Possibility: Part 4

Time and again, I get tripped up by my knowledge and my knowledge about my knowledge.

How often I think to myself I just know how a situation is, or how a situation is going to go, or how a person will be when I talk to them.

Yet that “I just know” keeps me from attending to what is actually happening and what a person is actually saying. And it keeps me from encountering anything really new. My filter of “knowledge” labels and shrink-wraps every situation and person before I even encounter them.

In our society, knowledge, reasoning, rationality is all. What cannot be known is not worth knowing. What cannot be known does not exist. If Kafka were portraying our condition afresh we would wake and consult the mirror to find ourselves transformed into a quadratic equation.

And yet the bounty of the world lies outside knowledge and any knowledge about knowledge. The bounty of the world lies in the realm of possibility.

Communicating possibility in a world of knowledge

Communicating about the realm of possibility is a tricky matter. We have only the tools of knowledge to communicate about something that lies outside knowledge.

It’s also easy to get waylaid by the common meaning of possibility: some set of circumstances that may or may not happen in the future; ie, possibility as probability.

Consider there is another kind of possibility that has nothing to do with future hoped-for circumstances. It is a kind of possibility which inheres in our everyday world, running like a subterranean river below the apparent surface of people and things and events. A kind of possibility that exists now and at every moment as itself: as possibility.

I use the image of a river as a tribute to the tremendous phrase I heard recently on a program about gambling. The speaker, a philosopher, raised the startling suggestion that one of the attractions of playing poker machines for the chronically addicted was the encounter with

the stream of indeterminacy.

That’s it! The stream of indeterminacy is the realm of possibility, the realm in which things and people and events have not yet been determined, not yet fixed, assessed or shrink-wrapped. Not yet known.

Possibility is the magic thing

The philosopher suggested that the connection with this other realm, the “stream of indeterminacy”, is the real high of the gambling experience.

In other words, it is possibility, not the win, which compels the gambler.

What I like about this speculation is that it also accounts for the gambler’s perseveration. Once the gambler has a win, they’re back in the world of knowledge, the determined, the fixed. What do they do then? Why, most often, they dive straight back into the stream of indeterminacy.

Contrary to what our veneration of knowing and knowledge might lead us to expect, it is the encounter with the realm of unknowing, the opening up to it, which compels and transforms our lived experience.


Image: The purple noon’s transparent might, Arthur Streeton, 1896

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6 thoughts on “Possibility: Part 4

    • Yep, it’s probably even more necessary with people than anything else. Sometimes I do this thing esp when I’m about to speak to someone on the phone. I take a few seconds to create the thought that “I know nothing” and then I call. Every time I do this the conversation is brilliant. I’d do it all the time only sometimes I forget or I go back to thinking “I just know”.


  1. Like that post. To me “possibility” is well expressed in the Buddhist concept of Impermanence: that nothing continually/permanently abides in it’s own state, but is in a constant state of change or flux, each event conditioned by the previous event that happened before.
    While possibly frightening, the notion is basically a positive one, leaving room for change, possibility and ever new opportunities.
    Pretty trippy.


    • I think the constant state of change or flux conveys well the sense of not-fixedness of possibility. Where it may differ from the Buddhist concept is that there’s no idea of each event being conditioned by a previous one. Possibility is the source of the ever new; it’s not linked or given by the past.


  2. Thanks for introducing me to Arthur Streeton’s work. How well he has captured a large river (which river?) in its lazy season.

    I suppose we need a balance between indeterminacy and what is known and fixed. In an earlier part of my life, I designed computer systems. The beginning of each project was thrilling and terrifying. It was like trying to build a bridge from here to the unknown.


    • So glad you respond to Arthur Streeton. This painting was on the cover of an art book I won as a child and it’s a favourite. In real life, it’s big and square and the hot noon-day haze radiates from it. I think this is the Hawkesbury River which runs into Sydney Harbour.

      The computer system metaphor is a good one. Building in nothingness.


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