Is The Adjacent Possible Ontologically Real?

Originally published on May 16, 2011 1:29 pm

In this post I hope to put together three ideas, two I have posted about in the past: 1) Is Res Potentia, the realm of the "Possible", ontologically real? 2) Is "The Adjacent Possible" ontologically real? 3) Can we often not prestate the becoming of the biosphere, econosphere and culture into its Adjacent Possible?

I think the answer to all three above may be "Yes". If so, it may constitute part of a new world view.

  1. In past posts I have noted that R. Feynman's formulation of quantum mechanics in terms of a sum of "all possible histories", is consistent with an ontologically real Res Potentia. I briefly summarize the argument. Feynman says we must think of a single photon taking all possible paths through the two slits of the two slit experiment. Then he must say that photon "Possibly does and possibly does NOT pass through the left slit." But this is NOT a contradiction. Thus, Feynman's formulation EVADES ARISTOTLE'S "LAW OF THE EXCLUDED MIDDLE", WHERE "A AND NOT A" IS A CONTRADICTION. C.S. Pierce noted that Actuals and Probables obey the Law of the Excluded Middle, Possibles evade that Law. "A is possibly true and possibly false." is NOT a contradiction. Thus, I propose, quantum mechanics is consistent with an interpretation in which unmeasured quantum processes, captured by the Schrodinger wave equation, concern ontologically REAL Possibles: Res Potentia and Res Extensa linked by quantum measurement.
  2. In past posts, I have introduced the idea of the "Adjacent Possible", first with respect to a flask of 1000 kinds of organic molecules, the current Actual, and the set of "Adjacent Possible" new molecules that might be formed in a single reaction step. Stephen Johnson, in his recent acclaimed book, "Where Good Ideas Come From", builds upon my own point that the evolution of the biosphere and technology advance into an Adjacent Possible. His image is, roughly, that the strange and beautiful truth about the Adjacent Possible is that it is like a room. When you enter the room, you find three doors. As you enter any of these you find, forever, a new room with three doors.
  3. In Reinventing the Sacred, and past posts I've discussed the evolution of the biosphere by Darwinian preadaptations, or exaptations. A preadaptation is a causal feature of an organism of no selective use in the current environment that may become of selective use in a different environment, often yielding a new function. To repeat my favorite example, swim bladders, adjusting neutral buoyancy in the water column, evolved from the lungs of lung fish. As in previous posts I ask: Did a new function come into existence in the biosphere? Yes, neutral buoyancy. Did the swim bladder change the future evolution of the biosphere? Yes, new fish with swim bladders, new proteins, and new empty niches. A bacterium could evolve only able to live in swim bladders, which afforded a new empty Adjacent Possible niche in the biosphere. Note that NO selection acted to "create" the new empty adjacent possible niche as a new niche, although selection probably acted in the evolution of the swim bladder itself. Thus the biosphere is building, WITHOUT SELECTION, its own ever NEW Adjacent Possible Empty Niches into which it evolves. Then I ask my third question: Can we prestate all the possible Darwinian preadaptations, say just for humans? NO. We cannot. The becoming of the biosphere into the very Adjacent Possible it persistently creates, without natural selection "doing the creating", cannot be said ahead of time.

Let's take an Adjacent Possible of the econosphere, as Johnson would have us do. Again in a past post I've mentioned the Japanese man in the tiny apartment with 2,000 books and a new baby. He scanned his books into his new iPad, sold the books, and had more space, THEN REALIZED HE HAD A NEW ADJACENT POSSIBLE BUSINESS OPPORTUNITY. He soon was in business offering his services to others in tiny Japanese apartments with too many books.

Note that, like the Adjacent Possible new empty niche that the swim bladder afforded, with no natural selection for that niche as a new niche, the same is true here. Apple did not intend, or presumably also did not foresee that in inventing iPad it was thereby, with no extra anything, ENABLING a new Adjacent Possible business opportunity in Japan. Like the evolution of the biosphere, the evolution of the economy is creating new business opportunities willy nilly, with little or absolutely no foresight or intent. Thus grows a supracritical economy.

Now, let's imagine that this man went to a "micro" Venture Capitalist. "I have a new business idea, here is the business plan, market, costs, risks, and potential return. Will you invest 200,000 yen for 40 percent of my new business idea?"

Well the micro VC either says, "Yes" or "No" or barters. But here is the new issue for us: What is the ontological status of the "New Adjacent Possible Business"? Is this possibility REAL?

The new adjacent possible business is surely treated by both the entrepreneur and micro VC person as a "real possibility". Is it?

I think with increasing confidence that the new business possibility is an ontologically real Possible, but is not, of course, yet Actual.

Can we typically prestate all these weird new businesses? No. When the computer was invented no one alive could have prestated the World Wide Web, Facebook and its role in the Arabic world today. We are in the same situation we are with respect to swim bladders and Darwinian preadaptations. We often cannot prestate that which will become.

And now we broach the idea that what will become emerges out of an often unprestatable and ontologically REAL Adjacent Possible, here in the economy. If Feynman above gives grounds to think of an ontologically real Res Potentia, whence an ontologically real Adjacent Business Possibility?

One answer is an ontologically real and responsible free will. In past posts I've discussed non-algorithmic and non-random Trans-Turing systems as a potential source of an ontologically real free will.

Then all this "becoming" emerges out of a real Possible and very often we cannot prestate it, but we can live it, awed.

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