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7.1 Change as Actualising

Change is a regular fact in the natural world, as opposed for example to any kind of mathematical or formal existence. We therefore need an intelligible account of it, and how it is required by the nature of the actual particulars we have postulated. Since an actuality cannot itself change, a given actuality must therefore be related to potentialities for other subsequent actualities. The realisation of one of these potentialities will be the event or the change which generates new actualities.



I regard this process of `realising of a potentiality to produce a new actuality' to be the basic paradigm of change.   Following Leclerc [1972, ch. 7], I call it kinesis, the Greek word used by Aristotle for this process. The process of kinesis can also be seen as the producing, realising, actualising, starting existing, creating and/or becoming of a new actuality.

  I argue that the fundamental nature of all change can be modelled on the example of kinesis. This does not mean that all changes necessarily lead to the pure actualities defined in the previous chapter, as those actualities were identified as past-events of a rather special kind. Rather, we begin our analysis of change by considering kinesis in some detail. Later chapters will show that a great many natural events can be identified as kinesis of some kind. It is hence most important to conceive of kinesis properly.   It is not, in particular, to be reduced to change in location, i.e. to locomotion.

It should not be necessary at this stage to analyse kinesis further in terms of any uniformly flowing time t, by means of phrases such as `at time t1' and `at time t2', etc. Rather, kinesis or becoming is to be regarded as the fundamental nature of all change, and in a sense `ontologically prior' to any measures of time. We could argue this because a coordinate system is something which is constructed, and so is something which must be analysed in terms of the kineses, the actualisings, which constitute the measuring system, but this is an epistemological argument which does not deal with the more basic ontological relations. In our philosophy of nature we want to consider directly questions of what exists, and not let questions of how we know to dictate answers. Once we know what exists in general, we can then perhaps derive methods of observation and experiment to find out what exists in particular situations.

  More importantly, there is no guarantee that there is any particular time coordinate which can accurately represent the order of the real kineses as they occur in nature.   In fact, we will see in chapter 8 that in certain cases, namely if spacetime is relativistic rather than Newtonian, then a single metric time most certainly does not truly represent the intrinsic relations between the kineses occurring in the world. It will turn out that there is some order in which actualities do come to be, but that this `order of becoming' is not necessarily represented by any time variable in a particular inertial coordinate system.

Kinesis, as the act of realising of a potentiality to produce a new actuality, is thus the act of becoming of that new actuality. It is its `coming to be' or its `actualising'. But here again we must be careful exactly how we conceive `becoming' and `actualising'. There has been considerable debate, in particular, as to whether, before an actualising, we can uniquely identify the actual thing which will exist. This question is at the heart of the problem of conceiving change, time and events.

  I want to assert that before the act of becoming there is no new actuality at all, in any sense, so no actuality can be identified in advance, and so no kind of `subsistence' should be necessary for it. Conversely, after the act of becoming, the actuality exists as a full-blown concrete particular, with determinate characteristics. The new actuality has then being or existence in the full or concrete sense (so long as it continues to exist). Because the (act of) becoming results in full being immediately, it is not to be conceived as `coming' from `non-being' to `being', or as the particular entity changing from `potential' (or `possible') to `actual' just as a chamaeleon changes its colour. This is because before the becoming, I want to maintain, the entity does not in any way exist.

  We may use the phrase `x exists potentially' only provided we remember that it means `there are potentialities for such-and-such characters to be instantiated in an actualisation, and that they are not yet instantiated'. This paraphrase does not imply the actual existence of any such x, or even its non-actual existence, if sense could be made of that expression. After all, if x is as yet only potential, it may very possibly never be realised at all. Very often a great many things are potential in a given situation, whereas we do not want to give them all some kind of `potential being'. It should be feasible to indicate only that the present potentialities are over a given range of possibilities, without creating spurious references to individual objects which do not actually exist.

This view advocated, whereby new entities or beings are created, is not the only one which has been advanced. There has always been the alternative view that `potential objects' are still objects, and though they of course do not actually exist, they still `subsist' in some way or another. Let us look at the arguments which might lead us to this view, and then see whether they can be modified to permit true `becoming' as described just above.


Parmenides' arguments

One of the original motives for ascribing say `subsistence' to not-yet-actual individuals was to meet certain objections that stem from arguments attributed to Parmenides. His main argument is that `what is' (`being' in the most general sense) cannot change.   `Being' cannot change to (or from) `non-being', because `non-being' does not in any way exist. And it cannot change into another being, because `being', as what is, is all there is. Parmenides used his argument to deny that there can be any change. Whether or not this is correct, his logic does have force against any account of `becoming' which has actualities `popping into existence' from nowhere. How can `being' be suddenly created in this way? Parmenides claimed that creation ex nihilo does not make sense.   The conclusion against all change can be avoided if we follow Aristotle and insist that Parmenides had failed to distinguish the different manners of `being'. If this were to be done, real changes could be intelligible as the change from one manner of `being' to another. `Being' is then not itself affected in such a change, and therefore Parmenides' conclusion from his argument that no change is possible is not warranted. The manners of `being' envisaged by Aristotle were two:
`being-in-actuality', equivalently `being-in-complete-fulfilment', and


Do potential trees really exist?

The difficulty with using this Aristotelean distinction is that it is still far from clear precisely what is meant by `is-potential'. It does not suffice to say, as Aristotle did, that `is' has many senses, and that we must distinguish between `is-actual' and `is-potential'. To leave it at that is to give only part of the answer that is required, as the account above seems to lead to identification of `potential individuals' in a way open to serious equivocations. Aristotle's `concise restatement' of his resulting conclusions, for example, is
In one sense things come-to-be out of that which has no `being' without qualification: yet in another sense they come-to-be always out of `what is'. For coming-to-be necessarily implies the pre-existence of something which potentially `is', but actually `is not'; and this something is spoken of as both `being' and `non-being'.7.1
  As Leclerc remarks 7.2, Aristotle's `conclusions' still leave the problem of how this `potential-being' is to be conceived and analysed, a problem which has occupied thinkers for centuries, in the Middle Ages and on into the seventeenth century.

There is one way of conceiving `potential-being' which is strongly suggested by Aristotle's writings, despite his equivocations. This is that change can be conceived as the future product changing from being-in-potentiality to being-in-actuality. The product itself then endures through the change, as a substratum of being. That is, the particular being that once only was-potentially has changed its properties, and now is-actually, in `complete fulfilment'. An example from Aristotle is that of an acorn changing into a oak tree after growing. At first only the acorn is-actual, while the tree is-potential. Growth is the change in which the tree comes to be actual, so the tree, which was once only potentially, now is actually - in complete reality. Because a tree that only is-potentially still has being, that underlying being is unchanged as it comes to be actual.

This conception of potential beings requires that objects which as yet only `exist potentially' still have some definite sense of `existing'. Whatever sense is meant cannot be our usual sense whereby `particular objects exist in the world', for a potential being may quite often never be actualised, and hence never exist as a particular in the world. It might be argued that they exist as `possible objects', rather than as `actual objects'. Such an option will be discussed further in chapter 8 when we discuss the notion of possibilities. We will see that there are definite difficulties with such an idea of `possible objects', particularly concerning their individuation and determination of their identity. The world would seem to have to be completely full with all the possible `might have been' objects, which, though they never exist in any actual sense, might still be said to `subsist' in some new sense.


Can potentialities themselves be objects?

The problem of having all these `possible objects' can be avoided if the process of kinesis (i.e. becoming or actualising) is conceived instead as the producing of a completely novel actuality. We must avoid the picture of some pre-existing entity changing its character from `potential' to `actual'. There is no tree hiding inside an acorn. Since new actualities are now being created, Aristotle's account of what is meant by potential-being and actual-being must be reworked in order that another reply to Parmenides' argument be found. That is the argument which requires, in a nutshell, that `being' is always being, and hence can never start or stop being.

An alternative account of potential-being is, when there are potentialities for some future actualities, to attribute being (existence) to the set of potentialities itself (rather than to any alleged `future actualities'). That is, a set of potentialities is now to be regarded as a particular entity in the world, along with all the other particular entities in the world.

Potentialities are not be be seen as merely the properties of the previous event after which these potentialities came to be, as that event may have been some finite time in the past.   Nor are they (after Locke) to be viewed as a relation between the initial and produced actualities, because they are there even before the effect exists. Nor are they (after Aristotle) to be constituted by the actual entities which might be produced, as a great many actual entities may possibly come to be, and we don't want to give existence to all of them. `Potential-being' is now regarded as requiring that a set of potentialities be able to exist separately from all other beings, so that it has `being' on its own account. Exactly how this existence of a `set of potentialities' is to be conceived and analysed will be investigated in chapter 9: we will see that they are best formulated as `fields of propensities'. A set of potentialities is most certainly not a pure actuality, as a particular set of potentialities is not yet resolved or determinate as to what effect will result.   It is more like a `partially determinate particular', as something which is still further determinable, or something which is still capable of being further determined by actualising to give a fully-determinate actuality.

Potentialities are now to be seen as kinds of thing. They have definite characteristics when considered in themselves.   They have future possibilities `latent' within themselves, not as `preformed' future individuals, but as the present means of realising certain possibilities. When potentialities are realised, they are transformed into actualities, so we may truthfully think of actualities as `dried up potentialities'. Potentialities dry up to form an actual `residue' for only one of the enfolded possibilities. This `drying up' or transformation of potentialities is not to be imagined as merely the rearrangement or locomotion of some hidden `internal parts', but is the real and characteristic mode of operation of potentialities.       If we use the terminology of Bohm [1980], we say that the future possibilities are `enfolded' in the potentialities, and that the process of actualising is an `unfolding' in some way of what is `implicate' in the potentialities themselves.

Potentialities are objects whose nature is (under suitable circumstances) to change into actualities. They are not merely `modes' of how actual things can exist.         The issue here can be framed as one of the `logical subject' to the change. Are potentialities a kind of actuality (e.g. `possible actualities' existing `in limbo'), or are actualities a kind of potentiality (e.g. a restricted kind)? Which is the logical subject: the actualities, or a potentiality? Before the actualising, are there many individuals (e.g. the future possibilities), or is there only one individual (e.g. the set of potentialities for those possibilities)? I argue for the second option in all these questions.  

Is Change (Kinesis) Now Intelligible?

Finally, it must be investigated whether this alternative notion of `potential being' can give us an intelligible account of natural change, and whether it is consistent from the point of view of Parmenides' argument. Consider the event when one of the set of potentialities is realised in the creation of a new actuality as the causal effect. Parmenides requires in this event that `being' is constant throughout. Here the being (the continued existence) of the set of potentialities remains to become the being (the continued existence) of the resulting actuality. In one act, therefore, it occurs that the set of potentialities cease existing and the actuality is created, while `being' (continued existence) is continuous through this act.

This may not seem a real answer to Parmenides, because potentiality becoming actuality, as described here, is more a destruction and then a creation, than the continuous being of being. In reply to this objection, I admit that if there were in fact a destruction event, and then a creation event, Parmenides' conclusion would stand that this is not intelligible. However, in this case the realisation of the potentiality and the becoming of an actuality, while two distinct occurrents which could be said to occur, are in fact two aspects of the one and the same event. The two occurrents are strictly identical. There is no moment or no `then', therefore, that is after the destruction and before the creation, so there is no moment at which it could be said that being had not been continuing to exist.

To return to the example of the acorn becoming the tree, we do not now have the successive stages of the tree changing from being potential to being actual, in some process of changing from non-actual existence to actual existence. Instead, the whole process of growing is a definite sequence of elementary events, whereby the plant (in interaction with soil and sunlight) changes itself from a smaller stage to a slightly larger stage. As each event is sufficiently elementary to be an actualising event, it produces one more actual past-event by the transformation of the potentialities existing at that time. The process of growing is seen as the progressive transformation of more and more potentialities into more and more actualities. Because for a long period there are always potentialities for growth, there will always exist potentialities which can be transformed into actualities in new actualising events. This process of progressive transformation will be more clearly described (in a pictorial manner) in chapter 9.

The conclusion of this section is that we have a new notion of potentialities, so that potentialities are not merely properties or relations of actualities, but have a kind of being or substance in their own right. Actualities are therefore potentialities which `dry up', in a sense, to form a specific residue at one of their enfolded possibilities. We will see later that these ideas enable a new concept of substance, and that there are important consequences for the understanding of quantum reality.  

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Prof Ian Thompson


Author: I.J. Thompson (except as stated)