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The Metaphysics of Potentialities

Vetter (2015) develops a localised theory of modality, based on potentialities of actual objects. Two factors play a key role in its appeal: its commitment to Hardcore Actualism, and to Naturalism. Vetter's commitment to Naturalism is in part
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  The Metaphysics of Potentialities. Giacomo Giannini and Matthew Tugby Penultimate draft  Abstract  . Vetter (2015) develops a localised theory of modality, based on potentialities of actual objects. Two factors play a key role in its appeal: its commitment to Hardcore Actualism, and to Naturalism. Vetter’s commitment to Naturalism is in part manifested in her adoption of Aristotelian universals. In this paper, we argue that a puzzle concerning the identity of unmanifested potentialities cannot be solved with an Aris-totelian conception of properties. After introducing the puzzle, we examine Vetter’s attempt at amending the Aristotelian conception in a way that avoids the puzzle, and conclude that this amended version is no longer to be considered naturalistic. Potentiality theory cannot be both actualist and naturalist. We then argue that, if naturalism is to be abandoned by the actualist, there are good reasons to adopt a Platonist conception of uni-versals, for they offer a number of theoretical advantages and allow us to avoid some of the problems facing Vetter’s theory. Keywords: Platonic Universals, Potentiality, Naturalism, Actualism, Dispositionalism. 1. Introduction: Vetter’s potentiality-based theory of modality Vetter’s (2015) potentiality theory of modality is the view that the truth and falsity of alethic modal claims – in particular claims about metaphysical modality – have their source in the potentialities present in the actual world. Potentialities are the (only) truthmakers of modal discourse. According to the view, the potentialities of actual concrete objects (past and present) fix all the modal facts and determine the topology and extension of the modal space. For the purposes of this paper, we can formulate the potentiality theory as the conjunction of the follow-ing two theses: PPoss : ‘possibly  p ’ is true iff and because there is some potentiality whose manifestation, if manifested, would make ‘  p ’ true. 1  PNec : ‘necessarily  p ’ is true iff and because there is no potentiality whose manifestation, if manifested, would make ‘not-  p’   true. 1 This is a bare-boned version of Vetter’s theory, one which could hardly hope to achieve extensional correct-ness, that is, to generate enough modal truths. Vetter ingenuously enhances her account in a number of ways to remedy this, introducing joint potentialities (neither Fischer-Dieskau nor Gerald Moore could perform Schubert’s  Die Winterreise on their own, but could do so together) and extrinsic potentialities (Fischer-Dieskau has the potentiality to perform  Die Winterreise with Gerald Moore). Building on Borghini and Williams’ concept of a branching disposition (2008: 32), Vetter also develops the important notion of iterated  potentialities (I do not have the potentiality to speak Finnish, but I have the potentiality to learn how to speak Finnish— inelegantly, I have the potentiality to have the potentiality to speak Finnish). In this paper we will only discuss the minimal version of the theory, but it is important to keep in mind that it is because of the development of these further aspects (and many others, such as the treatment of gradability and the devel-opment of a rigorous semantics) that Vetter’s work truly stands out as the canonical text on dispositions for many years to come. There are three factors that crucially contribute to the appeal of Vetter’s potentiality theory as an overall account of modality, which can be summarised under the headings of Realism, Hardcore Actualism, and  Naturalism. Vetter (2015: 33-60) presents srcinal and persuasive arguments against the reduction of dispositions to counterfactual conditionals, based on the gradability of dispositions, which reinforce and round out the clas-sic, well-known objections based on finks and antidotes: irreducibly modal properties are part of the furni 2 -ture of this world. We have to be realist about them. A tempting thought ensues: since we have to accept these properties into our ontology, we might as well make them do as much work as possible—maybe we could even explain the whole of modal discourse with them. However, the potentiality theory does not aim to  be a reductive theory of modality, in the way that, say, Lewis’s (1986) account is. Rather, it aims at rearrang-  These can be formalised by expressing potentiality with a predicate modifier, POT: ‘ !  p ’ is true iff POT[ ! ](  xx ), where 1 !  xx  would make ‘  p ’ true. See Martin (1994) and Bird (1998), as well as Manley and Wasserman (2008). 2  2  ing the landscape: according to the potentiality theorist, we should take localised modality to be more fun 3 -damental than the non-localised one, just like essence is prior and more fundamental than necessity accord-ing to Fine (1994); attempts at reducing dispositions to counterfactuals fail in part because they get the order of the explanation wrong. Indeed, the Potentiality Theory and Essentialism are very similar – the main dif-ference being that the former is a “possibility-first” and the latter a “necessity-first” theory of localised modality. The hope is that the unavoidable realism about dispositions and potentialities might lead to onto 4 -logical parsimony elsewhere. And indeed, one of the main features of Potentiality Theory (as well as Essentialism) is that both aim to  be what Contessa (2008) has dubbed “Hardcore Actualist” theories, that is, to reject the idea that possible worlds (however conceived) should play a role in making modal statements true—in short, they reject the idea that the Leibnizian biconditionals are metaphysically  informative, as it were. One of the purported ad-vantages of this approach is that we need not be committed to strange and controversial entities such as pos-sible worlds, since they play no role in fixing the modal truths. This is often taken to be a gain both in onto-logical parsimony and common sense; the Potentiality theorist offers the prospect of making sense of modali-ty with a lightweight, safe and sane ontology: all we need are powerful actual objects. If we are to take the label ‘Actualism’ seriously, we should then think that Potentiality Theory is committed to the “Being Con-straint” which is best expressed by the generalisation (that is, including higher-order variables) of the fol 5 -lowing two theses: “A potentiality is localised in the sense that that it is a property of a particular object... possibility, on the contrary, is 3 not localised this way. Its being possible that such-and-such is not primarily a fact about any one particular object; it is a fact about how things in general might have turned out to be” (Vetter 2015: 2). In linguistic terms, the difference can be expressed by the fact that “the argument places [of non-localised modal operators] must always be filled by an entire sentence... the operators for localised modalities, on the other hand, must have at least one argument for the object (or objects) to which the modality belongs, and another argument place for that which is intuitively the content of the modality, and which is most naturally expressed by a predicate” (Vetter 2015: 5). These terms are usually used to refer to different approaches to the epistemology of modality; here we employ them in 4 a metaphysical sense: for the potentiality theorist, the fundamental phenomena are what make possibility statements true, and necessity is to be obtained from there. It is tempting, but not necessary, to think that the epistemology would  be isomorphic. Williamson (2013: 148). As Williamson notes, the Being Constraint can be seen to capture what Plantinga (1983: 11) 5 meant by “Serious Actualism”. 3  (1) " "  x   " (F  x   #   #  z     x =  z  ) (2) " "  x " "  y   " (R   xy   #  ( #  z x =  z    $   #  z y =  z  ) In English, (1) says that necessarily, for all  x , necessarily if  x  has a property  F  , then  x  is something. (2) says that necessarily, for all  x , and necessarily for all  y , necessarily if  x  stands in a relation  R  to  y , then  x  is some-thing and  y  is something. The third noteworthy feature of Potentiality Theory is that it promises a naturalistic account of modality. This point is somewhat implicit in the commitment to Hardcore Actualism, and often the two are run togeth-er, but we think they contribute to the development of Vetter’s theory in different respects and can pull it in different directions, and so are best kept apart. In expounding the appeal of a localised theory of modality, Vetter mentions that such an account promises to provide an account of possibility and necessity that anchors them to  just the ordinary objects of this, the actual, world, with which we are in regular epistemic contact... if it succeeds then it does so by anchoring possibilities in realistically respectable bits of the world, ordinary concrete objects. (Vetter 2015: 11) The “respectability” of Potentiality Theory can be attributed to two main factors: on the one hand, its vindi-cation of a familiar and commonsensical Aristotelian ontology of objects and properties, and on the other hand, the fact that such objects are epistemically accessible: “actual objects, with which we have epistemic contact” (Vetter 2015: 11). Note: it is not only the fact that such objects are actual that makes them “re-spectable” and accessible: it is also the fact that they are concrete—  spatiotemporally, and hence causally, linked to us. In order to learn about modality we can use a “powerful telescope”, after all! We think that this 6 is sufficient evidence to attribute to Potentiality Theory a commitment to Ontological Naturalism, which can  be characterised as “the doctrine that reality consists of nothing but a single all-embracing spatio-temporal system” (Armstrong 1981: 149). 2. Unmanifested potentiality and the fundamental puzzle Kripke (1980: 44). 6  4  As we have seen, Vetter’s theory of modality aims to be both hardcore actualist and naturalistic: modality is ultimately a matter of how concrete objects are. Whilst we agree that a strongly naturalistic actualism is de-sirable, we are (with regret) doubtful that naturalism can provide enough ontological resources for a coherent metaphysical account of irreducible potentialities. Our aim in this section is to articulate those doubts and to conclude that a Platonic approach to potentialities (or something like it) provides the ontological resources that we need. As far as we can tell, a move to Platonism about properties would accommodate many of the details of Vetter’s potentiality-based account, and it can still be considered as an actualist theory. Moreover, as we shall see in the next section, Platonism allows us to ground more possibilities than Vetter can allow, and therefore overcomes some of the objections facing her theory and displays superior theoretical virtues. Vetter’s potentiality theory of modality is to be considered naturalistic, in part, because it goes hand-in-hand with a broadly Aristotelian approach to properties. On this view, properties (or ‘universals’) do not exist independently of their concrete instantiations—of how concrete things are. Unlike the Platonists, Aristoteli-ans do not have to say that properties exist outside of space and time. Rather, Aristotelian universals exist entirely through the concrete things that instantiate them, in rebus. The dependence of Aristotelian universals on their instantiations is typically captured by what Armstrong calls the ‘Principle of Instantiation’, which for each property Demand[s] that it is a property of some particular[, and f]or each relation universal [it must] be the case that there are particulars between which the relation holds. (Armstrong 1989: 75, quoted in Vetter 2015: 271) The ontological dependence of Aristotelian universals on their instantiations is fairly weak in the sense that it is generic: in order to exist, a property must be a property of  some  particular, but it doesn’t matter which par-ticular performs the job. Nonetheless, the dependence of properties on their concrete instantiations is strong enough to rule out the existence of type-uninstantiated properties, given that such properties are not proper-ties of anything concrete whatsoever. The problem presented in this section can be summarised as follows: if we do not have uninstantiated  properties in our armoury, then it is difficult to make metaphysical sense of potentialities whose manifesta-tions are never manifested or actualised. We will first illustrate the difficulty, and show how forever unmani-fested properties are problematic for the Aristotelian conception of universals. We will then show that Vet-ter’s amended account does not succeed in solving the problem while retaining its commitment to naturalism, and is therefore in no better position than Platonism in this regard. We finally argue that Platonism offers a 5
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