Possibility and Agency

(N.B. This started out as a one sentence note, and ended up ballooning into a Cosmological Argument with a whiff of Medieval Voluntarism. The ideas are very rough and should be taken dialectically)

In defining omnipotence, St. Thomas distinguishes two ways in which something is possible (1) in relation to some power and (2) absolutely, or from the very relation of the terms. Another way to understand the distinction is from the order of causality between the agent and what is possible, i.e. some things are possible or not because of the presence or absence of some agent or condition: this is the sense in which its possible to get a cell phone signal in Manhattan but not in the wilderness of Ontario. But the reverse can also be true, sc. that the one cannot have an agent or condition because a thing is not possible: the reason why no one can draw a four-sided triangle, stand while sitting, or make the true false is because such things are not possible.

So far, this gives us three conditions:

1.) X is possible because there is an agent or condition (cell phone network in Manhattan)

2.) X is impossible because there is no agent or condition (no cell phone network in Ontario wilderness)

3.) An agent or condition of X is impossible because X is impossible. (no one has the skill to draw square circles)

These three options seem to create a hole into which a fourth option can drop:

4.) An agent or condition of X is possible because X is possible.

My suspicion is that, while we can generate possibility 4 by moving symbols and words around, this option is actually monstrous. Option (4) can only be real under two conditions: (a) if agency and possibility are ontologically on par, with no ultimate order of dependence in existence or (b) if possibility is ontologically prior to agency. (A) seems ruled out by the very terms of (4), which speaks of a causal and therefore ontological priority. This leaves only b, which amounts to the idea that all actuality somehow arises out of an undifferentiated field of possibility, and what is by definition the absence of actuality or agency is taken as an agent giving rise to the actual. Thomists will recognize this doctrine as equivalent to the one advanced by David of Dinant, though Avicenna’s idea that possibility was a field of being apart from and independent of God amounts to the same thing.

While in our own experience of agency we experience a dialectic between what is possible and our agency, one which makes it the case that the agent has to modify what it can do in light of the real possibilities of the world, this is not the same thing as to make possibilities given apart from agents. These conditions must arise from a previous action of agency, even if they are given to some agent. We are therefore logically constrained to say that agency as such is not a correlative to possibility, and that, as such, agency acts ex nihilo. We allow for other sorts of agents, of course, but we describe them as agents under some qualification, and which can only be agents at all in dependence upon agency as such.

This argument does not rule out possible worlds, whether in Lewis’s sense or in Ruyer’s more interesting sense of a future that is at once open and conditioned by some sorts of necessity. But it does conclude that either option is ontologically secondary and derivative, and an instrument of a higher agency.

But this argument I’m giving here does seem to commit me to defining omnipotence by way of pure negation: there is no power, whether divine or human, to do what is impossible; but it also seems that we can’t say that because something is absolutely possible, therefore the divine power extends to it. The “because” in that last sentence can’t be understood in an ontological sense, but only to our way of understanding things. Ontologically, we have to say that a thing is possible because it is an object of divine power. Ockham probably gives an argument like this somewhere.


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