David Eagleman on Possibilianism

November 10, 2010 — 1 Comment

In this Pop! Tech talk, neuroscientist Dr. David Eagleman talks about the conventional poles set up in the scientific community regarding religion:

“I don’t pretend that we [the scientific community] have it all figured out. I have felt, sometimes, that perhaps we know too little to commit to a position of strict atheism. At the other end of the spectrum, we know way too much to commit to any particular religious story.”

Eagleman, weary of the polemical diatribes of neo-athiests and fundamentalists, offers a third way: Possibilianism. He rejects the term “agnostic” on the basis that it is too weak. Agnostics are often those who simply can’t make up their mind about matters of theism. “The idea of Possiblianism is an active exploration of new ideas and a comfort with the scientific temperament of creativity and holding multiple hypotheses in mind.”

That is not to say, as some assume, that with Possiblianism, everything goes. It may start out that way, but slowly “we import the tools of science to rule out whole areas [of various possibilities]. . . . It picks up where the scientific toolbox leaves out.” Eagleman’s proposition also goes beyond “simple open mindedness” and calls for “an active exploration of new ideas.” Ultimately, he wonders, can you “live a life that is free from dogma and full of awe and wonder”?

As I listened to Eagleman’s talk, I was struck by the similarities between his thought processes, his struggles, and his conclusions, with many of those in the post-modern and emerging church camps. These groups are also populated by deep thinkers who want room for “active exploration of new ideas” in light of understanding that “what we know is so vastly outstripped by what we don’t know.”

In this way, Eagleman is right in line with his contemporaries in other fields. Whether science, technology, or religion, Modernism is quickly being rejected for its claims of final and complete revelation of truth. That leaves those holding the reins with some problems. For the religious, it is what to do with received doctrine, much of which is held as dogma. For the scientific, it is what to do with the quickly clarifying limits of observation and equations. The once highly sought after “Theory of Everything” seems further away than ever before.

Eagleman’s solution in Possibilianism may be novel for the scientific community but, as I’ve been learning through reading Bebbington’s Evangelicalism in Modern Britain, is hardly new on the Christian religious scene. Eagleman is responding and contextualizing to the post-modern spirit of the age. Evangelicals have been doing that for centuries. Welcome aboard, Possibilianaires.

Anderson Campbell


  • Chris Marshall

    Misconception > “Scientists don’t have the capacity to gamble beyond the available data.” Is this perhaps attributed to his other statement that “we are products of our culture”? Does the culture of science foster the ambiguity he is speaking towards? Like many religious cultures, it can be a closed system centering themselves on the certainties. Humanism is not new. It starts with man’s capacity for knowledge and works its way out from there. Not too dis-similar from the thinking of that naked couple with the speaking serpent and the prohibited produce. ;-)