Essay: Beyond God and atheism: Why I am a 'possibilian'

by BurnTheShips 28 Replies latest social current

  • BurnTheShips

    We have many interesting debates and discussions on this board between members on both sides of the God/NoGod divide.

    Most of us seem to be quite reasonable, and accept and respect differing points of views.

    Others, a small minority here, dismiss the opposite side as deluded or evil. It strikes me that it takes a large amount of mental certainty to do this.

    We all have reaped the fruits of such certainty in these matters during our sojourn in the Jehovah's Witnesses.

    This essayist, neuroscientist and fiction writer David Eagleman, takes a different view. As you know, I am a believer in God. However, I did find this essay interesting and wanted to share it for discussion.

    There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
    Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.


    Beyond God and atheism: Why I am a 'possibilian'

    When it comes to the big questions, why should we have to either deny God or believe? Surely good science doesn't so restrict us, says David Eagleman

    I HAVE devoted my life to scientific pursuit. After all, if we want to crack the mysteries of our existence, there may be no better approach than to directly study the blueprints. And science over the past 400 years has been tremendously successful. We have reached the moon, eradicated smallpox, built the internet, tripled lifespans, and increasingly tapped into those mind-blowing truths around us. We've found them to be deeper and more beautiful than anyone could have guessed.

    But when we reach the end of the pier of everything we know, we find that it only takes us part of the way. Beyond that all we see is uncharted water. Past the end of the pier lies all the mystery about our deeply strange existence: the equivalence of mass and energy, dark matter, multiple spatial dimensions, how to build consciousness, and the big questions of meaning and existence.

    I have no doubt that we will continue to add to the pier of knowledge, appending several new slats in each generation. But we have no guarantee how far we'll get. There may be some domains beyond the tools of science - perhaps temporarily, perhaps always. We also have to acknowledge that we won't answer many of the big questions in our brief twinkling of a 21st-century lifetime: even if science can determine the correct answer, we won't get to enjoy hearing it.

    This situation calls for an openness in approaching the big questions of our existence. When there is a lack of meaningful data to weigh in on a problem, good scientists are comfortable holding many possibilities at once, rather than committing to a particular story over others. In light of this, I have found myself surprised by the amount of certainty out there.

    Take, for example, this decade's books by the new atheists, such as Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens. Their books are brilliant and insightful, but sometimes feed a widespread misconception that scientists don't have the capacity to gambol around beyond the available data. Some readers walk away from these books with the impression that scientists think they have the big picture solved - if not in detail, at least in outline.

    But good science is always open-minded, and the history of science is one of surprises and overturnings. Science is nothing but careful thinking, and careful thinking encourages an appreciation of the complexity of the world. The complexity encourages us to maintain several possibilities at once. In a single lifetime, we may have no way to remove the ambiguities from these possibilities.

    A scientist may tend to favour one story over the others, but will always be careful to concede uncertainty and maintain a willingness to change the balance with new, incoming information. As an example, there are two very different interpretations about the reality underlying quantum physics. It is possible that there will be no way to ever know which is correct, or if instead some entirely new theory is correct. And that ambiguity is accepted as part of the enormity of the mysteries we face, and the terms of the agreement we have with nature.

    So while there are plenty of good books by scientist-atheists, they sometimes under-emphasise the main lesson from science: that our knowledge is vastly outstripped by our ignorance. For me, a life in science prompts awe and exploration over dogmatism.

    Given these considerations, I do not call myself an atheist. I don't feel that I have enough data to firmly rule out other interesting possibilities. On the other hand, I do not subscribe to any religion. Traditional religious stories can be beautiful and often crystallise hard-won wisdom - but it is hardly a challenge to poke holes in them. Religious structures are built by humans and brim with all manner of strange human claims - they often reflect cults of personality, xenophobia or mental illness. The holy books of these religions were written millennia ago by people who never had the opportunity to know about DNA, other galaxies, information theory, electricity, the big bang, the big crunch, or even other cultures, literatures or landscapes.

    So it seems we know too little to commit to strict atheism, and too much to commit to any religion. Given this, I am often surprised by the number of people who seem to possess total certainty about their position. I know a lot of atheists who seethe at the idea of religion, and religious followers who seethe at the idea of atheism - but neither group is bothering with more interesting ideas. They make their impassioned arguments as though the God versus no-God dichotomy were enough for a modern discussion.

    What if we were planted here by aliens? What if there are civilisations in spatial dimensions seven through nine? What if we are nodes in a vast, cosmic, computational device? Wouldn't that make their debates seem limited, in retrospect? I don't think the important goal should be to fight for a particular story in the absence of strong evidence; it should be to explore and celebrate the vast possibilities.

    Consider the enormous "possibility space" of stories that can be dreamed up. Take the entirety of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition as a single point in this possibility space. The eastern religions are another point. Strict atheism is another point. Now think of the immense landscape of the points in between. Many of these points will contain stories that are crazy, silly, or merely wildly improbable. But in the absence of data, they can't be ruled out of that space.

    This is why I call myself a "possibilian". Possibilianism emphasises the active exploration of new, unconsidered notions. A possibilian is comfortable holding multiple ideas in mind and is not driven by the idea of fighting for a single, particular story. The key emphasis of possibilianism is to shine a flashlight around the possibility space. It is a plea not simply for open-mindedness, but for an active exploration of new ideas.

    Is possibilianism compatible with a scientific career? Indeed, it represents the heart of science. Real science operates by holding limitless possibilities in mind and working to see which one is most supported by the data. Sometimes it is difficult or impossible to gather data that weighs in - and in those cases we simply retain the possibilities. We don't commit to a particular version of the story when there is no reason to.

    Possibilianism does not suggest free rein to believe whatever strikes one's fancy. It is not tantamount to "anything goes". We know a great deal, not only about the cosmos and molecules, but also about human yearning, fallibilities, poor memories and our extraordinary ability to fabricate any variety of fantastic but utterly untrue stories. Within the realm of what is addressable, we profitably apply logic to further knowledge. Possibilianism is "anything goes at first" - but we then use science to rule out parts of the possibility space, and often to rule in new parts.

    In every generation, people are seduced by the idea that they possess all the tools they need to explain the universe. They have always been wrong. From consciousness to dark energy, we know that we are missing an unknowable number of pieces of the puzzle. This is why in the debates between the strict atheists and the fundamentally religious, I choose a third side. A little less pretence of certainty and a little more exploration of the possibility space.

    As Voltaire put it, "Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd."


    David Eagleman is a neuroscientist at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas. He directs both the Laboratory for Perception and Action and the Initiative on Neuroscience and Law. His book of "possibilian" tales, Sum, became an international best-seller and is published in 22 languages

  • leavingwt

    This article should be highly offensive to any Fundamentalist Christian.

    In contrast, the average atheist will agree that the "possibilities" are indeed unlimited, IMHO.

    Science rules out the possibility of certain popular definitions of God. (Example: Young Earth Creationist God)

  • BurnTheShips
    Science rules out the possibility of certain popular definitions of God. (Example: Young Earth Creationist God)

    I agree with you. We cannot deny the evidence of our senses.


  • snowbird

    This statement really resonates with me:

    In every generation, people are seduced by the idea that they possess all the tools they need to explain the universe. They have always been wrong.

    This holds true for both sides.



  • leavingwt
    We cannot deny the evidence of our senses.

    Many people do, however, Why? Either because "Jesus told them so" or they believe the Bible is the literal, inerrant Word of God, and that God "created" the planet with "the appearance of age".

    The implication of this is profound. It would mean that, ultimately, we cannot trust the senses or the powers of observation that our Creator God gave us.

    " We cannot love the inconceivable, but we can love wife and child and friend." -- Robert G. Ingersoll

  • PSacramento

    An excellent article, honest and not self-serving.

    Wish we had more like it.

  • OnTheWayOut

    I am willing to put "A single all-powerful God" into the works as one of several possibilities. But it wouldn't rank any higher than "life on earth planted here by aliens," "civilizations in spatial dimensions seven through nine," "humans and life on earth being nodes in a vast, cosmic, computational device," etc. etc..

    To subscribe to such a concept, we have to dismiss such notions as anything more than possibilities.

    And there is still the arguments that ensue when evidence demonstrates that the Bible is not from that all-powerful God as a reliable guidance, or that nobody can disprove that God is an invisible pink unicorn.



    This is a most interesting article and encourages open minded debate. We are all at different points in our journey and however liberal we are, to someone who believes that God talks to them, the non-believer must appear deluded, and Vice Versa. Below are a few lines from an essay I wrote. I hope it is relevant to this discussion.

    Knowledge is light and banishes darkness. Seekers of truth desire to be fully informed. The experience and opinions of those who have walked a path before us should not be seized upon as belief or a shortcut to understanding. At the same time it would be unwise to disregard their sincere testimony.

    Truth is not a rigid set of beliefs. Once we think we possess the truth, we close our mind to other possibilities. In that moment, we have suddenly lost our connection with the infinite.

    Truth never changes, only opinions change; letting go of the old, makes way for the new. Isn’t this the lesson that nature teaches us? The world was never flat – it is us that changed. Willingness to change allows room for growth.

  • Deputy Dog
    Deputy Dog


    This article should be highly offensive to any Fundamentalist Christian.


    I probably don't fit your definition of a Fundamentalist Christian.

  • Terry

    Hmmm, I don't think this guy is really saying anything substantive, personally.

    How does this differ from the Fallacious argument from IGNORANCE?


    An appeal to ignorance is an argument for or against a proposition on the basis of a lack of evidence against or for it. If there is positive evidence for the conclusion, then of course we have other reasons for accepting it, but a lack of evidence by itself is no evidence.


    There are a few types of reasoning which resemble the fallacy of Appeal to Ignorance, and need to be distinguished from it:

    1. Sometimes it is reasonable to argue from a lack of evidence for a proposition to the falsity of that proposition, when there is a presumption that the proposition is false. For instance, in American criminal law there is a presumption of innocence, which means that the burden of proof is on the prosecution, and if the prosecution fails to provide evidence of guilt then the jury must conclude that the defendant is innocent.

      Similarly, the burden of proof is usually on a person making a new or improbable claim, and the presumption may be that such a claim is false. For instance, suppose that someone claims that the president was taken by flying saucer to another planet, but when challenged can supply no evidence of this unusual trip. It would not be an Appeal to Ignorance for you to reason that, since there is no evidence that the president visited another planet, therefore he probably didn't do so.

    2. We sometimes have meta-knowledge—that is, knowledge about knowledge—which can justify inferring a conclusion based upon a lack of evidence. For instance, schedules—such as those for buses, trains, and airplanes—list times and locations of arrivals and departures. Such schedules usually do not attempt to list the times and locations when vehicles do not arrive or depart, since this would be highly inefficient. Instead, there is an implicit, understood assumption that such a schedule is complete, that all available vehicle departures and arrivals have been listed. Thus, we can reason using the following sort of enthymeme:

      There is no departure/arrival listed in schedule S for location L at time T.
      SuppressedPremiss: All departures and arrivals are listed in schedule S.
      Therefore, there is no departure/arrival for location L at time T.

      This kind of completeness of information assumption is often called the "closed world assumption". When it is reasonable to accept this assumption—as with plane or bus schedules—it is not a fallacy of appeal to ignorance to reason this way.

    3. Another type of reasoning is called "auto-epistemic" ("self-knowing") because it involves reasoning from premisses about what one knows and what one would know if something were true. The form of such reasoning is:

      If p were true, then I would know that p.
      I don't know that p.
      Therefore, p is false.

      For instance, one might reason:

      If I were adopted, then I would know about it by now.
      I don't know that I'm adopted.
      Therefore, I wasn't adopted.

      Similarly, when extensive investigation has been undertaken, it is often reasonable to infer that something is false based upon a lack of positive evidence for it. For instance, if a drug has been subjected to lengthy testing for harmful effects and none has been discovered, it is then reasonable to conclude that it is safe. Another example is:

      If there really were a large and unusual type of animal in Loch Ness, then we would have undeniable evidence of it by now.
      We don't have undeniable evidence of a large, unfamiliar animal in Loch Ness.
      Therefore, there is no such animal.

      As with reasoning using the closed world assumption, auto-epistemic reasoning does not commit the fallacy of Argument from Ignorance.

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