in Philosophy ~ read.

Impossible and "Impossible"

In English class they teach you to hook the reader with your first sentence and end with a mic drop. Which I do in most of my posts. I think. But I'm afraid this one begins by establishing a precise philosophical ontology (read: boring) that is self-referential within the context of the piece. In other words, we're going to define some words.

This piece is about impossibility. There's several different kinds of impossible and we need to get a few out of the way:

  • The logically impossible is impossible because of the linguistic properties it entails in the system of basic propositional logic.
    • I'm going to use capital-I Impossible as a synonym for logically impossible.
  • The poetically impossible feels impossible but is not logically impossible, even though it may seem that way.
    • "Impossible" in quotes will be used to denote this variety.
  • The practically impossible is both logically and poetically possible, but it simply can't be accomplished for reasons that are usually obvious and self-evident.
    • impossible, lowercase i.

This piece is about "Impossibility." But there's still some swamp to wade through before we get to the gold.

Examples of the Impossible

The below statement is true.
The above statement is false.

  • It is Impossible for either statement to be true (or false).

This statement is false.

  • It is Impossible for this statement to be true (or false).

The moon is made out of cheese.

  • This statement is not Impossible because it can take a truth value.

The moon is made out of cheese.
The moon is not made out of cheese.

  • It is Impossible for both statements to be true (or false).

The Impossible, being paradoxical, can take no truth value. A random jumble of letters like ksmvasdhfjp has as much "truth" as the plain English paradoxes above. Which is to say, they're all logically meaningless (makes for fun mind-bending however).

Examples of the "Impossible"

Depression:
I can't get out of bed because I'm depressed.
I'm depressed because I can't get out of bed.

Overeating:
I eat because I'm sad.
I'm sad because I'm overweight.
I'm overweight because I eat.

Employment:
Assume
1. I need a job in order to get experience. (A->B)
2. I need experience in order to get a job. (B->A)
3. I don't have experience. (~B)

Therefore
4. (via 2+3) I can't get a job. (~A)
5. (via 1+4) I can't get experience. (~B)
...ad infinitum.

Well, pal, I got good news for you. There's truth values here, so at least it ain't Impossible!

Poetry

I only pretend to like propositional logic, but I guess eating broccoli from time to time is probably good for you. I much prefer movies, literature, poetry, anything narrative. Y'know, aesthetic theory.

Here's The Eagle, a famous poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson:

He clasps the crag with crooked hands;
Close to the sun in lonely lands,
Ring'd with the azure world, he stands.

The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;
He watches from his mountain walls,
And like a thunderbolt he falls.

Trying to assign truth values to any stanza or word would be ridiculous. But they mean something, don't they? Unlike ksmvasdhfjp.

In the same way that "This statement is false" is logical meaninglessness masquerading as legible English, my examples of the "Impossible" are poetry masquerading as logic puzzles. Nevertheless they retain a grip on many individuals, as good poems are prone to do. How does that work? Obviously, some funky stuff is going on, which in psychobabble I'd coin something like "cross-gestalt affect transference"; largely unconscious attribution of emotive connotations from one context to another.

Let's break it down on the dance floor: The phrase "logic puzzle" evokes an ironclad, impenetrable, correct-and-it-can-be-no-other-way quality. "Poetry," on the other hand, evokes a quality of malleable interpretation. Which is to say...

Impossible

What makes my "Impossible" examples compelling, especially to individuals predisposed to logical aesthetics, is their logical quality, which, say, Tennyson's poem lacks. But simply recognizing their poetic nature isn't enough to magically cure the negative emotions associated with them. We're going to have to become poets ourselves.

The process of constructing poetry is called poïesis (poe-EE-sis), and novelist Joseph Heller was a master. Some of you may recognize his iconic double bind:

There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one's own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn't, but if he was sane, he had to fly them. If he flew them, he was crazy and didn't have to; but if he didn't want to, he was sane and had to.

Heller, true American Kafka that he was, penned Catch-22 as a satirical damnation of the WWII-era American military and its bureaucratic hypocrisy.

But let's not forget one thing.

It is poetry.

It is not reality.

Employment:
I need a job in order to get experience.
I need experience in order to get a job.

It is totally true that some employers have unreasonable expectations for their entry level positions. But how do you account for the fact that people with no experience break into these positions every day? A few hypotheses:

  1. The expectations are a filtering mechanism. Anyone who takes them literally will screen themselves out; "We don't want such candidates anyway."
  2. Nepotism—family or other connections pipe their kids into the job. It's corrupt, but there's really nothing you can do about this. Complaining about it tends to only make you feel worse.
  3. Positions without such draconian requirements do exist. Even if the above criteria were the standard, it would be an error to project them onto all entry-level positions in your given industry.

Consider also whether you would want to work for someone with such unreasonable expectations to begin with. Ask: Would they be a fair employer? Do they know how to properly set expectations? Potentially, but if you ask me, the evidence is against.

This is not a logic puzzle, this is poetry.

Depression:
I can't get out of bed because I'm depressed.
I'm depressed because I can't get out of bed.

No, silly, the real reason you can't get out of bed is that you're a paraplegic!

Forgive me the gallows humor, but there's some validity to the idea that we sometimes lie to ourselves to cover up bigger truths it would hurt too much to acknowledge. Sometimes we do this so well that we actually start believing the lie. Within your prerogative as a poet is the power to break the spell by making "ability to get out of bed" conditional on "can move arms and legs" instead of "lack of depression," and that's only if you insist on working within the logical aesthetic, much like you could insist on writing solely in iambic pentameter.

I recognize that major depressive disorder, as opposed to situational depression or simple sadness/feeling blue, is a serious, complicated, debilitating phenomenon. My goal is not to diminish the experience of anyone who suffers, merely to point out a narrative framing common among those who describe themselves as "depressed," a framing that is not nearly as airtight as some make it out to be.

This is not a logic puzzle, this is poetry.

Overeating:
I eat because I'm sad.
I'm sad because I'm overweight.
I'm overweight because I eat.

Once again, I won't pretend to have a universal solution, much less a solution. But this poem supposes that eating is the only way to deal with sadness. Is this true because it reflects the state of the world, or is it true because you want it to be true? Watch how quickly new clauses can be added to preserve the lattice of rationalization:

  • Would eating celery and baby carrots work?
    • "No, the food has to be tasty."
  • Might exercising help?
    • "Yes, of course."
  • How does "I'm overweight because I don't exercise" sound?
    • "Okay. I'm overweight because I eat AND because I don't exercise."

Of course, if it were that easy, obesity wouldn't be an issue. Eating healthy and exercising are very logical solutions. Fighting poetry with logic, as we saw with Tennyson's eagle, is futile. It would also be frankly insulting to the overweight to claim they haven't heard the above solutions before, much less a million times. Thus, the clauses I mentioned above are bad poetry; they move no one, they don't work.

This is not a logic puzzle, this is... some of you will have noticed that I've done something weird with the concept "logic" in this section. Pause for a moment and see if you can resolve what's going on.

Zeno's paradox:
I shoot an arrow at a target.
The arrow flies halfway, and halfway again.
Because it takes time to travel any distance
And there is an infinite number of halfways,
It will take an infinite amount of time for the arrow to hit the target.

"This isn't a double bind!" Yep, you got me. But it is a particularly fun example of the poetically impossible because it uses a strong guise of mathematical reasoning to make what anyone living would consider a ridiculous claim, practically speaking. Motion is obvious and apparent everywhere.

We are continually living a solution of problems that reflection cannot hope to solve.
-J. H. van den Berg

Instead of trying to resolve Zeno's paradox, I just want you to consider that it's a much stronger construction than the double binds above, and yet is still only poetically, and not practically, impossible.

Respite

What would motivate me to write this post? Surprised you should not be to learn I've gone through similar cycles in the past; only now do I find the words to articulate a path forward (at least for myself). That's right: I'm attempting to write good poetry. Hopefully some of it resonates. To repeat, I don't mean to diminish anyone's suffering, so if you're personally experiencing (or have experienced) any of these, or know someone who has, and took offense—I apologize.

But, now that we've shown that much of the poetically impossible is neither logically nor practically impossible, a good direction to explore is the difficulty of turning the "Impossible" into the possible. My theory is that much of this difficulty originates from our self-conception, our personal identities. But firstly, what does the actualization process look like?

Actualizing the "Impossible"

Actualization as I use it here means doing the "Impossible" or, if you prefer, making the "Impossible" actual, thus dissolving its "Impossibility," breaking the poetic cycle; the Impossible by definition cannot be actualized. Actualization requires recognition that the task is only "Impossible" and not Impossible or impossible, that it is "Possible" and possible; whether it is in fact possible is not for you to determine, but it is fully on your shoulders to make the "Impossible" "Possible." Through poïesis.

In order for praxis (possibility, practical action) to occur, it must first be imagined, must first undergo poïesis. We must come up with the math in order to launch a rocket1. And you must believe you can get up in the morning in order to do so.

Graph

Which is to say, belief is a necessary but not sufficient condition. But people, in general, are really bad at estimating things; calibrating internal beliefs is no exception. Couple this with our tendency to tie emotional states to words, and you have a mental system ripe for dysfunction. When someone tells me that something is impossible, I might check that person's background to determine how credible his statement is, but for me to convince myself of anything is easy because I know who I am. And when I believe, truly believe, that something is impossible, I simply stop considering the idea.

Back to self-defeating cycles. There seem to be two major components:

  1. Underestimating the size of the green or yellow rectangles.
  2. Being absolutely convinced that the estimate is accurate.

Of course, I will not pretend that a paraplegic can magically regain full control of his nervous system and live normally the next day. It is not Impossible for us to regrow his nerve endings and recalibrate his neural mapping—as it is not Impossible for my tinnitus to be cured—but medical technology simply isn't advanced enough yet, so these fixes must remain in the poetic realm. But I do fully believe—and it is an article of faith—that the "Impossible" can be overcome through good poetry.

Praxis

We are now going to turn a falsehood into a truth.
Forget my ontology for a second and consider: Is this not the very definition of impossible?

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.
-Marianne Williamson

Say the words: "I'm someone who goes to the gym."

This statement would feel 100% false to anyone who doesn't actually go to the gym (unless they were a pathological liar). If I were to go to the gym once this month, it still feels false, maybe 95%. Now if I went to the gym thrice a week for five months in a row, it starts feeling really true. And when my friends start calling me a "gym rat," then I feel, deep in my bones, that the statement is 100% true. I'm someone who goes to the gym.

Of course, what "feels true" for someone is necessarily individual; that's the nature of poetry2. You might have to go regularly for a year to feel confident about making that statement. You might not care about external verification at all. But I hope at least that this terminology is a useful way to think about it.

In other words...

Fake it 'till you make it.

However, if your identity is tied to "not being fake" and/or "being authentic," then this aphorism probably feels hollow and flat, and the degree to which you feel its fakeness depends on how strongly you're tied to your identity, how much "being authentic" matters to you. Unfortunately, if it matters a lot, and your identity is for instance "depressed," "overweight," or "unemployable," you are going to suffer.

Moreover, as crazy as this sounds... You are going to suffer because, yes, you want to suffer.

The persistence in development of the sole authority of embodied first-person perspective can actually be very detrimental. This seems particularly evident in the case of people suffering from eating disorders (e.g. bulimia or anorexia nervosa). In such instances, the person develops a distorted embodied perception of the self. The authority of first-person perspective becomes dictatorial, associated with social alienation and delusional self-identity, particularly grossly transformed body image despite clear contradictory social clues from attentive and caring others. Intersubjective clues are not properly integrated in the constitution of self-identity.
-Philippe Rochat, Others in Mind: The Social Origins of Self-Consciousness

If that wasn't crazy enough: It's okay to want your identity. For example, see the fat acceptance movement. There is nothing inherently wrong with being overweight, and many intelligent people are comfortable with their self-image regardless of what they eat and what the scale says. Same case for being depressed. It is 100% possible (though counterintuitive) to take pride in one's depression, or one's weight, and I do not believe it is anyone's place to pass moral judgment on individuals who choose to do so.

Which is not to say that I don't have my preferences. For instance, I would prefer if people stopped smoking and for the tobacco industry to shut down entirely; while people have their reasons for smoking, I value not having to breathe in their fumes. I would also prefer for people to stop eating overprocessed fast food, yet I recognize this is not feasible in impoverished communities / food-insecure areas where fresh produce is either not available or too expensive, as well as the dense networks of socioeconomicpoliticohistorical (SEPH) systems that may make it perfectly logical and rational for a particular individual to want to consume fast food in a particular circumstance (say, on a cross-country road trip, or starving to death in a barren desert).

To get even crazier, I would vastly prefer a world in which people weren't strongly tied to their identities. To my great dismay, not only do current SEPH systems not provide adequate conditions for such a world to exist, but the instincts for tribalism and faith (ideology adherence) seem evolved into our biology. So we gotta terraform our global culture while transcending our biological limitations.

But the first step begins with imagination 😋

Impostor Syndrome

Upon reading these two words, the perceptive ones will anticipate exactly what I'm going to say. Check and see if your understanding is accurate:

Anyone who's entered the professional workforce in any capacity (including academics) has felt impostor syndrome at some point in the careers. It's the feeling that you don't belong, that you got where you are by accident, that it's only a matter of time before everyone around you finds out you're a fraud. Well, I'm going to let you in on a little secret.

Impostor syndrome is the reason for your success.

It is what propels you to achieve what you achieve such that you won't be found out. It is, counterintuitively, the impulse to become that which you are not, so that you can escape whom you perceive yourself to be. That's right, impostor syndrome is the desire to become an impostor relative to the authentic self you are today.

So. Ask yourself: "Do I really want to stop feeling like an impostor?"

Zen

But you don't really want to be someone who wants to suffer, do you? "I'm a masochist." That feels wrong. Wronger than "I'm someone who goes to the gym."

I will now perform a magic trick known in some circles as "Hegelian synthesis" in which two seemingly diametrically opposed states—in this case authenticity (identity-stasis) and inauthenticity (identity-change)—are fused into a progressive unity—in this case, a paradoxical state which, for the context of this post, I'll call Zen. The authenticity of inauthenticity.

The implications are profound. Zen makes it possible to base your identity on the meta-process of progress and thus for you to feel genuine about being fake, legitimate about being an impostor, authentic about being inauthentic. Zen, then, is a liberating state that embraces change-as-stasis—improvement without sacrificing self-conception—and the opposite of narcissism, which is an object-level, emotionally predatory state of identity-stasis. For the sake of rhetorical embellishment: Where narcissism is authenticity, Zen is Authenticity.

By the way, in other circles, Zen goes by another name: Growth Mindset. And with that we've jumped from logic to poetry to Eastern theology to social psychology. Because you're already familiar with social psychology, I think this is a good point to end the post. Don't you?

Postscript

My diagram above wasn't accurate (improperly bounded), but sometimes accuracy impedes practicality. Poïesis is the realm of imagination; everything outside it is the cloud of nebulosity, that-which-has-not-yet-been-imagined.

Diagram 2

Alexander the Great didn't dream of Steve Jobs and iPads, nor Rasputin of airplanes. For logic as we currently conceive of it to exist, it had to undergo a procession of formalizations, but first it had to be imagined. So, logic is poetry.

Not that you'll win any favors barging into your philosophy department claiming "logic is poetry," but that's besides the point. The point is, firstly, to notice the emotional subtext behind how you relate to words and, secondly, more importantly, to realize it's possible for you to manipulate it; I've used "poetry" throughout the post to mean any number of (sometimes contradictory) things:

  • A frivolous mode of expression, divorced from the "more serious" logic
  • A form with immense emotional potential, for better or worse
  • The very mechanism of imagination, by which logic emerges

The second bullet is the one you should bite.

Footnotes

  1. Mathematicians are really spirit mediums in disguise. They spend years, sometimes decades mastering the intricacies of the craft (in any of its multifarious branches); only then are they allowed to pray for divine inspiration proper. To a few of His Chosen, like Terence Tao, the benevolent God teaches new words in the vocabulary of the universe with which they may weave poetry. The most beautiful poetry, which profane (read: basic) mortals such as I cannot and will never hear.

  2. Critics often deride the relativism entailed by Deconstruction, and some of their arguments to that end are indeed compelling. When I first encountered the school around 8 months ago, it sent me into a spiral of nihilism far deeper than the garden "life has no meaning" variety, into an endless succession of paradoxes that repeatedly threatened my grip on sanity—and I mean that in the firmest sense, sans romanticizing. But now that I've come to terms with it, the result is twofold: It has enabled me to repossess what I term the definitive capacity, and to grok—possess an intensely profound felt sense for—the previously trite phrase "You make your own meaning."