“With respect to the requirements of art, a probable impossibility is to be preferred to a thing improbable and yet possible.” — Aristotle in Poetics.
I woke up today and this giant word is hovering inside my head.
Period and everything!
No quotes though.
For the last few months, aside from my work on n3xt a few other projects have contributed to the kind of writer’s block that has more to do with too many distractions than with an actual inability to write. As I’ve been focusing more and cleared my mind the Aristotle quote has come back to my mind repeatedly, in various contexts. I woke up today with that word, and, perhaps, a reason why.
What is impossible?
Impossible. This is one of my favorite words. People that have known me for a long time know I use this word very rarely. Because very few things really are.
Impossible is one of those adjectives that tends to be dismissed as self-explanatory when it rarely is.
Example: if I said “It is impossible for a canoe to float when it is full of lead.” There are two adjectives in that sentence, but I’d bet that when asked to refute it, many people would immediately focus on the second: full. “Well, how full? What do you mean by full?” Perhaps questioning what “full of lead” or even “float” means may come up before impossible is discussed.
To refute it, one of the elements of the statement must not mean what it usually means. Full seems to have more wiggle room than impossible.
Even the noun and the verb seem as if they could hide complexities. “Depends on the type of canoe,” “Define float,” etc.
There are many English versions of the Aristotle quote I used in the beginning, maybe as many as translations exist of the text — the one I used is from the Project Gutenberg version of Poetics. This is always an issue with translations, even more so with ancient languages or ancient versions of a language… but I digress. The point he made remains the same, in essence: “A probable impossibility is preferable to an improbable possibility.”
This can be confusing to unwrap in abstract terms, so let’s use an example.
One Premise, Two Stories
Start with a premise: A piano materializes out nowhere, in the middle of Times Square, and hundreds of people witness the event and proclaim it as true.
Let’s look at two different stories grounded on this premise.
- Story A: A hundred years ago, a group of archeologists discovered a wooden staff laced with alien symbols inside the pyramids, and the government kept it a secret. In the present, A bizarre incident involving a misplaced bag of peanuts, the ancient wooden staff, a distracted scientist, and a particle accelerator results in the unexpected discovery of teleportation which results in the piano appearing instantaneously in the middle of Times Square.
- Story B: Piano is deposited in Times Square by a moving crew in protest for low salaries. 168 passersby that see the event all experience a simultaneous spontaneous hallucination that makes them assert the piano just materialized. None of them have mental health problems before or after the event.
Story A is the “probable impossibility”. Story B, the “improbable possibility.” Here’s why:
- It is well documented that, while rare, spontaneous hallucinations, delusions, memory lapses, or memory errors, are possible without known cause (“Idiopathic”). The result on the person can basically be the result of anything a person can imagine, but with the force of perceived reality.
- Anything that can happen to any one person can happen to more than one person simultaneously, although (perhaps) with different probability.
- Therefore: Story B is possible, but highly improbable: an improbable possibility.
These two (admittedly very, very bad!) plots have none of the sensory or structural refinements of well written fiction. Good writing not only makes a story more enjoyable but would also disguise a bit the fantastical nature of what’s being described, which aids in suspension of disbelief.
I’d bet most people would say that the story involving the crazy unexplained, unknown, mysterious (we’ll come back to this) experiment feels more believable. Me, personally, even though rationally I absolutely would nod in the direction of the shared hallucination as “better,” I feel a strong pull in my mind that goes something like, “Look, I know the numbers, but this shared hallucination thing… nah!” While the other one is somehow less rejected, with a “eh, stranger things have happened!”
Impossible closely tracks Unknown
Can one turn into the other? The Imperial Senate in Star Wars is an example of how turning something from probable impossibility to improbable possibility makes it less believable, not more.
Episodes IV-VI of Star Wars are heavy on probable impossibilities, and the Imperial Senate is a minor one. In those movies the Senate is only mentioned, never seen in action. We are given almost no information on its purpose: we only find out at the end of Ep. IV (when Grand Moff Tarkin announces that it has been dissolved) that it was used primarily as an entity to manage the day to day workings of the Empire.
Then Episodes I-III not only showed the Senate (then part of the Republic) in action, it lays at the Senate’s feet a significant part of the blame for the devolution of the Galactic Republic into an Empire.
We watch the Senate “debate” in what is surely one of the most implausible depictions of galactic-scale representative democracy anyone could come up with, in that it seems to differ not at all from the US Congress of the late 20th/early 21st century, right down to its dysfunctional behavior and its leader “paralyzed by scandal”. Presumably after nearly one thousand years of faster-than-light travel and all that entails, this galaxy far, far away full of bizarre sentient creatures would have come up with a system different from Athenian Democracy?
Note: I hope that even the most ardent fan of Episodes I-III would agree that the mysterious references to the “Imperial Senate” in Episodes IV-VI did not detract one bit from the story, while the more detailed depiction of the Senate in the prequels actually did detract from the story a bit because no matter whether you think it was correctly or incorrectly executed, it was detailed enough to become a distraction .I am using this just as an illustration. Let us not descend into a galactic-wide comment flamewar over it.
This example illustrates well, I think, what separates the impossible from the possible: information.
And there’s one other factor in play: subjectivity.
Impossible is subjective
Impossible. (adj.) Not able to occur, exist, or be done. — The Oxford English Dictionary
As we can see from the dictionary definition, impossible is generally used to define what can’t happen.
And yet, if you grabbed any well-educated person from the 15th century and told them that you could cure most mild visual ailments using a little red light, they would direct you to the nearest church and/or religious authority to be imprisoned, burned alive, or otherwise maimed, all while you insist in explaining that this “laser eye surgery” of yours is a real thing.
The dictionary is not wrong because it doesn’t bother itself with philosophy, but rather real-world use of terms. The definition sounds authoritative, and it makes the term appear absolute.
That’s not true, though, is it? What is “not able to occur, exist, or be done,” is a matter of not only information but also perspective. The word is in effect describing what hasn’t happened. Even more specifically, what we think/know/believe hasn’t happened.
Ironically, the increasingly widespread notion that there are no objective facts and that therefore everyone has a right to say or think whatever they want under any circumstances has led to reactionary behavior from people of all ages and creeds in which every group dismisses and tries to silence every other group. We can see everywhere the retrenchment of ideologies, a distrust and astonishing lack of curiosity (never mind discussion or acceptance) for things that challenge what we think or believe.
This topic of humanity’s postmodernist funk and our seeming embrace of a zero-sum mentality deserves to be discussed in more detail. For the moment I’ll just stick to the observation that the environment of ideas that we live in increasingly leads many people to propose solving problems not by actually solving them, but by attempting to erase the reality that caused them.
Immigration creates disruptions in society? Don’t try to solve that, just get rid of the immigrants. Renewable energy is expensive and destabilizes traditional energy markets? Stop doing that and go back to using coal.
Someone’s ideas are offensive? Tell them to shut up. And when they don’t, just riot so hard and loud that no one can have their ideas heard.
Is it a coincidence that “The Fate of the Furious,” the eighth movie in a series of a story has all the depth and complexity of what you’d doodle on a restaurant napkin is a smashing success? Or perhaps, more likely, a reflection of these same forces, proof positive that at the moment people prefer to see something predictable, simple, known?
So many problems appear impossible to solve, so we retreat from them.
Aristotle argued that probable impossibilities are preferable in art, but we would do well to to embrace them as preferable in general. In the realm of ideas, possible and impossible separate the universe into what is known and has been observed or agreed upon to be real, and what hasn’t.
It is not an absolute. It is retrospective, not prescriptive.
What I tell myself is: When facing a problem, don’t retreat into what is known. Ask why, unafraid of challenging what is established, and perhaps exposing that you don’t know something. Don’t attempt to change the environment to the one you’re comfortable with. Deal with what’s in front of you. Challenge your own assumptions before you start challenging those of others.
Impossible, just a word.
It is a word that points to a line, not a barrier. A line that is fluid, ethereal. One that we can literally move it with pure thought.
It is a word frequently used to define where things stop.
I think it’s time we started using it to define where we have to begin.