Possibilianism, or How I Learned to Not Think about Hard Questions

I recently encountered a philosophical movement that calls itself “Possibilianism,” after a term used by neuroscientist and novelist David Eagleman.  After hearing my thesis supervisor sing the idea’s praises (he’s an “apatheist” atheist), I had to look it up.

“Our ignorance of the cosmos is too vast to commit to atheism, and yet we know too much to commit to a particular religion. A third position, agnosticism, is often an uninteresting stance in which a person simply questions whether his traditional religious story (say, a man with a beard on a cloud) is true or not true. But with Possibilianism I’m hoping to define a new position — one that emphasizes the exploration of new, unconsidered possibilities. Possibilianism is comfortable holding multiple ideas in mind; it is not interested in committing to any particular story.”

Burkhard Bilger, interviewing Eagleman, for The New Yorker, had this to say about the concept:

“Science had taught him to be skeptical of cosmic certainties, [Eagleman] told me. From the unfathomed complexity of brain tissue—‘essentially an alien computational material’—to the mystery of dark matter, we know too little about our own minds and the universe around us to insist on strict atheism, he said. ‘And we know far too much to commit to a particular religious story.’ Why not revel in the alternatives? Why not imagine ourselves, as he did in Sum, as bits of networked hardware in a cosmic program, or as particles of some celestial organism, or any of a thousand other possibilities, and then test those ideas against the available evidence? ‘Part of the scientific temperament is this tolerance for holding multiple hypotheses in mind at the same time,’ he said. ‘As Voltaire said, uncertainty is an uncomfortable position. But certainty is an absurd one.’”

The false dichotomies are strong with this one!

It’s interesting to watch people project their own biases onto others.  Eagleman defines this “Possibilian” view in opposition to both religion and to “hard” or “strict” atheism, which supposedly leaves no room for “possibility.”  Up to here, I’m almost on board.  Eagleman relies on a whole series of postmodernist buzzwords, but he does make a good point—just a far more trivial good point than he thinks he does.  Dogmatic certainty in ANYTHING is a problem, regardless of whether the thing of which one is certain is true.  The only reasonable position is what I call “scientific certainty”—provisionally accepting ideas to the extent that evidence favors them and changing one’s mind as needed.  In that sense, I am certain that a tablespoon of salt will dissolve in ordinary tap water the next five times I mingle the two, and I am certain there is no god.  The weight of evidence accumulated over the past few thousand years of inquiry make both propositions exceptionally difficult to dispute, making the case that either is not true very, very difficult, but not impossible, to substantiate.  “Hard” atheism is only distinguishable from this position if, in the event that this case is in fact substantiated, such that the weight of evidence now favors theism, the “hard” atheist does not change his mind.  Such a person is indeed just as wrong as religious people who, aware of a world in which no evidence for a deity is given (or, in many cases, even possible), believe anyway.

But Eagleman imagines that EVERYONE who identifies with the word “atheist” is like that.  He is arguing that anyone who is comfortable with a label that expresses an opinion on the question of whether a deity exists—atheist and theist alike—is expressing overweening “certainty” and has “closed” themselves off from “possibility.”  Eagleman holds that the best approach is to hold multiple, contradictory explanations simultaneously, and wait for “evidence” to sort them out.  Eagleman seems to believe that forming a provisional, temporary, changeable opinion based on limited evidence is intrinsically irresponsible, as though it were wrong for someone other than the world expert on any given question of science to have an opinion on it.  One wonders whether he looks down similarly on those who are quite convinced that there are no leprechauns, or that the moon’s gravity has something to do with tides.

Of course, this is fundamentally dishonest.  In every place where someone like this claims that they hold multiple positions simultaneously, they’re lying.  Eagleman does not honestly believe simultaneously there is a god who cares about whether or not he attends a specific church and that there isn’t one, any more than he simultaneously believes that the tides are driven by gravity and that they are driven by flocks of Rhythm Angels pulling the water in and out.  One can tell by his actions, and the way in which he and his interviewers emphasize certain ideas over others.  If “thinking a deity is real” were among his simultaneous, contradictory positions, he’d act like it—such as by attending church regularly.  And the whole thing spirals out of control from there.  What deity?  The only non-hypocritical version would be all of them at once, and since Mr. Eaglemen hasn’t admitted to bowing toward Mecca regularly while following the Eightfold Path and chanting in Hebrew, it’s a winner’s bet that he doesn’t simultaneously think all religions have the right idea.

Nor should he.  This Possibilian insistence on truth as a wave function that exists in all states simultaneously until an investigation makes it collapse into a specific outcome is simply not how science works.  Scientifically valid information can arise ONLY when an inquiry takes the form of an experiment, which REQUIRES a specific hypothesis and the possibility that the outcome will fail to support it.  The Possibilian version is non-falsifiable and cannot produce viable data.  It is a non-starter and, like Possibilianism itself, is dishonest performance art rather than a competent philosophy or information-gathering approach.

In the end, Mr. Eagleman, like legions of postmodernists before him, is probably an atheist.  He does not intentionally live his life in accordance with the idea that a deity is real, which makes him at minimum a “functional atheist,” like more religious people than will ever admit it.  The rest is sophistry woven around his refusal to admit to himself that he does not think deities are real, a common trait in self-identified agnostics.  That he feels the word “atheist” is not sufficient for someone like him who does not take the idea of a supreme being seriously enough to live his life as though one were real, is a triumph of religious conservatives’ demonization of the word, like “liberal” and “feminist” before it.

Mr. Eagleman does our movement no favors with his fanciful insistence on believing things for which no positive evidence exists, or by making his mind a muddled bouillabaisse of internal contradictions just so he can avoid telling people he’s an atheist.  This man’s approach to information is an intellectual slagheap that would damage the scientific process beyond recognition if it gained widespread acceptance.  People like him are but a small step above the “faitheists” who don’t believe but trumpet the virtues of believing and attack “New Atheists” for not thinking that believing is a good thing.  After a while, disingenuous, hypocritical grandstanding like theirs gets boring.  Asking postmodernists whether they’re so cavalier about knowledge when they’re deciding whether to flap to work every morning, though, never gets old.
Possibilianism, or How I Learned to Not Think about Hard Questions