Monday, 6 August 2012

The spectrum of what is possible

The general consensus among most people is that there is a very sharp line of demarcation between the possible and the impossible.

I have a different view of the situation. While I would be the first to say some things are categorically possible, and others categorically not, I think of these as opposite poles of a spectrum, rather than a switch that is either set to ‘on’ or ‘off’. I will concentrate on what I believe happens at the extremes of this spectrum in a future entry; for now, it is the varying colours of possibility that I wish to explore.

At the ‘simpler’ end of the spectrum -- the lower frequencies, if you will -- there is the issue of individual perception being significantly at odds with the true nature of things.

In my opinion, the way in which most people view the world is more often than not a complicated pastiche of things they have been persuaded to believe, as distinct from a careful and personal investigation of their own experiences. There is invariably some component of their native, untainted psyche woven into that melee of other people’s ideas, but this is normally a very small and meek aspect of their personality as a whole.

So it follows that from the outset, the idea of what is possible or otherwise is not related to something that one has actually attempted, but is based on a majority view of what ought to be possible. People talk themselves into believing that it is impossible for them to stop smoking, impossible to visit a distant country, impossible to achieve some random objective, not because it actually is. They arrive at this conclusion because it is distilled from factors they have found palatable in the collected opinions of those who have influenced them.

The idea of what is possible or not is further coloured by what might be called expert opinion. Someone who has demonstrated their authority in a given field, and who has been proven correct in many past situations, is taken very seriously as an indicator of possibility -- and rightly so. However, nobody gets it right 100% of the time, and most experienced specialists make a point of mentioning that some event has a high likelihood or probability, but is not an absolutely definite diagnosis.

Lord Kelvin’s infamous skepticism of heavier-than-air flying machines is a well-worn cliche illustrating how even a very successful man of science can have a confounding inability to conceive of what is possible. Especially considering his work in the field of thermodynamics, it is so disappointing that he was unable to extend his imagination to the behaviour of objects moving through air. But then, it is always easy to say a solution is obvious if it is revealed prior to the problem.

Further along the spectrum is the issue of accepted research. Most of what people consider to be 'established facts' about the world are based on conclusions reached through peer-assessed studies; in most cases, these studies provide useful and applicable insights into what can or can’t be done. However, history continues to be rewritten as new discoveries are made; sometimes this is because new technology allows a more accurate view that shows previous interpretations of results to be erroneous. In other cases, it is because the system that was studied has evolved in some manner, and behaves differently to the way it used to.

In other words, something that was once scientifically proven to be impossible is now accepted as a factual reality. My favourite example of this concept is the issue of neurogenesis: when I was in university (and this is really showing my age), it was extensively believed that at a certain point in development, brain cells stop dividing. I was shocked and amazed several years ago to learn that this once-untouchable dogma was no longer in vogue, and the number of brain cells in certain patients was shown to increase under given circumstances.

But even in the face of all scientific certainty, individual phenomena have taken place -- and continue to take place -- that completely contradict what ‘should’ be possible. Most often, these well-documented events are related to mind-boggling stories of survival. I appreciate that in a situation such as Joe Simpson’s self-rescue as recounted in Touching the Void, the bottom line is probably that his body simply contained enough of the requisite molecules needed to sustain life. However there are countless situations in which people have been on the brink of death from cancer or injury, and these molecules were seconds away from being fatally depleted. Despite this, they made a recovery described by their physicians as miraculous.

So one of the pervasive colours on this spectrum is related to the fact that even escaping from certain death is possible -- although it is certainly not common.

There is also the issue that what is impossible now, may be possible later, or pending some other dependent variable. There is no way I could physically run a marathon tomorrow, however I am sure it is something that would be well within the realm of possibility if I applied myself to the requisite training. So it follows that if nothing else, possibility operates as a four-dimensional construct: a much more complex proposition than simply ‘yes’ or ‘no’.

The subject of quantum physics brings with it a whole army of further complications. At the scale of subatomic particles, it is quite routinely observed that an object can exist in two places at the same time. It is also well-established that when a pair of objects (ranging from photons to quite large molecules) is separated, one reacts instantaneously to the condition of the other, even when the distance between them is so great that any information transmitted from one to the other would have to travel much faster than light to effect the observed change.

I am not about to start arguing that the quantum-level behaviour of particles is necessarily a valid model for what happens in the macro-scale physical reality we directly perceive with our senses. This is the state of existence that I refer to as the Newtonian world, because Newtonian physics is such a useful tool to describe its behaviour and make predictions about it.

The issue of whether something is possible or not is influenced by a staggering diversity of variables. I believe the most meaningful of these -- in no small part because it is the only one we can really affect -- is our own ability to make decisions.

To be sure, there are countless choices we make that still fail to change a situation from its impossible condition. However, I believe that there are equally countless possibilities that we fail to choose, because we believe they are outside the realm of possibility itself.

It is my earnest hope that I can furnish you with the inspiration to reconsider your own position along the spectrum of what is possible.

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