What are actuality and potentiality?

actuality and potentiality
Question: "What are actuality and potentiality?"

In philosophy, potential and potentiality refer to the capacity, power, ability, or chance for something to happen or occur. In particular, this refers to some type of change or alteration. A seed has the potential to become a full-grown plant. A plant does not have the potential to become an airplane. An airplane has the potential to fly. An airplane does not have the potential to produce seeds. A coin has the potential to come up as heads or tails when flipped—it even has the potential to land on its edge. A two-headed coin does not have the potential to come up as “tails.” A woman has the potential to accept a marriage proposal or to decline it. The potentiality exists, even when the end result has not happened.

In the same sphere—philosophy—the terms actual and actuality refer to a potential or potentiality that has been fulfilled, made real, or brought into being. A fully grown plant is the actuality of a seed’s potential to grow. An airplane in flight has actualized a potential to fly. A coin that comes up “heads” when flipped has actualized its potential for that outcome and has not actualized the outcome of coming up “tails.” A woman who is engaged is one who has made actual the prior potential of accepting an offer of marriage.

In the sense relevant to Christianity and Christian apologetics, actuality refers to the idea of truth: actuality is that which is, which is real, which corresponds to reality. Many things might be possible, in the sense that their potential exists, but only what happens, occurs, or exists is actual. In some approaches to theology, this is used as a way of explaining the idea of God: He is a being of pure actuality, with no potentiality. In other approaches, the concepts of actuality and potentiality are used to distinguish between ideas that are possible and those that are plausible, probable, or actual.

Aristotle’s concept of an “unmoved mover” is grounded in the difference between potentiality and actuality. According to his definitions, potentials cannot self-actualize. Coins do not flip themselves, nor do they flip for absolutely no reason whatsoever. Seeds have to fall into fertile soil in order to grow. Airplanes do not spontaneously fly, nor do they simply go from stationary to flying by their own actions.

In other words, potentiality can only become actuality when potential is made actual by some outside force. That force’s influence, in turn, was also a potential made actual, and so on. This implies a chain of actions: each change is a potential made actual by some separate, prior set of circumstances. This chain cannot continue forever, however. Without an uncaused cause, there would never have been any “actuality” at all. There must be one thing that is pure actuality, with no potentiality: an unmoved mover. While Aristotle did not identify this original actuality with the Judeo-Christian God, specifically, the concepts are notably similar.

From a Christian standpoint, then, God can be described as a being of pure actuality. As One whose existence is necessary (Exodus 3:14) and who does not change (Malachi 3:6) and who is beyond time (Titus 1:2), God matches the logical requirements of an unmoved mover. As a being of absolute perfection, God cannot be different from what He is, meaning He has no potentiality. Rather, He is the one and only thing in existence that is purely, fully, and absolutely actual, the origin from which all potentialities are ultimately derived.

Not all potentialities are exactly the same. We can distinguish between potentials that can only be actualized through certain means and those that can be actualized by many different means. For example, we might say a particular woman has the potential to become a mother. In a broad sense, the woman’s potential to become a mother can be actualized either by giving birth or by adopting a child. However, if we use the word mother in a strict biological sense, then there is only one means of actualizing that potential, and that is for her to conceive a child.

Using this same idea, we can examine concepts such as the appearance of design in nature. Not all explanations for how these actualities came to be are equally valid. The entire point of Intelligent Design is that certain actualities are—at minimum—best explained by purposeful intervention, and they are likely only explicable that way. As an analogy, a group of five turtles has the potential to be balanced in a stack on top of a telephone pole. But the only way for that to become actual is if some agent outside of the turtles acts. This is a potential the turtles themselves have no means of actualizing. Far and away the most plausible explanation for that arrangement would be that a person deliberately stacked the turtles on top of the telephone pole; all other explanations are wildly improbable, if not impossible. Turtles do not spontaneously find themselves stacked on telephone poles, and “natural” processes don’t put them there, either.

In a similar sense, molecules have the potential to be formed into self-replicating structures; this is exactly what DNA is. But, according to all existing observations, there is no way for those molecules to self-arrange out of chaos. Nor is there any remotely plausible explanation for them to come into that arrangement other than intelligent design—just like turtles stacked on a telephone pole. One might argue that a single turtle might be stranded on the pole by a tornado or in a two-turtle stack in a river. Likewise, natural accidents and circumstances might create some complicated molecules or odd arrangements. But a person cannot reasonably suggest that a stack of five turtles on a telephone pole—or something as sophisticated as DNA—is most likely the result of some mindless series of accidents.

The concept of actuality-potentiality, then, serves to illustrate why arguments for God as a Creator make overwhelmingly more sense than theories grounded only in mindless matter and energy.

A biblical view of potentiality and actuality also clarifies concepts such as miracles. As God is the ultimate source of all changes from potential to actual, it’s reasonable to say that certain potentials can only be actualized by God (Matthew 19:26). The fact that only God can make certain potentialities actual—that the actualities are “miraculous”—doesn’t make them logically impossible. Suggesting otherwise requires a person to reject reason in favor of a preferred conclusion. In fact, one of the ways true miracles are distinguished from amazing coincidences is that they represent an actuality that only God could have brought about.

As used in discussions of philosophy, potential and actual refer to “what might be” and “what is.” How those concepts interact and the means by which a potentiality becomes an actuality are topics that fuel broad debates and deep conversations. God, as described in the Bible, makes the most sense of both logic and observations regarding these ideas.

Recommended Resource: Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview by William Lane Craig & J.P. Moreland

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