In an earlier post I suggested that, “ideals can emerge as possibilities, change, and make different actualities concretely present.” I wish to pursue this notion further here, still staying within the explicitly philosophical perspective of Whiteheadian metaphysics. I will be discussing this in the generic context of moral/ethical ideals, though other sorts of ideals are also possible and real. First, there are some points of terminology to settle right up front: some folks make a distinction between the terms “moral” and “ethical,” and in the context of their particular discussions such a distinction will often be legitimate. Such a context, however, is not what I’ll be working with, and I will use the terms interchangeably, largely depending on my feeling for which term is being overused in the preceding text. Another terminological distinction I’ll be employing – and here, I’ll be hewing closely to Whitehead’s own technical usage of these terms – is that of “actual” and “real.” The actual will always mean a collection of concretely realized potentialities; but those potentialities would still be real, even if they weren’t concretely actual. Thus, the hand-blown, cobalt blue glass that I purchased some years ago at the Bristol Renaissance Faire (yes, I was in garb) has various whorls of white down at the base, and a very slight flaw in the glass at one point about 1 ¼ inches from the lip. These are all concretely actual facts; what is notable about them, in this context, is that they could – potentially – have been different: the white whorls could have taken a slightly different form, the little flaw in the glass might have been somewhere else or missing altogether.
And then there is the little flutter between “potentiality” and “possibility.” Here is a bit of seriously technical philosophy which, like other terms, one need not accept. But if you don’t like the terms, it is upon you to find better ones, because the distinction I am marking with these words (following Whitehead) is a real difference; it is just not a difference that can be quantified. It is “possible” that the sun will explode 37 seconds from my typing of these words … wup, too late! That possibility – absurdly remote as it was – has now passed into the realm of the purely abstract “might-have-been.” That absurd remoteness is what distinguishes a mere possibility from a potentiality. A potential is a possibility as well, but it is one that is decidedly “closer” to becoming actual than other mere possibilities. But this idea of “closeness” does not come with a “metric” – you cannot measure it with a yardstick or a stopwatch. This is a topological notion, a form of relational reasoning whose details I will not try to explain here. My best analogy, though is to appeal to sound, or perhaps smell. Imagine being in a darkened room, you are sitting in a chair with no idea how far away the walls might be, and you’re not permitted to do anything metrical like reach out to those walls or test the distance with your feet. But there are scents and there are sounds that can seem near or far. And this sense of near or far has nothing to do with how strong or loud those sensations might be. A scent or a sound can be strong but diffuse, thus still convey a notion of distance; by the same token, they can be subtle but intense (for example, a soft whisper, yet the words are clear and articulate), and thus convey a notion of nearness. Without going into the mathematics of topological neighborhoods, potencies are “near” in this latter manner. Ethical, political ideals can emerge into this kind of topological nearness, becoming so near (in fact) that the slightest change can cause them to burst into actuality. One other note here: potentialities are always embedded in time, whereas mere possibilities might be so remote from actuality as to have no meaningful temporal character. Continue reading