby allowing one to claim both that God knows essences which don't exist and that these essences are not in potency to existence.

I think this is actually in line with what Aquinas says in the Summa. Eventually I'll try to prove this with a post.

Michael Sullivan said...


we have to distinguish at least two kinds of possibility:

1) Something is possible if it does not contain a contradiction.

2) Something is possible if there is an agent able to bring it about.

This is an important distinction, because, for instance, "It is possible that God exists" is true in sense 1) but not in sense 2).

The relevance here is that God knows all knowables, which means everything which is intelligible, i.e. everything the idea of which does not contain a contradiction. The essence of elanor is just as much one of these items as the essence of a rose. In that sense, the elanor blossom possibly exists. It also possibly exists in sense 2), because God could create flowers which he did not.

The question is whether there is also a third kind of possibility which applies to essences, the possibility of potentiality. This is the problem that the adversaries of the "real distinction" have, that this kind of possibility turns an essence into a quasi-matter or a quasi-subject, which seems to bring a lot of problems with it and is certainly un-Aristotelian.

AT said...

"thereby allowing one to claim both that God knows essences which don't exist and that these essences are not in potency to existence." Exactly my thinking and all I was trying to say.

"I think this is actually in line with what Aquinas says in the Summa." I agree with this, too; that's why I quoted it.

So that gets us to the potential existence of roses and such. A few months ago I was reading D.Q. McInerny's book Metaphysics and as an example of potential existence he used an apple which would appear on his desk two years in the future. In general, I would submit to anything McInerny says but I don't see this at all. What do you say of this example?

Our difference with respect to what God knows and his will vs. his simplicity is another topic. But St. Augustine did say when discussing the Trinity if we didn't say 'person' we couldn't say much at all which means to me that even this is 'according to our way of thinking'.

"1) Something is possible if it does not contain a contradiction."

I don't see why this true. Perhaps you will explain it.

Michael Sullivan said...


this is a notion of possibility that Scotus uses sometimes. The point is that when there is a complex concept, if there is no contradiction in the union of its elements, then there is no reason why those elements should not be united in reality, given the necessary conditions. So "golden mountain" is a complex formal ratio that does not really exist, and may be conditionally impossible - if, for instance, there was not enough gold in the universe to make a mountain out of - but there is no intrinsic reason why a golden mountain could not exist, and God could create one, so it is absolutely speaking impossible. A square circle is impossible, on the other hand, because its concept contains a contradiction.

I wonder if it would be helpful if you were to give your notion of what constitutes possibility.

AT said...


"so it is absolutely speaking impossible." Did you mean to say, "not impossible"?

I have three notions of possibility all of which make sense to me. Your explanation of what Scotus means also makes sense.

1) what God knows of what could exist in any way - what he created and what he could have created had he so desired.

2) that which God created and what follows on it. What he didn't create is not possible (though it's something he knows about).

3) Of that which God created: at any moment there is an infinite number of non-contradictory contingent things which could have existed and which never will given the history of the universe. "could have existed" appears to mean possible but it seems it only does so in the sense of 1) or 2). I'd rather say they are (or were) not impossible. Which means not impossible doesn't mean the same for me as possible. The distinction brings us back to what God knows: it doesn't make sense to me to say something is possible when God knows it has not been realized, is not now realized and will never be realized (though it is within his understanding of what he created).

I hope some of this makes sense.

Michael Sullivan said...


yes, I left out the "not".

Although your (2) has venerable precedent on its side, I think it should be abandoned, because it seems to compromise true contingency. When you say, it doesn't make sense to me to say something is possible when God knows it has not been realized, is not now realized and will never be realized, this seems to imply that God does not know something as possible unless he also knows it as actual at some time. But this seems to mean that there are not in fact unactualized possibilities, except temporally (i.e. the only reason a possibility is not actualized is because its time has not yet come), and that God does not truly and freely choose between equal and contrary possibilities. I don't think that's acceptable.

AT said...

"I don't think that's acceptable."

I don't, either and I meant to say that as in God's knowledge of things he didn't create so too that he knows of an infinite number of contingent things which have never or ever will be actualized: what really exits or has existed or will exist does not exhaust God's knowledge of creation. God knows they will never exist so how can anyone think or say they are possible (unless you want possible to mean what God knows and is within his power to bring about; that's fine with me; but I'd rather limit the possible to what can exist in creation)?

AT said...

The reason I'm commenting on this post is for either of you to answer the question concerning McInerny's apple or in general to show me what it means for something to exist potentially.

I don't think the latter can be answered by: "1) Something is possible if it does not contain a contradiction.

2) Something is possible if there is an agent able to bring it about." because it's not contradictory that God could annihilate the creation and it's within his power to do so but there are reasons to think he will not.

Lee Faber said...

AT, McInerny's example seems to me to be an example of an accidental potency, and I wouldn't say that there is a potency to existence there, or at least if there is, there is probably an infinite number of (at least accidental) potencies. Regarding the general question, I've already explained how I think it works with things God can create but hasn't and how one needn't say something is in potency to existence.

But I would stick to (1). If something contains a contradiction, it's essence cannot be thought, cannot be an object of the divine intellect. If there is no contradiction, it can be thought by the divine intellect and so has objective being without any connection to subjective being which is a result of the divine will.