Science of the Impossible and Societal Transformation, Part I


The metaphor of the butterfly (see earlier posting) highlights the importance of “imaginal individuals” in the birth of new worlds. Often this birthing process comes from an encounter, during a creative or “aha” moment, with an idea that has never existed before in the world. As such this idea is considered “impossible” by the standards of day-to-day existence, of the day-to-day world that is governed by habits and rituals of the past.


Since innovation and transformative ideas are at the heart of the change process, I found it important to create a solid scientific foundation on how goes about achieving the “impossible”. Any change process has to deal with the “impossible”.

Thus, starting March 8, 2009, I wrote a three-part article on the “Science of the Impossible and Societal Transformation”.  It demonstrates very clearly that the only limits to the future are our own imagination, our own creativity. The only thing that is truly “impossible” is for our programmed and societally-conditionedself that is stuck in the past. When we overcome this condition, then we become the portal through which the future enters into our world. When that happens, the “impossible” happens. A new world is born.

Nicanor Perlas

Recently US President BarackObama reflected on the impossibility of his victory. '…what started out as an improbable journey when nobody gave us a chance was carried forward, was inspired by, was energized by young people all across America.' In the Philippines, in 2004 and 2007, Governor Grace Padaca and Governor "Among Ed" Panlillo respectively, also achieved the impossible. Both defeated well-organized, wealthy, powerful, and well-connected political dynasties without money, without political machinery, and without political experience. Is there a science of the impossible that would empower societal reformers not only with an understanding and a methodology for profound change, but with a force that can topple diseased societal structures and create new futures and civilizations?

Fortunately the answer to this question is a resounding "Yes"! Just as our world is increasingly faced with massive, complex, and seemingly unsolvable problems, modern science is discovering many mind-blowing facts about the nature of the universe, human consciousness, and societal dynamics. Taken together, these discoveries are giving an integral understanding of the vast array of human capacities for societal good in a universe that is alive, intelligent, and full of meaning.

To understand this emerging Science of the Impossible, let us examine briefly our day-to-day beliefs about what is possible or impossible to achieve. This will then lead us to a scientific understanding of how we can manifest the "impossible" in our quest for a better society, for a better world.

The Impossible

When we say things are "impossible", we have to understand from what aspect of our individuality and consciousness we are uttering this pronouncement. For if we do not understand the peculiarity of our inner condition from which such a statement comes, we may unwittingly trap ourselves in our own self-constructed prison where we can only (and automatically) deny future possibilities for ourselves and for our world.

What are we really saying when we say that something is "impossible"? In essence, we are simply saying that because a proposition about a future possibility does not align with our past experience, our prevailing belief system, our values, our habits, and our expectations about the future, then such a proposition is impossible. It cannot happen.

For example, a significant number of Filipinos believe that it is impossible to overthrow the control of traditional politicians in 2010. From their past experience, they know that traditional politicians have the "guns, gold, and goons" to cheat their way to national and local government elective positions. They emphasize that, especially in the present political situation of the Philippines, traditional politicians control almost every facet of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government.

Indeed, old habits of thought, attitude, and behavior, die hard. And until they die, are modified, or placed in a different contextual understanding, then the victory of a new and very different kind of politics in 2010 is impossible.

This is an understandable position. Life would be immensely complex and unmanageable if we face the present and the future from a totally open position, all of the time. Our experiences educate us about certain laws and regularities in life and it is important to heed the lessons of the past, in this case the tremendous power of traditional politicians in the governance and control of a nation's life.

Fatal Assumption, Fatal Consequences

When we say "impossible", we rely on what we have experienced in the past as our guide to what will happen in the future. There is, however, a fatal assumption in this practice and in its resulting statement of "impossible". We assume, erroneously, that our current paradigm or belief system has the power to know not only ALL of Reality but to also predict how that Reality will behave in the future.

Characterized in this manner, it is obvious that any statement about "impossibility" is nothing but self-fulfilling prophecy—one's identity writ large in the affairs of the world, and not a privileged access to Reality and its Future. The proponent is asserting that nothing new can ever appear on the horizon. The future can never be anything except the repetition of the past.

Obviously such a position is untenable. Under the "impossibility" principle, there would be no room for new things to emerge. And sometimes the inability to predict the "impossible" can have devastating societal and global consequences.

We need not look too far into the past to realize the gravity of the flawed assumption of impossibility. When a certain NourielRoubini predicted in 2005 that there would be a global financial and economic crisis, experts laughed him off as a crank. No one believed him. And he was deridingly called "Dr. Doom". People who are bearers of the "impossible" future often have to carry the burden of being insulted.

And when his "impossible" predictions started to come true in 2008, Roubini became the hottest economist around. Everybody now wants to get a piece of his wisdom. Dr. Doom is now Dr. Oracle, helping world leaders navigate the unpredictable and turbulent waters of the present world economic crisis.

The Black Swan

Science itself had to change its notion of scientific theory because it had to deal in its own way with the "impossible". Science could not defend the old position that the best theory is that one that has worked the best in the past. If something has worked best in the past, it does not mean that it will always and forever be true in the future. Today science's concept of scientific theory is one that can be subjected to an empirical test, whether the theory can be falsified or not.

There is a very instructive event in world history that metaphorically found its way into the center of the world of scientific theory construction. For a long time, many people believed that all swans were white. Because past experience has shown, time and again, through hundreds of years, that swans are white, whole nations believed that there could be no black swans. They believed that the existence of black swans was impossible.

Yet in the 17th century, black swans were discovered in Australia where they exist until today. Two hundreds years later, John Stuart Mill used the example of the black swan to discuss the importance of falsification in science. Past success of a theory is not a gauge of its future success. For "impossible" things, like black swans, can emerge in the future. That beginning ultimately led to Karl Popper's philosophy of science that placed falsification as the key foundation of modern scientific theory. Something is not scientific if it cannot be falsified. Gone was the confidence with regard to past successes predicting future successes.

Today there is the "Black Swan" theory of Nassim Nicholas Taleb. He uses the term to mean something impossible that actually came to pass. He regards many scientific discoveries as "black swans", totally unpredicted, that intrude into the world of accepted reality, the world of "white swans".

The world of science and technology is the hotbed of "black swans". Before the global recession, Sony introduced two new products everyday. A few years ago, 80% of Hewlett Packard's income was from sales of products that were barely a year old. Scientific and technological innovation is rushing at breakneck speed, inundating the world with "impossible" black swans.

The Trap of Success and the Case of Microsoft

There is another way to emphasize the important point that the past is not the predictor of the future, that impossible things can overcome the constraints of the past.

Not too long ago Harvard Business Review published a very revealing study. The article illustrates the real-world consequences and hazards of believing that only the past is the secure foundation from which to venture into the future.

The journal reported on a study of the top 500 corporations in the US, the so-called Fortune 500 corporations. The researchers tracked the performance of these Fortune 500 corporations for one to two decades. Through the years, they found out that a significant number of these top corporations were gone from the list, many no longer in existence.

The researchers examined different possible reasons for their demise. The researchers discovered that past success was the major reason for failure of corporations. Their past success prevented them from adjusting to a world that was rapidly changing.

Past successes became embedded in the narrative and self-image of the corporation. These past successes then codified themselves in the goals, policies, programs and activities of the corporation. Anything outside this self-defined reality was not important. In short it was labeled an unlikely or improbable future.

Similarly, and not too long ago, two young unknown doctoral students approached Microsoft to sell their software discovery for $1 million. Microsoft was not interested and turned the offer down. A few years later, the two set up a new corporation called Google. Today Google is one of the world's largest corporations, one that Microsoft is trying hard to undermine.

Microsoft was a victim of its own success. It could not see the value of Google. What Google wanted to do was not where the future was from the perspective of the belief system of Microsoft. The computer giant thought that a "google future" was unlikely, was "impossible". But in a few years, the world of the Internet has been "googleized" and Microsoft is now trying hard to catch up with this development.

Obama's Reflections and a Key Questiopn

It is clear that the past can never become the sole determinant of the future. And when our past says "impossible", it does not necessarily follow that the "impossible" will not happen. Instead, what we are saying is that, from our past experience, it is difficult to perceive and conceive how certain future possibilities will emerge. Thus we label these possibilities as "impossible".

Let us take Obama's own reflections of his struggle with the impossible. Obama said 'what started out as an improbable journey when nobody gave us a chance was carried forward, was inspired by, was energized by young people all across America.' And that led to his "impossible" victory as President of the United States of America.

The "improbable journey" is nothing but the judgment of Obama's friends and critics that, from their past experience, what Obama was attempting was highly unlikely to succeed. It was impossible. There has been no black President of the United States of America, ever. Worse, racial overtones are still very much visible in US society. So why would a predominantly white US population agree to be led by a young, relatively inexperienced and relatively unknown black politician?

On top of that, Obama did not have the profile, influence, resources, organization and experience of Hilary Clinton. Occasionally, Obama even doubted himself. He was not sure whether he would succeed or not. So it is understandable that, in his "improbable" journey, Obamasaid "nobody gave us a chance". From the perspective of the past, the future is simply "impossible". Yet, in Obama's case, the "impossible" happened.

The past clearly cannot determine what the future will be. The "white swans" in our lives cannot predict the emergence of "black swans". Our day-to-day personality, our day-to-day identity is basically constructed out of the past. Our parents, our teachers, our friends, our work colleagues, our societal environment – they all have influenced and determined who we are today. What we have experienced from them constitutes who we are at the present moment. Social psychology specializes on how the different aspects of our societal environment shape our personality, our identity.

So a key question emerges. If our ordinary identity is constructed by our past, how then can we access the future? What in us can access the future if our day-to-day identity is gripped by the past? How can we develop a confidence that what comes out of the future will truly be transformative and hopeful when our center of identity is constructed from the past and keeps on telling us that such future possibilities are "impossible"?

It is important to see this tension between the past and the future and how this tension creates our experience of the present. If we understand the full measure of what we are facing at this moment of tension, then we are at the heart of understanding how the "impossible" becomes the "real", how the "impossible" is really the future that wants to enter into our lives.

This understanding is of profound strategic importance in how we situate ourselves in our society and in the world. We are all immersed simultaneously in a world of despair stemming from our past actions and a world of incredible possibilities that beckon from the future and which our past labels as "impossible".

On the one hand, humanity is on the brink of destroying the life support systems of the planet, is undermining the very democratic structures that could prevent disaster, and is placing itself on the tragic course of planetary suicide. But, on the other hand, we are in the midst of a world renaissance of breath-taking visionary ideals and potent personal and societal transformational approaches that can turn the seemingly unstoppable trajectory of mass planetary suicide into the impossible geesis of a new, breath-taking, sustainable planetary civilization.

Which path we take depends on whether a critical number of us will understand and act upon the new Science of the Impossible that is emerging in our midst. Part II will elucidate the contours of this new Science of the Impossible that integrates many fields of science, spirituality, and methodologies of societal transformation, into a powerful approach of truly creating a better world.


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