allzermalmer

Truth suffers from too much analysis

Epistemological Possibility

Posted by allzermalmer on June 5, 2011

This blog comes from W.T. Stace’s book Theory of Existence and Knowledge. It comes from his chapter on categorical knowledge. The possibility that is being talked about is not logical possibility, which is anything is possible that is not self-contradictory. This possibility is based on epistemology, or theory of knowledge.

Meaning of Possibility: Possibility is part of a cluster or group of categories, that deal with the category of existence. The other categories that deal with existence are identity and substance. Possibility is a category, i.e. character of the external world, and clearly applies to the world and not just our knowledge of it.

A possibility is something which is part of the real world, or at least in some sense. For example, it could rain tomorrow or it may not rain tomorrow. We, typically, say that either option is a possibility. However, possible in such a sense is a concept that does not quality as part of the world, but only our knowledge of it. All it says is that we do not know whether it will rain or not. But tomorrow’s weather, when it comes, will be actual. So one could think that possibility has to deal with our uncertainty about the world, but that is not the meaning of the category to be mentioned.

Possibility (not based on uncertainty) is opposed to actuality. Possibility is said to be part of the world which is never actual, which means that it is something that is non-existent. Possibility is saying that there is something part of the world that does not exist, which makes it into some sort of mystery.

Let us look at some examples of a possibility that has no actuality, no part of the world. “If the British fleet did not defeat the Spanish Armada, then they would have invaded Britain.” Another one is, “If the horse I bet on in the Kentucky Derby had won, then I would have won 5,000 dollars.” However, the British fleet did defeat the Spanish Armada, and the Spanish Armada did not invade Britain. The horse I bet on in the Kentucky Derby did not win, and I did not win 5,000 dollars. Thus, we find that these propositions do not express any facts or ever did, or will ever exist in the world. But, they do express possibilities which might have happened, but did not.

With the image above, we are walking one path. This one path is the actuality. However, as we are walking, we come to a fork in the road, and there are many ways we could go. There are many possibilities. However, we can only walk one of those paths. Thus, there is only one actuality. What we do take is the actuality, and all the others that we do not take are possibilities.

Now I gave propositions of possibility of the past, but this also holds with propositions of the present and of the future. “If I put my hand out in front of me, then the wall will feel hard.”, “If I bite the Pear, then it will taste sweet”, “If I look through a telescope at Saturn, then I will see its rings”. I am looking at the wall, but I am not touching it. I have the visual sensation of the wall, which is actual, but I don’t have any tactile sense of the wall. Thus, the tactile sense would be possible and is not actual. The feel of the wall is a possible tactile experience which I might have if I stretched out my hand.

The essential notion of possibility is  the antecedent of the hypothetical proposition is not meet. Thus,  with “If I bite the Pear, then it will taste sweet”, but I do not bite down on the Pear. The actuality is that I never did bite down on the Pear, and thus there is no actuality of me biting down on the Pear. For if I do that, then the experience ceases to be possible and becomes actual, with the assumption that my prediction is correct.

Possibility is only expressible by the means of a hypothetical proposition, which is a conditional statement of X→Y. Now we could say, “X is a possibility”, but this categorical propositions is really a hypothetical. It means if certain conditions were meet, then X would actually exist.

The question of necessity: There is no necessity in possibility, as should be obvious. It is, however, essential to rational prediction and control of experience. Without possibility, our thinking would be confined to only what is present to our consciousness by the senses. Our thinking would be at a rudimentary stage. Possibility, then, is of a practical necessity. But it is not necessity of thought. We could, theoretically, confine our attention to what is actually given/existent.  There is nothing self-contradictory in such a course.

Epistemological Type: Possibility is a constructive category. It is a construction that is existential, since it creates in the imagination an existence that is not actual. It sets up hypothesis which cannot be proved by experience, and which posits an existence which is not part of the actual world.

Suppose we are in a totally dark room. I say, “If I had switched on the lights, then I should now see the walls of the room”. That proposition is alleged to be now a possible experience. It is not a prediction of future experience, since it does not assert that I shall turn on the light or that I shall see the walls. It does not assert anything, whatsoever, about what will happen in the future. It only makes an assertion of the present. The proposition asserts that if the room were now light, then I should see the walls. But this can never be proved or shown. For If I do turn the lights on, then the visual experience of the wall will exist at a time future to when the proposition was spoken. Also, the experience will have ceased to be possible and would have become actual, so we can never prove the existence of the possibility.

So we see we can never prove possibility, but it is even contrary to the facts, which makes it clear that it is a construction or a fiction. Take the proposition, “If I bite this Pear, then I shall taste that it is sweet.” This proposition does not state anything is the case, but only that something might be the case. But what does ‘might be’ even mean?A fact, an existence, a reality, either is or is not. There is no half-way in the universe for ‘might be’. ‘Might be’ is simply an ‘is not’. So there is no possibility has no part of the actually existing universe, and there is no such thing as possible experience. This makes it clear that possibility is a fiction.

The importance of such a category, though, is very great. It is involved in our existential constructions, and is involved in every scientific hypothesis that asserts the existence of something that we can never perceive (i.e. atoms, gas molecules, DNA, or viruses). These concepts depend on the category of possible experience. This construction lies at the foundation of the construction of the external world, and renders it possible.

The notion of possible experience is an assumption that things exist when no one is aware of them, like the wall when the lights are out, or the hardness of the wall when no one is touching it. At an early stage of the mind, it is only aware of its presentations and nothing else, which is just what actually exists. Esse was identical with percipi. All existence has to be conceived in terms of perception, and even unperceived existence is thought of, and only thought of, as if it were a perceived existence. To exist does not mean simply to be perceived, since the mind has determined it to be otherwise, and has come to project existence beyond its own perceptions, beyond the actual existing, and invented an unperceived world. However, all thought and all knowledge, has its foundation in perception.  The mind simply takes the materials given to it, i.e. what is actually perceived, and builds them up into fictitious worlds. The wall exists when no one is aware of it, and is supposed to be purple, shiny, hard, rectangular, and just like the wall that we see. So the everything that the mind constructs has roots in perceptions, and goes back to perception, and has to be understood in terms of perception.


What do we mean when we say things exists when no one is aware of it? Well, we simply mean that although we are not now looking at it, or perceiving it, yet if any one looked that he would see it. But this is the formula by which the category of possibility is expressed. Thus, the notion of the category of possibility, is based on unperceived existence, is really a construction of the mind.

What do I mean when saying that Beijing exists on the other side of the planet? It must ultimately be explained in the terms of perception. The statement means that some minds (like the inhabitants of Beijing) are actually perceiving Beijing. However, if there were no other minds there to perceive it, then my statement can only mean that if I traveled around the world to Beijing, then I should perceive Beijing, or if any other mind were to do it.

What about the other side of the moon, the dark side of the moon? It means that if any could look around the back of the moon, then he would see the other side.

The minds invention of possibility was its greatest creations, since it helped advance its knowledge. By inventing this imaginary realm of the possible, which is distinguished from the actual, from existence, it opened up all the future existential constructions. It helped us render the idea of permanence, existence, and a public independent world, into existence.

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