The World of Potentials


Published in the Philosophical Review, 2021


Isn’t it amazing that we explore the world – so complex and diverse beyond description – by just five senses?

Sense organs operate by ‘feeding on’ – literally ‘consuming’- the signals they attract from the physical world. Photons get absorbed in the retina. Acoustical vibrations, along with taste and smell molecules, and friction or temperature of touch, likewise – all get ‘swallowed’ and vanish inside the sense organs. We are ‘plugged’ into the physical world, all the better to experience it at each moment.

Identifying physical objects and phenomena relies on distinguishing differences between their properties. The senses successfully function to provide the mind with particulars and differences, so that the identified objects stand out. However, a serious question emerges here on whether our knowledge gained in this way is final or complete. It seems that the in-depth identity of an object is much more than what senses can offer. The senses cannot produce more than surface-thin images of properties of things.

There is also a worry that our relying on the essence of their operation of ‘signalling out differences’ between objects – may subconsciously lead us to a tendency of ‘obsession with distinctions’. This can create a negative impact on the way we see each other in society, because an individual is rather more than what we perceive by the senses. Reality of life tells us that things exist only because of a web of interconnectedness with other things and phenomena. While sense data provide useful knowledge for a quick practical judgement about what we encounter, a deeper field of information is needed to complete our knowledge about the long-term nature of observed phenomena: how do they change in time and how connected they are with other phenomena?

Identity of object over the span of time

Sense organs operate in the present moment, recording what is actual. The actual, how- ever, changes in time, and our consciousness employs the power of memory, where every identified thing or phenomenon has its time-line record. Recalling the contents of the his- tory of an object is like extending the time of its observation. For example, if we observe and analyse the seed of a plant, we gain some information about the chemical and physical properties of the seed – but we do not see its potential of becoming a sapling, nor even a possible future tree into which it can quite amazingly develop, beyond expectation. The giant redwood is a good example:

“The sequoia trees here in California are very famous. Some of them grow more than 400 feet, and their stumps can reputedly hold more than 40 people. Some of these trees also live more than 3,000 years. Even such giant redwoods sprout from a single tiny seed. One seed contains unlimited potential”. (1)

A seed contains more than ‘unlimited’ potentials: it contains multiple potentials. Observing a time-lapse view of a sequoia tree would reveal that its growth was a flow of phases, in which each phase must have included within its properties the potential for the next phase to follow. Potentials are realisable because of two factors: one internal, being the inner capacity of the object to change, and the other external, relating to the availability of convenient conditions in the environment (that match the potential). The environment plays a huge role in realising potentials. Not all seeds develop into saplings. Some get damaged by draught, or lost in fire, or swallowed by a hungry bird. A seed has its own ‘set of future potentials’, which includes various possibilities – and becoming a tree is just a lucky one of them.

The field of ‘potentiality’

Since childhood, we too, had this invisible ‘field of potentials’ engulfing our being at each moment, buzzing with information about various possibilities. A shift in our situation took place when a fusion occurred between a particular image of a potential and the matching conditions in our physical reality. Our history can be seen as a thread of realised potentials, which could successfully attract matching conditions. The fusion between a potential and available conditions makes the potential – which is of an informational na- ture – ‘collapse’ into the physical state of existence, becoming a reality.

The concept of potentials is a necessary effect of the philosophical perspective of change: that nothing stays the same. However, to deal with a concrete situation, we have to freeze the changes in object [A] and consider its actual properties. Aristotle was sharp in alert- ing us that [A] is to be considered as it is in the ‘actual’ reality – not with its potentials (or the dunamis, as he called them) – and that potentials are to be separately considered, case by case:

“A dunamis …[of object, is] its capacity to be in a different and more completed state.  Aristotle thinks that potentiality so understood is indefinable, claiming that the general idea can be grasped from a consideration of cases”. (2)

Separating potentials from the current actual state of the observed object was a neces- sary measure to avoid a paradox, where [A] could otherwise include a potential of being [not-A]. For example: a seed of a plant [A] can be described as an envelope of cellulose tissues – while a potential sapling with roots and leaves is simply [not-A]; a sapling is not what the actual reality presents. Heraclitus, in a similar way to Eastern perspectives about the nature of an Impermanence of all things, regarded any object [A] not as a ‘fixed entity’, but as a ‘process in time’ – a process ever growing from one potential state into another. In the most general case, reality tells us that any existing object must contain the potential of its own negation: its very nonexistence. A being must contain its future of non-being. And, if life, having the potential of death, is impermanent, then there is no contradiction in stating that death too is impermanent, having the potential of its own expiry, collapsing into a physical state of rebirth.

The perspective of impermanence of existence – viewed as engulfed by the field of Potentials – includes also the domain of the death of that existence, which also includes the potential of its own negation (as in death ending in rebirth, and so on).

Taking the ‘field of potentials’ seriously in philosophical examination (as equally as the field of physical reality) leads to the benefits of arriving at a deeper truth about the nature of observed objects, and profound philosophical perspectives.

The non-physical nature of the ‘field of potentials’

The field of potentiality is an objective property of any object – a ‘must have’ descriptive property of the set of associated possibilities. Being a set of possibilities, its nature is purely informational. Take for example a drop of dew on a leaf receiving warm sunrays. The energy of sunrays increases the distance between the H2O molecules of that drop of water, soon transforming it into vapour. This transience of ‘water to vapour’ (or, con- versely, to ice) is part of any water drop; it is an objective property of how H2O molecules exist. No matter where in the universe a drop of water exists, its actual state must have two destinies, and will collapse into one of them, depending on conditions. The field of potentials associated with a drop of water is like an invisible shadow of its actual state, inseparable from its physical objective reality.

Nonetheless, although an observed object itself is physical, its field of potentials (being a descriptive story about its future states) is only informational, not physical in essence. There is no physical agency in the field of potentials to carry information. We are familiar with a similar field of information, which we experience during the process of thinking or recalling our memories. The displayed imagery of information needs no physical agency to emerge. What we experience in dreams is also like this: an informational space devoid of any physical matter.

While inanimate objects such as wood or water, possess their transformational ‘objective set of possibilities’ (governed by their nature and the laws of the physical world), the set of potentials possessed by an individual human is produced by the individual’s tenden- cies, motivations and goals. One important function in our mind is the circuit of ‘predic- tions of future possibilities’. The mind automatically creates images of potential events. The created visions are subjective, but they can be beneficial and correct, while in many other cases, they are distorted and misfortunate.

Emptiness of individual nature

Because the field of potentiality is devoid of physical matter, Eastern philosophy refers to this field by the concept of ‘emptiness of physical nature’, or a field of information, which is empty of physical matter (but vibrant with imagery). The original Sanskrit word for this field is ‘Sunyata’, sometimes called ‘non-substantiality’, ‘potentiality’ or ‘emptiness’. Emptiness is basically a field of information that is lacking in the physical agency that gives an object a sense of fixed identity or distinctive self-existence.

According to Nichiren, a 13th century Japanese Buddhist philosopher, the field of emptiness, being nonphysical in nature, is undetectable by the senses:

“Emptiness is by nature removed from the sense organs and their objects. It has no form or boundaries; beyond any futile theory, it is equal to space [void].   It represents the ultimate in the absence of individual nature”. (3)

The notion of ‘absence of individual nature’ is characteristic for the concept of potentials. When an actual state of an object is remodelled by the mind into a blueprint of a different state of existence, it has lost its (previously fixed) identity. Potentials transform a seed into a tree and a child into an adult. Emptiness means ‘lack of’ – and it is this lack of in- dividual nature that provides potentials with freedom from restrains of the spatiotemporal identities. The inhabitants of the field of potentiality – like what we experience in the field of dreams – are interdependent combinations, having no individual nature of their own, and no personal claim of existence.

In philosophical literature, however, the concept of Emptiness became a victim of con- fusion. Without adding to the word ‘emptiness’ (emptiness of what), the concept became vague. To avoid complexity and mysticism, it is possible to exchange the designation of ‘emptiness of physical agency’ with the word ‘potentiality’. Potentiality provides us with the practical benefit of seeking a possible transformation of a current situation stuck in the actual reality. The benefit of perceiving the field of potentiality (or lack of fixed structures) leads to new views on our current situation, empowering us with a sense of freedom:

“An understanding of [emptiness] helps us to see that, despite how we may see them, things–people, situations, relationships, our own lives–are not fixed, but dynamic, constantly changing and evolving.  They are filled with latent potential which can be- come manifest at any time." (4)

The process of transformation of a current actual state into another is possible through the power we infuse in a desired potential, and in attracting conditions to crystallise it. It is an act of taking responsibility for the next phase of existence. It is also an act of creation: from the non-material informational field of potentiality into the physical field of reality.



1/       All it takes is one seed, D. Ikeda,

2/      Potentiality and Actuality, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,  

3/      The Opening of the Eyes, Nichiren Buddhism Library,

4/     The Concept of Emptiness,