Possibility and the possible have long been treated as the bastard third cousins of philosophy. This is true even though there are entire areas and sub-disciplines of formal logic that are nominally dedicated to studying those topics. The problem is that the approaches taken to the nature of the possible (and I will be using that term and “possibility” as more or less interchangeable cognates) as parasitic upon the ideas of “necessity.” In formal terms, possibility and necessity are supposed to stand on equal footing. But in approach and intention, that almost never occurs. This is discouraging, to say the least, since our sense, our feeling, of possibility is a very real aspect of our feeling of reality overall, whereas our only notions of necessity are the abstract, or even recondite, mathematical constructions we make of a thing we can have no experience of whatsoever. Car speeding

Thus, necessity and possibility are traditionally represented with a box and a diamond, respectively. When attached to a sentence, schematically represented by “p” or “r”, then merely asserting “p” becomes the stronger claim of “necessarily p”, or “p is necessarily true,” represented by “p.” Similarly then, “possibly r,” or “r is possibly true” is schematized as “r.” Either can then be treated as a shorthand form for the other using a variation of DeMorgan’s rules: “p = ~◊~p”, and “◊r = ~□~r,” where “~◊~p” reads as “not-possibly not-p” and “~□~r” reads as “not-necessarily not-r.” This is all very handy for when you are doing formal logic, but a little thought might well lead one to doubt that any so mechanical and reductive formulation is capable of actually representing reality. Is necessity real at all? And even if it is, why would it be nothing more than a truth-functional inversion of possibility? Meanwhile, there is nothing mechanical about possibility itself, even as we mechanize – for purposes of convenience – what we end up saying about the possible. Right there is the rub: the reality and what we say about that reality are not the same at all. And while I cannot escape the use of words to do so, it is to the experience of the possible that I now wish to turn.

There are some who would dispute the statement that we have an experience of the possible, and assert instead that we only ever experience the actual. But there is a mutilated notion of actuality at play in such counterclaims. We do – actually – experience relations and relational connections, a point I and my co-author argued for at considerable length in our recent booki (for which this blog is named.) I’ll not revisit that lengthy argument, but simply employ some examples that are related to it.

You walk up to the curb in preparation to cross the street, but a split second before your foot goes out, a car rushes by at some inappropriately high speed. You freeze in place or even (more likely) jump back to the safety of the sidewalk. In that initial, horrifying moment, you have the direct experience of the possibility that that car might have hit you. Perhaps in your mind you formulate the sentence, “that car might have killed me!” although it is likelier that the first sentence formed in your mind included one or more variations of the word “fuck” in it. In that moment, with your heart still racing from the immediacy of that experience, you check that you haven’t lost anything: fingers, toes, bladder control.ii

That possibility was as immediately real to you as the “actual” car. But that begs the question, what is that “actual” car beyond the bundles of possibilities that radiate out from its “immediate” existence? “Immediacy” is also a vexed notion. Time as a sequence of “points” is a mathematical abstraction; what we experience are stretches and chunks of durations that connect and overlap in various complicated ways, with a penumbra of possibilities that fade into the past and stretch into the future highlighted, in some manner or other, that is related to our focus of current significance. Thus, for an athlete in some high-speed sport, the focal point of significance will typically be narrowly constrained by the moment by moment action of the game to very short durations, as the possibilities of the contest continue to quickly evolve in the act of playing. For the coach, the stretch of the duration called “now” will be broader, as the tactical and strategic possibilities of the game develop from the more narrowly focused act of playing it. When time permits, or circumstances require, the possibilities can be given an articulate description. But first they are felt, and felt as possibilities.

There is a kind of “distance” between possibilities, though not one you could measure with a watch or a yardstick. The car rushing past is vividly close to us, hence the intensity of the felt possibility that might-have-been but was not; similarly for the ball player, the imminent possibility of breaking left or right is alive and urgent. On the other hand, the possibility that Lee will accept Longstreet’s advice, disengage from the Union forces, and circle around to place himself on good, defensible ground between the Union army and Washington DC is, for most of us, very far away indeed (especially as it is only a distant might-have-been, and long past any chance of might-be.) But for persons who have densely immersed themselves in the history of the Civil War, studying not just the volumes of “Boys Big Book of Battles” devoted to the subject, but the biographies, the correspondences, the hows and whys of real lives really lived that once, in their day, were rich in possibilities, that conflict can become vividly present, and questions such as the Lee/Longstreet hypothetical might (← see what I did there?) above take on an air of exigent need.

Some good work on the topics of potentialities and real relations have come out in the last few years.iii But focusing on these aspects of the subject as they do, these books tend to overlook (to some degree or other) the experiential aspect of the potential, in the radically empirical/realist senses of William James (radical empiricism) or Alfred North Whitehead (radical realism.) As this subject area is at the center of my next major philosophical work (tentatively named Nature, Process, and Possibility) it has been looming large in my thoughts of late.

Finally, I’ll just add this amusing clip from a film I’m fond of, as the clip, and the entire movie, can be viewed as an exploration of looming possibilities:


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iRandall Auxier and Gary L. Herstein, “The Quantum of Explanation: Whitehead’s Radical Empiricism.” Routledge (New York, 2017.)

iiA variation on Danny DeVito’s line from the movie Batman Returns.

iiiSee, for example, Timothy E. Eastman, Michael Epperson, David Ray Griffin (eds.): Physics and Speculative Philosophy: Potentiality in Modern Science. De Grutyter (Berlin/Boston, 2016.)