Archive | July 2020

Potentially Bad Philosophy

Quietude might be described as as figuring out under what odd conditions it might be good to question some of our most trustworthy guides in philosophy and theology.

This is dangerous stuff, because we depend on those guides. We rely on their investment of (life)time, their investment of contentious discourse, and we take advantage of their brainpower. We stand on their shoulders. So when we choose to hop off their shoulders (or more commonly, hop onto another giant’s shoulders), we’d better have a good reason.

After we invest our trust in a person, concept (meme), or family of concepts (memeplex), it’s tough to make us leave. The speedbump we felt on the way “in” grows into a wall against going back “out.”

The feeling there is “incredulity.” As Manowar‘s 1987 heavy metal song “Carry On” claims, “100,000 riders! We can’t all be wrong!”

To keep incredulity in check, we ask, “When might even 100,000 heavy metal fans be wrong?” or more to the point, “When might dozens of brilliant philosophers be relying on fundamentally poor metaphysics?” What memetic “forces” could entrap even the otherwise trustworthy? When should we row against the current?

Viral Wildcards

We talked before about logical Wildcards. Any concept that has “vivid ambiguity” can be used, deliberately or not, to “bridge-make” (jump to conclusions that don’t really follow) and “bridge-break” (make legitimate conclusions seem like they don’t follow).

But this doesn’t just happen in isolated moments and stop there. Anything “useful” can stick and spread. This includes “Monkey’s Paw useful,” granting immediate wishes at a hidden, horrifying downstream cost.

Furthermore, that downstream cost may be “confusion, and the chatter it causes.” While we’d call this a “cost” in terms of what we consider praiseworthy and constructive, it is not a memetic cost, it is a memetic benefit. 

That’s because this chatter boosts surfacing. It’s hard to hear Quiet folks.

The rhetorical utility of vivid ambiguity, combined with its natural self-surfacing, becomes a Wildcard-fueled memetic engine:


A Potential Problem

An example of the above pattern may be the philosophical concept of Aristotelian potentiality.

I’ve said before that I don’t think it’s possible to confront Wildcards directly (see the bottom-right gray box, above). All we can do is consider alternatives and try them on for size. Last time we did this with metaethics. Today it’s potentiality.

We read in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

“… Another key Aristotelian distinction [is] that between potentiality (dunamis) and actuality (entelecheia or energeia)… a dunamis in this sense is not a thing’s power to produce a change but rather its capacity to be in a different and more completed state. Aristotle thinks that potentiality so understood is indefinable, claiming that the general idea can be grasped from a consideration of cases. Actuality is to potentiality, Aristotle tells us, as ‘someone waking is to someone sleeping, as someone seeing is to a sighted person with his eyes closed, as that which has been shaped out of some matter is to the matter from which it has been shaped.’

This last illustration is particularly illuminating. Consider, for example, a piece of wood, which can be carved or shaped into a table or into a bowl. In Aristotle’s terminology, the wood has (at least) two different potentialities, since it is potentially a table and also potentially a bowl.”

(I’m not going to summarize the above so you’ll have to read it.)

This Aristotelian perspective, whereby potentiality in a sense ‘lives’ within an object, is widespread in classical Christian theology and reverberates even in modern modal analytic philosophy. But I suspect it may just be a poor (but intuitive!) way of expressing prospective imagination. I’ll show you what I mean, and why the Aristotelian sense doesn’t fit nicely with a couple examples (which in turn expose the inconsistency of the language games we play).


I can look at a quarry and imagine the potential of building a cathedral using its stone. But if we allow the test of “potential or not” to include every other requirement for cathedral assembly (including laborers to work the quarry and adequate incentives to motivate them), then it doesn’t seem so natural to say that some rock formation has such potential, in isolation. It needs help. Reductively, nothing happens unless the universe helps, including all prior states of the universe up to that point, in a cosmic help-funnel of “efficacious Grace” concluding at that final capstone. This is not simply universal reliance on some Unmoved Mover; this is, “potentiality is not real.”

In other words, in a universe empty of sculptors, but replete with rocks, no rock has potential to be sculpted. It is only when we grant the antecedent “but if there were sculptors” that its potential suddenly “is there.”

This is not real stuff. Rather, potentiality is simply a roundabout, yet shorthand way of conjoining a fact or object X with a set of antecedents, imaginary or not, which as a group are sufficient for some consequent Y. And then we utter, “X has the potential for Y.”

Aristotelian Potentiality’s Payoff

Whenever widespread language and intuitive conceptualization is imprecise in this way, we’d expect a sensible explanation for it — a rational reason why the irrational description has memetic resilience and virulence (sticky and spready).

The answer is that we’re very sub-omniscient. We don’t know very many of the facts “God knows,” so to speak. And we therefore treat the unknowns as “possible worlds,” leaning on the “holodecks of our imaginations” to narrow the focus of our prospect-seeking. This helps us avoid the anxiety of “analysis paralysis,” which is handy because, of course, the early bird gets the worm.

It should be noted that well-developed spatiotemporal faculties may be a prerequisite for using this “visual” approach to handling evaluation of contingency and consistency given uncertainty. Some studies suggest that children with high-functioning autism spectrum disorder, while just as capable as others in handling counterfactuals, take different strategies to evaluate them, preferring lists of facts and their contingent relationships vs. “holodeck stories.” However, as they age they acquire skill in both.

Aristotelian Potentiality’s Discomfiture

One way to expose the irrealism of Aristotelian potential is to apply it to that which is real and closed, and find it doing conflicting things; examples where it clearly “ain’t right.”

“Sea Peoples Potential”

Consider the sentence, “The Sea Peoples who invaded Egypt in the 12th century B.C. could’ve been Aegeans.” We say “could’ve” here when we know the answer is fixed, but simply unknown. And therefore there’s a sense of “potentiality” even when it’s obvious the Sea Peoples have already come and gone, and were who-they-were.

“Fallen Coin Potential”

Another example is, “The coin could‘ve landed tails, but it landed heads.” We say “could’ve” here, and retrospectively invoke the sense of potentiality we felt 5 seconds ago, prior to the flip, when the result was unknown, and therefore probabilistic. We say this even though the result of the flip was deterministic, the fixed result of chunky kinetic forces* we humans have trouble tracking.

Put another way: “Deterministic results couldn’t be other than what they were; so why/when do we give them probabilities anyway? How on Earth do we get away with saying both ‘couldn’t’ and ‘could’ve’ about them?” These questions now have simple answers.

* (If needed, imagine the coin flip in a virtual simulated environment, to control for “quantum” or “free will” factors.)


I affirm the finding of a number of early 20th century philosophers that metaphysics comes down to language. It’s often buggy. These bugs sometimes foster tiny, sneaky non sequiturs that let astounding conclusions pop forth. Unless trained against these, even brilliant people are more likely to shout “Eureka!” than “Error!”

This phenomenon creates a memetic incentive to unknowingly exploit, and tendency to inherit, buggy metaphysical concepts (because we trust tradition and the brilliant, renowned people who pass it along). I suspect Aristotelian potentiality is such a thing.

Further Reading

  • To explore how open language is compatible with a closed past, present, and future, read “Schrödinger’s Cup: A Closed Future of Possibilities.”