The Possible, the Virtual, and Freedom

“The possible has no reality (although it may have an actuality); conversely, the virtual is not actual, but as such still possesses a reality.”

Giles Deleuze: Bergsonism, p.96

Confused thinking about the nature of possibility is responsible for much confused thinking about the nature of freewill, both on the side of the determinist and that of the libertarian. To attempt to bring some clarity to this state of affairs, the first half of this article will unpack the above quote from Gilles Deleuze in his book Bergsonism, while the second half will explore the ramifications a proper understanding of the possible has for freewill.

The Possible

What is possibility? A typical answer might sound something like the following: Possibility is the set of all outcomes which could conceivably come to pass. We can think of possibility in the context of evolution (although this will turn out to be a mistake, as we will see when we come to the section on the virtual). Over the course of time, life branched in certain directions, with each of these branches existing as one possible path evolution could have taken. Of course, at any one juncture, there were multiple possible branches life could have passed down, but only one could become reality. This seems fairly uncontroversial and unproblematic, but let’s dig a little deeper. Although the point isn’t usually explicitly made, possibility; e.g. the paths evolution could have taken, clearly pre-exist the subsequent reality. It would hardly make sense for reality to pre-exist the possible, or for a reality that hadn’t previously been possible to come about. The actual path evolution eventually ‘chooses’ is simply one of those pre-existing, multiple paths that evolution could have, but didn’t, ‘choose.’ In general, then, we must add to our original definition the notion that possibility precedes reality. Further, if the possible precedes the subsequent reality, then it must have some kind of present existence. This must also be added to our initial position. Possibility, then, as the set of all outcomes which could conceivably come to pass, is a genuine feature of present reality which pre-exists the reality that will eventually unfold. In addition, the possible is necessarily a future possible. In fact, the possible, as we’ve defined it here, is nothing more than the future. Thus, everything we have asserted of the possible must hold for the future as well. In other words, the future is the set of all outcomes which could conceivably come to pass, is a genuine feature of present reality, and pre-exists the reality that will eventually unfold. But hold on. What we have here is a far cry from our original “uncontroversial and unproblematic” definition. On the contrary, we now have bold metaphysical claims about reality (which now include mysterious entities called possibles) and time (in which the future, as the summation of these possibles, somehow co-exists with the present).

Of course you can, at the cost of much common sense, a certain amount of parsimony, and the testimony of actual experience, choose to bite the bullet on possibles and a future that already exists, but Deleuze (who was channelling Henri Bergson in that quote at the beginning of this article) suggests an alternative picture of possibility; one which avoids all of these metaphysical shenanigans. In a nutshell, he suggests that the possible is an illusion. To understand what Deleuze means by this, we first need to take a slight detour to see how he distinguishes the real and the actual.

Deleuze explains the distinction between the real and the actual by appeal to resemblance and difference. The opposite of the real is the possible while the opposite of the actual is the virtual. Taking the former pairing first; the possible becomes real through the process of realisation which is effected through resemblance and limitation. In realisation, the real which emerges to take the place of the possible is the same as it except that it has one more attribute; existence. In addition, there is a limit in the sense that only one outcome (possible) out of the entire set of outcomes (possibles) can be realised. The process of actualisation, on the other hand, rather than involving the production of something similar which replaces a pre-existing thing, involves the production of something entirely new through division and differentiation within a pre-existing thing (more on this later).

Turning now to the first part of the quote we began this article with, when Deleuze asserts that “[t]he possible has no reality”, rather than denying it existence tout court (although he will do this as well), he is simply presenting the possible as we typically understand it; i.e. as a legitimate existent which stands opposite to, and pre-exists, the reality which will subsequently be realised. The possible, then, has no reality because it is the essence of the possible to not be realised. Once it is realised, it is real; i.e. no longer possible. However, Deleuze is saying more than this. Following Bergson, he is also asserting that our entire conception of reality as something which replaces, or even ‘fulfils,’ a possible is mistaken, precisely because there is no metaphysical existent which corresponds to ‘the possible.’ The possible doesn’t exist, so when we reason as if it does, we end up believing in a reality more myth than truth.

There is no such thing as the possible. Why does this seem like such a radical thing to say? It’s because we believe we have a perfectly clear idea of the possible. How could an idea which is this perfectly clear, which we use in ordinary, everyday situations with (apparently) full understanding, be completely wrong? Before we unravel the origin of this illusion, we should dispel one potential misconception. Deleuze isn’t denying that one can have an idea of the possible. He is denying the positive existence of what this idea refers to. No one would deny that centaurs, as ideas in the imagination, exist, but equally, no one would assert that centaurs, as actual creatures running around on plains somewhere on Earth living full, complete lives, exist. The idea of physical creatures called centaurs exists but the physical creatures themselves don’t. In the same way, the possible, as the idea of something which pre-exists the real and on which it is based, exists, but the possible itself doesn’t. Is this all just semantics? No… well actually, yes, it is semantics, but it is no less significant for that because it is precisely when we misunderstand the semantics that we delude ourselves into believing in the possible as some kind of metaphysical entity (or a set of metaphysical entities) which pre-exists reality, and falling into the logical trap that sees us ultimately believing that the future somehow co-exists with the present; in other words, that time, as we understand/experience it, is an illusion.

If there is no such thing as the possible, how could we be so wrong about it? Where does our idea of it come from? From a retrograde illusion. It is only by looking backwards after events have taken place that we come to identify that which we will call the possible. Evolution takes a certain path. Monera emerge at a particular time in history, protista emerge later, the fungi, plant, and animal kingdoms come along in their respective times with all of their sub-branches and sub-categories. When we look back on the myriad, completed paths evolution traversed to get to where it is today, they all appear to have been there all along, unrealised, for sure, but present… as possibles. Imagine walking through a field of tall grass. When you get to the other side and turn around, what do you see? You see a path wending its way from where you are now to where you started. Was the path already there before you walked it, or did you create itas you walked? That is what is at stake here. The thing is that when we turn back to take stock of our progress, we always see a completed path, and this creates the illusion that the path was always there, just unbeknownst to us while we were in the middle of walking it. Thus, we reason, if it was there all along, an intellect greater than ours could have ‘seen’ it, not just while we were on it, but even before we started down it. Further, from our vantage point on this side of the field, in addition to the path we actually walked, we can imagine other ‘paths’ we could have taken… other possible paths. They, it appears, were there all along as well, and would have been just as ‘visible’ to that superior intellect. What do we do next? We turn around and look ahead at the next field. Of course, we can’t see any paths, but since we have ‘reasoned’ the existence of possible paths behind us, and more importantly, the fact that they were there all along, we know the field ahead of us must also contain a multitude of possible paths, invisible to us due to the finitude/limitation of our intellects. Thus was the possible born out of a retrospective glance over completed paths and projected into the future.

What about the bracketed part of that quote where Deleuze claims the possible may have an actuality? Recall that actualisation means the production of something entirely new through division and differentiation within a pre-existing thing. Well, when we cast our retrospective gazes backwards over where we have been, and isolate possible paths within that whole, are we not producing “something entirely new through division and differentiation”? The paths, remember, did not pre-exist our passage; rather, they were created at the same time as we walked them. Therefore, the possibles we imagined we saw after crossing the field, weren’t ‘identified’ so much as ‘created.’ Possibles are thus actualised not in the future, but in the past. Our mistake is in thinking that these actualised possibles pre-existed reality in the past and then doubling down on this error by imagining that they must also pre-exist reality in the future.

The Virtual

Unlike the possible, which has no reality but may be actual, the virtual is not actual but possesses a reality. The virtual is opposed to the actual, meaning that the two are different in kind, not degree. In the same way that the possible could never be real (because the two belong to completely different categories of being), the virtual can never be actual. When some state of affairs is actualised, by definition, it is no longer virtual, and as long as some situation is virtual, by definition, it has not yet been actualised.

Since actualisation is an act of creation in which the novel is brought about through differentiation and division within something that already exists, the virtual is simply the novel object as it is buried in the wider whole; i.e. before it has been separated out. The virtual is, in fact, a potential, already there, in a sense waiting to be brought out of the background. It is like cutting a human-shaped figure out of paper. The paper already contains the figure in the sense that we don’t need to add more paper to get it out, but of course, if you never actually make the effort to grab the scissors and cut the human-shaped figure out, no such figure will ever be actualised, or if, instead of cutting out a human-shaped figure, you cut out a dog-shaped one, only the dog-shaped figure will be actualised. Evolution is a good example of the virtual. An evolutionary adaptation, say, a longer beak, does not pre-exist its reality in any meaningful sense; i.e. as some kind of metaphysical entity called a ‘possible;’ rather, the longer beak is already ‘contained’ within the genetic and biological whole that is the bird. Of course, it doesn’t actually exist at the moment, but it is nevertheless ‘there’ in the same way the human-shaped figure is ‘there’ in the paper; that is to say, it is virtually ‘there.’

Two things follow from this account of the virtual. First, the virtual is not futural, and second, the virtual cannot be itemised or listed (except, and for different reasons, in the case of memory, which we won’t be going into here). The virtual is not something that will manifest in the future; rather, it is always present. It exists (in the ‘mode’ of the virtual) in the hic et nunc. To the extent that we can talk about anything existing in the future, it is the actual, which will have been actualised at some future time. Further, it is impossible to make a list of the virtual elements contained within a present situation because, like the possible, the virtual doesn’t appear as virtual until after the fact; that is, until after it has been actualised. Once the longer beak has evolved, we can look back and see that it was indeed contained as a virtual within the bird – it must have been or it could never have been actualised in the first place. The difference between the possible and the virtual is that, whereas the possible, as nothing more than an idea, lacks any hint of metaphysical existence in itself, since the virtual always exists ‘within’ the thing (organism, situation, etc.) it emerges from, ahead of its actualisation (if it didn’t exist as a potential like this, there is no way it could be actualised), it does have a metaphysical existence, albeit one that cannot be meaningfully specified until after it has been actualised. In truth, the virtual is both ‘there’ and ‘not there’ (hence Deleuze characterises it as real, but not actual); ‘there’ (or real) in the sense that the ‘raw material’ we need to actualise it is already present before us (instead of adding something new to the ‘thing’ to produce the actual, all we need do is simply divide what already exists in specific, creative ways); but ‘not there’ (or not actual) in the sense that until it has been actualised, the new thing isn’t actually there, as a standalone existent in itself.


How does all of this affect our notion of freedom? Interestingly, the tendency to reify the possible (i.e. turn it into a metaphysical existent) afflicts both the determinist and the libertarian positions, betraying a fundamental failure to understand freedom by both parties. We will examine each position in turn.

The determinist can derive their claim, that freedom is an illusion, from two distinct positions which nevertheless overlap in certain respects. Both positions agree that the future already exists; however, they also agree with Deleuze that possibility is a fiction. The difference between the two lies in how they understand these assertions. In the first, the future already exists, not as a metaphysical reality, but as a foregone conclusion. The engine for this is a naïve variety of materialism which treats the universe like a gigantic game of billiards with the ‘balls,’ set in motion at the Big Bang, bouncing around and into each other according to physical laws. If you know those laws and the physical ‘stats’ (position, velocity, quantum numbers, etc.) of every ‘ball’ at any given moment, you also know (after a few calculations) the state of the universe (the ‘stats’ of those ‘balls’) at any time in the past or future. In other words, the future has already been determined, even though it hasn’t happened yet. Possibility is a fiction, then, because whatever is going to happen was already determined at the moment of the Big Bang. The belief that different possibilities exist as valid options for you to choose between is merely a failure to understand the nature of the future according to naïve materialism. The second determinist position holds that the future already exists as a metaphysical reality. This is where modern physics enters the debate on the side of the determinist with the block theory of the universe, in which time is just another dimension like the three spatial ones. Indeed, it merges them into one ungainly beast; space-time. Inasmuch as all points in space (here and there) co-exist, all points in time (past, present, and future) also co-exist in a static totality, which only appears to be dynamic and incomplete from the finite, limited perspective of a creature caught up in the middle of it. The notion of possibility thus stems from the illusion that the future doesn’t yet exist. Understanding that the future already exists (and is just being revealed in piecemeal fashion to finite beings like ourselves) reveals the grand truth that time, as we typically understand it, is an illusion and possibility a fiction. The future has, quite literally, already happened.

The libertarian, on the other hand, who maintains that freedom is real, secures their claim by reversing the position of the determinist. Thus, for the libertarian, the future does not exist, but possibility does. The future does not exist either as a ‘foregone conclusion’ or as a ‘metaphysical reality.’ Instead, there is a field of possibilities before each subject, the selection of one of which brings the future into existence. Importantly for the libertarian, these possibilities must exist as valid, ‘chooseable’ options. There must be nothing determining my choice of a particular possibility, either impelling me from the past (as in materialism) or inducing me from an already written future (as in the block theory).

If you’ve been paying (close) attention, you will have noticed a glaring contradiction in both my accounts of the determinist and the libertarian. We began this article with the relatively innocuous idea that possibility is the set of all outcomes which could conceivably come to pass. However, once on this slippery slope, we saw how one logical step to the next quickly delivered us to the conclusion that the future, as possibility, already exists, complete and laid out before us. However, neither my account of the determinist nor that of the libertarian has reached the conclusion that both possibility and the future exit. To the contrary, the determinist has claimed the possible is false while arguing the future exists, and the libertarian has claimed the exact opposite; namely, the possible exists but the future doesn’t. What is going on here? The resolution lies in clarifying the hazy thinking about possibility that I have been harping on about this whole article.

The determinist (both the materialist and the block theory versions) claims the possible is an illusion, while the future exists, but these claims cannot both be true. The claim is that the future exists (either as a foregone conclusion or as already happened), but it clearly doesn’t exist in the same way the present exists. If it did, we would experience the future and the present in the same way. Since this isn’t the case, the determinist must account for this difference. How is the future different from the present? We’ve already seen the answer to this: the future, although it exists, is not real; it is, in a word, unrealised. And as we’ve already determined, the opposite of the real is the possible. The future is possible for the determinist, not in the sense that there are multiple outcomes, any one of which may (possibly) come to pass, but in the sense that one outcome will be realised at some future point in time (at least from our limited perspective). In other words, the determinist still relies on possibility for their argument, it is just that instead of there being a multitude of possibilities, only one possibility exists, it exists now, and is ‘possible’ only in the sense that it is not yet real.

What of the libertarian who asserts the future doesn’t exist but the possible does? As with the determinist, these claims cannot both be true. Freedom can only arise for the libertarian because they envision a kind of competition between possibles, only one of which will be realised. But what exactly are these possibles? If they are merely ideas of possibles, the argument loses all its force. It would be like arguing that hoofprints in the mud are made by centaurs, but when someone questions your belief in centaurs, you backpedal to the less radical, but now absurd, claim that you meant the idea ofcentaurs (absurd because the idea of centaurs clearly can’t leave hoofprints in mud). If possibilities really exist as competing options for a subject to choose between, then the future also exists because this is precisely what the future is. The future can be nothing other than this landscape of possibilities. Although we don’t know ahead of time which specific possibility in this landscape will be realised, the fact is that, to the extent that possibility exists, so must the future.

Our revised determinist and libertarian claims have turned out to share a surprising commonality; they both depend on the possible and end up arguing that the future co-exists with the present. The only difference between the two is that the former admits of only one possible while the latter allows multiple possibles. Unfortunately, since we have seen that the possible is nothing but a retrograde illusion, any position which makes use of it can never hope to accurately describe reality. Neither determinism nor libertarianism (at least as typically formulated) have anything useful to add to the freewill/determinism debate. Thus, from the fact that the possible is an illusion (and the subsequent fact that both determinism and libertarianism are thoroughly undermined by this), we can’t draw any conclusions about whether we are free or not.

I have argued elsewhere, and for reasons we lack the space to follow up on here, that we are free (actually, we are freedom itself). Assuming this is correct yields the following. The determinist is wrong that human lives are determined and the future is already decided, but the libertarian, although right that humans are free, is right for the wrong reasons. Given that the libertarian has at least gotten the right answer even if the reasoning is all wrong, you could be forgiven for thinking that they have come closer to the truth of things than the determinist, but this would be a mistake, I believe. The determinist’s argument, immediately (and correctly) judged as false, can promptly be set aside before it has a chance to cause any problems, but the libertarian’s, precisely because they have gotten the correct answer, appears to have all of its ducks in a row, when, as we have seen, its ducks are actually all over the place. Since the libertarian is (accidentally) right about this one thing, they give us the false impression that they have something profound to say about freedom or human existence or subjectivity or the world, thereby sending us on a wild goose chase which begins innocently enough with the idea that possibility is the set of all outcomes which could conceivably come to pass but ends up reifying possibility, unwittingly assuming the future co-exists with the present, and in general misrepresenting everything a philosopher might be interested in. The only intellectually responsible position to take regarding determinism and libertarianism therefore is to jettison the pair of them and go right back to the metaphysical drawing board.


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