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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