Notes on a distinguishing characteristic of possibility

Here are some rough notes on a second of a total of four key characteristics of a quiddity (mahiyyah) that is possible in itself. The discussion is taken from the theologian ‘Abd Allah Baydawi’s (d.1316) Tawali’ al-Anwar min Matali’ al-Anzar with the commentary of Mahmud Isfahani (d.1348), who was the son of one of Baydawi’s close students.

At Book I,  sec.I, chap.4, art.3,  of the Tawali’ Baydawi writes:

The second [distinguishing property of possibility] is that neither one of [a possible reality’s] two alternative states [i.e., existence and nonexistence] has any priority [of preference] due to [the possible reality’s] essence. This is because, [if there would be a case where one of the two states had priority], then in that case,
1. If the occurrence of the other state should become possible, then its occurrence either would be by reason of a cause – and so the [first state’s] priority would need to become nonexistent – or [the occurrence] would not be by reason of a cause; and so, the implication would be that a preference had been received in the balance without an agent of preference, which is impossible. But,
2. If [the occurrence of the other state] should not be possible, then for the one [already] having the priority [the occurrence] would become a necessity.

If one of the two states had priority, then:

1. If the actualization of the other state (i.e., the one that has no priority) is possible, it would occur either:

1.1.    Due to a cause or,

1.2.    Not due to a cause.

If (1.1), then the first state’s priority would become nonexistent i.e. it would no longer have priority over the second state. Rather, the second state is the state that would have the priority. However, that this consequence (i.e., the possibility of the actualization of the second state cancelling out the priority of the first state) is necessarily entailed needs proof (see below).

If (1.2), this is impossible; for it would mean that a preference would obtain without an agent of preference.

2. But if the actualization of the second state (i.e., the state that has no priority) is not possible, then the actualization of the first state (which has priority) would become necessary.

The priority of one of the two states cannot be realized because of the very essence of the possible existent/reality. That is, neither ‘existence’ nor ‘nonexistence’ can have any priority with respect to the possible existent due only to the possible existent’s essence. If one of the two states had priority over the other because of the essence of the possible reality, then:

[A]. If the actualization of the other state is possible, it would occur either:

  1. By means of a cause or,
  2. Not by means of cause.

Option (2) is impossible. Otherwise, it would mean, essentially, that there is an effect without a cause.

But if option (1), then the priority of the first state i.e., the one which is prior because of the very essence of the possible existent, would need, in order to retain its priority, the cause of the actualization of the second state to be abolished. Why is exactly is that? Because since, on the present assumption, the occurrence of the second state would be by means of a cause it would have priority of preference – for the first state only had its priority because there was no possibility of the second state being actualized. That is to say, the first state’s priority, as Isfahani puts it, “was dependent upon the absence of a cause for the occurrence of the second state.” So, if now the second state takes priority, the priority of the first state cannot remain. Therefore, the first state’s right of priority then cannot be due to the very essence of the possible reality; for its priority is dependent, for its actualization, “upon the absence of a cause for the occurrence of the second state.”

Let me rephrase the above to further clarify the point: if (a) one of the two states was prior with respect to the essence of the possible existent be-cause of its essence, and (b) the other state’s occurrence was possible by a cause, then (c) premise (a) cannot be true – for the only reason why the first state would have its priority is because there is no possibility of the other (second) state obtaining. And this is just another way of saying ‘the first state has priority be-cause of the very essence of the possible’. Hence, if ‘existence’ was prior because of the possible reality’s essence, then the possible would necessarily exist i.e., by its very essence. That would mean that the occurrence of the second state (i.e., ‘nonexistence’) would be impossible – for something cannot exist necessarily because of its essence and yet still be capable of nonexistence i.e., for that which is necessary in itself cannot not be. So, if it is allowed that nonexistence may occur to the possible reality by means of a cause, then existence cannot have priority over nonexistence because of the possible reality’s very essence but rather because of the absence of the cause of the possible reality’s nonexistence (which is the second state). So then existence i.e., the first state, would not have priority of over the second state i.e., nonexistence. Rather, the second state would have priority over the first because the first state’s priority would be dependent on the absence of the cause of the second state. But converse would not be true; that is, the second state’s priority would not dependent in any way on the absence of the cause of the first state. This then means that the first state is causally dependent on the second state, but the second is not dependant on the first – it is rather dependant on some cause which will actualize it for the possible reality. Now that on which some other thing is dependent for its existence has priority over this thing which is dependent on it. In that sense then the second state would have priority of preference over the first if its occurrence, as per this option (1), should be granted as initially being possible with respect to the possible reality.

Someone might object: what if the cause of the priority of the second state is the absence of the cause of the first state – would not both states not have priority then?

The response would be: holding that would go against the initial assumption i.e., the cause of the priority of the first is the essence of the possible reality – not the absence of a cause of the first state.  But even if, ex hypothesi, the assumption be granted, it would only prove the point in question, namely, none of the two alternative states have priority because of the very essence of the possible reality. They’re completely neutral with respect to it.

[B]. But if the actualization of the second state is not possible, then the first state (which has priority) would become necessary and no longer be possible. Consequently, the possible reality would become necessary. But, again, this is against the initial assumption i.e., the alternative states in question are predicated of a possible reality, not a necessary one. Hence, if the first state (i.e., existence) had priority because of the essence of the possible – the possible would then be necessary. And this would prove the conclusion sought i.e., the two alternative states of existence and nonexistence are completely neutral with respect to the essence of the possible.

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