Being, Essence and the Act of Existing


“Being” can mean “existing” when used as present participle of the verb “to be”.
It can also be used as a noun and thus does not necessarily imply actual existence but at least possible existence.
When we talk about “a being” then it refers to something concrete.
“Being” can also be used in a collective manner to indicate the sum-total of all that is or can be.
Being is contrasted with absolute “non-being” or “nothingness”.

The Scholastics differentiated between different kinds of “being”. Being was divided into real being, logical being and ideal being.

“Real being” is anything that has, or can have, existence independent of our mind and our actual knowledge of it.

Real being was in turn subdivided into sub categories for example:
1) Potential being and actual being
Actual being is something that exists or has existence in this very moment. Your computer screen in front of you has “actual being” or is an “actual being”.

Potential being is something that does not actually exist now but could exist given that there are proper causes and conditions. For example, if you planted a seed of a sunflower in a pot, the sunflower doesn’t have actual being or is not an actual being, it has potential being or is a potential being while the seed has actual being or is an actual being.

2) Substantial being and accidental being
There is a differences between substantial and accidental being.

“Logical being” is anything that exists only in the mind.
Logical being was divided into:
1) Logical being that has no foundation in reality.
2) Logical being that has its foundation in reality.

An ideal being is any thing in so far as it is known.
Ideal being was divided into:
1) Sensual ideal being
2) Intellectual ideal being


A being is said to exist when it is not merely possible but actual, when it is not merely potential in its being. Existence implies the notion of actuality.


When we think about a being, two questions can be asked:
A) What is it?
B) Does such a being actually exist?
The answer to the first question gives us the essence or nature of the being in question. The concept that is presented to our intellect is the essence or nature of a being or what a being is.
Take for example an electron. The definition of something describes its essence and should be clear and distinct. The essence of an electron (call it “electronality” if you want) can thus be described as “an elementary particle with ½ spin, negative elementary charge and a mass that is approximately 1/1836 that of the proton”.

The Scholastics divided essence into;
1) Physical essence or real essence or actual essence.
2) Abstract essence or metaphysical essence or logical essence or intrinsically possible essence.

Our knowledge of essences comes through our senses. For example, when we do an experiment with electrons, we gather data via our senses. We obviously devise instruments to enhance or help our senses (we cannot directly observe an electron, it is too small).

If we become aware of an electron (via experimentation and sense data) and we focus or fix our attention on what the particular electron is without considering its existence we are thinking about its physical or real or actual essence. Physical essence only ever has real being when a thing exists.
If for arguments sake, say we were in the 19th century and we are considering the existence of an electron without ever having observed it via our senses, we are considering it as an abstract or metaphysical or logical or intrinsically possible essence. In this case we have no clear notion of its existence since we have never observed it via our senses.

Each actually existing being is what it is precisely because all the reality that is in it. The complete actual or real essence of an existing electron has real being. We have no direct or intuitive intellectual insight into the real essence of things. We only ever gain insight of the real essence of something when it exists. So we can gradually gain greater insight when we explore existing things from various view points. We already know, from experience, that an electron has ½ spin, negative elementary charge and a particular mass.

These are all abstractions from sense data via our intellect and these abstractions provide us the metaphysical or abstract or logical or intrinsically possible essence of something. However, these abstract essences have their foundation in the actually existing things we are able to sense.

Real distinctions vs Logical distinctions

Real distinctions
A real distinction is a distinction that exists independently of our intellects. It is something that is discovered and not made by our minds. Take the electron example. There is a real distinction between its spin as a property and the type of spin it has. The type of spin is really distinct from its spin as a property. It always has ½ spin but the type of spin can differ between + or – or its direction.

So one can have two realities that are really distinct from each other without being separable or capable of existing apart from each other.
If we look at the formal and material causes of a substances (as described here). There is a real distinction between a substance’s formal cause and material cause. They are really and not logically or virtually distinct even if they are not capable of existing apart from each other.

Logical distinctions
A logical distinction is a distinction made by the mind itself between two concepts describing the same reality. There is no reality of logical distinctions other than those of our thought.

Logical distinctions can be purely logical distinction or they can be virtual distinctions. Virtual distinctions can be complete of incomplete virtual distinctions.

An example of a purely logical distinction is the distinction between the concept of an electron and the concept of “an elementary particle with ½ spin, negative elementary charge and a mass that is approximately 1/1836 that of the proton”.

When we think of an individual electron as a negatively charged particle with ½ spin and a particular mass our concept of charge is distinct from that of spin and of mass. However, we do not think that these three realities (mass, charge and spin) combine to form an electron; they are just three virtually distinct aspects under which we view the one reality of the thing we understand as an electron. Mass, charge and spin are examples of perfect virtual distinctions since none of the concepts includes either explicitly or implicitly what is expressed by the other. They are virtually perfectly distinct.
An example of an imperfect virtual distinction is that of the mass of an electron and an electron itself. One concept include implicitly what is expressed by the other. I.e. The concept of an electron includes implicitly what is expressed in the concept of “mass of an electron”.

The Distinction between abstract essence and the act of existence

The question now is, is there a real or only a logical distinction between an abstract essence and the act of existing. I think it should be quite obvious that there is a real distinction to be made between something’s abstract essence and its existence. Take for example the abstract essence of a unicorn. Our intellects can form a definition of something and thus giving it an abstract essence as follows: a white horse with a large, pointed, spiraling horn projecting from its forehead.
There is not something intrinsically or internally impossible about this animal, in other words, it can be actualized or exist. The question is, what kind of being is it? Real, logical or ideal?
It can’t be logical being since logical being is anything that cannot exist outside our minds. Unicorn clearly can exist outside our minds, however, we have never seen one or experienced one with our senses. The only way we can apprehend it when it has ideal being. We have never experienced its real or physical or actual essence. So our intellects are capable of generating abstract essences, however, all abstract essences have ideal being and not real being.
So there is a real and not a logical distinction between an abstract essence and its act of existence. What about the distinction between something’s physical essence and its act of existing? Is the distinction real or merely perfectly virtual?

The Distinction between physical essence and the act of existence

Physical essence, unlike an abstract essence, is said to be part of an actually existing thing, however, physical essence is only ever real whenever a thing exists. So the act of existing actualizes a physical essence or makes it real. Or to put it differently, the act of existing makes a thing what it is, real (a real being) and not ideal (not an ideal being).
A real distinction would entail that the act of existing and the physical essence of an existing thing are thus two really (not virtually) distinct realities, however they are not separable or capable of existing apart.

A real being (e.g. substance) would thus be a composite really distinct realities including of substantial form and prime matter, potentiality and actuality, and the act of existing and essence.

This view can be summarized as in Figure 1 below.

A real distinction between the act of existing (or act of being) and a things real essence is of course debatable and anyone is welcome to debate otherwise.
IMO, the real distinction appears to be rationally defensible and logically consistent with other distinctions such as the distinction between necessary and contingent being (more later).

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Matter, Intentionality, Epiphenomenalism and the Interaction Problem

What is matter?

There are at least three approaches to answering this question.



The mechanistic-cum-atomistic view of matter is probably the best known and most popular view of matter today and can basically be summed whereby matter can be described as:

1) Homogeneous and of the same nature and only distinguished by quantitative differences of size, shape, mass, spin, tension (string theory) and motion.
2) Having no intrinsic finality or goal-directedness.
3) At the fundamental level has no conscious activity.
4) In ancient Greek atomism there are two fundamental principles, atoms (Greek = átomos) and the void. These are analogous to todays “fundamental particles” and “empty space-time” respectively.

All change is described in terms of the arrangement and rearrangement of these fundamental particles.


For Aristotle matter was the underlying principle of change and change was the reduction of potentiality to actuality. The concepts of potentiality and actuality together with prime matter and substantial form are central to Aristotle’s view. Substances according to this view are composites of potentiality and actuality, prime matter and substantial form.

Prime matter according to this view:
1) Is pure potentiality. It is something that can be transformed by an actualizing principle into anything which nature allows.
2) Is wholly indeterminate substrate underlying change.
3) Itself does not undergo change.
4) Has no form.
5) Is the closest there is to nothingness without being nothingness.
6) Is a state of being without form, and since science deals with substances and all substances have a substantial form, this state is impossible to achieve experimentally.
7) Cannot actualize itself since it has no actuality, it is only actualized by something actual.

All change is described as the reduction of potentiality to actuality by something actual.


The Panpsychist view can be argued to be compatible with either of the above to views with at least one feature that differs and it is related to the conscious activity of matter. For the panpsychist, at the fundamental level, matter has some sort of mental activity or the underlying something that makes up “matter” has a mental element or a conscious element to it. One view that is compatible with panpsychism is the view supported by Stuart Hamerhoff and his model for what consciousness exactly is. See for example the “Orch OR” model for consciousness.

All three of these views are metaphysical and philosophical views. There is no way to empirically verify which one is correct. However, the logical and metaphysical arguments for each of these views can only be successful if the overall metaphysical view is coherent and interprets the facts logically and consistently.

So let’s now look at the following premises and see what logical consequences it would lead to:

1) Mechanism-cum-atomism is true
2) Intentionality is real

Mechanism-cum-atomism vs Intentionality

What is intentionality?

The term “intentionality” derives from the the Latin term, intendere, which means “to point (at)” or “to aim (at)”. The term is used to refer to the capacity of brain states “to point” or to be about, or to stand for or aim at or to be directed at something beyond itself.

Your brain state of perceiving  is an example. A brain state cannot just perceive without perceiving something. The brain state of perceiving is directed at something specific. The same goes for goal-directed behaviour such as intending to be friendly or to pick up the trash. A brain state perceiving something refers to something beyond itself that may or may not exist and it is an intrinsic feature of the brain. Intentionality in the context of this discussion can be applied to conscious beings. For example, the the brain states of other animals also have the capacity to perceive or to point at or to direct at objects beyond themselves.

The consequences

If both statements are true then it appears that intentionality cannot be explained in terms of matter.

The following syllogism seems logically supportable:
I) If the brain is wholly composed of matter and brain states are explained in terms of the arrangement and rearrangement of matter.
II) And if matter has no intentionality, intrinsic finality or goal-directedness.
III) Then intentionality cannot be explained in terms of matter.

Intentionality appears to be some sort of epiphenomenon if the mechanistic-cum-atomistic view of matter is true. It seems to be some intrinsic feature of brain states that has no matter. 

 The following three options seem to be available:

A) The mechanistic-cum-atomistic view of matter is false and intentionality is real.
B) Intentionality is not real and
the mechanistic-cum-atomistic view of matter is true.
Intentionality is real and the mechanistic-cum-atomistic view of matter is true but is does not apply to brain states.

Let’s assume C) is true.

This view of matter became prominent during the 16th century with philosophers and mathematicians such as Galileo and Renee Descartes. These problems are not new problems, in fact Descartes had his own solutions to these problems.

Galileo had this view of matter and he saw the universe as one “vast self-contained mathematical machine”. Galileo differentiated between primary and secondary qualities. The forces of nature and the interaction of these mechanical-cum-mathematical entities of the universe were primary qualities. Man’s thoughts, feelings and purposes became secondary qualities as some secondary effect as a result of the mathematical motions of matter. These secondary qualities were also seen as subjective.

Renee Descartes is considered by many as the father of modern philosophy. Descartes too viewed the universe as some mechanical machine made up of matter as described by the mechanistic-cum-atomistic approach.

Now descartes was quite a sharp chap. He was aware that intentionality posed a problem for this view of matter. Following Galileo, Descartes distinguished between primary and secondary qualities. Primary qualities existed in physical bodies as they really are, in other words matter. Descartes labeled this realm “Res extensa“.

Secondary qualities on the other hand belonged to the realm of the mind, such as thinking, willing, perception, imagining, feeling etc. Descartes labeled this realm  Res cognito“. This realm according to Descartes has no physical or mathematically describable extension. To him, these secondary qualities (feeling of sadness, blueness, happiness, pain etc.) do not exist outside our minds and are only caused by motions of matter in our bodies.

For Descartes the true universe of Descartes essentially existed of two completely distinct substances. The Res extensa consisted of the vast mathematical machine extended in space and  Res cognito consised of secondary qualities and these two substances interacted. Descartes essentially solved the the problem that intentionality posed for a mechanistic-cum-atomistic view of matter by inventing  substances that is not composed of any matter. Intentionality was a secondary quality.

All the secondary qualities of a human being were collectively known as the “soul”. This is basically the Cartesian view of the soul.

The Problems with the Cartesian view of the soul

1) The interaction problem

The exact mechanism of just how these two distinct substance interact is a complete mystery. The Res cognito has no mass, size, location or motion and this must somehow interact with the the Res extensa realm.

2) The problem of personal identity

The soul on this view is the identity of the person and the body is just some sort of passanger. Since the soul is completely without mass, size, location or motion, it makes it impossible in principle to ever know that we are dealing with the same soul when we speak to others from day to day. Since a disembodied soul (from Cartesian dualistic view) can exist on its own, it would be impossible to know if some soul just interacted with a different body from day to day. There is nothing that tightly connects the body and the soul from this view. This problem is about explaining how we perceive a person from day to day to actually be the same person and not some other soul interacting with the same body.

3) The problem of knowledge (epistemological)

This is related to the first two problems. If there is not a  tight connection between the body and the soul and they somehow mysteriously interact with each other, it makes it impossible to know whether the two substances exchange true knowledge between the two realms (res extensia vs res cognitans) to the the person.

4)   The problem of specificity

1) Why does intentionality not apply to other states? Why is it not an intrinsic feature of say rocks, atoms, plastic or paper? The reason for the specificity of intentionality appears to be mysterious.

Descartes’ solution to the problem of intentionality seem to raise more problems than it solves. So there appears to to be serious problems with C).

So what if we  accept B)? Intentionality is an illusion or some epiphenomenon that is not real. Does this solution appear rational? Is it possible to perceive that perceiving is an illusion?

Now if we accept B) then it leads to some kind of epiphenomenalism. It is basically a byproduct of brain states. What we perceive as “intentionality” is simply a byproduct of brain states.

Take for example the following scenario:

1) Electrochemical processes (basically the arrangement and rearrangement of matter in your brain) of different brain states causes you to feel hungry.
2) Other electrochemical processes of different brain states causes you to want to prepare food.
3) Still, other electrochemical processes of different brain states causes you to eat the food.

If we accept that B) is true then it follows that your feeling of hunger is an epiphenomenon. When you perceive hunger, it is an epihenomenon of different brain states.

It also follows that there is no causal relationship between your feeling of hunger and your act of preparing the food and eating it since the feeling of hunger, the feeling of wanting to prepare food and feeling of wanting to eat the food are only ephenomenons with no effects on brain states.

So if we accept B) then there appears to be a similar interaction problem to the one we see with Cartesian dualism. There seems to be an interaction problem between:

A) Electrochemical processes of different brain state.
B) The feeling of hunger and wanting to make food and wanting to eat it.
C) The act of making food and eating it.

A causes B and C but B does not cause anything.

So, if we accept B), that is:
Intentionality is not real and the mechanistic-cum-atomistic view of matter is true.

Then the following view follows (in the pic).

Intentionality is an epiphenomenon caused by brain states. Epiphenomena on this view are causally inert, they have no effect on brain states.

Now if it is true that epiphenomenacan have effects on brain states, but then we no longer accept that B) is true. Either A or C seem to follow.

Should we accept A) then?

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Measurement and Causality part 2

Following the discussion in part one and a comment made by an anonymous commenter @

In point of fact, your assumptions are at odds with what is now known about reality (not surprising since your assumptions were developed in the middle-ages). Quantum causation does not follow the neatly ordered sequences that Aquinas posited. When one reaches back to the beginning, time drops out of the picture, making all claims about causation irrelevant. It seems that the existence of the universe may be a necessary function of cosmological geometry, entirely without the need for an external cause (which you assume). The problem with your metaphysics is that it is unsupported by anything, and contradicted by some observed elements of reality. It’s pretty, but it isn’t much more than that.

The claims, to my understanding, are as follows:
1) Quantum causation does not follow the neatly ordered sequences that Aquinas posited. (anonymous)
2) Classical logic is simply not equipped to deal with phenomena of this sort. (olegt)

A proposed example of such “phenomena” is the measurement of electron spin as discussed here.

Continue reading

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Measurement and Causality part 1

olegt comments:


I am not Anon, but I can help by defining what the problem is. We will strip the phenomenon of quantum indeterminacy to its most basic form if we consider a system with the tiniest possible phase space, a Hilbert space with a basis of two states.

The spin of an electron is such a physical system. Prepare an electron in a state with spin pointing along the vertical axis. The spin is in a well-defined state (a pure state in technical terms): if we subsequently measure the spin along that axis, it always points up the axis and never down. We have complete knowledge about the system. Its entropy is zero. There is no more to be learned.

Turn the measuring apparatus and measure the prepared electron spin along a horizontal axis. Now the outcome is undetermined and in fact, completely unpredictable: it can point right or left with equal probabilities.

My question to you is: What caused the spin prepared in a state “up” to choose the specific direction, say “right”? So far as we know, there is no underlying cause. It wasn’t like we had incomplete information prior to the measurement and that we could complete the picture by identifying a missing causal chain. The electron spin was in a pure state, which means that we knew as much about it as physically possible. There was no lack of knowledge.

This case amply illustrates the limited character of classical logic developed on the basis of our interactions with the macroscopic world. Things are quite different in the microscopic world. Like energy, knowledge turns out to be grainy and furthermore, knowing some things makes other things unknowable. Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle is the most famous example of that, but the direction of electron spin, although less known to the lay audience, is the most striking. Bell’s inequalities confirmed experimentally, further confirm the lack of causal chains in such measurements. Events with space-like separation are not causally connected.

Classical logic is simply not equipped to deal with phenomena of this sort.

Before delving into this interesting topic I just want to make sure we are both on the same page and/or we are both talking about the same stuff and have a similar understanding. I will draw a diagram, hopefully it helps.

Continue reading

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Zero-point energy/ground/vacuum state vs Real Being vs Logical Being vs Nothing

Some would like to argue that zero-point energy state or a ground states or a vacuum state (ZPE or G or V states) is nothing.”Nothing”, or “nothingness” can be summed to be not a property, not a field, not a potential, not a force, not a cause or anything actual.  “Nothingness” on its own does not even have the potential to be something simply because nothingness has nothing. “Nothingness” has no being. Nothingness cannot become actual by itself, for it to become something, it would be creation ex nihilo.

What does science say about ZPE or G or V states? Continue reading

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Accidents and a Porphyrian tree

Below is a preliminary Porphyrian tree for accidents. Continue reading

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Substances and Porphyrian trees

Substance from a Thomistic point of view is a composite of:
1) Actuality and Potentiality
2) Substantial Form and Prime Matter (for corporeal substances, see below)
3) Essence and the Act of Existing.
Substance, along with accident, is also one of the highest categories (supreme genus) of real being. Traditionally, from a Thomistic point of view, substances where divided into first and second substance, and complete and incomplete substance. First and second substances where categorized by making use of a hierarchical tree (Porphyrian tree). Corporeal first substances (particulars) are individuals and the second substances (universals) are instantiated by individuals. We have come a long way in trying to describe particular substances and how they relate to others and in the process created many taxonomies for various material substances.
Below are proposed Porphyrian trees for substances. The first differentiae is between corporeal and incorporeal substances. Corporeal meaning anything that has a physical, material body or is spatially extended. Incorporeal in turn then refers to something that does not have a body or is physically extended. An argument can be made that the four fundamental forces (weak, strong etc.) are examples of incorporeal substances. From a Thomistic point of view they are still composites of actuality and potentiality and essence and existence even if it is not spatially extended (Figure 1). The fundamental forces of course have no intellect, so incorporeal substances can be differentiated between intellectual (for the moment we leave it as metaphysically possible to have incorporeal, intellectual substances) and non-intellectual. Corporeal substances can be differentiated between living and non-living substances.
The basic characteristic that differentiates living things from non-living things is immanent activity and causation . Following Oderberg’s (1) definition:
1) A living substance is just a substance with the natural capacity or power for self-perfective immanent activity.
2) A living substance acts for itself in order to perfect itself (whatever kind of substance it is) by producing, conserving and repairing its proper functioning.
3) A living substance is able to do 1) and 2) by means of immanent causation whereby the efficient causation begins with the substance and ends with the substance for the sake of the substance. I.e. a substance can be argued to be closed to efficient causation (Louie, 2008) (2).
Homeostasis thus is the hallmark of immanent activity and causation. All living things are capable of performing some sort of homeostatic function and such a function is characterized by 3 mechanisms:
1) Sensing
2) Processing
3) Responding
These 3 mechanisms of homeostasis in living things are thus responsible for metabolism, repairing and the potentiality of replication. It is possible for substances to have some sort of homeostatic function without having the potential to replicate e.g. a thermometer. Thus, having at least the potential to replicate is another distinguishing feature of living things.
In a nutshell, livings are differentiated from non-living things by the fact that they are capable of immanent causation and activity, AND homeostasis (metabolism and repair) AND have the potential to replicate (Figure 1). Continue reading
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Peripatetic vs Mechanical Philosophy

The seventeenth century saw the emergence of Mechanical philosophy. Descart, Boyle, Hobbes, Gassendi and others rejected the Aristotelian idea of substantial form and final causes. Matter was no more understood as a correlate of form, but rather understood to be unobservable particles having mathematically quantifiable features (Table 1). Also, the particles had no qualities, essences, or natures of colour, sound, taste, odor, morality or any of our common sense feelings. Cause and effect relations were not described as a result of inherent powers nor any directedness toward ends or goals in things. Instead, cause and effect was merely regarded as regularities described by the “laws of nature”. Everyday things were regarded as conglomerates of particles and the laws of nature merely described the ways in which these particles behaved and there were no final causes. Change was merely the arrangement and rearrangement of particles  (Table 1).
Final causality was demoted (not immanent anymore) to the intellect of the creator and sustainer and the world was regarded as an artifact with an artificer that holds the artifacts in place. Later, Darwin proposed natural selection as an explanation of artifacts without an artificer. Other Aristotelian notions of natures, powers, essences as well as actuality and potentiality were rejected for a more mechanical view of nature.
Table 1: Peripatetic Philosophy vs Mechanical Philosophy.
In this blog I will explore Aristotelian-Scholastic (peripatetic) concepts and how they can be incorporated to describe modern discoveries about cellular and molecular biology and physiology.
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