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Ontology

The Structure of Possibility


William L. Reese
SUNY of Albany
ABSTRACT: I call attention to the following theses concerning possibility. 1)
Anything that has become actual must have been possible in the period of time
immediately preceding its actualization. 2) The logically possible is a conception, and
conceptions exist within the mind. 3) The possible is not a mere name. 4) The
possible is not a mental entity and that alone. 5) Every possibility, whether mental
entity or not must be, or image, an ontological entity, real although not (yet) actual.
6) For all we know logical possibility is the sufficient condition of ontological
possibility. 7) Philosophers who lack the category of ontological possibility
nonetheless refer to it as an implicit, if hidden, feature of their systems. 8) In some
part of the period of time preceding its actualization, an ontological possibility
becomes a nascent actuality, and external consistency a necessary condition for
nascency. 9) The rise or fall of energy level through directed energy vectors, on
human and nonhuman levels, is the third condition for the actualizing of possibilities,
or for their failure to actualize.

I call your attention to ten theses concerning possibility which seem to me to be defensible:
(1) Anything that has become actual must have been possible in the period of time
immediately preceding its actualization.
(2) The logically possible is a conception, and conceptions exist within the mind.
(3) The possible is not a mere name.
(4) The possible is not a mental entity and that alone.
(5) Every possibility, whether mental entity or not must be, or image, an ontological
entity, real although not (yet) actual.
(6) For all we know logical possibility is the sufficient condition of ontological
possibility.
(7) Philosophers who lack the category of ontological possibility nonetheless refer to
it as an implicit, if hidden, feature of their systems.
(8) In some part of the period of time preceding its actualization, an ontological

possibility becomes a nascent actuality, and external consistency a necessary


condition for nascency.
(9) The rise or fall of energy level through directed energy vectors, on human and
non-human levels, is the third condition for the actualizing of possibilities, or for their
failure to actualize.
(10) Ontological possibilities have the form of the future.
I shall now comment on (1) through (6), and (10).
(1) Unable to think of any conditions which would falsify, or even qualify, I take it to be
necessarily true. For simplicitys sake alone, I insist on the necessity of its possibility in an
immediately preceding time, while not denying that it may also have been possible in a longer
stretch of time prior to its having become actual. It would be reasonable to believe this longer
stretch of time to be the normal case. Also, its possibility may be necessary, even though the
likelihood of its actualization is merely probable, and however slightly probable. We are interested
in determining the nature of this possible prior to its actualization. We approach the question
through consideration of three relevant definitions of the possible suggested by Bruce Aune. Aune
never uses the term possibility in his definitions, believing the term to suggest that the possible is
an entity; and his program of ontological reduction is devoted to redescribing abstracta out of
existence.
We shall consider Aunes definitions without preserving the niceties of his program, at least partly
because of our belief that, on analysis, there is an end to redescription, and possibilities do turn
out to be entities, although of an unusual kind. From now on I shall use the terms possible and
possibility as synonyms, employing either or both, somewhat randomly.
(2) Aunes first definition, that of the logically possible, defined as "the proposition that p does not
imply a contradiction," says to me that the logically possible is, first of all, a conception. As a
conception, there is no question but that it exists within the mind. I do not know that Aune would
agree. However it may be for him, Berkeleys distinction between what exists within, and without,
the mind works for me. Nor do I believe that the mind-brain problem need arise here. I do note
that no analysis of the brain waves which may be charted when one thinks of Platos idea of
justice can yield that idea, or any idea, of justice. From the intensional side of things, at least,
mental activity is made up of conceptions. I think that is all I need, even if extensionally it is
composed of brain waves, passing through neural connections, and the like.
That the logically possible exists within the mind is convenient for getting on with the task of
separating apparent logical possibilities, which harbor contradictions, from genuine logical
possibilities which do not. Existence within the mind allows one to probe for the condition of
consistency. While consistency is no guarantee that qualifying logical possibilities have an
extramental existence (as actualities), no one expects to find contradictions existing outside the
mind. Some believe that they do not exist even within the mind, that a so-called contradiction
within the mind is not a single mental entity, but two opposed entities, which we insist on jamming
together, even though we never quite succeed in thinking them together. Their apparent
togetherness is the result of the mind quickly strobing between two conceptions which are
inconsistent with each other. When we find, however, that an apparent possibility is logically
possible, we accept it as a candidate for existing also outside the mind. (Such finding is, of course,
provisional in the sense that anything we take to be logically possible might contain a lurking

contradiction; but everyone agrees, I think, that the inconsistent has the negative purchase on
actuality suggested here.)
Have logical possibilities, i.e., consistencies, a positive purchase on actuality corresponding to the
negative purchase of inconsistencies; that is to say, are they also ontologically possible, as
inconsistencies are ontologically impossible? We shall consider this question in the context of the
three interpretations of the possible commonly offered in the history of philosophy. The three are:
(a) The possible is a mere name (nominalism). (b) The possible is a mental entity and that alone
(conceptualism). (c) The possible is an ontological entity, real although not (yet) actual
(philosophic realism in my 1952 designation).
(3) The condition of consistency eliminates the first of the three interpretations on the following
grounds: Were the possible a mere name, and that alone, its manner of existence would be that of
a flatus vocis, and that alone. But a flatus vocis is something actual, a puff of air, and not
something possible. If the possible were only an actual flatus vocis and nothing more then a
possible flatus vocis would be a contradiction, since it is nothing actual, and therefore likewise not
anything that is logically possible. Since a possible puff of air is not a name, it could not be a mere
name and that alone.
If the possible is not a mere name but a mental entity, it is some form of abstractum and the
locution possibility with its entitative suggestiveness becomes entirely appropriate.
Although the argument is framed in terms of possibility in general, we apply it in the first instance
to logical possibility, the only type of possibility now before us. It remains to be seen whether we
can advance beyond "logical possibility." If not, then all possibility is logical possibility, and that
alone. For the moment we say merely:
(4) Were the possible a mental entity and that alone, it would be no more than a mental possibility.
Were it to exist as an entity in the mind then, on the interpretation in (2) above (that contradictions
do not exist, strictly speaking, within the mind), it is a genuine logical possibility. If, however, it
exists in the mind alone, then in actualizing, the most it could become is a mental actuality. But a
mental actuality, having no extramental reference, has not actualized, after all, and remains a
mental possibility, i.e., there is no difference in meaning between the phrases "mental possibility"
and "mental actuality."
Nominalists and conceptualists, when speaking of possibilities actualizing, while confining their
existence to the mind, seem to be claiming that these actualizing logical possibilities leap out of the
mind into actuality. That would seem to be a miracle. Most of us mean, I suggest, that logical
possibilities somehow image ontological possibilities, or they are, at the same time, logical and
ontological; and it is their latter aspect which, already outside the mind, turns into actualities. The
same argument can be made with "logical possibility." Were a logical possibility, pure and simple,
to actualize it would become a logical actuality. But either "logical actuality" has the same meaning
as "logical possibility," or else a "logical actuality" is the same as an "ontological possibility." There
is an issue here, however, which we shall access below.
(5) The parenthetical "yet" in the fifth proposition signifies that only ontological possibilities
become actual; it is not meant to imply that every ontological possibility becomes actual.
If (3) and (4) are acceptable, the only way to move from logical possibility to actuality is through
ontological possibility whose actualization can produce something in the actual world. The point of

(3) is that consistency is the sufficient condition of logical possibility. As sufficient condition of
logical possibility it is also, and inevitably, a necessary condition for ontological possibility (since
nothing inconsistent in itself could be either ontologically possible or a condition of ontological
possibility). Is logical possibility also a sufficient condition for ontological possibility? If so, then (a)
logical possibilities are eo ipso ontological as well. If (a) is accepted, then logical possibilities have
a positive purchase on ontology, paralleling the negative purchase of inconsistency (aka,
impossibility). If consistency is merely a necessary condition of ontological possibility, then (b) at
least one further condition must be added to logical possibility in order to reach ontological
possibility. A further condition is readily at hand. Consistency with the laws of nature (external
consistency) may serve as a second condition, supplementing the first condition of logical
possibility (internal consistency). If nothing else, internal and external consistency make a nice pair.
(6) Certainly, what is not consistent with the laws of nature cannot become actual. If inconsistency
with the laws of nature leads to impossibility might not internal and external consistency be joint
conditions for possibility; and perhaps, if there are no further conditions, for actuality as well? Let
us call the expansion of (6) to include external consistency (6b). In (6b) the idea of a unicorn is
logically possible because internally consistent (let us suppose this to be the case); but not
ontologically possible because inconsistent with the laws of nature. The contrapositive, "What is
consistent with the laws of nature can become actual" would seem to follow. If it does then, since
it can become actual it would seem, by (1), to have been antecedently possible. From the possible
worlds standpoint, which we adopt only for the sake of the example, in some possible worlds the
laws of nature are consistent with the unicorn idea. In those worlds the unicorn is both logically
and ontologically possible. In worlds like ours the unicorn is only a logical possibility. In the
worlds of Peirce and Whitehead where the laws of nature change, evolving and devolving, the
unicorn idea might well be merely logically possible in some periods of time, while both logically
and ontologically possible in others. In all periods of time it would be logically possible unless, of
course, its idea contains a (lurking) contradiction.
But there is a counter-argument to the above. Consider the discovery of the top quark at the
Fermi Laboratory in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in the spring of 1995. As heavy as an atom of gold,
the top quark existed 10 billion years ago, under the early conditions of the universe, and had not
existed since, so far as anyone knows, until the time of the experiment. Then, under conditions of
intense energy produced by a particle accelerator the top quark appeared once again. Where had
it been in between? The natural response is to say that in between it had remained an ontological
possibility which lacked the conditions necessary for its actualization. Heisenberg made exactly
that response to the question where an electron is between orbits. It retreats, he suggested, into
possibility, and reactualizes in a different orbit. If this is so, is (6b) refuted, on the grounds that we
must take ontological possibility, no less than logical possibility, to be independent of the laws of
nature at any given time? One might express the point by saying that ontology is deeper than
cosmology.
Should ontology be deeper than cosmology, logical and ontological possibility are on the same
footing, internal consistency becomes a sufficient condition for ontological possibility, with external
consistency neither necessary nor sufficient for either one. In our example the actualization of the
quark was inconsistent with the present course of nature, although consistent with an earlier
course, now replicated in the particle accelerator. One response is to say that the laws of nature
are not different in the two cases; but that a change in conditions, i.e., in energy level, allowed the
quark to actualize. But how are we to think of conditions, courses of nature, and laws of nature?
Does a course of nature include only the conditions prevailing at a certain time, or both those

conditions and the laws governing them? And how are we to distinguish between conditions and
laws? Does an inoperant law of nature remain a law, while inoperant? Does the law hold even
when the condition, which would make it operant, is not present? We could say that inoperant
laws do not exist, operant laws do exist, and the shift between operant and inoperant is what
Peirce and Whitehead meant by the habit-taking feature of the universe. Our hold on these terms
is so tenuous, however, that it is difficult to determine what belongs to (6) and what to (6b); and
since the added condition in (6b) did not turn out to be helpful in the top quark example, we have
no reason not to remain with (6).
In keeping with (6) we have to say that the idea of the unicorn, if logically possible, is also
ontologically possible, although in some given stretch of the universe, perhaps in many or most
such stretches, the conditions allowing its actualization are not present.
(10) We can now say that where actual things have the form of the present (they are what they
are and the principle of excluded middle applies to them), the mode of reality of an ontological
possibility, real although not (yet) actual, is that of the "may be," a "may be which also may not
be." The first is determinate; the second only quasi-so, depending upon its degree of nascency.
We can also say that every actuality is related to a cluster of further possibilities; and that these
relate to still further possibilities. Where an entity in the modality of the present, the "is," will be
determinate, an entity sharing the modality of the future will have a forked nature, one fork for
"may be," the other for "may not be." Since every fork forks in turn, the future branches into a
pattern of possibilities beyond possibilities.
Aune urges that: "There could be a presumption in favor of accepting a certain general theory [of
abstract entities] only if the theory is relatively clear and determinate. But no such theory is actually
in hand for abstract entities. We have the words abstract entity, but almost no theory to back
them up." I deny that statement. The more than 200 references to eternal objects in the index to
Whiteheads Process and Reality outline an extensive theory of such objects which, at the very
least, refresh the interpretation I am pursuing. A page later (p. 75) Aune claims that abstracta are
"fundamentally mysterious." There is certainly something to that. While I dont pretend that they
are, or should be, commonplace my contention is that the fundamental mysteries of Platos
language with respect to participating in, partaking of, or exemplifying the forms are considerably
reduced when the line of truth is toppled forward into the stream of time so that the forms coincide
with possibilities. Such a move would endorse the "horizontal platonism" which Robert Pollock
finds in modern pragmatism of the non-revisionist sort.
Unlike vertical platonism, its horizontal form participates in the flow of time. Since actual things
have the form of the present, it seems reasonable to follow Peirce and Whitehead, giving
possibilities the form of the future. Starting with any actual entity in the present, the possible
branches in the following manner:

One might consider this to be too simple since, at times, one is aware of, e.g., 4 possibilities:

And some, although not Whitehead, have urged that a multi-valued logic is needed to handle the
future. On reflection, however, decision may be considered to be 2-valued. When I am
considering A, the decisions are:

and the negated possibility, e.g. not-A, covers all of the remaining possibilities. If I have rejected
A, the decision becomes B or not-B. The A or not-A pattern continues through increasing
determination until some increasingly nascent possibility is translated into actuality. The process
represented by forking follows an iteration into actuality of Peirces triadic structure:

When considering A,B,C, or D, one is really considering A or not-A, B or not-B, C or not-C, D


or not-D, in a triadic pattern gradually becoming more determinate. Our interest, quite often,
extends not to the chain, but centers on A or not-A: "Will there be a sea fight tomorrow, or not?"
We simply prescind A or not-A from the chain of possibilities which might occur as alternatives to
a sea fight. When we think of A,B,C, and D as equally possible, we have jammed 4 triads into a
single tetrad. This is a decision that the chain of triads can be safely ignored for the sake of
highlighting A,B,C, and D.

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