December 18, 2007

Impossibility Is An Impossibility

If somebody were to claim that he could turn lead into gold through the power of concentrated thought, what would you think about that claim? You'd think it was impossible, right?

Then you would be wrong!

A Matter Of Semantics

Lest you should think that this article is about startling advances in the field of alchemy, allow me to explain: it's a matter of semantics.

It is certainly improbable that lead can be turned to gold at all, much less with only the power of thought. It could also accurately be called unlikely, impractical or unrealistic.

Impossibility, however, is difficult to make a case for. For a thing to be impossible, it must not be able to happen, by anyone or anything, at any time, under any circumstances. To confidently declare a thing to be impossible is to assume way too much about the quantity and quality of what we know.

Standards of Knowledge

Claims regarding possibility and impossibility carry with them implicit demands for knowledge. To say a thing is possible, for instance, asks for a very broad range of knowledge. The standard is only can such a thing happen, ever? If it has happened even once, it is then known to be possible. The circumstances that made it possible may not be fully understood, but it happened. It may not even be known if it will ever happen again, or when. All that is known about a thing that is possible is that it could happen again. The degree of understanding required to define possibility is very small indeed.

Compare that to a thing that is imminent. To correctly declare an event to be imminent requires a wealth of knowledge about the factors and circumstances that typically lead to such an occurrence. You have to know so much about an event that you can readily understand the patterns that lead to it -- indeed, to understand it well enough to know that there are patterns involved.

To say that a thing is uncommon also implies some degree of knowledge about the event. To say it is uncommon implies that it does in fact happen, and that you've seen it happen often enough to understand its frequency of occurrence. Implicitly, it means that such a thing actually happens quite often -- just not as often as other more likely outcomes under similar circumstances.

But impossibility is a breed unto itself. Impossibility demands that a thing will not occur under any circumstances and at any time. Therefore, to accurately claim that a thing is impossible implicitly demands total knowledge -- certainty of impossibility demands omniscience!

In essence, impossibility is an impossibility. If we are intellectually honest with ourselves, we're forced to admit that we don't know enough about what we know to know what we don't know enough about.

Mistaken Impossibility

Often, when we say that a thing is impossible, what we actually mean is that it is difficult to achieve or that it has not been achieved in the past.

But take note! A thing that has never happened, even after a large number of attempts, does not qualify as a thing that is impossible. All that we can be certain of is that we have not yet discovered the conditions that would make such a thing possible.

If we were to mistake what seems to be impossible for what truly is impossible, we would put a permanent end to innovation and advancements in all fields of thought and scientific advancement. If people allowed themselves to stop at what seemed impossible, we would not have airplanes, wireless handheld computers or genetically engineered wheat, to name only a few examples.

Impossibility and Sensibility

But even in a world where impossibility is uncertain, there must also be sensibility. For instance, it wouldn't be sensible to doggedly continue to attempt something, taking your encouragement solely from the prospect that nothing is impossible. Although things may not technically be impossible, they can still be practically impossible.

Consider the case of alchemy. Many people in history have wasted many efforts attempting to turn lead (or other elements) into gold. The track record shows that such a thing is extraordinarily difficult to accomplish. We could continue to fight that fight, armed with the comfortable fact that we do not fully understand quantum mechanics. Indeed, as we continue to learn more about what makes atoms what they are, we may well discover some day that alchemy is ridiculously easy!

But making it happen requires a LOT more knowledge than we currently have. And therefore, it would not be practical to pursue.

An Intelligent Approach to Impossibility

If you want to make the impossible happen, here is a rule of thumb: take it a step at a time.

For instance, if you wish to build a teleportation device, you wouldn't just go to the local surplus store and start putting something together with the expectation that you will get there by trial and error. You need to take it a step at a time!

The first step is to determine not whether a teleporter is possible, but to determine under what conditions a teleporter could be possible. Then, determine what events might create such conditions. Are there things that could be done (by a teleporter, for instance) that could manipulate those factors? Continue working along those lines by nailing down how it could be possible instead of whether or not it is. As the idea becomes more concrete and better understood, then you are ready to approach its particulars.

As you can see, much of the initial investment in such an endeavor is only time and thought. If you put considerable thought into the matter, and you feel that you are no closer to a solution, then you have discovered only that it is beyond your understanding at the time (and not that it is impossible).

Impossibility is Liberating

There's something particularly liberating about the malleable nature of impossibility. Too often, we limit ourselves by claiming that things are "impossible" for us -- even if they are quite simple things! We can feel trapped in a dead-end job and despair that it is "impossible" to get a better job. We can become disheartened after several lousy dates and begin to believe that it is "impossible" to find a person that we belong with. We can look at an overwhelming amount of debt and worry that it would be "impossible" to ever catch up.

But take heart. A sense of impossibility is only an indication that you've given up too soon. It says that you haven't explored all of the avenues yet. Impossibility is a call for greater creativity and for new ways to approach a problem. Remember, impossibility is best tackled when you start with the assumption that it IS possible, and then determine what conditions would make it possible.

It becomes possible to pay off a sizable debt, for instance, when you ask for a much deserved raise, sell your house and apply the proceeds to your debt, live in an apartment or with family while you get back on track, stop eating fast food for lunch, and so on.

It becomes possible to find a better job when you get clear with yourself about the things you don't like about your current job and the things that a new job would have to do to be better. It becomes possible when you define what work you want to do, and then tell everybody you know what you are looking for.

It becomes possible to find the love of your life when you are clear about what kind of a person that would be and brainstorm the kinds of places where a person like that can be found.

Impossibility is only a problem that either hasn't been properly defined or a search for a solution that has not been exhaustive. So, what are the areas in your life where you have allowed the "impossible" to hold you back?

Also At Babblermouth:
Financial Freedom Series 1 -- Cause and Effect
The Next Big Challenge
A Mentor For The Hopelessly Introverted

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