Posts Tagged ‘time’


I just realised that there was a fatal flaw in the reasoning of my last post. By positing all possibilities as actuality in the way I described, I implied that all possibilities are eventually fulfilled. But if possibilities are only actual insofar as they are fulfilled then this leads to a very fatalistic understanding of time, because there are no possibilities other than what will be! I wish to maintain that possibility is actual in that it takes place within actuality, that which is.

Nevertheless, the possibility — and this is perhaps an unnecessary, tautologous qualification, but — the potential of that possibility should be distinct from its fulfillment. So, possibility as a whole encompasses actuality insofar as it is rooted in the present, that which could be, potential, but the totality of possibility maintains one foot outside of actuality, in non-being. An unfulfilled possibility which is no longer possible remains in history as a historical possibility, so in this case it has being, actuality, yet it never found completeness and thus remains forever as … half-being? (Though, of course, this is only if viewed in totality. The potential and fulfillment, and whatever other parts make up this possibility can be seen each as having respectively a being and non-being (or being if this is made reference to) fully in themselves). This can be illustrated with reference to an illustration from an earlier post. I have not yet learned to distinguish between probability and possibility, though in a literal sense the former appears much more biased! Arguendo I’ll equate them. If something has a 0.5 probability of coming into being, then, my lack of experience with probability notwithstanding, I assume that the possibility of being or non-being is equal. However if the probability is 1 then there is no possibility, only necessity, let’s say of being. Likewise, for 0, there is only necessity of non-being. Possibility, as it views from the perspective of the not yet, is awkwardly and beautifully thrust between being and non-being.


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Recently, in using the terms actuality, possibility, and necessity, I’ve run into a problem. The problem is that I cannot compare that which is possible with that which is actual because the possible is contained in the actual. More on this presently! I like to start from the start with these things mostly because I’m too lazy to do any background reading, but (small) partly because I’d like to understand my own thinking before developing it dialectically.

I’ll focus just on the relationship between possibility and actuality because the reader can make the further necessary connections. I cannot exclude possibility, that which could be, from actuality, that which is, because possibility is based in the actual, defined in relation to it. Additionally, similarly, etc, the only thing outside of actuality is that which is not because actuality encompasses all that is. Possibility is not that which is not but that which is not yet. It only escapes actuality by virtue of time and time is actual. It is a weak actuality that is only defined by the present, because the present is propelled by the past and pulled by the future. Thus actuality encompasses all that was, is, and will be. Possibility is actuality.

How then can we speak of a possibility which has not yet been actualised/realised? We falter in our terms. Possibility is always actual, but its mode differs according to where it occurs in time. When possibility is viewed in the present, in a vulgar sense it has not been actualised. Yet it is actual. And when it eventually is vulgarly actualised, it remains actual. Since they are both actual, real, etc, maybe they could be named with reference to time, so the former present possibility and the latter future possibility. Or more simply, can we speak of unfulfilled and fulfilled possibility?

One final thought on imagined possibility. Just because something is imagined as possible, it doesn’t necessarily make it possible. The imagining remains actual as an imagining, but not as a possibility. Possibility isn’t contingent on an observer.

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See also Everything is impossible if you put your mind to it

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In my yet tiny survey of continental philosophy I’ve now and again encountered the dichotomy of possibility and necessity. A corrupt definition may be something like possibility being that which could be and necessity being that which must be. But notice my imposition of time onto the definition, even if I change tense. Maybe there’s a simple definition of possibility and necessity that goes beyond something which could have or must have been. Notice also that could be and must be can be used in reference to present or future? But there are further imperfections in the choice of language. To say that something must be is not pure necessity; there is a tinge of possibility in the word must. Pure necessity is better represented by is. Something that is is much more necessary than something that must be, and with that the shortcomings of necessity as a word are also exposed: The purest necessity actually is actuality, because something that is actual is ironically more necessary than something that is necessary.

But here also time confuses things. Is only makes sense in English when used in the present. To describe something necessary in the future we can say that it will be, but we have no designation for actuality in the future. This is probably because our conception of time doesn’t allow for actuality in the future. The future by definition, in referring to something that will be, necessitates that something to not be presently. For example, to say that Terminator II is an awesome movie and it will still be awesome in the future requires us to differentiate between present awesome and future awesome, although they may be qualitatively identical. Because there is a future for the awesomeness of Terminator II to not yet be means that presently Terminator II is not future-awesome, but only present-awesome. Time has required awesomeness to make reference to it, a kind of acknowledging of the sponsors. Terminator II is always awesome. If something is, then it always is.

Even simply prefixing is with always, however, makes it impotent. Always, though expressing it means there is no operating exception, necessitates the possibility of an exception. To say something always is is to defend it against the accusation of sometimes-not-is, sometime-past-not-is (not-was-is) and sometime-future-not-is (not-will-be-is). The only half-satisfactory word for actuality in English is is, and it must be expressed without qualifiers, in its pure isness.

This kind of thinking has probably led some theologies to conclude that God is outside of time. Take for example this verse from the psalms:

Lord, you have been our dwelling place
throughout all generations.
Before the mountains were born
or you brought forth the whole world,
from everlasting to everlasting you are God.

(Psalm 90:1-2 NIV).

The psalmist contrasts their human conception of temporal linearity (Before the mountains were born) with a transcendent conception of God (you are God). God’s actuality cannot be diminished by any idea of past, present, future, yet his actuality, his isness, is poetically intertwined with our understanding of time.

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Actuality is purest necessity. What is pure possibility? Possibility I have found to be a much harder concept than necessity. It requires a much more violent overhaul of language than a definition of pure necessity. If we can constrain must be by naming it is, what can we do to free could? There is some necessity in saying that you could be a closet appreciator of geraniums. The necessity exists in another possibility: In postulating your abominable appreciation of geraniums I make reference to the possibility that you are indifferent to them, or better, despise them. These examples might be more comprehensible with numbers. Say there is a 0.98 probability/possibility that you could appreciate geraniums. The other 0.02 denotes the infinite number of ways in which you couldn’t. To say could recognises this other possibility, the 0.02, as a necessity which holds it back from being pure possibility. Notice how probability restricts us from understanding pure possibility. To say either there is a 1 or a 0 probability that you enjoy geraniums is to lean very heavily into actuality. At both ends of the scale of possibility there is only actuality.

There exists no opposite of is. Something can not-is, be non-existent, but non-existence is a form of actuality. There is no freedom in is, nor is there in not-is. Does the lack of a kind of superlative for could indicate a lack of imagination on part of the English language? Can we imagine a condition of complete freedom, or is our freedom always understood in reference to that which is not free?

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A friend once relayed to me, “What happens if Pinnochio says that his nose is about to grow?”

Of course, Pinnochio’s nose only grows when he is lying. But if his nose does grow then he would be found to have been telling the truth, so his nose shouldn’t therefore grow. But if his nose does not grow, then he would be lying, and the natural consequence of Pinnochio’s lying is therefore avoided by his cunning linguistic manipulation.

So… what actually happens? I would say that his nose grows. Pinnochio’s default state can probably be said to be one of truthfulness rather than deceit. I say this because his nose is more often not growing than growing. This means that at any given moment in time, we can say that his nose in the next moment is going to be the same, contingent on his current state of truthfulness. Yet Pinnochio at this time breaks the non-consequential nose. His statement makes an assumption about the future, contrary to what his current state of truthfulness necessitates the future to be: without nose growth. If so, he makes an incorrect statement about the immediate future, therefore breaking the state of truthfulness and entering into a state of lying. His nose will grow because at the very moment he said “My nose is about to grow” he was lying; his nose in the state of truthfulness was never “about to grow” and he is only found to have been speaking the truth in retrospect of the consequences of his words¹. The paradox can therefore only be understood when placed in time.

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¹If the paradox has a solvable consequence, beyond time and space imploding at the whim of Pinnochio’s thoughtless words, then it therefore creates the new paradox: Pinnochio is simultaneously lying and speaking the truth. Why does he only receive the consequences of a lying Pinnochio then? Why does his nose not meet him half way and grow sideways or at half the speed or into his face instead of out, in some way acknowledging that he is at the same time truthful? This is because at the moment that he lied his nose had not yet grown. In retrospect he was truthful and his nose had not yet grown. In the present he lied, as his nose also grew in the present.

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