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How Substantial Is Non-Actual Possibility?

© 1998 Henry A. Flynt, Jr.


Our topic will be possibility, and in particular possible courses of events and their counterposition as actual and non-actual. And especially, what is presupposed about possibility in our imaginative and conative life.

Up until now, my writings sought to furnish custom treatments of possibility, one for contemporary physics, another for logic, another for history, another for meaning in literature, and so on. It may not be good enough, because the separate appeals to possibility may exhibit profound interconnections.

Even after the issues have been properly delineated, they remain refractory. That is, there is no evident way to sequester reasonable commitments from extravagant commitments and insane commitments.

On the one hand, many of our intuitions tell us that what is not is a sealed box, that nothing controls the structure which fantasy may assign it. We may underline this observation by noting that in dreams, and when watching movies, we become emotionally involved with the future even though the consensus reality-picture tells us that there is no reality to support our apprehensions.

On the other hand, the tone of our lives presupposes that non-actual possibility is substantial.

In living, we fit actual occurrences into a broader imaginative picture which supposes that events can be copied, and that there are generic acts which have generic results, uniquely. Without such a picture, there would be no point in me trying to use a light switch after seeing another person use it successfully.

Let me give illustrations to motivate both the credibility of possibility and its lack of credibility.

• "Anything you didn’t do was impossible for you to do." The claim can be made without fear of rebuttal, since the past cannot be changed. But given the role of the possibility concept in our mental preparation to expand ourselves, this claim implies a debilitating attitude.

• The precept in human relations that "you have to try," "nothing ventured, nothing gained."

• It is a part of life that I repeatedly have to try to draw from myself performances which I have not previously delivered. To rise to the occasion. We say, to tap untapped potential.


• Potentialities as qualities. The hazard of a pool of lighter fluid. The hazard of a rickety bridge. Don’t we have to consider these nonactual possibilities to be substantial, not just fancies or fantasies?

• We say, the reason the leaf detached from the branch at that moment is because the wind blew at that moment. It implies that we are viewing repeatable events, and that causal influence is local or confinable.

• If I am almost run over by a car, it may produce a trauma which I have to recover from. That which did not happen bruises me deeply.

• A temporal emotion such as self-apprehension presupposes that the future is indeterminate between possibilities. Regret presupposes assigning a substantial reality to what did not happen.

• "If swans were blue, ducks would be pink." Why shouldn’t this assertion be considered baseless?

• Is it meaningful to write a detailed history of the U.S. from Lincoln’s second inaugural on the assumption that he was not assassinated – or is it preposterously fanciful?

• What is the warrant – at all – for positing that events and careers which do not occur have definite structures? Isn’t it extravagant to posit this?

To continue the affirmative illustrations, it may be the height of wisdom to recognize that our possibility extends beyond anything we can contrive. And to recognize that there is no set limit on what we can contrive.

Even so, such a claim of a potential for us which is never exhausted will remain obscure and will invite methodological objections unless I can provide an explanatory context for it.

Possibility is a central constituent of the life-world. Volition; temporal emotions. Choosing in uncertainty. Realized choice. Vision (the dreaming which can be turned into reality). And what of causality in the life-world, in such deeds as boiling water or turning on a light? And how does the intuition of causality react on my sense of choice-making?

In conscious, active existence, there is an indissoluble integration of authentic temporality, concern and willing, projected options – and the registration of given circumstances which are taken to be systematic. There is an imaginative preparation for doing and for self-definition which simply has to extend far beyond realized occurrences in order to be adequate. Does that mean that it is mentally impossible to live as an empiricist?

All the same, common sense does not offer a standard doctrine in this area in the way it does with respect to space and time or even human minds. What are considered reasonable tenets about possibility in one subject are repudiated as we pass to another subject in which possibility is involved. Moreover, there is no vernacular consensus which separates reasonable beliefs from extravagant or insane ones. (Well, in the case of minds, there are popular extravagant beliefs about immortality, but when neo-Platonism lost its following, professional philosophy ceased to examine these beliefs.)

As I already noted, we also have inanimate potentiality: a rickety bridge; a pool of lighter fluid. Etc. I gave the example of the breeze and the detaching leaf. Darwinian evolution makes the existence of us ourselves depend on fortuitous events.

Let me continue the motivational illustrations.

• Two toothpicks are before me. I break the right one and not the left one. I claim that I could have broken the left one. Volition and possibility. The paradigmatic relation of the experimenter to a scientific experiment.

What I could have done places my volition at the center of the possibility issue.

• "What more could I have done?" said in regret or exculpation.

• Somebody asks me to think of a sum and I think 1+1 = 2. I could have thought 2+3 = 5. The realm of unthought possible thoughts. What is its cardinality?

• Human relations demands that I say, "I could have chosen otherwise than I did." Is that proof that the course of the world is not deterministic?

• Watching a movie, we get emotionally involved as if the ending is indeterminate, when in fact it is coded in the celluloid. It shows that we have a capacity for emotional involvement far in excess of the warrant for it in reality. Because of the way we become conscious of more and more world-features as time unrolls, we have an opportunity to apprehend our lack of knowledge as a futural ambiguity in reality. The colloquial word is suspense.

• In a dream, my willful action, and being in suspense. Do I sense futural ambiguities in reality, when there is no basis in reality for such "takes"?

• To what extent does our subjective sense of possibility express our ignorance of the future as opposed to the future’s being objectively ambiguous or unsettled?

• Should the widespread notion of fate or destiny in human relations be taken seriously?

• Science: possibility and deterministic evolution of a system from alternative initial conditions. Human relations: possibility and my capacity to will otherwise than I did.

• What entitles physics to assume that concrete events are Xerox copies of ideal events, one of the deepest assumptions in physics (the basis for speaking of events as replicable), when in history, events are individual, and occur in unrolling time which is linear and unidirectional?

• In what sense is the future never settled even if we know what by all rights ought to happen, e.g. that the sun should rise tomorrow?

• What is the warrant of scientific induction, that the next swan I see will be white or that the sun will rise tomorrow?

• In elementary mainstream mathematics and logic, conceivable is actual and nonactual is inconsistent. If a whole number between 1 and 3 is possible, it is actual. If a whole number between 1 and 2 is not actual, it is inconsistent. How can this Actuality Logic ever be adequate to substantial possibility?

• There are factions among mathematicians who think it would be better if infinity were defined as a potentiality. But they do not want to reduce mathematics to psychology; they accept that there are more entities than it is empirically possible to construct. Practitioners in the exact sciences believe in the likes of actually existing abstract objects. So: is a difference between actual and non-actual possible wanted in a realm in which everything is real because it is an abstraction?

The possibility concept is the key to scientific conceptualization – but our reasons for taking possibility seriously are personalistic and cannot be traced to any other root. When the exact sciences present schemes which objectify possibility, they are opportunistic. In general: practitioners in the exact sciences brandish subjective slogans, of supposed epistemological merit, and demand that absolute knowledge be relativized along a subjective dimension. (Everything that followed from Brouwer and intuitionism, up to M.C. Fitting and Beeson. The observer in quantum mechanics and Measurement Theory.) When it is worked out, however, the subjectivity is given a meaning which abstracts from the individual psyche, mistakes, death, etc., and returns to the realm of depersonalized and eternal abstractions.

Possibility proves to be implicated in almost every topic that could interest us, and yet the project of writing an essay on possibility did not appeal to me; it was too reminiscent of the old verbal philosophy.

What I now propose is to probe the commitments of vernacular thought regarding possibility as a preparation for further developments in both meta-technology and personhood theory. Possibility may be the principal topic which is best treated in a perspective ranging across meta-technology and person-world analysis. We want to recognize volition and temporal emotions and fantasy ("conceivability") as presupposing possibility. What is even more important, they give the possibility notion its warrant.

It is very different from the old philosophical mission of enunciating the reality of some great abstraction. We expect to clarify that some tenets or commitments are deeply rooted – as I did in another place with codes of veracity. Then, to be able to frame a powerful logic of contradictions, a place has to be made for possibility, and the required treatment is anything but obvious. And we have to explore possibility to arrive at a delineation of the person-world which does not suppress part of what is palpable.

Meta-technologically, if we have to take something not actual this seriously, there are going to be trap-doors in reality. It’s not only a matter of saying what unexpectedly generous thesis we find ourselves defending – but of finding how to slip between the things that conventional wisdom believes to be true. Science opportunistically objectifies possibility in order to embellish its objectifications. If we can see this opportunism across disciplinary boundaries, we can locate never-before dreamed-of trap-doors in reality.

The topic of possibility is incoherent academically because there are at least two scientific treatments of possibility with long traditions. They are highly sectarian.

i) Modal logic. Inference with ‘necessary’ and ‘possible’ as qualifications.

ii) Physics. Without even getting to the arcana of quantum physics, possibility is essential in classical physics and its treatment is monumentally tendentious.

I grant that there is a algebra-like net of modal inference which is manifest in ordinary-language discourse, which ties necessity to implication and possibility to consistency – etc. etc. One cannot blame logicians for attempting to abstract this net from the contents; the drawback was that they arrived at the wrong codifications, and that far too pretentious claims were made for them.

Coming to more recent times, the logical tradition has insistently "solved" the wrong problem. The questions that matter are eclipsed by algebra-like structures framed in Actuality Logic (with the result that periodically, somebody like Quine announces that a Modal Logic is superfluous).

History has the character of an aggregate of individual choices displaying emergent phenomena. In social affairs, leaders are seen to make choices on behalf of entire populations. So it is that there is a long-standing question of the substantiality of paths not taken in history.

I wrote various texts on the involvement of possibility in different fields, including, but not limited to,

Superseding Scientific Apprehension of the Inanimate World (1990)

The Disintegration of Possibility (orig. 1993)

Phenomenological Logic of Contradictions as an Outcome of Normative Everyday Logic (1997)

Philosophy and Literary Studies (1994 - )

Now I want a consolidated treatment.

In the second half of the twentieth century, treatments of possibility and modal logic were showcased in analytic philosophy. But we find these treatments to be tissues of the most elementary fallacies. How could such errors could have occurred?

First, unlike the early positivists, analytic philosophers have no philosophical sense of elementarity. They are so intimidated by science as to accept its indirectly based speculations as if they were perceptions, for example. (But already we see such honorary subjectivity in science itself, as I noted in my remarks on science’s opportunism.)

Secondly, analytic philosophers know only the scientific perspective; they are unable to draw on phenomenological evidence in order to contrast all the givens with each other.

All the more reason to take the approach I do in this study.

When I say that I went to the post office today, but that I could have gone to the library or the bank in the same stretch of time, I picture myself as facing options such that my willing constitutes one option as actual. By the same token, the other alternatives are consigned to non-actuality. Nevertheless, they have a status different from fantasy because they are within my competence and they proved to be non-actual because I eschewed them. I can picture myself flying to London by flapping my arms. We say, it is not an option; although for traditional wisdom it was a self-consistent thought, as is a unicorn, or a mouse who speaks fluent English.

To summarize what I have intimated, life’s forward impulse, and strategizing, presuppose that a substantial reality-status is ascribed to non-actual possibility. But if one is temperamentally an empiricist, for example, then we have a terrible problem. How can one seriously credit something which is not? Let a darkened room have two lights and let me turn on one of them. We say, I could have turned on the other, in addition, or alternatively. But direct verification is glaringly impossible. The only "proof" has to do with inserting this case in a theoretical structure filled at all times with paths not taken, which we only sample microscopically. So, for example, if I later turn on the unused light and the bulb fails, I may "correct" my claim that its use was an option earlier.

Why isn’t it all whistling in the dark?

Long before we have a scientific account which tells us that the atomic bomb is an option and that anti-gravity is not, the fantasy which we call cognition of possibility has given living its tone. There is that which is beyond our control and we face it in uncertainty, in a mixture of hope and apprehension. The outcome is more or less a surprise to us, then we call it good luck or bad luck. Otherwise, there is that which is within our competence; we ourselves constitute the option. Here is the core of life’s tone. It allows us later to judge our choice to have been disadvantageous. As if we had chosen to switch on the exhausted light-bulb when we needed to have a light at that moment. (Perhaps an exposed electrical wire was lying in a puddle of water.) Then, the addict lives with the concern that they will constitute an option which will lead to disaster; it is mixed with issues of ungovernable impulses. In that case, the constitution of options called realized choice proves to be complex and conflicted, as if my self is multiple.

In general, not only am I hopeful or apprehensive and pleased or disappointed; I am sanguine or self-apprehensive, and regretful or satisfied. (So-called temporal emotions.) Again, I have given a substantial reality-status to non-actual possibility long before I possess the extravagant and counter-intuitive account of modern science – the account which, carried forward in contemporary physics, destroys the intuitive notion of possibility.

Already, then, two questions are posed. First, how extravagant must my ontological commitments be to support possibility as involved in my constitution of options and my so-called temporal emotions? I speak of a substantial reality-status for non-actual possibility; how deeply do we dig ourselves in with this notion?

Secondly, how does my notion of options in relation to my competence square with the notion of alternatives where events are beyond my control? Can it be that we do not need to reify possibility in this connection? Then one would claim that the indeterminacy of the future is not an indeterminacy in what will happen but only a gap in what I now know. It depends profoundly on the principle that one of a pair of opposites must be realized. (The sun will suffer a total eclipse tomorrow or it won’t.)

But this approach may not be tenable. We expect hazards to be respected. Absolute fatalism is imprudent. If I am almost run over by a car, I am psychologically wounded and I have to recover as if I had been badly bruised. Non-actual possibilities which I do not control can be very weighty.

In the second half of the twentieth century, analytic philosophy showcased the stand that only scientifically definable entities are consistent concepts, conceivable entities. I want to spend as little time on the blind alleys as possible, and so I will defer any extended response to this theory.

But it is instructive to consider how utterly intuitive thought belies this stand. We do not complain that nursery tales are inconsistent, and so meaningless. We "understand" and appreciate them. We freely recombine in imagination what we have experienced; and more significantly, fantastic narratives can have great credibility for us, or fail to have it. A truth or lesson is more easily conveyed when it is conveyed in an anecdote – and in addition, an anecdote in which the characters are colorfully altered in ways that would cause a scientific stickler to say that they have forfeited their definitional intelligibility. That is to say, we can have an appreciation for a fantastic narrative beyond our reception of an arbitrary set of false propositions. The narrative has a crystallized meaning.

It was asked, how can a philologist say that Zeus and Jupiter are the same god, when both names are non-referring (so that presumably there is nothing but the names (and pictures?) to pin identification to)? (Do Jeckell and Hyde make the same point?) Does the observation <that myths as cultural objects have careers> fail to answer the question that was just asked?

It is important to consider episodes in lived experience which a scientific stickler would say have an illusory character: because we are concerned not only with the objective foundations of our expectations but with the configuration and circumstances of futural comportment. When watching a suspense movie, we may subjectively empathize when the movie depicts a hazard, or depicts a person faced with choices. Objectively the future of the movie is pre-embodied in celluloid. So what is our experience of possibility here? We are ignorant of the pre-embodied future. But don’t we also impute a context of possibilities, when actually there is no bundle of possibilities whatever?

Watching a cartoon film, needless to say, we empathize with protagonists who do not satisfy scientific definability. It was extremely pompous of the priests of scientific definability to present a theory of the consistent concept, the conceivable entity, which denied the whole range of social and embodied fantasy.

In a dream, it is commonplace to be in a situation in which I comport futurally with strong expectations. I go to meet an outcome, and then I am frustrated because I discover to my surprise that things were not as they seemed from a distance. It is possible that the "external world" of the dream metamorphoses as I lunge toward an outcome. That, in turn, invites the speculation that I script the dream as it proceeds – so that it is profoundly unlike a movie. If that is so, then the scripting process is an intricate one which I am not aware of. But I don’t want to try to settle the question of dream-production here. I do not even have a sufficiently reliable memory of the past of dreams to be able to say, in every case in which my hope is frustrated because the "external world" surprises me, whether the "external world" metamorphosed as the dream unfolded. What is already profound is my capacity for hope and for being surprised in this existence which common sense classifies as hallucinatory. We not only appreciate these episodes well enough to describe them in memory; we live them as fleeting apparitions indistinguishably from the way we live alert waking episodes as fleeting apparitions. Indeed, we experience the same hopefulness or apprehensiveness or gratification or disappointment, and above all sanguinity or self-apprehension or regret or satisfaction.

Continuing, there are "miraculous occurrences" in dreams which responsible knowledge says cannot happen in the real world (of waking life). Many times, I flew in dreams. You can claim that I should not have been able to understand it, since if I ceased to be ponderable, I no longer satisfied the definition of a human. But the question of understanding the phenomenon hardly arose; I lived it, I was it.

Let us be aware of a semantic issue posed by dreams: the shift normative for English when a dreamed episode is reported with the same vocabulary which is used for a waking episode. There is nothing capricious about this shift. The apparitional object – which is much more than a sense-content – remains constant. What changes is reality-character, ontology – which the speaker may not even be able to judge from within the episode.

Again, I may have to report that I moved through the air without support; or that a boxcar rolling on a track turned into a descending elevator. In common sense, these sentences would have to be false. But they are what English grammar affords and requires: to report lived experience in a dream.

This evidence furnishes, on the one hand, a model for the claim that the temporal emotions are delusions in waking life, if you will. For vastly different reasons, physics after general relativity also told us that our temporal emotions are illusions. (We do not process from a progressively fixed past into an undetermined future. All moments of time exist together.)

This evidence furnishes, on the other hand, fantastic possibilities which we live night after night.

Appreciation of fantasy is one of the earliest modes consciousness arrives at. We must also understand that the person is not scientifically definable; indeed, science rigorously excludes the concept of the person. Without an appreciation of "fantasy," we could not conceive of alternative paths of human conduct, and the most important motivation for the possibility concept would collapse.

If we frame the problem of non-actual possibility as one of interpreting counterfactuals, we find that some counterfactuals can plausibly be explained as inferences from texts declaring intentions. It is not really necessary to realize the counterfactual hypothesis and observe whether the claimed result ensues. If the text means what it says, and if the method of extracting the implied meaning is correct, then the counterfactual is verified. As Carnap would say, it is a claim not about the world but about relations of linguistic expressions. Application of a statute law is the classic example. (Even if, in practice, legal interpretation is not a vending machine process.)

Another sort of counterfactual wants to know how history would have played out if Lincoln had not been assassinated. If we had comprehensive and deterministic laws for history, we could extract the answer to this question which the laws mandated. But we do not have such laws, and in any case, we may want to know what would have happened, not only what cranks say about the matter. If we are clear that it is the course of history about which we speak, many people would say that it is idle speculation; the question is unanswerable.

A counterfactual referring to the world has to be based on an assumed law of causation covering all time-evolutions from a range of initial conditions. That is what we see in classical physics. Informally, we see it when we speak of the actions possible for me in a given time-period. I could have broken this toothpick or that one. I could not have flown to the moon by flapping my arms.

In the project of squaring knowledge of events beyond my control with my competence, as seen above, is the knowledge of the objective inanimate world supposed to be furnished by physics? Classical physics allows only one world-course – but claims that it is the product of laws which cover an infinity of unrealized cases. It cannot be sorted out, I suggest, unless we are prepared to acknowledge that physics harbors many appeals to the human constitution of options (which it keeps silent about because there is no place for it in physics, just as there is no place for consciousness and language). Can I repeat it enough? If there were no human choice, there would be no experiments, just passive observation of the given as with ancient astronomy. And if there were no human choice, then physical theory would not be transmuted into technology. Surely the only reason why physics has a notion of evolution of a state subsequent to varied initial conditions, and the notion that these branch-paths are governed by a law (or jointly compose the law’s content), is because physics is projecting what I call human competence into the inanimate universe, in conjunction with the notion that we will perform experiments and will apply physical knowledge to our purposes.

By appealing to physics, we have in fact co-opted a remark which would have had to have been made anyway. The indeterminacy of the future may only pertain to my knowledge and not to any vagueness in the course of events. However, I must project the course of events, and that means that I conceive certain options as realistically possible and others as not worth consideration. Then, again, I bring families of branch-paths to bear (called laws) in order to derive my prediction. My comportment commits me to possibility even if I imagine that the world beyond my control is deterministic. And then I intervene in the inanimate world; again, that is what experimentation and technology are. So a deterministic sequence is nevertheless launched from the willing which constitutes an option as actual.

Let us dwell for a moment on how physics does things. Whether it is fashionable to give physics an empiricist justification or not, physics cannot tolerate the notion that a concrete event is just itself. Concrete events are instances of generic events which manifest laws. The generic event is the primary invention. An event can be produced at any time and place.

1) We undertake to abstract from all peculiarities of the individual; science only analyzes idealizations.

2) The identity between the two entities or events must be more than stipulation, convention.

History imposes constraints on actual Xerox copying of events. One can’t spring the same mousetrap twice in one millisecond – resetting has a duration.

The choice of the ideal or paradigmatic entity or event in physics is not a common-sense choice. Physics does not begin with the motion of a box sliding on a floor. Also, it is better to study a feather falling in an expensive, difficult vacuum than in air. There we find the underlying reality, in which the feather falls as fast as a rock.

Then we have the notion of other initial conditions than the actual ones (possible process-paths). I can express it categorically. Possibilities are science’s indispensable and entire ontology. Science adds possibility to possibility, as with the wind and the leaf, and reaches a point at which the correlation of possibilities decides an actuality. Actuality is a derivative modality in science.

A tension or hazard. The tension of a compressed spring. A thing does not reduce to its own historical career, because it is claimed to be special by virtue of unrealized potentiality. How is a metastable system different from a stable system to an empiricist during the interval of actual time in which their behavior is identically inert?

The puddle of lighter fluid is flammable even though it never burns. It is therefore different from a puddle of water beside it. If you place a thermometer near a puddle of lighter fluid which is not lit, will it register higher than if placed near a puddle of water? Prove flammability by throwing a spark in a Xerox copy of the puddle of lighter fluid.

The exact sciences have a view of abstract objects which in no way is an account of possibility, but which is deeply involved in everything the exact sciences say about possibility. Every whole number is already pinned down in some great collection in the sky, and every whole number is already classified as odd or even. After all, to repeat, practitioners in the exact sciences believe in the likes of actually existing abstract objects.

All the ontologies are framed in set theory. One only makes statements relative to pre-specified universes. Generalization and existence refer to a definite THEM (the universe = the Actual, with distinct things as contents). Universes are comprised of set-elements: discrete, eternally unchanging things. Set-members have to have certain reality-characteristics in order to participate consistently in assertions which are supposed to be true. There is no provision for a set element to become something tomorrow different from what it is today. You can define something which is not actual: but its definition is inconsistent.

We say that there exists a prime number greater than 10100. But wait: In logistic, there isn’t any such thing as the vernacular’s ‘possessing existence’. Rather, you pick up every whole number in turn from the collection in the sky, and observe one of them to be a prime greater than 10100.

The method must have a universe to talk about, and it can talk abut actual things only by positing a "universe of actual." But it must abstain from declaring whether the "universe of actual" is actual. Or: the idea is that something actual is the Matterhorn, if you can believe it.

Can stipulations conjure up ontologies? Can stipulations provide the fixed, reliable, communicable, infinitary ontologies which "exact science" demands? Are specified phantoms brought into existence (in Heaven?) by virtue of being specified? Can one simply articulate an instruction, and be confident that it is already executed (by God)? Does every articulated instruction come already executed–in Heaven?

The treatment of abstract objects by the exact sciences does not chart a helpful course for any of our logical studies. On the other hand, the scientific culture takes this treatment seriously, and that means that the official treatment has all sorts of vulnerabilities which affect the possibility concept.

Some authors propose that examples from probability theory can substantiate the notion of possibility. I have made myself clear. I do not think that breaking one toothpick rather than another, turning on one light rather than another – or for that matter, appreciating a nursery tale – can be explained or needs to be explained by Jacob Bernoulli or P.-S. Laplace on probability. Indeed, it is worse than that. When classical physics embraces a notion that there can be a half-chance for something to occur, it forgets itself and becomes incoherent. Let me spell this out, if only to show that our questions are not clarified by delving into this area.

We deliberately contrive a so-called game of chance. If we are tossing a die, for example, we contrive "a toss" so that a sequence of trials will converge to the relative frequencies (each face on top in one-sixth of the total trials) which we think express the geometrical symmetry of a cube. Tosses may and must be slightly different. Our unaided senses cannot apprehend the deterministic time-evolution of a given toss which classical physics says it has. Then we "know" that each face will come up in about one-sixth of total trials, but we cannot anticipate which one will come up in this trial. We acquire an entirely mythical sense that the world’s future is poised between six "equally likely" alternatives, an ambiguity which is resolved when one alternative realizes. (God exercising free will to favor or spite the player.) This may be taken as supporting the possibility concept. But in that connection it is a myth: our expectation from the moment of release, ejection, is ambiguous because of the inadequacy of unaided perception to the necessary measurements, not because the trajectory of the die is indeterminate.

Can it really be that I am the first person ever to see this?

"If I toss a coin, the outcome heads has a probability of one-half." No!!

If you toss a coin, one of two geometrically dictated alternatives has a probability of one, and the other has a probability of zero. But, our philosopher of science will say, I tossed the coin one thousand times and it came up heads five hundred times. But what does that mean? First, the coin is symmetrical and can fall on a flat surface in only two ways. But secondly, what is meant by tossing? A series of "ejections" of the coin above a horizontal surface varies within a circumscribed compass, so that it is hard to perceive how the coin will fall; moreover, the variation is such that the geometric symmetry is represented by the frequencies with which the alternatives occur.

What is called a toss is an ejection which varies in such a way as to give x:y which always gets closer to the geometrically recommended 1:2 as the number of trials increases.

Suppose "tossing" a coin is specified as holding it flat and dropping it on a bed of sand, without placing any requirement on which side is uppermost as it is held. We can obtain a 500 : 1000 ratio if we drop the coin heads up the first 500 tries and tails up the second 500 tries. It depends totally on what is meant by a toss as a repeated event. It is a terrible problem for physics, because tosses are not wanted be Xerox copies of an ideal toss; they must vary in a specified way. (What sort of natural kind is a toss?)

Suppose we have a mechanical ejector which ejects the coin exactly the same way onto the same surface every time. Then a toss is exactly the same physical action every time. Shouldn’t we then expect it to come up the same way every time? [Does anybody believe that the coin would come up heads half the time if the coin were tossed with exactly the same attitude and impetus to exactly the same surface every time?]

Probability theory is the first attempt by physics to have our ignorance shape the external objectivity: that is exactly what happens when science says that there is a half-chance that the coin will come up heads and a half-chance that the coin will come up tails.

But, of course, one way to define science is in terms of the success of quantitative predictions, and predictions stated as probabilities attempt to expand science’s power.

Invoking thermodynamics does not help make the science of probability as codified by physicists any more credible. The connection between probability and statistical mechanics is opportunistic. At the time of Joule, probability did not come into it. See Clifford Truesdell in Archive for History of Exact Sciences, Vol. 15.

As I have intimated, the attention to possibility in analytic philosophy in the second half of the twentieth century only added new fallacies, and I don’t want to spend a lot of time rebuffing them. But let me sketch a few objections.

Logistic asks us to recognize a hypothecated (infinite!) roster of independent sentences, and to recognize all of the permutations of truth-assignments to that roster. That, in turn, is taken to compel us to accept an ontology of multitudes of intricately structured possible worlds.

Even the apparatus just described, as pretentious as it is, is not nearly enough to comprise a possible-worlds ontology.

My studies try to account for something like vernacular thought. It gets us nowhere to use the problem of vernacular thought as an excuse to conjure with mathematics and its infinities. So it is that I avoid the notion of closures of lexicons, and closures of propositional languages, as wildly unrealistic.

I say that I could have gone to the Post Office instead of the bank, or that that car almost struck me. Is it obligatory that the smallest unit of possibility be a world? Is it obligatory for the smallest detour to conjure up a complete world?

My only attempt to develop such reflections formally was "Phenomenological Logic of Contradictions as an Outcome of Normative Everyday Logic."

As I have noted, analytic philosophy recently took its stand on the principle that only what was scientifically definable was consistent. If that were taken seriously, it would mean that a word like ‘unicorn’ was meaningless and that nursery tales were unintelligible. What was worst of all was that the motive of this approach was to guarantee the identity of the players, whether human persons or chemical elements, across alternative scenarios. "We cannot even conceive of a world in which heat is not the rapid motion of atoms," it was said.

When I say that I could have gone to the Post Office instead of the bank, or that that car almost struck me, I assume that somehow my identity is preserved from scenario to scenario, although clearly, to have a different career would affect the person I am. I assume, also, that the Post Office or car remains subsumed under familiar natural laws. All this, in effect, is stipulated in my hypothecation without anything like a codification of natural law. We stipulate thusly all the time. If there is a crisis around whether I am entitled to stipulate thusly or not, then the possibility concept is indeed in trouble.

In any case, analytic philosophy has been no help in these matters. Its fallacies have been ludicrous. In the first place, it invokes scientific definability to substantiate possibility. But scientific definability rests on scientific law. And scientific law rests on possibility. We wanted an explanation of possibility so that we would know what entitled science to propound laws. And emphatically not the reverse. it’s even worse than that. Chemistry indeed has a conception of the underlying identity of water or gold, expressed in the chemical formula. But that does not illuminate the intuitive role of the possibility concept, which is a matter of the palpability of options. (Admittedly there is a – more or less remote – tie-in between the one and the other.)

As for the notion that scientific law guarantees the identity of President Lincoln from one possible world to another, somehow the philosophical fraternity seems to have forgotten that physics does not have a theory of the human person – indeed, it rigorously excludes such a thing. What analytic philosophy has "proved" is that we ourselves are as inconceivable as unicorns. How characteristic of the civilization’s psychephobia!

Earlier I made note of the intuitive appeal of nursery tales (not to mention cartoon movies). That observation, however, does not suffice as a semantics of literature. That is to say, if we want to understand what happens when a reader appreciates a work of literature in the intended way, finding sense in what it conjures up, the question is not a light one.

Even if we limit ourselves to nonfiction prose, incomparably different ontologies are being imagined in one and the same natural language. Each extended prose nonfiction text evokes a specific "imaginary world" in the "consciousness" of the reader. That is, an extended text typically evokes a "world-model" or ontology or mirage – or to become more abstract, an agenda. (We need this last step because texts such as mine and Hennix’s undercut the viability of any world-model; they evoke "agendas.")

In order to give the selections their due as literature, we must suppose that the world-models are incomparable. There is a potential for incomparable evocations as between one author and another. And yet all of these agendas are articulated in the single natural language.

It is the possibility of articulating distinguished agendas (in the sense explained) that we have to account for. Where do the incomparable world-models evoked by the different texts live? I have no realm in which to locate these effects but the person-world. In turn, that fixes the explanation of "consciousness" for this purpose. So: <a verbalized imagination which is claimed to be nonfictional, realistic> has to be located in the person-world. Possibilities as textual meanings are found to live in the person-world. My approach comes full circle here, since I want to fill in person-world analysis with a treatment of possibility; and at the same time I find that the person-world is the only plausible scene of possibility in certain senses.

The circumstance that natural language can perform so flexibly, can invoke many realms and adapt to many stances, indicates that natural language is the medium that matters; it is not dispensable. Natural language is "oceanically adaptable." It embraces the heterogeneous frameworks required by everyday existence and everyday social interaction. The meanings of its words adapt to widely different ontologies, levels of credulity, levels of self-consciousness, etc.: without markers. It can shift to one or another ontology as the occasion requires.

All of this is crucial in relating possibility to imagination – and in accounting for semantics in general (whether reports of dreams or codifications of incompatible philosophies).

We may consider the interplay of possibility and history, while keeping natural science in the background as a contrast. Let me draw on what I wrote in "The Disintegration of Possibility."

The philosopher Karl Popper wrote two books attacking the notion that history can manifest laws. A law, let us remember, is a regularity cutting across an infinity of options, which can be tested by comparing the consequences from different set-ups – and a scientific law concerns ideal entities, not concrete things. As for Popper, he wanted to save us from the menace of totalitarianism. The only way out, according to him, was pure voluntarism. People could take society in any direction at any time.

Popper’s contrast, then, is between organized alternatives and capricious alternatives. Popper’s "proof" that history is not subsumed under organized alternatives – that it has no laws – was unexpected. What one expected him to say was that history is the career of actuality. As such, there are no experiments, no branches. A law in the scientific sense would not be meaningful for history.

Let us note that it is the same thing to say inanimate nature is not a unique actual career as to say human affairs do not comprise a unique actual career. If one takes the "historical" critique of scientific law seriously, it militates as much against physics as against sociology.

But the argument Popper used reached to a different level. He brought in the atomic bomb and the possibility of nuclear annihilation as obstacles to the sociologist. No sociological law could predict what physical scientists would discover in the future; and no law could predict how drastically such discoveries would change society’s prospects. Well, of course: sociology has to assume that future scientific knowledge will be a continuation of what we know today. And, that what we already know will not be used in its full destructive potential. (Because society will stop short of willing universal suicide. That is a thesis in social psychology). In other words, sociology abstracts from the apocalypse. But what is Popper’s complaint about that? As I have indicated, the method of abstraction is used everywhere in physics. Newton’s laws do not have to predict the date on which Einstein’s theory supplanted them in order to be considered legitimate and even true.

Popper’s proof that one cannot discover laws of history is first of all aimed against Marx’s addled claim to cognize the case as law. And secondly, Popper’s proof consists in simply forbidding the abstraction (from apocalypses) which is required to make the problem reasonable. Why Popper is not equally harsh toward physicists is not explained.

Hempel suggested that laws could be applied in history in exactly the way one explains a car crash (which is a unique concrete event) by referring it to laws. (Laws about the effect of alcohol on alertness, reflexes and inhibitions–and about traction and momentum–among many others.) Actually, the study of inanimate nature and the study of human affairs are pursued via profoundly different methodologies; but there is no basis in principle to say that inanimate nature is anything but a simpler case, perhaps, than human affairs.

Should historians seek to ascertain the fate of the Roman Republic in all possible universes, according to laws which give intricate determinate structure for political events which do not happen? (Caesar never crosses the Rubicon, is never assassinated, etc.)

Marx displayed great confusion on this point. He announced that he had written the laws of motion of society. But Marx did not proceed physically at all. Marx did not define an ideal humanity, and discover as many evolutionary paths for it as there were ensembles of initial conditions. He speculated only about the single actual course, and claimed to divine its single future. In fact, his endeavor was worse than that. He refused to acknowledge the differences between cultures at the same technical level, thereby repressing empirically observable variations. Marx wanted prognostication, not science.

The point is that the physicist’s method is to characterize all possible universes in the ideal. Marx and Popper were both confused about what the analogue of this method in sociology would be. Nevertheless, Popper was in a panic that the physical method might be applied in sociology. What was sauce for the goose was poison for the gander, Popper said.

Actual historical experience suggests that society can be experimented with; and that law-like determinisms do manifest themselves. Where it gets tricky is that the evinced laws are not what "Marxists" want to believe. There have been a number of attempts to skip capitalism in the twentieth century. New societies have been proclaimed, and millions have been killed in order to advance the new social relations. And yet, the societies in question have all re-united with the capitalist mainstream. What is more, we realize that the capitalism-skipping regimes were not new civilizations, but were rather aberrant versions of capitalism. Political will imposed a centrally mobilized capitalism, achieved some success in modernizing quasi-feudal societies, and called this a socialist civilization. But in the end, both the successes and the competition with the external capitalist mainstream sapped the fanatics’ will, or overwhelmed it; and the capitalism-skipping regimes simply emerged to normal capitalism.

Anybody interested in the prospects of sociology as a science must find this display of regularity fascinating. And yet what we have in this connection from the leading thinkers is either denial of distasteful reality, or unreasonable prohibitions on crediting the observed results.


Note in lieu of a bibliography.

The reader can no doubt tell that I am familiar with a number of well-known and not-known authors, but to list them would send the wrong message. I don’t want to endorse their agendas; my position is that they assembled the material in ways that confused the issue terribly.


P.S. Identity of the concrete object in the real world, in myths, in fictions


In the body text, my treatment of nursery tales and so forth was not aggressive enough because I had not fully disabused myself of the theme in analytic philosophy which makes the identity of the object an issue in the logic of possibility.

Concrete phenomena which are thought to be real are identified in part apparitionally or pictorially; and in part by being sited in doctrines – many of which later come to be considered myths. Morning Star; Evening Star; Zeus; Jupiter; angels; the transmigrating soul; caloric; ether. Closer to home, force and action at a distance. Whether "subatomic particles" are pointlike masses. Identifications of real-world phenomena change as accepted doctrines change.

Entire classes of entities which have concrete instances but are delimited and related by high-level abstractions. In legal discourse: agent; liability; notification.

But it goes far beyond that. We have the capacity to think express fictions. Here the being is identified by picturability and narrative behavior. Sherlock Holmes.

The so-called problem of <the identity of the real object behind appearances>, the Morning Star/Evening Star problem, was introduced in mathematical logic by Frege in "On Sense and Reference." It was an enormous mischief: it does not belong in mathematical logic. I suppose it is an epistemological problem, but we might better say that it is a family of problems lacking a focus.

Analytic philosophy has taken this problemoid as the crux of the logic of possibility. It is appallingly mischievous. What is more, the key solution for the second half of the twentieth century took its stand on scientific triumphalism, proclaiming that entities which are not scientifically well-defined are impossible, inconsistent, meaningless. (Natural kinds doctrine.) Scientific triumphalism was presented as the criterion of logical possibility = consistency. This discourse is openly patronizing toward what are generally believed to be fabulous phenomena, whether unicorns or ether, assuming that the people in the past didn’t know anything, but that we now know everything.

Analytic philosophy extends the mischief by quarrelling over contrived cases of identification of anthropomorphic beings. Now it proceeds in utter violation of its own precepts. The identity of President Lincoln in scenarios in which he is or isn’t assassinated cannot be a question for a "logic" which is scientifically triumphalist, because science radically excludes the concept of the human person.

Science gives the human person the status of a unicorn or immortal soul; therefore "President Lincoln" is impossible or inconsistent or whatever disparaging label you prefer. To be a stickler, science can only see President Lincoln’s body. The question "Who is this person?" is not a scientific question. Do I really have to instruct my readers?

When we are dealing with the human possibilities of impersonation and imposture and charlatanism, the question of identity does not have an answer independent of convention – or of the purpose for which the question is asked. If an actor playing Richard II is wanted by the F.B.I., the question "who is that on the stage?" will have different appropriate answers for different questioners. It’s even worse, because children are taken to visit Santa Claus, and the whole point is to convince them of the wrong answer. All this has nothing to do with mathematics and little to do with logic.

(Except for those of us who realize that it is abstract certainty which is the fabulous impossibility; that the real line, for example, is a myth for which every believer has a different uncommunicated interpretation.)

We have really metamorphosing creatures such as caterpillar/butterfly; or the chameleon. Parallel with that, we have fictions in which humans metamorphose. (Jeckell/Hyde)

Whether a human person is the same from year to year is a classic question in speculative thought which is considered to have a spiritual dimension and which remains vexing. What is this question doing in mathematical logic?

We need to get a grip on this shambles. Vernacular thought has an operative method of identification which never depends on having the final true explanation of things, or even on things being "actual." An expressly fictive being is identified by picturability and narrative behavior. It remains underspecified unless there is an authorized elaboration of the fiction. A concrete phenomenon claimed to be real is identified in part apparitionally or pictorially; and in part by being sited in a doctrine. Such identifications are subject to revision as new facts emerge (diamond is the same thing as soot); their fate is not a logical problem.

How do we know that it is the same President Lincoln in scenarios in which he is assassinated and scenarios in which he is not? The only answer I can think of is that the hypothecator hypothesizes so – and it is very much an open question whether such hypothecations are worth anything. If the same body lives a different life, is a different person produced? Surely a mathematical logic which takes its stand on scientific triumphalism cannot solve this problem.

If we think that we have to make the identification of the Morning Star and the Evening Star more rigorous, our account must not patronize Zeus, Jupiter, Pegasus, caloric, ether – because the beings whose existence is credited today (either expressly, or by philosophers who keep their religious commitments hidden on the job) are no better than those were.

• • •

Further Studies of Possibility, 1998


Here I address our lives as something more than fleeting apparitions. If there is a subjectivity which above all characterizes a human life, it is the sense of possibility.

We speak about responsibility and we speak about having a possibility beyond anything we can contrive. And we say that there is no set limit on what we can contrive.

So we come to possibility. In particular, the issue of possible courses of events and their counterposition as actual and non-actual.

The forward impulse is precisely possibility – as is clear when it is called hope. I want something, and I have a chance, but not a certainty, of getting it. I may face good luck or bad luck; all the while, it is partly up to me to make my luck.

To say that it is up to me to make my luck means that the world is permeated with causal regularities; I make my luck by availing myself of this option while eschewing that one.

We say, you have to try. You ought to rise to the occasion. You should tap untapped potential. We say, you could have chosen and willed otherwise than you did.

The addict has a very special relation to possibility. The addict lives with the fear that their doing, which formally is a choosing and a willing, will get them in trouble. They have to face the future fearing the possibility of an ungovernable impulse in themselves which will bring disaster on them. And: hoping that they will not have the ungovernable impulse. Then choosing/willing knows multiple selves, as it were.

Next we must acknowledge the capacity to imagine and to live in fantasy, which is the basis of symbolism and story. The so-called abstract imagination: a famous example is Archimedes’ "The Sand Reckoner," not to mention the essay on method in which he anticipates integral calculus. Leibniz’s famous anticipation of mathematical logic. Hilbert’s vague programs for foundations of mathematics. Glimpses of unexplored realms of ideas with instrumental consequences. The instrumental imagination: the architect’s vision of the completed building. For the men who developed the atomic bomb, the possibility which they willfully but uncertainly courted must have been as palpable as a table.

I delve into non-pragmatic possibility, if you will, when I take on a fantastic identity. In our culture, it has come down to costume parties and the theater and swindles of impersonation; but the assumption of fantastic identities in ritual had a far more honored place in earlier cultures and was near the center of collective imaginative life.

We also look back to our discarded possibilities. Saying "I could have done that" to claim greater powers than I exhibited. Asserting that you did not have to do the wrong thing, as a way of asserting your responsibility. Regret. Exculpation: "I did everything I was able to."

We expect hazards to be respected. If I am almost run over by a car, I am psychologically wounded and I have to recover as if I had been badly bruised. Non-actual possibilities which I do not control can be very weighty.

But it is more heroic than I have said so far. It is a truism that happiness in the longer term is bound up with exploring one’s potential. We speak of aspiration, of my self-creation, of winning myself. Aspiration may mean directing myself to an externally posited ideal, trying to please my superiors. (The obvious, if mundane case of a rookie in a professional sports league.) There is some comportment by which I can go beyond what I have so far showed myself capable of. Beyond that, my sense of my unique nature, waiting to be realized, enters the picture. There is some comportment by which I can exhibit, achieve, what suits my unique nature.

These are possibility concepts of the strongest sort; they require me to imagine myself and to have an imaginative sense of my uniqueness as a person and to choose and will at that level. I can also let my most precious possibility slip away.

But this sketch has been heavily biased, in that I have merely reviewed respects in which we give credence to possibility. But you cannot really penetrate this topic unless you also have a sense that there is no body of intuitions in this area which is standard or mandatory. You cannot really penetrate this topic unless you also have a sense that there is something profoundly unexplained about giving credence to non-actual possibility, to what is not. If one is temperamentally an empiricist, for example, then we have a terrible problem. How can one seriously credit something which is not? And what of the deprecation that "anything you didn’t do was impossible for you to do"? Certainly you cannot rebut it, because you cannot revise your past.

I was always inclined to say that a question which is inherently unanswerable is a meaningless question – and that inaccessible realities are nothing you would want to rely on. When knowledge consists in a picture which is inflated (no telling how far) beyond palpable evidence, meta-technology sees a vulnerability to be exploited mercilessly.

Max Stirner enters our exposition here; serving as a helpful provocateur. Toward the end of The Ego and Its Own, in "My Self-Enjoyment," he launches an attack on the little word possible. People are good for just what they demonstrate, no more and no less. Thus, the social recruitment and cultivation of talent is nothing we owe to the world’s serfs. (What sort of a schoolteacher could Stirner have been?) Moreover, it is contemptible to strive for an ideal, to try to grow toward an ideal. You only sacrifice your present for some sanctimonious fiction. Stirner counsels you to consume yourself, to live in an altogether impulsive way, to live like a beast (although he does not quite say it).

He even dares to take on the possibility concept abstractly, saying that possibility unactualized is nothing more nor less than fantasy. What is is all that is real; what is not, you may be sure, is not because it is impossible. If one tries to explicate possibility as simple futurity, Stirner says, that still does not open a compartment outside of reality. That the sun will rise tomorrow is possible because at present, that tomorrow is the real future. It is too easy – but we have to thank Stirner for reminding us that futurity is also a box outside of immediacy which we treat differently from the past (although Stirner is telling us we shouldn’t); and that there is a conventional wisdom in which entailments concerning futurity and concerning possibility are interdependent.

But Stirner’s poorly edited book has not thought through his own positions. Much earlier in the book, he vehemently asserted his self-creation from nothing. To conjure my own identity from nothing would be a case of possibility indeed, since it is the opposite of inert and predetermined being. It is like the moment when I think my first thought, Stirner says. Well, it is not our task here to ponder these clues. But it certainly makes our issues more graphic.

Given the role of the possibility concept in our mental preparation to expand ourselves, nullifying stances such as Stirner’s, or literal empiricism, imply a debilitating attitude. Does that mean that to live as an empiricist or a good Stirnerite is mentally impossible?

Popular notions about human freedom carry us into even murkier waters. What of the widespread notion of fate or destiny in human relations? What of the untaken paths in human history? – do they have actual structures, or are responsible people who debate choices not made (eschewing the Vietnam escalation of the Sixties) talking nonsense?

If I, Flynt, stand at a fork in the road, is the Flynt who might travel one road the same as the Flynt who might travel the other? If there is something which I failed to do, am I the same person as the imaginary person who did what I failed to do? Well, in the first place, it cannot be a scientific question. Beyond that, whether a human person endures as the same, at all, is a classic question in speculative thought which is considered to have a spiritual dimension, and which remains vexing. Isn’t a part of our topic the opportunity to leave your old self in the past to one or another extent?


Person-world analysis considers it an advance to present choosing/willing as: a constituent of the person-world separable from the metaphysical questions of causality and determinism. Nevertheless, we are invested in causal thinking in our very strategizing. How does my notion of options in relation to my competence square with the notion of alternatives where events are beyond my control? Might we claim that the indeterminacy of the future is not an indeterminacy in what will happen but only a gap in what I now know? It would depend profoundly on the principle that one of a pair of opposites must be realized. (The sun will suffer a total eclipse tomorrow or it won’t.)


It may be the height of wisdom to recognize that our possibility extends beyond anything we can contrive. And that there is no set limit on what we can contrive. (All the while, person-world analysis speculates on a mode which is neither efficient causation nor indeterminacy: retroactive signification, coherent novelty. A phenomenon whose understandability comes from the future because its significance coalesces later not earlier. Evidently I am toying with locating possibility and fate at the same point. It’s beyond this discussion.)

With these remarks, issues of possibility become the primary issues here. How extravagant must my ontological commitments be to support possibility as involved in my constitution of options and my so-called temporal emotions – and beyond that, the absence of a knowable limit on my potential? What is the substantial reality-status for non-actual possibility that is being claimed here, and what, if anything, is being claimed for fate?

The claim that we have a potential whose limit we cannot know is plausible, but we don’t yet know how to contain its extravagance – or how to explain a claim of unexercised and unknowable options.

• • •


As I explained in the essay on non-actual possibility, analytic philosophy in the second half of the twentieth century developed a treatment of possibility which assumed natural science as autonomous and indubitable, and sought to validate and dimension possibility by having it rest on whatever natural science was believed to have attained. Subservient to natural science as these academics were, they had lost sight of what the mission of philosophy had been. Science rests on the possibility concept. There can be no rational genesis of science until intuitive possibility has been clarified and validated. Analytic philosophers have no philosophical sense of elementarity. They are so intimidated by science as to accept its indirectly based speculations as if they were perceptions, for example.

Again: analytic philosophy invokes scientific definability to substantiate possibility. But scientific definability rests on scientific law. And scientific law rests on possibility. We wanted an explanation of possibility so that we would know what entitled science to propound laws. And emphatically not the reverse. it’s even worse than that. Chemistry indeed has a conception of the underlying identity of water or gold, expressed in the chemical formula. But that does not illuminate the intuitive role of the possibility concept, which is a matter of the palpability of options. (Admittedly there is a – more or less remote – tie-in between the one and the other.)

If the analytic philosophers were not so subservient and so triumphalist, they would have realized that science had repeatedly repudiated substances it posited, such as caloric, vitalism, ether. Not only that; phenomena which remained in good repute in science nevertheless were known to be mysterious and debatable, e.g. virtual displacements, force, action at a distance. Whether "subatomic particles" are pointlike masses. Identifications of real-world phenomena change as accepted doctrines change. The analytic philosophers had taken their stand on a quicksand which harbored the sort of obscure fictions they ostensibly railed against.

If one pointed out to the analytic philosophers that science itself harbored obscure fictions, they replied in a way which was really astonishing. They declared that one day, a thousand years in the future, there would be a final theory. The final theory would be the absolutely perfect, certain, total, eternal explanation of everything. Somebody sensitive to theology would realize that they were talking about man ascending to the consciousness of God. In fact, somebody with more understanding of the scientific process would realize that it is a category error: the scientific project is a tower of opportunisms and expediencies. It is a tower of emendations of earlier theories which prove inadequate but are salvaged rather than erased. The scientific enterprise is not designed to be rectified from boundary to boundary to become a pristine system. (And in fact scientists are outraged if one proposes reconstruction of the entire system from zero. Such a proposal is even said to define a crackpot.)

Meanwhile, the analytic philosophers display a staggering lack of intuition for the hysteron proteron. They want to have the intuitive credibility of possibility to us rest on man’s attainment a thousand years in the future of the perfect, God-like knowledge. They do not appreciate that they are deducing possibility, humdrum possibility, from a sectarian claim of possibility which is preposterous.

This shambles reminds us that there is another chapter to be written in my treatment of possibility. When we leave the world of the average person, and turn to speculative thinkers and visionaries, whether Francis Bacon, Liebniz, Mach (?), the Unity of Science movement (?), we find programs being presented which envision the vast expansion of human awareness, cognition, and mastery of nature.

There is a perennial perspective of consciousness’ expansion which I call majorization. In this connection, a theologically sensitive treatment has to identify the omniscience which verbal speculation ascribes to a divinity, and distinguish that from a final scientific theory and from closures of propositional languages as seen in mathematical logic. Far removed from the average person’s concerns, and yet linked to the average person’s religious beliefs through theology, the perennial program of majorization is a culturally crucial vision of possibility.

Then we may speak of other programs of expansion of consciousness and mastery, such as my meta-technology. (See below.)

A treatment of possibility needs a thorough investigation of the sense of possibility as the subjectivity which above all characterizes a human life: hope; self-creation; self-discovery; winning oneself. Equally, it needs to understand these programs of expansion of consciousness as grand appeals to the possibility concept, or to potentiality. We need to take a route, in other words, which is the reverse of the subservient question-begging which comprises the possible worlds literature in analytic philosophy. I will freely marshall explanations I have given in other texts to bring forth the new matters we need to ponder.


In the mundane sense, the powers of humanity as a whole increase, as nuclear weapons are deployed, heart transplants are performed, etc. These intuitive notions are bound up with certain formal epistemologies. Just as there is a natural orientation toward curiosity, activeness, relative self-reliance, relative power, there is a natural preference for the expansion of consciousness. We get a definition of cognition as the seeking of awareness of what the obscure totality shows of itself. Leaving aside our awareness of our awareness, we assume a gap between our awareness and "the" obscure totality; otherwise cognition would not be venturesome and we could not make mistakes. There is a natural harmony between consciousness and truth. Truth and falsehood are at opposite poles; the poles are disparate. We can make mistakes – called falsehood or illusion – but mistakes are vulnerabilities, detours; truth is always waiting to expose them.

Truths are recorded in dogmatic affirmations; and the natural expansion of consciousness is the natural expansion of cognition, a natural increase in dogmatic affirmations. We don’t know what consciousness’ limit is. Formal logic in the twentieth century insists on taking as its topic the closure of propositional languages. There might be a consciousness which held all the dogmatic affirmations. Then formal logic trades on simulacra of such a thing. Meanwhile, the layperson has, for ages, believed in a consciousness which holds all of the truths expressed in words, an omniscient divinity. All the while, scientific cognition is an endless trek toward a totality of quantitative truths.

There is, then, a life of consciousness which is a cumulation of truths. I call this perspective majorization.

What conventional wisdom thinks it knows as the expansion of consciousness is the acquisition of affirmative dogmas. There is common sense, which arrives at a world of things which exist independently of me, in a space which has no particular center-point or direction. Common sense is the only theory we have which is vernacular and which incorporates the world of things and the world of psychic actuation in the same theory. (You really see it, for example, when a perpetrator’s intent is being proven in a court of law.) Then there is the sophisticated cognitive project of our culture: natural science, quantitative and conceptualized knowing, the reduction to the inert element.


Some early twentieth century philosophy began to place majorization in a different light. It is not only that cognition is a translation more than a representation. It is that there is a cultural alignment which embarks on a quest for a certain sort of evidence or effect. Scientific truth is an opportunistic patchwork of cultural fashions: more geometrico; infinity as a completable totality; clockwork determinism; chance (hazard) and the compilation of anomalies (comets, meteors); history (the irreversibility of dissipation); Mach’s principle; indeterminacy. Scientists elicit styles of "truth" by the questions they ask.

The invention of probability theory and of thermodynamics – coming as they did after Newtonian determinacy and non-dissipative idealization – are vivid examples. The way that the problem is imagined puts the fix in. The classically false thesis that a coin has a half-chance of falling one way and a half-chance of falling the other way becomes true because of the way the problem is fantasized.

And we should not overlook the negative evidence: the scientists’ ability not to see what they don’t want to see. The rejection of the first English papers proposing statistical mechanics as incompetence and madness. And false theories which were unexceptionable because they "imagined good": caloric, vitalism, ether.

Given that imagination is critical in shaping the reality that will be discovered, what is that if not a species of possibility?

I have unique objections to majorization. The generic picture of the enterprise of discursive knowledge known to the laity omits to declare whether its arena is common sense or scientific rigor. The picture of personhood and personal affections which the laity wants "knowledge" to include is necessarily a common-sense one. Incorporated in the overall common-sense arena is a notion of the astronomical universe and its manifest natural order which is in fact a canard about the conquests of science. There is not even an acknowledgement that science may be incompatible with personalistic circumstances. There is no sense that "the objective universe" is a reductionist half-fantasy. These are only hints; I will leave the rest for anyone who wants to pursue it in my writings.

In the first instance, this means that the potential of the expansion of consciousness which Liebniz etc. envisioned, and which has become an icon of the culture, is a delusion. That does not mean that there is not a progress of technology. But instrumental capability does not validate the body of theory, which in any case is profoundly opportunistic and jumbled. Quite apart from the question of whether possibility is credible at all, there is the question of whether a particular dimension along which possibility is said to lie is veridical. Quite apart from the question of whether possibility is credible at all, there is the particular question of whether (for example) human personalities survive death and live forever in a heaven. Well, presumably the analytic philosophers have reservations about the latter, although it is hard to tell. But what is ludicrous is that they want to rest the humdrum credibility of possibility on an equally particular fantasy, namely majorization.

The potentiality on which some majority faction takes its stand is shown by an independent line of reasoning to be a fantasy. An unactualized prospect is shown by critical analysis to be spurious; a dimension along which possibility is said to lie is extinguished.


Christer Hennix contributed an entire personal program of visionary elevation. More than anybody else, Hennix enlivened the program of expanding consciousness, majorization, secured certainties – and the cooperation between cognition and ecstasy. As I understand it, Hennix envisions

1) Freedom of one's personal and worthy activities (and composure and fragile sensibility) from the harassment of other people's sick thoughts and mundane demands.

2) A state of composure and delicate sensibility.

3) The achievement of a preferred, extra-mundane state of being or action. I.e. visionary elevation.

But I shall not repeat my accounts of Hennix’s program here; the reader may consult "Critical Notes on the Person-World," Part V, and "The Philosophy of C.C. Hennix."

Various drug-induced euphorias can be avenues to visionary elevation; in particular, as employed to stimulate creativity, ratiocination, insight. Dexamyl, LSD, synthetic mescaline. As is known, dexamyl enables you to wade through dense ratiocinations and to summon elusive creativity. In addition, I would feel that my memory could reach back over decades to recover the early, searing episodes which shaped me. A reverse clairvoyance. What the preferred states of consciousness have in common is a sense of frictionlessness and of having one’s most precious possibilities vivified.

There is indeed a long bohemian tradition of calling visionary elevation "more real" than alert waking consciousness Given that visionary elevation may be an inebriation, the accolade of superior realism hardly follows implicitly. On the other hand, whatever the degree to which the apparent cognitions prove out, we experience a similitude of perspicacity that makes a thinkable goal of elevated perspicacity. We discover that we live as only a shadow of our possibility.

It is a heroic claim of potentiality which differs from majorization in that it goes outside the alert state and the dogmatic affirmation and reduction to the inert element – we say, it is personalistic and elevated. It is palpably accessible, but also admits delusion. In our attitude to the substantiality of possibility, then, what place do we give visionary elevation?


The meta-technological enterprise eschews majorization in a way that is inconceivable to the conventional outlook. One is enabled to rotate the determination of reality – through a combination of principled hypocracy (selecting one's arenas of engagement), and destabilization. Immanent destabilization of the ambient medium of thought, of "mundane consciousness." Then you engage the mundane world in order to press the consequences of its incoherences. Accommodate, or engage, the delusion in order to destabilize and metamorphose it. To move from one determination of reality to another. Intervene in the ordinary world to undermine and transform it.

Meta-technology has no commitment to the social-thematic ego. But that is not the end of it. There is a meta-technological doer – who and what is the doer? Now, again, we speak of a life as something more than a fleeting apparition. And if there is a subjectivity which above all characterizes life as strategizing, goal-seeking, and self-discovery, it is the sense of possibility.

Engaging the mundane world in order to rotate the determination of reality presupposes centered activation

–which is self-respecting and inwardly assured

–which admits "skeptical detachment"

–which is energized

–which is analytical

–which is persistent.

But what this sketch, from a previous writing, omits is precisely the comportment of strategizing (not to mention fantasizing). The meta-technologist is not a missile.

Who is the doer? Meta-technology sculpts with commitments inescapable for the culture: to metamorphose "reality." To get a few paragraphs ahead of the exposition, from the vantage point of literal empiricism, one’s longitudinal identity is understood as a catalyst which gets discarded. One makes oneself disappear to oneself in a non-depersonalizing way.

One gains access to what is beyond ordinary personhood by actively metamorphosing the ostensible world or ordinary person-world. One dissociates to plasticize/mutate; and then to eliminate the subject-object interface. – Always within the palpable (not necessarily the ostensible). One gets rid of ordinary personhood to swim in uncanniness.

My view of visionary elevation is as an exaltation deriving from escape from mundane credulity, and from achieving manipulative power over the determination of reality. Engage the mundane in order to destabilize it. Fragment it and use the fragments as raw material for alternate reality. It is a version of life’s forward impulse which is unique to me.

Whoever has the capacity to "rotate" the ostensible world or cultural determination of reality is in a position to make self disappear to self – without reductionist half-fantasies.


The venture of plasticizing reality has literal empiricism as the vantage-point. But that poses the question which is the second reason for this study.

I have been too casual. By "experience-world," I meant, for example, dreams as they would be cited in meta-technology. The personal episode as an apparition, without the claim made in waking life for a single life-long personal identity which is real, relative to which dreams are detours.

In "Uncompromising Positioning II," I explain it thusly. Any episode "has" a world-gestalt, a field including myself and ostensible objects. I am in a "world" and I have a "self" with a "place" and a "mission." The world is furnished with ostensible objects and occupied by other people. But constituents of personhood are not upheld:

–the centered insight and intent, the longitudinal career of identity;

–the sustained personal mission;

–sorting experience into personhood – grading life-episodes and perceptions.

All of that is of little moment here. What matters is that the sense of possibility is as intense in an experience-world as ever. So an experience-world is not "radical empiricism" at all – if I haven’t said that.

Waking judgment calls the whole episode a hallucination. The disparity in how the sense of possibility is judged within the dream, and upon waking, is extensively analyzed in my essay on possibility.

What I mean by the vantage-point of literal empiricism is tied to the options of unbelief in the waking state. There is no basis for the possibility concept – but this juncture is overlooked in my earlier writings.

What does meta-technology glean here?

• A physics which rejects such concepts as metastability or flammability.

• An arithmetic which rejects that there are whole numbers which you could think, but haven’t. In technical terms, in which long segments may not exist even when the terminal integer has been thought.

Or, contrive commitments to substantial possibility which are anomalous.

• Cases of causal influence between what happens and what is possible but does not happen.

The enterprise of meta-technology itself is another matter: it is a heroic vision of potentiality. And I have to affirm it as a palpable fruition in my life. In numerous cases, I anticipated species of results on the basis of skimpy evidence. Over the years, more compelling cases were discovered. In the case of seeing two colors in the same place, I was informed that two scientists did it ten years before I duplicated the effect by other means. People dismissed me, but the results I sought were so urgent that other researchers were capable of obtaining them; and sooner or later would obtain them. The only reason I did not learn of these experiments in a timely way was that the researchers did not have the context in which I was assembling the results, and so there was no motivation to be in contact.

Meta-technology demands cross-potentiation of the original modalities. It is a vision of a heroic potentiality. What is the connection to the vantage-point of literal empiricism, wherein there is no basis for possibility? Meta-technology is not irreproachable and is not supposed to be. It attends to the irreproachable vantage-point for clues to vulnerabilities in the shared determination of reality.


It isn't accidental that my inventions are made out of steps which can be retraced by other people. I require that my inventions be made out of steps which can be retraced by other people. If realized, my program won't accidentally be a technology, it won't accidentally have consequences in the interpersonal realm, it won't accidentally impact upon people who don't welcome it. – My research program is organized around the demand that this should happen.

By the time of Blueprint, my perspective had become one of a higher civilization, or the supersession of scientific culture. This involves principled hypocracy: an egressive process anchored in the inherited culture. I envision meta-technology as a panoramic program of new sciences.

Meta-technology cannot be realized to a significant degree as long as it is confined to the minds of a few outcasts. It cannot be realized in a society in which the majority has a menial role and needs to be kept in the dark, and so endures a pedestrian existence. These conclusions would ultimately conflict with a division of society into castes, especially if the mentally creative cadres remained a small, atypical group. A future classless utopia (nothing like formerly existing socialism) is required.

A higher civilization cannot be complete in one individual. A transformation of a culture cannot be complete in one mind. Having a way of overmastering scientific technology (of neutralizing atomic bombs, of making bridges fall down by logical arguments) could not be confined in one individual's mind. I don't try to build a higher civilization in one mind for the same reason I don't try to establish an economic system in one mind. Economic systems are relations of inter-personhood. Inter-personhood is the only arena in which higher civilizations and cultural transformations and the neutralizing of atomic bombs might occur. To imagine that a higher civilization could be confined to one mind is to shrink higher civilization to the level of private gratification.

In this context, the inherited shared language, already problematic for us, is upstaged by the issue of acceding to a superior vehicle for the transmission of cultural values. Then a superior vehicle for the transmission of cultural values inside one mind would be a collapsed case (a mnemonic). Cultural vehicles are relations among people, relations of inter-personhood. The relationships constitute the realm where cultural vehicles subsist.

This is not to fall into sociology's religion of Society. "Society" is an objectification which the enchanted community would supersede, ideally. And – people are backward. But I do not congratulate myself that the majority is below average. The backward people are very much one of the limits of the illumination possible to me. They are a major unsolved problem. They occupy the territory where cultural vehicles subsist. I am not dogmatic about what I am going to do about backward people; but to announce as a principle that I am going to do nothing about them is hopeless.

The meta-technological enterprise is a heroic vision of potentiality. What does that presuppose about the substantiality of possibility?