Home » Kiosk » Kiosk Article » My Friend Peter and Possibilianism

My Friend Peter and Possibilianism

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. —David Eagleman

I have a young friend. I say “young” with all due respect to Albert Einstein and relativity theory. I will soon be 90; Peter will turn 60 in July. We became acquaintances over a game of handball, but we became friends when we discovered, during a serious conversation about our views of the world, that we shared a profound idea. The idea that we shared was that organized religion and contemporary beliefs about God that were formulated by primitive thinkers a few thousand years ago are simply not believable. Thus, we are both atheists.

We each came to this position along very different paths. Mine was an easy one: I am the son of an Italian-Catholic father and a Russian-Jewish mother, neither of whom were particularly interested in religion, so I grew up relatively (almost sounds like that word again) unindoctrinated by the mind-numbing accoutrements of “faith and religion.”

Peter’s path was much more difficult. Raised as a Roman Catholic and attending Catholic schools, he had to challenge and—in an emotionally charged confrontation—eventually break away from his family and church. His brain, like my own and that of fellow atheists, could not tolerate the cognitive dissonance that reason and rationality come up against in the face of religion’s preposterous demands.

We have talked with each other many times on this subject, and I think Peter sees me as some sort of experienced older guy whom he likes to bounce ideas off of. I may be wrong, but I think he still possesses some of the elements of a “seeker.” And so when he recently called me to join him and his wife, Sally, for a hamburger at a local fast food joint, I had a feeling that there was going to be more than ketchup and fries on the table. It is therefore a tribute to my perspicacity, sagacity, and prognostic capability that, indeed, Peter wanted to share with me the excitement he felt in having listened to David Eagleman’s TED Talk on “possibilianism.” (Incidentally, in case you’ve ever wondered, TED stands for “Technology, Entertainment, Design.”)

I had never heard of Eagleman or his creatively named philosophy, so I went home after our delightful two-hour chat (that had the management shooing us out after the place had closed) and Googled the famous TED Talk that Peter had just told me about, in which the concept of possibilianism is introduced:

David Eagleman on Possibilianism

In it Eagleman describes a NASA study of a tiny, dark region of the night sky which, according to all available astrophotography, he says, contained nothing. But in an ingenious experiment in which the Hubble Space Telescope was repeatedly trained on that region during 400 orbits of the Earth so that whatever light (or photons) that emanated from this hitherto blank region could be collected, a discovery was made. There was plenty there! Ten thousand galaxies in fact! It was truly astounding that not only was there something there, but that something might even be more than the something we already knew about. Eagleman says there are not only galaxies, but stars with planets going around them, and even “life forms that we cannot even imagine.”

I am going to leave aside the fact that no such “life forms” have been seen in any of the Hubble experiments that have been conducted. I will also ignore Eagleman’s oversimplified and even mischaracterized descriptions of what are actually many experiments carried out over decades. The Hubble’s first in a series of experiments on this subject began in 1995 with the Hubble Deep Field (HDF); this was followed by the first Hubble Ultra-Deep Field (HUDF) in 2003 and 2004. There was also the eXtreme Deep Field (XDF), and as recently as January 2019, the ABYSS Hubble Ultra Deep Field.

I mention this because in listening to the talk, it seems to me that Eagleman encountered a snippet of astronomical and cosmological information that made an impression on him and then used it to make a point in philosophy and theology, thereby involving himself in fields in which he may have little or no expertise. I even question how much he knows about astronomy because his description of the Hubble’s work is so superficial as to be almost childlike.
Eagleman is an impressive guy—no doubt about that. He is obviously competent and well-respected in his own field of neuroscience. He is also articulate and personable. But I have a problem with his idea, made clear in the talk, that as a result of this astounding astrophysical discovery, “our ignorance of the cosmos is too vast to commit to atheism.” My first reaction to this was ‘Is he implying that God is a possibility simply because our ignorance is so vast?’

Coming from an intelligent person—a scientist, no less—this is an astonishing statement! What does “ignorance of the cosmos” have to do with atheism? I was reminded of the argument from ignorance (argumentum ad ignorantia), also known as an appeal to ignorance, which in this case is being used by Eagleman to argue against atheism.

Eagleman goes on to add, “…and yet we know too much to commit to a particular religion.” Now that’s something with which I wholeheartedly agree.

And this is where he introduces his creative compromise, his new philosophy of religion: “So I call myself a possibilian. Possibilianism 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.”

Whoa! Is Dr. Eagleman implying that atheists are not “comfortable holding multiple ideas in mind”? Is he implying that atheists are “interested in committing to [a] particular story”? Because if he is implying either of these things, then he has been talking to the wrong atheists. I say this because his lecture and his own published statements seem to claim that because the universe is so vast, complex, and (as of now) incomprehensible, he cannot subscribe to a position of atheism. Of course, he correctly describes the unacceptability of traditional religion to most scientists. Therefore, he offers his audience possibilianism as a kind of middle ground between what he apparently sees as two “extremes”: on the one hand, the absolutism and ignorance of primitive societies’ myths; and on the other, the arrogance of atheism’s “dogmas.”

Well, at least he is half right. He is being intellectually honest when he eschews the ideas of nomadic early hominids who did not know the difference between a cloud, the Moon, and a star, and made gods out of all of them. But I think he does not really understand the word “atheist” and the position of most self-identified atheists—or if he does, then he misrepresents them. I have rarely if ever heard an atheist declare that he or she “knows” that there is no God. The “arrogance” of atheists, if there is any, pales in comparison with that of proponents of most religious concepts, which leave no room for doubt: “this is what the book says; believe it or suffer the consequences.” In common parlance, atheism is, simply stated, the position that there is no evidence to support the supernatural in general and God in particular. I have no doubt that if Dr. Eagleman were to consider and understand that definition of atheism, he would not have any need for possibilianism. He would be one of us. Instead, he creates the condition of possibilianism, which subtly implies that anything is possible—even the existence of God.

If I were a philosopher, I would say that Dr. Eagleman has created a straw man, and then in a personable, pseudological sort of way, proceeded to tear it down. Unfortunately, many people, including my dear friends, are impressed with this presentation.

From the astounding nature of the Hubble’s discovery, Dr. Eagleman makes the unsophisticated leap that to claim to be an atheist is a mistake because a discovery of this magnitude could only mean that some third possibility between traditional religion and atheism must be the case. This reasoning is an example of a non sequitur because nothing about finding new astronomical information refutes the idea that there is no evidence for God or the supernatural.

On the contrary, if anything, this discovery reinforces everything that makes sense about atheism: that science and reason offer the only possible hope that we will ever understand the cosmos; that finding out more information about the structure of the universe, no matter how strange, is consistent with atheism’s reliance upon the scientific method; most assuredly, that religion—any religion—cannot offer even a glimpse of the accord of ideas with the reality they claim to represent; and that the absence of knowledge does not indicate a weakness of the inquiring system, but is rather a motivator to inquire further and strengthen the system.

I would hope that my friend Peter comes to understand that an astounding discovery of greater complexity in the universe, more than anyone ever imagined, ought not to be seen as a defect in atheism’s viewpoint, but rather as a success. Why was the Hubble space telescope searching this dark region of the sky in the first place? Because many scientists believed, based on theoretical and observational scientific concepts, that there just might be something to be found in that “black, dark uninhabited” region of the sky, and recommended taking the deepest picture of the universe by aiming Hubble for many “consecutive orbits on a single piece of sky.” In other words, astronomers had reason to believe that what appeared to be empty was in fact not empty at all based on many scientific facts and theoretical possibilities.

For example, many scientific observations predicted that there had to be something vast but unknown pervading the universe, previously labeled “dark matter,” because the known gravitational forces and masses did not add up. Well, here was confirmation that not only were they right, but that atheists and possibilians are really one and the same—that atheists have been and always were possibilians and vice versa.

The idea wasn’t just a wild guess; there were logical reasons, including science’s inexorable pursuit of knowledge through inquiry, skepticism, observation, and reason, all of which led to the eventual discoveries and more, sometimes startling information.

Creating a new label and denouncing another that represents the same concept, while not describing the traditional label accurately, is both prejudicial and representative of poor logic, if not poor science.