Eric Levy wants to talk about prime matter. I am 'primed' and my powder's dry: Nihil philosophicum a me alienum putamus. "I consider nothing philosophical to be foreign to me."
Change, Accidental and Substantial
There is no change without a substrate of change which, in respect of its existence and identity, does not change during the interval of the change. In a slogan: no change without unchange. No becoming other (alter-ation, Ver-aenderung) without something remaining the same. In the case of accidental change, the substrate is materia secunda, in one of its two senses, a piece of paper, say, as opposed to paper as a kind of material stuff. It is a piece of paper that becomes yellow with age, not paper as a kind of stuff. In the case of substantial change the substrate is said to be prime matter, materia prima. On the scholastic view, prime matter must exist if we are to explain substantial change. (See Edward Feser, Scholastic Metaphysics, pp. 171 ff.) Thus to the problems with substantial change already mentioned (in an earlier portion of this text not yet 'blogged') we may add the problems that are specific to prime matter. Besides the route to prime matter via substantial change, there is the route via the very procedure of hylomorphic analysis. Traversing these routes will give us a good idea of why the positing of prime matter has seemed compelling to scholastics.
Given that thought sometimes makes contact with reality, one can ask: what must real things be like if thought is to be able to make contact with them? What must these things be like if they are to be intelligible to us? A realist answer is that these mind-independent things must be conformable to our thought, and our thought to them. There must be some sort of isomorphism between thought and thing. Since we cannot grasp anything unstructured, reality must have structure. So there have to be principles of form and organization in things. But reality is not exhausted by forms and structures; there is also that which supports form and structure. In this way matter comes into the picture. Forms are determinations. Matter, in a sense that embraces both primary and secondary matter, is the determinable as such.
Proximate matter can be encountered in experience, at least in typical cases. The proximate matter of a chair consists of its legs, seat, back. But this proximate matter itself has form. A leg, for example, has a shape and thus a form. (Form is not identical to shape, since there are forms that are not shapes; but shapes are forms.) Suppose the leg has the geometrical form of a cylinder. (Of course it will have other forms as well, the forms of smoothness and brownness, say.) The cylindrical form is the form of some matter. The matter of this cylindrical form is wood, say. But a piece of wood is a partite entity the parts of which have form and matter. For example, the complex carbohydrate cellulose is found in wood. It has a form and a proximate matter. But cellulose is made of beta-glucose molecules. Molecules are made of atoms, atoms of subatomic particles like electrons, and these of quarks, and so it goes.
Hylomorphic analysis is thus iterable. The iteration cannot be infinite: the material world cannot be hylomorphic compounds 'all the way down,' or 'all the way up' for that matter. The iteration has a lower limit in prime or primordial or ultimate matter (materia prima), just as it has an upper limit in pure form, and ultimately in the forma formarum, God, the purely actual being. Must hylomorphic analysis proceed all the way to prime matter, or can it coherently stop one step shy of it at the lowest level of materia secunda? I think that if one starts down the hylomorphic road one must drive to its bitter end in prime matter. (Cf. Feser's manual, p. 173 for what I read as an argument to this conclusion.) Ultimate matter, precisely because it is ultimate, has no form of its own. As John Haldane describes it, it is "stuff of no kind." (“A Return to Form in the Philosophy of Mind” in Form and Matter, ed. Oderberg, p. 50) We could say that prime matter is the wholly indeterminate determinable. As wholly indeterminate, it is wholly determinable.
(Question: if prime matter is wholly indeterminate, is it also indeterminate with respect to being either determinate or indeterminate? Presumably not. Is there a problem lurking here?)
The Antinomy of the Existence of Prime Matter
While it is easy to appreciate the logic that leads to the positing of prime matter, it is difficult to see that what is posited is coherently thinkable. Here is one consideration among several. Call it the Antinomy of the Existence of Prime Matter. It may be compressed into the following aporetic dyad:
Prime matter exists.
Prime matter does not exist.
Argument for limb (1). There is real substantial change and it cannot be reduced to accidental change. All change is reduction of potency to act, and all change requires an underlying substrate of change that remains self-same and secures the diachronic identity of that which changes. The substrate of a change is the matter of the change. What changes in a change are forms, whether accidental or substantial. Without the potency-act and matter-form distinctions we cannot accommodate the fact of change and avoid both the Heraclitean doctrine of radical flux and the Eleatic denial of change. Or so say the scholastics. In the case of accidental change, the subject or substrate is secondary matter (materia secunda). But substantial change is change too, and so it also requires a substrate which cannot be secondary matter and so must be prime matter. Given what we must assume to make sense of the plain fact of both accidental and substantial change, “prime matter must exist.” (Feser's manual, p. 172) It must exist in reality as the common basis of every substantial change.
Argument for limb (2). Prime matter is pure potency. It has to be, given the exigencies of accounting for substantial as opposed to accidental change. As pure potency, prime matter is wholly indeterminate and wholly formless. In itself, then, prime matter does not exist. It does not exist actually, as is obvious. But it also does not exist potentially: prime matter does not have potential Being. This is because the principle of the metaphysical priority of act over potency requires that every existing potency (e.g., the never actualized potency of a sugar cube to dissolve in water) be grounded in something actual (e.g., the sugar cube). The pure potency which is prime matter is not, however, grounded in anything actual. (Note that one cannot say that prime matter is a pure potency grounded in each primary substance. Prime matter is the ultimate stuff of each primary substance; it is not potency possessed by these substances.) Therefore, prime matter does not exist. It does not exist actually and it does not exist potentially. This is also evident from the first of the twenty-four Thomistic theses:
Potency and act are a complete division of being. Hence whatever is must be either pure act or a unit composed of potency and act as its primary and intrinsic principles. (Quoted by Feser, Schol. Metaph., p. 31)
If so, prime matter does not exist. For prime matter is neither pure act nor composed of potency and act. It is interesting to observe that while purely actual Being can itself be by being something actual, purely potential Being cannot itself be by being something potential (or actual). God is actual Being (Sein, esse) and an actual being (Seiendes, ens). But prime matter is neither potential nor actual. So prime matter neither is actually nor is potentially.
It thus appears that we have cogent arguments for both limbs of a contradiction. If the contradiction is real and not merely apparent, and the arguments for the dyad's limbs are cogent, then either there is no prime matter, the very concept thereof being self-contradictory, or there is prime matter but it is is unintelligible to us. One could, I suppose, be a mysterian about prime matter: it exists but we, given our cognitive limitations, cannot understand how it could exist. (Analogy with Colin McGinn's mysterianism: consciousness is a brain process, but our cognitive limitations bar us from understanding how it could be.) But I mention mysterianism only to set it aside.
But perhaps we can avoid contradiction in the time-honored way, by drawing a distinction. A likely candidate is the distinction between prime matter in itself versus prime matter together with substantial forms. So I expect the following scholastic response to my antinomy:
Prime matter exists as a real (extramental) factor only in primary substances such as Socrates and Plato. It exists only in hylomorphic compounds of prime matter and substantial form. But it does not exist when considered in abstraction from every primary substance. So considered, it is nothing at all. It is not some formless stuff that awaits formation: it is always already formed. It is always already parcelled out among individual material substances. Once this distinction is made, the distinction between prime matter in itself and prime matter together with substantial forms, one can readily see that the 'contradiction' in the above dyad is merely apparent and rests on an equivocation on 'exist(s).' The word is being used in two different senses. In (1) 'exists' means: exists together with substantial form. In (2), 'exist' means: exist in itself. Thus the aporetic dyad reduces to the logically innocuous dyad:
1*. Prime matter exists together with substantial forms.
2*. Prime matter does not exist in itself in abstraction from substantial forms.
Unfortunately, this initially plausible response gives rise to a problem of its own. If prime matter really exists only in primary substances, then prime matter in reality is not a common stuff but is parcelled out among all the primary substances: it exists only as a manifold of designated matters, the matter of Socrates, of Plato, etc. But this conflicts with the requirement that prime matter be the substratum of substantial change. Let me explain.
If a new substance S2 comes into existence from another already existing substance S1 (parthenogenesis may be an example) then prime matter is what underlies and remains the same through this change. Now this substratum of substantial change that remains the same must be something real, but it cannot be identical to S2 or to S1 or to any other substance. For if the substratum of substantial change is identical to S1, then S1 survives, in which case S2 is not a new substance generated from S1 but a mere alteration of S1. Don't forget that substantial change cannot be reduced to an accidental change in some already existing substance or substances. In substantial change a new substance comes to be from one or more already existing substances. (I will assume that creation or 'exnihilation' does not count as substantial change.)
If, on the other hand, the substratum of change is identical to S2, then S2 exists before it comes to exist. And it seems obvious that the substratum of substantial change underlying S2's coming to be from S1 cannot be some other substance. Nor can the substratum be an accident of S2 or S1. For an accident can exist only in a substance. If the substratum is an accident of S1, then S1 must exist after it has ceased to exist. If the substratum is an accident of S2, then S2 must exist before it comes to exist.
The argumentative punchline is that prime matter cannot exist only in primary substances as a co-principle tied in every case to a substantial form. If prime matter is the substratum of substantial change, then prime matter must be a really existent, purely potential, wholly indeterminate, stuff on its own.
The Problem of the Substrate
The problem just presented, call it the Problem of the Substrate or the Problem of the Continuant, may be pressed into the mold of an aporetic tetrad:
1. Prime matter is the substrate of substantial change.
2. Prime matter does not exist in reality except as divided among individual material substances.
3. The substratum of a substantial change cannot be identified with any of the substances involved in the change, or with any other substance, or with any accident of any substance. (For example, the substratum of the substantial change which is Socrates' coming into existence from gametes G1 and G2 cannot be identified with Socrates, with G1, with G2, with any other substance, or with any accident of any substance.)
4. There is substantial change and it requires a really existent substrate.
The tetrad is inconsistent issuing as it does in the contradiction: Prime matter does and does not exist only in individual material substances.
The obvious solution is to deny (2). But if we deny (2) to solve the Problem of the Substrate, then we reignite the Antinomy of the Existence of Prime Matter. We solved the Antinomy by making a distinction, but that distinction gave rise to the Problem of the Substrate/Continuant. We appear to be in quite a pickle. (For more on the Substrate/Continuant problem, see John D. Kronen, Sandra Menssen and Thomas D. Sullivan, “The Problem of the Continuant: Aquinas and Suárez on Prime Matter and Substantial Generation,” The Review of Metaphysics, Vol. 53, No. 4 (Jun., 2000), pp. 863-885.)
The Problem of Individuation
Finally a glance at the related ontological, not epistemological, problem of individuation. This problem is actually two problems. There is the problem of individuation proper, namely, the problem of what makes an individual substance individual as opposed to universal, and there is the connected problem of differentiation, namely, the problem of what makes numerically different individual substances numerically different. It is clear that prime matter cannot be the principle of differentiation. For one thing, prime matter is common to all material substances. For another, prime matter as pure potency is indeterminate, hence not intrinsically divided into parcels. Moreover, pace Feser, prime matter cannot “bring universals down to earth” in his phrase: it cannot be the principle of individuation, narrowly construed. (Schol. Metaph., p. 199) For what makes Socrates an individual substance rather than the substantial form he shares with Plato cannot be common, indeterminate, amorphous, matter.
Prime matter is not up to the job of individuation/differentiation. It is designated matter (materia signata quantitate) that is said to function as the ontological ground or 'principle' of individuation and numerical difference. Unfortunately, appeal to designated matter involves us in an explanatory circle. Designated matter is invoked to explain why Socrates and Plato are individual substances and why they are numerically different individual substances. But designated matter cannot be that which individuates/differentiates them since it presupposes for its individuation and differentiation the logically (not temporally) antecedent existence of individual material substances. Why are Socrates and Plato different? Because their designated matters are different. Why are their designated matters different? Because they are the matters of different substances. The explanation moves in a circle of rather short diameter.
Feser considers something like this objection but dismisses it as resting on a confusion of formal with efficient causality. But there is no such confusion in the objection as I have presented it. Efficient causality does not come into it at all. No one thinks that there is an agent who in a temporal process imposes substantial form on prime matter in the way that a potter in a temporal process imposes accidental form upon a lump of clay. I can grant Feser's point that prime matter and substantial form are related as material cause to formal cause. I can also grant that prime matter and substantial form are mutually implicative co-principles neither of which can exist without the other. Granting all this, my objection remains. Prime matter in itself is undifferentiated. It it differentiated and dimensive only in combination with substantial forms. But this is equivalent to saying that prime matter is differentiated and dimensive only as the designated matter of particular individual substances. But then designated matter cannot non-circularly explain why numerically different substances are numerically different. For the numerical difference of these matters presupposes the numerical difference of the substances.