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5 Bumps

Could you be a "possibilian"?

I listened to an interview on Fresh Air on NPR a couple of weeks ago. It's Terri Gross interviewing neuroscientist Dr. David Eagleman. It's a fascinating interview, and if you have the time, I'd recommend listening to it in its entirety.  Here's an excerpt of one portion of the interview:

GROSS: In some of your research you ask yourself, why do people believe in God? You've written speculative essays about if there is an afterlife, what might it look like? So I'm wondering if you think that the brain shows that we create a narrative even when there's something we can't make sense of, we try to create a narrative that will make sense of it. Do you think that we're wired not only to create a narrative but because of that wiring we create a God to explain the universe which we cannot comprehend?

Dr. EAGLEMAN: Well, it is the case - it is the case that we're always looking for patterns. And this is what humans are really good at and most of the time this serves us quite well. And this is essentially how science proceeds, it's the fuel of science. We observe many things and we make hypotheses about what might be the model behind it. The fact is that coming up with the idea of a God or a creator is a perfectly good model, it's a perfectly good hypothesis for what might be going on. And then the idea is we use the tools of science in as much as we can, to weigh in and gather evidence for or against that hypothesis against all the other possible stories.

GROSS: Our listeners might know, you call yourself a "possibilian."

GROSS: In other words, you were raised as a secular Jew, then you became an atheist and now you consider yourself a possibilian, meaning?

Dr. EAGLEMAN: Here's what it means. It's - I've spent my life in science, that's what I've devoted my life to and it's the single most useful pursuit that we have in terms of trying to understand the blueprints around us and trying to figure out what in the world is going on here, what're doing here? But at some point the pier of science comes to an end and we're standing at the end of that pier and looking out onto unchartered waters that go for as far as the eye can see. Most of what we're surrounded with is mystery. And what one comes to understand in a life of science is the vastness of our ignorance.

Look, we know way too much to commit to a particular religious position. And we don't know nearly enough to commit to strict atheism so why don't we try to figure out the structure of the possibility space? Why do we use the scientific temperament, which is one of creativity and tolerance for multiple hypotheses and try to at least understand the shape of the possibility space? And we can import the tools of science to carve off parts of that and say okay, that does not seem to be the case. But where the toolbox of science runs out we, you know, our table is wide -science's table is wide and we can hold lots of hypotheses until we have sufficient evidence to weigh for or against various ones.

GROSS: So you're just keeping an open and investigative mind?

Dr. EAGLEMAN: Beyond an open mind, it's an active exploration about what we think is going on. And somehow in the polarization that happened over this last decade in the debates between the religious and the atheists, somehow that got left out. It's either God or no God. And both of those positions are, you know, I'm just surprised that we haven't gotten past those two diametrically opposed and probably too - you know, neither of those positions I think is sort of large-thinking enough, given what we know about the cosmos.

GROSS: And so you're saying it's not just God or no God. It's maybe something other than God.

Dr. EAGLEMAN: Oh, I mean we could make up a million possibilities.

GROSS: Yeah.

Dr. EAGLEMAN: I mean just as a - I don't obviously mean these as real possibilities but, you know, physics tells us there are somewhere between nine and 13 spatial dimensions. So what if there were whole civilizations living between dimensions five and eight? Well, that would be really interesting, right? And we'd want to know that. But somehow if you're just talking about God or no God, that somehow gets left out.

And one of my mentors, Francis Crick, he and another biologist named Leslie Orgel, at one point when they were, you know, trying to figure out the origin of life on earth from RNA and DNA and so on, they said well, what if it were the case that life was planted here on earth. Let's say rode in on an asteroid or put here by aliens. And they really got, a bunch of people in the scientific community really jumped on these two giants of biology for even suggesting that maybe we were planted here by aliens. But you know what? It's a perfectly good hypothesis. I mean we don't know enough to rule that out. It belongs on the table along with all of the rest of them.

And so, possibilianism is really about the scientific spirit of throwing everything onto the table and then sorting it out from there.

GROSS: So some people listening to you will be thinking that what you said about, oh, maybe there were aliens who, you know, who created people on earth or, you know, there are different universes maybe and stuff like that. Some people might think that's science fiction, that's not science. This guy said he's a neuroscientist, not a science fiction writer.

Dr. EAGLEMAN: Essentially, this is the heart of science. We always come up with hypotheses and we bring evidence in to weigh for or against those hypotheses. And in science, of course, we never even talk about truth or proofs. We talk about where the weight of evidence suggests at the moment, you know, what we think is the best narrative at the moment. And so, you know, there's this illusion that all of us learn in high school where we look in textbooks and science seems to proceed in a linear lockstep manner where so-and-so discovers this and then the next person and so on. But science never proceeds that way. Every major advance in science has been a creative leap where someone says, well, gosh, what this really strange story were true? And then what you do is you make a lot of these leaps and you look back to see if you can build a bridge back to what we already know in science. And when you can that's progress. And when you can't that's an interesting hypothesis that you just file away and you keep.

And for myself I, you know, I spend all of my day in the laboratory coming up with hypotheses and the ones that I can't do anything further with scientifically I come home and I write fiction about.

Answer Question

Asked by jsbenkert at 4:36 PM on Jun. 11, 2011 in Religious Debate

Level 37 (89,331 Credits)
Answers (28)
  • At this point, Terri asks Dr. Eagleman about a book he's written, entitled Sum, in which he explores some of the possibilities of the "afterlife". You can read the entire interview if you click on this link.


    Comment by jsbenkert (original poster) at 4:38 PM on Jun. 11, 2011

  • Good read! Possibilities are endless, and I appreciate that we have the mind to not only imagine, but to check and verify, to remain inconclusive and allow new evidence to surface showing us that the truth, is that "truth" is infinitely transient. When I accepted this, I was forced to look at my minds desire for hard conclusions, to satisfy my ego's addiction to being right. My ego wants to think it knows what's going on, and that only works to cut me off from further exploration. Once people think they know something, that pattern becomes like a groove in the brain, making them less apt to realize contrary evidence or information is out there. I acknowledge that the possibilities are endless, yet I also acknowledge what is and is not probable, given what we do know right now. I'm content with the fact that much is unknown, yet concluding something exists that is not measurable, is more emotionally egoic than neutr


    Answer by clarity333 at 5:01 PM on Jun. 11, 2011

  • CONT..*neutral and logical.

    Answer by clarity333 at 5:02 PM on Jun. 11, 2011

  • I agree with him... however I'd just consider him agnostic.

    Answer by miss_lisa at 5:14 PM on Jun. 11, 2011

  • I considered that he might be defining Agnosticism, except that Agnosticism really deals with the possibility of there being a god vs there not being a god, and not committing to either idea because there isn't enough evidence to fully support either side. A "possibilian" would accept any possibility, only ruling out those that have been proven to be false or lacking any sort of evidence to support the hypothesis.

    It's a fine line, maybe, but a "possibilian" leaves the mind open to any number of hypotheses, not limiting them to "is there a god, or isn't there".


    Comment by jsbenkert (original poster) at 5:26 PM on Jun. 11, 2011

  • It's a fine line, maybe, but a "possibilian" leaves the mind open to any number of hypotheses, not limiting them to "is there a god, or isn't there".

    You kind of contradict yourself. According to him, he's open to all possibilities, an agnostic is not limited to just the idea of one god or the existence of gods or no god(s). It's the idea that we don't know, meaning that there are limitless possibilities and we commit to none of them due to a lack of evidence. But a possibilian does not ACCEPT all possibilities, they simply accept that there are numerous possibilities. There's a huge difference between accepting that there are all sorts of possibilities that we don't know or understand, and accepting all possibilities.

    He's really an agnostic with a wide view.

    Answer by miss_lisa at 5:46 PM on Jun. 11, 2011

  • Okay, let's look at the definition of Agnosticism, which I had to consider and investigate after your comments, miss lisa. I used to consider myself an Agnostic, since I didn't believe in the existence of any gods, but don't believe that there is any absolute way to prove that there are no deities.  This definition, from the Skeptics' Dictionary, seems to fit best:  Agnosticism is the position of believing that knowledge of the existence or non-existence of god is impossible.

    What Eagleman proposes is that there are infinite possibilities (not all of which necessarily include a deity of any sort), and that talking about whether there is a god, or no god, leaves out all those other possibilities.  That, to me, is different than Agnosticism.


    Comment by jsbenkert (original poster) at 5:58 PM on Jun. 11, 2011

  • In other words, while Agnosticism says that there is no way to know, "possibilianism" suggests that there may be an answer, but we may have to sift through millions of hypotheses and test them before we come to the right one.


    Comment by jsbenkert (original poster) at 5:59 PM on Jun. 11, 2011

  • im not a possibilian (im too on the "theres a God" side for that), but i like what i read! ive always been open to the idea that our versions of the Divine are really just beings in an alternate universe that we cant connect with...yet. i think it was in Carl Sagan's Cosmos where he talked about different dimensions and how someone in the 4th dimension could be confused for a God. I want to read Eagleman's book, it sounds interesting!

    Answer by okmanders at 6:25 PM on Jun. 11, 2011

  • I heard his interview and found it very interesting, but I'm not a possibilian I do believe in God. I still love some of the hypotheses he through out during the interview.


    Answer by RyansMom001 at 8:02 PM on Jun. 11, 2011

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