I recall that when I was a child I would occasionally become embroiled in arguments. This being the days long before Google, the notion of “fact checking” in real time was a science fiction fantasy. Nevertheless, I recall using the term “physically impossible” as a knockdown argument in rebutting claims. I wish I could remember where I picked up this term. I don’t recall it was from Star Trek, so perhaps it was my mother. If one of my little friends walked into an argument that could be countered with “that’s physically impossible” then I won!
Not surprisingly, as time went on I found myself using the term less and less. I honestly don’t recall the last time I adjudged something to be “physically impossible.” Nevertheless, over time, I’ve given the notion of things being “impossible” some degree of thought. I’ve concluded that possible vs. impossible is not a binary, but falls on a continuum. I’ve come to this conclusion partly because I believe there are different ~kinds~ of impossible, or different “flavors” if you will.
Consider the assertion “it’s impossible to eat the sun.” Indeed, that’s a good example of something that’s physically impossible. Now consider a different sort of assertion: “I could be President of the United States.” Sadly, with the nomination of Donald Trump, the strength of this argument is weakened, as Trump so lowered the bar of what would traditionally be obviously disqualifying behavior. Yes, I am ~legally~ allowed to be President, but beyond that I possess a set of social and cultural characteristics that would disqualify. We see that “legitimate candidacy” falls on a spectrum, and is not a binary, thus the possibility of Presidency also falls on a spectrum.
Consider the assertion “It’s possible that I’ll have sex with Elizabeth Taylor.” This is obviously IMPOSSIBLE, but impossible in a completely different way than eating the sun or becoming president. Death is a binary, as is time travel, as far as we understand the laws of physics and biology.
Consider the assertion “I could run a marathon race.” That may not be physically impossible. I would have to achieve many small goals before attempting the main goal. I have two legs, I can run, and I’m generally physically fit. Many in my cohort have achieved this goal. So we see that this example falls on a spectrum much closer to “possible” than “impossible.”
So why discuss this issue at all? Why analyze the notion of “impossible?” What is the value of thinking out loud about this issue? I believe it’s possible to make profound changes in one’s life for the better. It’s possible to change one’s emotional and physical well being. Sadly, some people simply label reasonable goals as “impossible” when they really are not. I suspect they may be conceiving possible and impossible as a binary when it should be viewed as a spectrum. This is a much more realistic way of thinking about the subject. Rational solutions to problems entail utilizing the best models of reality we can muster.