Tuesday, February 13, 2007

The Possible And The Real

Yves Tanguy (1900-1955) - Old Horizon, 1928

'I believe in the end we shall consider it evident that the artist in executing his work is creating the possible as well as the real. Whence comes it then that one might hesitate to say the same thing for nature? Is not the world a work of art incomparably richer than that of the greatest artist? And is there not as much absurdity, if not more, in supposing, in the work of nature, that the future is outlined in advance, that possibility existed before reality? Once more let me say I am perfectly willing to admit that the future states of a closed system of material points are calculable and hence visible in its present state. But, I repeat, this system is extracted, or abstracted, from a whole which, in addition to inert and unorganised matter, comprises organisation. Take the concrete and complete world, with the life and consciousness it encloses; consider nature in its entirety, nature the generator of new species as novel and original in form as the design of any artist; in these species concentrate upon individuals, plants or animals, each of which has its own character - I was going to say its personality (for one blade of grass does not resemble another any more that a Raphael resembles a Rembrandt); lift your attention above and beyond individual man to societies which disclose actions and situations comparable to those of any drama: how can one still speak of possibles which would precede their own realisation? How can we fail to see that the event can always be explained afterwards by an arbitrary choice of antecedent events, a completely different event could have been equally well explained in the same circumstances by another choice of antecedents - nay, by the same antecedents otherwise cut out, otherwise distributed, otherwise perceived - in short, by our retrospective attention? Backwards over the course of time a constant remodelling of the past by the present, of the cause by the effect, is being carried out.

We do not see it, always for the same reason, always a prey to the same illusion, always because we treat as more what is the less, as the less what is the more. If we put the possible back in its proper place, evolution becomes something quite different from the realisation of a program: the gates of the future open wide; freedom is offered an unlimited field. The fault of those doctrines - rare indeed in the history of philosophy - which have succeeded in leaving room for indetermination and freedom in the world, is to have failed to see what their affirmation implied. When they spoke of indetermination, of freedom, they meant by indetermination a competition between possibles, by freedom a choice between possibles - as if possibility was not created by freedom itself! As if any other hypothesis, by affirming an ideal pre-existence of the possible to the real, did not reduce the new to a mere arrangement of former elements! As if it were not thus to be led sooner or later to regard that arrangement as calculable and foreseeable! By accepting the premise of the contrary theory one was letting the enemy in. We must resign ourselves to the inevitable: it is the real which makes itself possible, not the possible which becomes real.'

From The Creative Mind by Henri Bergson