Suppose you have a fair coin. Then tossing it has two possible outcomes, both equally likely.

Before you flip the coin, these possibilities are undecided. These could be called future possibilities.

If you flip the coin without looking at the result, then the outcome is decided, but unknown. There are still two possibilities for the outcome. These could be called present possibilities.

I'm looking for a word or short phrase to distinguish between these two different uses of the word possibility.

I don't think present possibility and future possibility clearly describe this usage. Decided possibility seems like an oxymoron, and undecided possibility seems redundant.

  • A further thought. Before the coin has been flipped, it is not certain that it is going to be flipped, so there are three future possibilities. / I'm not sure there are better terms for what you're asking. You could try over on Maths or Philosophy SE, where less common terminology may be available. – Edwin Ashworth May 5 '18 at 8:43
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    You may call them all a predetermined destiny! – mahmud k pukayoor May 5 '18 at 14:03
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    @EdwinAshworth it could also land on its side. ;) – JJJ May 5 '18 at 18:52
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    @JJJ Yes; I should have edged my bets. – Edwin Ashworth May 5 '18 at 19:11
  • Rather than looking for a word, maybe you want more of a Philosophy answer – Mitch May 14 '18 at 22:18

The possibilities described after a coin is tossed are potential until the result is observed. TFD

a. possible but not yet actual b. capable of being or becoming but not yet in existence; latent

Or latent TFD

Present or potential but not evident or active

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  • I think latent works better in this context. – Randy Randerson May 5 '18 at 14:18
  • @EdwinAshworth It's supposed to be a word for present possibility, not future possibility. I'm open to further suggestions. – Randy Randerson May 5 '18 at 14:46
  • These Google Ngrams show that 'future possibility' is far more idiomatic than either 'latent possibility' or 'potential possibility' (neither of which I find acceptable). 'There is a latent possibility of specific and penetrating vision in ... – Edwin Ashworth May 5 '18 at 14:50
  • each individual.' (from the internet) means 'Each individual possesses the possibility of specific and penetrating vision, but it is deep in the psyche'. [latent] [possibility] not [latent possibility]. – Edwin Ashworth May 5 '18 at 14:51
  • @Randy Randerson You realise that you've accepted an answer attempting to give a synonym for " 'future possibility' " [scare and exemplar-identifier quotes] rather than what your title question asks for? – Edwin Ashworth May 5 '18 at 14:55

You are conflating two events that would be more clearly understood if you start by treating them separately. First, you have the tossing of the coin. There are (realistically) only two possible outcomes. Then you have the observation of the coin. From the observer’s standpoint there are also two possible outcomes.

If the system does not allow the coin to change sides between the tossing and the observation, there is no point in distinguishing between the two possibilities, i.e. you don’t need an adjective to modify possibility. What you need are nouns to describe the events, which you can modify with possible as an adjective.

For example: Joe tossed the coin in the air, caught it in his palm and slapped it onto the back of his hand. He held his hand in place, looked up, and looked around. As Jim saw it there were two possibilities. If they kicked off now, they’d be giving Joe and his team the choice of ends, but maybe it didn’t matter. “Heads,” he called. Joe lifted his hand casually. Jim pointed to the goal he wanted to defend. Heads it was.

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  • I agree that for discussing a particular case like this, it is not necessary. However the point is to have a technical term for distinguishing one class of possibilities. My intended usage is much more abstract than this. – Randy Randerson May 6 '18 at 5:07
  • There are many resources you can draw on for terminology. On the applied side, there is the Many Worlds Interpretation of quantum mechanics originated by Hugh Everett in the fifties. There is also the Music of Changes created by John Cage around the same time. I mention these because physicists have a need to devise experiments for testable predictions, and composers must devise works that can be played. This imposes a certain clarity on their choices of words. Beyond this, of course, there is plenty of vocabulary in the theory of random processes and in computation with Turing machines. – Global Charm May 6 '18 at 17:17

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