Aristotle on Two Senses of Possibility


From On Interpertation, Part 13:

But in some cases the word is used equivocally. For the term ‘possible’ is ambiguous, being used in the one case with reference to facts, to that which is actualized, as when a man is said to find walking possible because he is actually walking, and generally when a capacity is predicated because it is actually realized; in the other case, with reference to a state in which realization is conditionally practicable, as when a man is said to find walking possible because under certain conditions he would walk. This last sort of potentiality belongs only to that which can be in motion, the former can exist also in the case of that which has not this power. Both of that which is walking and is actual, and of that which has the capacity though not necessarily realized, it is true to say that it is not impossible that it should walk (or, in the other case, that it should be), but while we cannot predicate this latter kind of potentiality of that which is necessary in the unqualified sense of the word, we can predicate the former.

Our conclusion, then, is this: that since the universal is consequent upon the particular, that which is necessary is also possible, though not in every sense in which the word may be used.

We may perhaps state that necessity and its absence are the initial principles of existence and non-existence, and that all else must be regarded as posterior to these.

It is plain from what has been said that that which is of necessity is actual. Thus, if that which is eternal is prior, actuality also is prior to potentiality. Some things are actualities without potentiality, namely, the primary substances; a second class consists of those things which are actual but also potential, whose actuality is in nature prior to their potentiality, though posterior in time; a third class comprises those things which are never actualized, but are pure potentialities.



This is a large intellectual hurdle to get over for some. The necessities implied in Misesian praxeology depend on the actuality (or existence) of the actions. The form of this statement would be the same as saying: if a fire is measured as hot, it follows that the fire necessarily is hot. This is obvious because in order to measure any property, the property must exist. To put it more generally, if a property is measured in any object, the object is necessarily exhibiting the property at the moment of time the measurement took place. Notice this reasoning is only valid for that specific moment of time. It does not make any statement about future possibilities [1]. Applying this to praxeology, if any social scientist wishes to attribute any conscious action to any individual, then this individual is necessarily performing that action and it follows they necessarily exhibit all of the properties implied in the concrete action. For example, one property of the action “digging” includes making sweeping motions. Therefore, if someone is digging, they are necessarily making sweeping motions. This inference can only be made if the social scientist makes this attribution themselves, probably through empirically observing the action or through second or third hand observations. There are those, however, who say consciousness is scientifically undefined and since its undefined, it may never be predicated of any subject with authority. As a consequence, it must follow that they may never attribute any conscious actions to humans. Also, they may never use the term “value” because value may only exist through consciousness. The assignment of value to any object is in fact a conscious action. This essays outlines some challenges arising from the denying of any aprioristic knowledge implied in consciousnesses.

If anyone were to deny the existence of conscious action, it follows they may not attribute any actions to conscious agents, e.g. ‘digging’ may not be predicated of any subject. For any subject that may dig must have a decision making apparatus, i.e. a consciousness [2]. For this same reason we may not attribute conscious action to inanimate objects like rocks. Some argue we have direct knowledge of essential characteristics of consciousness, because we ourselves are conscious. However, others would deny this argument and label it unscientific. A point often made is that we have no basis to attribute “consciousness” to any other subject other than the fundamental nature in ourselves. Following this, attributing consciousness to any outside substance is arbitrary.

This criteria would eradicate formal cause as adequate ultimate definition of “digging.” Formal cause refers to the “form” in which something takes “shape.” For example I have the shape, or form, of a triangle I may attribute to various objects and conclude these objects exhibit the properties of a triangle. In the same way I have this form that I give the label consciousness or intelligence. I have direct knowledge of this form because I directly experience it constantly. I may apply this form to other objects, such as other humans, because I may ask them about their reasoning of various topics and they reply with describing similar patterns that are present in my own reasoning. However, this is strictly not a proper statistic. I may ask a random sample of people how their reasoning was applied and get the same answers for concrete actions. However, I have no idea if they are lying, or if it was just a coincidence and may not be universally applied to all human beings or all objects of reasoning. Any definition relying on this formal cause is termed an essential definition.

This essential definition would serve as a basis for differentiation of conscious action from other species of action, viz. non-conscious action. To try and trace the ultimate formal cause, we may classify the action “digging” under “purposeful sweeping motions”, which may be a subset of “purposeful motion”, which may be a subset of “purposeful action”, i.e. conscious action [3]. What differentiates conscious actions from other actions? This is traditionally known as “rationality,” to which it is sometimes argued that we have essential, direct knowledge (as explained above). Since the argument that we have no essential knowledge of this (or that even if we did have this knowledge, it does not follow we may predicate this of any other creatures as well as any other substances) caries much sway in today’s academia, we are forced to differentiate conscious action by other means.

The other differentiation traditionally taken seriously in academia is that by “Distinctive Definition.” In this case, we would “state the most characteristic properties of the type with which [we] are dealing.” (Principles of Logic, p. 154) Since the assumption of essential knowledge is unscientific, according to the ostensible popular consensus, we may not derive any properties from this fundamental knowledge. We are in effect limiting the capacity of the social scientist to draw any conclusions about an empirical situation through the attribution of any characteristics of his own consciousness or intellect to the subjects of his data.

As an aside, it may be a consequence that we are also rendering the “golden rule” as a principle that may no longer be possibly applied. For the golden rule is “treat others how you would want to be treated.” [4] To apply this principle, it requires the attribution of  properties of your own consciousness or intellect to outside creatures or substances. Since essential knowledge is unscientific, and any application of the golden rule relies on this, it follows by deduction that the application of golden rule is unfounded by essential knowledge. Not only this rule of course, but any proposition whose truth ultimately derives from this essential knowledge is unfounded and may only be labelled true through a distinctive definition whose properties are validated through the empirical measurement of these properties.

The only way to empirically measure the characteristic properties of consciousness in human beings would of course require a human being in which the measurement takes place. Two types of challenges come to my mind.

Logical Challenges

In order for a distinctive definition to be justified, you must at least have multiple instances of the same properties inhering in various humans and these properties must be unique to the extension of humans in which you wish to attribute the word “conscious.” Various animals, for example, may also inhere the properties you signify with the word “conscious.” Are amoebas conscious? If amoebas are excluded from your definition, then they must not inhere at least one of properties with which you signify the term “conscious.” In which case, they would either fall under “non-conscious,” or another division which is equivalent to conscious and non-conscious. Of course, there may be physiological definitions that are accepted that I am not aware of.

Moral, real, and implementation challanges

Without going to much into ethical theory, there are ethical and/or legal dilemmas generally imposed by society. One example is whether one may ever use invasive surgical techniques on live human brains in which death is risked. There may of course be many more dilemmas. If any of these provide insurmountable barriers to the measurement of the distinctive properties, then it would render attribution of consciousness to any specific human impossible [5], barring any violation of law or ethics. If the standard for this attribution is empirical validation, then you must individually test any substance with which you wish to attribute “consciousness.” This means any applied normative criteria grounded in the consciousness of any entity, may only be applied to entities with which it has been validated through empirical measurement. In addition, you must determine if any of these properties will cease in the future, or if they even have a time duration in which the properties of consciousness last.

One example is law as it exists in our society (another example would be any moral principles grounded on any division of conscious agents and non-conscious agents). Generally speaking, legal punishment often depends on whether the action was taken under the conscious direction of your brain. I may point to the myriad cases where the unintentional killing of a person in a car accident is much different than intentionally running someone over, which would be a homicide. The only way to enforce this distinction would be to empirically measure the presence of the distinctive properties assigned to “consciousness,” within that individual. This arouses perhaps copious difficulties. If you enforce these legal distinctions based on “consciousness,” then you must test each individual separately. Of course the time element now introduces more complications. You must also empirically demonstrate that the properties assigned by the term “consciousness” are present across time. It may not be possible to prove the person had these distinctive properties at the time the crime was committed.

A third major difficulty could be the possibility that scientists could be initially wrong about the properties signified by consciousness. The properties of various things are often revised and updated in the realm of academia. If the definition of consciousness is revised, how does this affect legal cases which were decided under the old criteria? Any revision of definition may also elicit the possibility of a revision of any moral and/or legal systems based on this definition.

Summing up the Charges in the Essay

The rejection of any formal cause for consciousness implies two possibilities:

1. The rejection of any legal or moral principles grounded in individual consciousness. It then follows that these principles must be based on a criteria other than a logical division of consciousness. It also follows that any principles relying on this logical division must be rejected.

2. The grounding of these principles in a distinctive definition outlining properties which must be empirically validated for each individual case. Some of the difficulties this imposes on our existing society are outlined above.

These problems may also be addressed by saying consciousness is known merely through the convention recognized by general society. However, a convention can only be arbitrary and would thereby not be based on any scientific criteria. Therefore, if science excludes any arbitrary classifications, then any convention must be rejected unless it so happens to align with scientific criteria. If it is accepted that our legal system today rests on a definition of consciousness then the authority of this legal system is based on a non-scientific authority. If the United States penal code rests on this definition in any way, then it must be scientifically rejected if no adequate distinctive definition exists. In conclusion, it is a merely a verbal quibble to say whether essential definitions are outside the realm of science. If they are outside the realm of science then jurisprudence, morality, logic, many disciplines in psychology, microeconomics, etc. are all outside the realm of science in as much as they rely on any essential definition of consciousness.


[1] This is somewhat related to Hume’s problem of induction. The classic question is how can we verify the sun will rise everyday? Of course, if the sun does rise, we know this because of the properties attributed to this event, viz. when the sun rises, there necessarily will be a giant blinding light in the sky.

[2] Some may attribute “digging” to a robot. However, strictly speaking the robot is not digging by itself but only under the instruction of a person, either in real time or priorly programmed. Therefore, you may only attribute “digging” to a robot through ellipsis.

[3] By no means should this be taken as the proper division of the category of action. I was just giving a demonstration.

[4] Strictly speaking, the negative corollary is the only way in which the “golden rule” may possibly be applied. In this case it would be stated “don’t treat others how you would not want to be treated.”

[4] Of course, depending on the distinctive properties, you may be able to attribute consciousness after they are dead. However, this would obviously have much less utility and moment.


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