How are potentials realized?

The question of how potentiality becomes actuality is taken up somewhat more fully in Dharmakīrti’s arguments adduced to demonstrate the non-existence of God. The first observations that Dharmakīrti makes are:

  1. that a permanent, unchanging entity such as God would have to have exactly the same nature before the creation of the world as after;
  2. there would be no difference whatsoever between God as creator and God as a being that is not yet a creator.
  3. To be a cause of something is to undergo some change, as when a seed and the earth in which it is planted undergo changes in nature as they evolve into a shoot.
  4. But if God undergoes no changes in nature, then he surely cannot be regarded as the cause of everything.

Even if there is no apparent change in nature within the cause itself, there must be some change in at least the cause’s circumstances. For example, it must move from one place to another, or it must come into contact with an object with which it was not previously in contact. A weapon, for example, can be recognized as the cause of the wound in the body only if the body is not wounded before contact with the weapon, then contacts the weapon, and immediately upon such contact develops a wound. But if God is supposed to be omnipresent and therefore always in contact with everything, it cannot then be the case that God comes into contact with a thing with which he was not previously in contact, and so it is impossible that a change in some object be due solely to that object’s change in relationship with God.

Central to Dharmakīrti’s argument is the claim that no action is possible without change, and so no unchanging thing can perform the action of creating the universe. In this connection he anticipates a possible counter-example that might be cited to disprove this central claim. A sense object such as a patch of color apparently undergoes no change at all when it is perceived, and yet it is acknowledged as a cause of sight, as can be shown by pointing out that sight occurs when a patch of color is present and fails to occur when no visible object is present. Is it not possible, therefore, that God can be an unchanging cause of the universe in the same way that a patch of color is an unchanging cause of vision? Dharmakīrti replies to this hypothetical counter-argument by stating the principle that nothing can become an actuality without first being a potential. A visible object could never actually be seen unless it had the potential to be seen, and so a sense object must have an intrinsic potential to be sensed, and this potential must be in some way triggered into actuality. Similarly, if God is a creator of the universe, it must be admitted that he has a potential to create that exists prior to his actually creating anything. But if this is so, we must ask how that potential becomes realized. A visible object’s potential to be seen, for example, is triggered into actuality by factors extrinsic to the visible object itself; there must be such factors as light, a sentient being with a functioning eye and an attentive mind and so forth, or else the potentially visible object cannot actually be seen. But is there a similar set of factors extrinsic to God that are required to trigger his potential to create? If so, then God is at least not a sufficient condition for creation of the universe―whether or not he is a necessary condition is a separate question, to which we shall return later. But if there are not factors extrinsic to God that are required to trigger his potential to create, then the conversion of God’s potentiality into actuality must be seen as an action that he himself performs. But if God performs an action, then he must undergo change and thus cannot be permanent.

Can God be aware of change?

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