The Impossible

Have you ever seen a haired turtle or a horned rabbit? Or for that matter, have you ever found a human-faced ox, a tailed human, or fiery water, anywhere on the earth? Hearing the question, you may think I’m crazy, but it could be not I, but nature that goes beyond your understanding. The seemingly impossible may, it seems to me, sometimes be possible, as thinkers and philosophers throughout history have long thought.

Pros and Cons of the (Im)possibility of the Impossible

Historically, from time to time, apparently impossible things have attracted thinkers in both East and West. Thinkers of the Vaisheshika school, one of the six orthodox schools of Hindu philosophy in ancient India, argued against the existence of a haired turtle or a horned rabbit; the Pre-Socratic philosophers suggested there might accidentally have been, in the course of evolution, creatures such as a human-faced ox. In ancient China, from the writing of Taoists, we can infer that they thought that there could have been fiery water in the process of cosmogenesis. You might dismiss their existence as impossible: a haired, turtle, a horned rabbit, a human-faced ox, or fiery water. However, it seems that the impossibility of the impossible is open to doubt. Whether the impossible is (im)possible or not still remains a mystery.

There Is no Haired Turtle

Let’s see how philosophers have discussed the (im)possibility of the impossible. The impossible, in Hindu Philosophy, was called the Absolute Negation (see Indische Philosophie, by Otto Strauss). Negation, one of the categories the East like to base its philosophy on, was treated by the Vaisheshika school. Negation includes basically three kinds: Not-Yet Generated Negation, Already-Gone Negation and Absolute Negation. For example, when you are making a model plane and are not finished with it, or when you break a model plane after you complete it, then the model plane, in either case, is a Negation. The first case is Not-Yet-Generated Negation, and the second is the Already-Gone Negation, literally translated.

If a turtle is a reptile living in water, is grabrous, with a soft body and a hard shell, and if hair belongs only to hairy creatures such as certain mammals, according to this definition or classification, then there cannot be such a thing as a haired turtle. Hair and turtle are each subsumed under different categories; they, logically, never merge. Turtles are without hair; hair belongs to living things that are not grabrous, so a haired turtle can never exist, which is an Absolute Negation. The Absolute Negation is what cannot be generated either in the past, present, or future.

In my opinion, this idea of the Absolute Negation is similar to the concept of the law of noncontradiction in logic, which states that contradictory propositions cannot both be true and not true in the same sense at the same time; for example, the two propositions “A is B” and “A is not B” are mutually exclusive. Turtles are grabrous, and hair belongs to those not grabrous. And to mention a haired turtle is to be in contradiction. You might well say that the concept of the Absolute Negation is an ancient allegory of the law of contradiction.

There Was Once a Human-Faced Ox in Evolution

In ancient Greece, you find two philosophers, Anaximander and Empedocles, whose theories concerned the generation of monster-like creatures in the process of evolution. Bertrand Russell, in A History of Western Philosophy, summarized Anaximander’s theory, writing,

“Living creatures arose from the moist element as it was evaporated by the sun. Man, like every other animal, was descended from fishes. He must be derived from animals of a different sort, because, owing to his long infancy, he could not have survived, originally, as he is now.” [1]

It seems to me that this idea inspired Empedocles, who, according to Aetius, thought of a gradual generation of a complete life form, saying,

“…the first generation of animals and plants were not complete but consisted of separate limbs not joined together; the second, arising from the joining of these limbs, were like creatures in dreams; the third was the generation of whole-natured forms; and the fourth arose no longer from the homogeneous substances such as earth or water, but by generation, in some cases as the result of the condensation of their nourishment, in other, because feminine beauty excited the sexual urge; and the various species of animals were distinguished by the quality of the mixture in them.” [2]

Anaximander thought of evolution of a life form, which Empedocles tried to expound concretely and rather grotesquely. What Empedocles meant is that, at the time of Strife ― the world is alternately subject to Strife and Love ― parts of living things, plants and animals, were severed and in want and search of the other parts for union, desperately wandering, as is shown in one of his fragments,

“… many heads sprung up without necks and arms wandered bare and bereft of shoulders. Eyes strayed up and down in want of foreheads.” [3]

When Love prevails, the parts come together to try to form a whole body, often in vain. It was at this stage that, due to random combination of parts, creepy creatures such as a human-faced ox emerged.

Empedocles’s imagination of separate limbs getting together may strike you as funny, uncanny and shady, but when you conceive of the theory of symbiogenesis, two independently living organisms merging together to form a more developed and complex one, you might be convinced. Just as aerobic bacteria and cyanophyta integrated and came to coexist to form a prokaryotic cell, so did limbs and eyes and other parts of a human body came together, some fitting in and surviving, and some not and perishing, one of which was a human-faced ox. Contrary to the Vaisheshika school’s idea, which I mentioned above, there may have been a haired turtle, something Empedocles could have remarked. Thinking along these lines, it can safely be said that the impossible is actually possible in a series of trial and error of life development.

There Once Was Fiery Water in Cosmogenesis

Now let’s see how Chinese philosophers gave a detailed account of the generation of the impossible. In Chinese philosophical tradition, what changes into the basic substances ― wood, fire, earth, metal, and water―is Qi, or the primary air, the Ying and the Yang, forming a human at last. It was Taoists, especially Liezi, who delved into the formation of everything in the universe, both living and nonliving, in terms of cosmogenesis, though rather roughly. Well, why I’m writing this is because in this process seems to be found the said fiery water, an impossible combination of fire and water: What people believe to be impossible was, in fact, possible in Leizi’s viewpoint.

Liezi, in the first chapter of his book Liezi, concerning the beginning of the cosmos, wrote,

“…there was the Vacuum, the Origin, the Beginning, and the Essence. In the Vacuum, Qi was not yet manifest; in the Origin lay the beginning of Qi; in the Beginning lay the beginning of material form; In the Essence lay the beginning of the basic substances. When Qi, form and substance were still blended together it is called Chaos. Chaos means that all things were intermixed and not yet separated from each other.” (My translation)

Now think about what Liezi called Chaos. In Chaos, since all the things were fused and not segregated, it is logical to suppose that in Chaos, the five essential substances ― wood, fire, earth, metal, water ― were fused, one and the same, and yet distinct, each having its own form. This is why it can be assumed that fiery water could be found in Chaos. Even if fire and water conflicted with one another, it did not prevent them from being as one. The impossibility of combination was, at one point in cosmogenesis, not impossible.

When there is water, there is no fire; when there is fire, there is no water. Water has the power to put out fire, they are not compatible with one another, so they cannot be seen at the same time. In this sense, there is contradiction between them, fire and water. I don’t think scientists and logicians agree with their simultaneous existence, as with the Vaisheshika school. Fiery water is an Absolute Negation in the sense of the Hindu philosophy. However, the Greeks could be of the opinion that fiery water is no more impossible than a human-faced ox, given that everything, living and nonliving, is a result of a succession of gradual developments, some stage of which abounded with ambiguities.

Science Says

To make a long story short, the Indians thought the impossible was impossible, whereas the Greek and the Chinese imagined the impossible to be, at least in some point of time, not impossible. Now, what does science say about this? Does it submit to logic, the law of contradiction, saying the impossible is impossible? Or, with the help of philosophy, is it tolerant of contradiction, allowing for the existence of the impossible?

The concept of homology, an area of biology, tells us that a human has an organ which has the same origin as other animals that looks and functions otherwise. Homology is when parts of different organisms are alike in structure and function due to the fact that a corresponding part in a common ancestor differentiated in the process of evolution. What seems impossible at first can, in the eye of science, be not impossible in the last analysis. Life is more than just contradiction. Or you can say that there can be a winged human, just another example of a possible impossible from the viewpoint of homology.

An Edible Tarantula against Globalization

The world we live in now is distinct from other ages of human history. The key to this peculiarity is the ever ongoing globalization. Globalization is a process by which your experience of everyday life is becoming standardized all through the world. It often changes your whole system of category. Let’s see, as an instance, how category change concerning food happens in today’s world. In general, the line between what is edible and inedible differs from country to country, from person to person, but the line is more or less fixed; you cannot eat a stone even if you are starving to death. However, it seems to me that chances are not slim that a gradual but overwhelming merger into one global village is putting you in a situation where your sense of values get mixed and confused. Your Copernican Revolution may occur ay any time. Many of you might suppose it impossible to eat a tarantula. I believe the mere thought of biting one will give you the creeps, yet one day you may happen to watch a YouTube video, and find some people in Cambodia enjoy eating it, saying that the trunk is good and crispy. This will surprise you, upset your values, and revolutionize your Weltanschauung. What you thought to be inedible turns into edible. The impossible becomes not impossible through globalization.

There Can be Imagined a Limitless Plane without Friction

Again, what does science say about this? I’d like to remark that thinking of something as impossible may get you on track for the finding of a scientific law. Take Galileo’s thought experiment as an example. To refute Aristotle’s idea that forces are necessary to keep objects in motion, Galileo exerted imagination through a thought experimented. Galileo, in Two New Sciences, wrote,

“Imagine any particle projected along a horizontal plane without friction; then we know, …, that this particle will move along this same plane with a motion which is uniform and perpetual, provided the plane has no limits.” [4]

I think imagination clearly shows the way to the finding of a scientific law, inertia. The discovery of inertia entailed Galileo’s imagining the impossible as possible, at least in his genius mind. Fancying the impossible paved the way for a scientific discovery. Herbert Butterfield, in The Origins of Modern Science, wrote,

“… the modern law of inertia is not the thing you would discover by mere photographic methods of observation-it required a different kind of thinking-cap, a transposition in the mind of the scientist himself; for we do not actually see ordinary objects continuing their rectilinear motion in that kind of empty space which Aristotle said could not occur, and sailing away to that infinity which also he said could not possibly exist; and we do not in real life have perfectly spherical balls moving on perfectly smooth horizontal planes-the trick lay in the fact that it occurred to Galileo to imagine these.” [5]

It was logical but at the same time fancy imagination that contributed to the beginning of modern physics. Copernican Revolution requires that you imagine the impossible to be possible, a breakthrough of the human mind.

Dreams, from Mythos to Logos

Dreams can be another route to scientific discoveries, one of which was made by a renowned chemist. He described it in a speech given at the German Chemical Society: one night, August Kekulé, after a long discussion with his friends and acquaintances, on his way home on a deserted bus, struggling to find an answer to chemical conundrums, had a vision:

“I fell into a reverie, and lo, the atoms were gamboling before my eyes! Whenever, hitherto, these diminutive beings had appeared to me, they had always been in motion; but up to that time, I had never been able to discern the nature of their motion. Now, however, I saw how, frequently, two smaller atoms united to form a pair; how a larger one embraced the two smaller ones; how still larger ones kept hold of three or even four of the smaller; whilst the whole kept whirling in a giddy dance. I saw how the larger ones formed a chain, dragging the smaller ones after them, but only at the ends of the chain. . . The cry of the conductor: ‘Clapham Road,’ awakened me from my dreaming; but I spent part of the night in putting on paper at least sketches of these dream forms. This was the origin of the Structural Theory.”[6]

Another dream he had that was to lead to that discovery was seven years after the first one.

“…I was sitting writing on my textbook, but the work did not progress; my thoughts were elsewhere. I turned my chair to the fire and dozed. Again the atoms were gamboling before my eyes. This time the smaller groups kept modestly in the background. My mental eye, rendered more acute by the repeated visions of the kind, could now distinguish larger structures of manifold conformation; long rows sometimes more closely fitted together all twining and twisting in snake-like motion. But look! What was that? One of the snakes had seized hold of its own tail, and the form whirled mockingly before my eyes. As if by a flash of lightning I awoke; and this time also I spent the rest of the night in working out the consequences of the hypothesis.” [ibid.]

Before he had the dreams, he must have believed it impossible for the benzene to make a circle, which was why he couldn’t think of its structure at all. The dreams showed him the possibility of the seemingly impossible system. Hence the discovery of the benzene structure. The snake in his dream can be deemed the auroboros, a mythical creature found in ancient Greece. So this anecdote is a reinterpretation of myth, an example of human progress from mythos to logos, through the dream. Dreams can be modern mythology and the germ of science.

An imagination is a dream in waking, a dream an imagination in sleep. Either of which can be a process of creation or discovery. To imagine, as well as to dream, is to see the impossible as possible, and creation is to make the impossible possible.

Do You Believe in A Haired Turtle?

In short, the image of the impossible can be one way to a breakthrough not only in personal life but also in science: the concept of the Absolute Negation by The Hindu Visheshika school determines why the impossible is impossible; the thought of the Greeks and the Chinese have a lot to do with the idea of evolution of the living things and the universe during which the impossible came about; science is never far from the impossible; globalization is by necessity realizing impossibility. Now, do you believe in a haired turtle?


[1] https://erenow.net/common/a-history-of-western-philosophy/3.php

[2] https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/14932689.pdf

[3] https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Fragments_of_Empedocles

[4] http://galileo.phys.virginia.edu/classes/109N/tns244.htm

[5] https://archive.org/stream/originsofmoderns007291mbp/originsofmoderns007291mbp_djvu.txt

[6] http://www.worlddreambank.org/K/KEKULE.HTM

Hiroshi Satow is an unknown poet and philosopher, now teaching English and Philosophy to high school kids in Japan.


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