The Ladder of Possibilities

“Nothing is impossible” is a curious phrase. Despite its patent falsehood it is rarely challenged. A short Levenshtein distance away is “This is not impossible”, which is far more likely to hit the mark of truth and is usually what is meant in the first place. So why make such a unspecific and false assertion?

By using “nothing”, the phrase encourages us to think in general terms. It invites us to consider cases beyond the problem at hand – past occasions when we’ve considered something wouldn’t happen and then it did. This is why the phrase has currency, but it doesn’t stop it from being a tremendous cop-out, cutting short discussion of all the intricate details that determine whether things do or do not happen.

There is a second reason the phrase is tolerated: to challenge it is considered negative, even defeatist. But what can be defeatist about accepting, for instance, that you can’t have square circles, or that 2 will never be a larger number than 3?

The notion of impossibility is less appetising than possibility. Even those of use who study philosophy may only ever encounter impossibility in one of its forms: logical impossibility, the type of impossibility that forbids the existence of square circles and 4-sided triangles. Evidently this form is distant from what we normally mean when talk about possibility, it is a distillation of the everyday meaning, too potent for prolonged consumption, though an occasional sip may serve you well.

There is a richer way of thinking of possibility, introduced to me my philosophy tutor Bill Newton-Smith several years ago: why not consider possibility as having different grades? After all it’s impossible to download OpenSignal on Windows Phone at the moment, because we haven’t built it for that platform yet (sorry!) but this is not the same sort of possibility that prevents parallel lines from meeting. It’s also impossible for a person to jump from the earth to the moon (at least without the aid for some serious equipment), and this seems somewhat more impossible than downloading OpenSignal for Windows Phone (but, again, less impossible than the meeting of parallel lines).

It is helpful to think of a ladder of different grades of possibility, with each level reached new limits are encountered. Understanding this will give you a sharper sense of what can be done.

Here are a few candidate rungs for a Ladder of Possibilities:

  • Logical possibility, friend to philosophers, the top rung.
  • Physical possibility, “physical” here refers to physics, not human capabilities. This is the sort of impossibility that prevents matter or information travelling faster than the speed of light.
  • Technological possibility, allowed by current technology or technology that, to the best of our knowledge, could be produced.
  • Economic possibility, possible within the current global economic system.
  • Just-not-there impossible, “it is impossible to download WeatherSignal version 3.00”, she sobbed, “those misdirected developers at OpenSignal Inc. have spent too much time writing blog posts again”.
  • You can think of other rungs as well – for example: impossible given the time you have available, or your current skill level.

    With the exception of logical possibility, all of these type of possibility are either flexible, or have boundaries that are unknown. For instance, while we have extremely good reason to believe that nothing can travel faster than light, perhaps our current physics will be overthrown. This does not mean there do not exist things that are truly physically impossible, it just means we can’t be 100% certain what those things are. Technological possibility is even more contingent, it is not simply a case of not knowing where the borders are but of frontiers that are actively being challenged.

    Note the hierarchy of the structure, something can’t be technologically impossible and yet just-not-there possible, likewise things can’t be physically impossible but technologically possible. Impossibility trickles down, possibility does not trickle up.

    So maybe when people utter that infuriating refrain, nothing is impossible, perhaps they mean things like, “Sure, at one level this impossible – you just don’t know how to code right now, so how’re you going to build a ten million node sensor network? But, I mean, it could happen – after all there are billion Android phones out there, so get past that first rung and it can be done.”

    The OpenSignal Sensor Library
    Knowing where limits lie – and how you can move them – is much more useful than a blanket denial of their existence. This is one of the reasons why we’ve built the OpenSignal sensor library – by looking at the quantity of sensors in mobile devices right now (everything from BLE, to hygrometers, to accelerometers) it’s possible to dream realistically about the type of apps we can build.

    Maybe, just maybe, nothing is impossible is more subtle than I give it credit, maybe it taps into our innate awareness of different levels of what can be done, maybe I’m even wrong to accuse it of being a cop-out, after all … nothing is impossible.

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