I was looking forward to a lively online debate about religion between Sam Harris and David Eagleman, which seemed to be in the offing but now has apparently fizzled out.
We all know Sam, and maybe you’ll know Eagleman, a young, ambitious, and polymath-ic neuroscientist at Baylor University. Eagleman was recently the subject of an admiring profile in the New Yorker, and I’ve mentioned him on this website (see here and here). Eagleman is also an advocate of a philosophy (or stance) called “possibilianism,” which he originated, and defines on the Possibilianism website:
Asked whether he was an atheist or a religious person on a National Public Radio interview in February, 2009, he replied “I call myself a Possibilian: I’m open to ideas that we don’t have any way of testing right now.” In a subsequent interview with the New York Times, Eagleman expanded on the definition:
“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.”
Irritated at the last sentence? I sure was. What if those multiple ideas you hold in your mind are incompatible, like God versus no God? Wouldn’t you want to find a way to figure out which notion, if any, was true?
Here’s a video in which Eagleman explained his position in a TEDx talk in Houston.
At 3:17: Eagleman discusses the books of the “neo-atheists,” accusing them of not having the intellectual courage to go beyond the available data. He argues, as he did above, that we know too little to commit to a position of strict atheism. . . and way too much to commit to a particular religious position.” He adds later that “certainty is an absurd position.”
I found the video irritating and a bit smug, as if Eagleman were saying, “I’m better than both ends of the belief spectrum.” If he can’t dismiss the idea of God, than neither can he dismiss the ideas of fairies, leprechauns, and fire-breathing dragons whose habitat has simply remained elusive. So possibilianism turns our brains into big Halloween bags full of appealing but unhealthy notions.
Yes, we should keep an open mind about things that may be possible, but those things don’t include God. For although there could have been evidence for a deity, none has surfaced. And, contra Eagleman, few prominent atheists have asserted flatly that there is absolutely no God. Rather, nearly all of them say that there is strong evidence against a god’s existence and, like Laplace, feel that invoking a god adds nothing to our understanding of the universe. Certainty may be an absurd position, but few atheists are 100% certain. Near-certainty, on the other hand, is certainly not absurd. Is it absurd to be nearly certain that a water molecule has two atoms of hydrogen and one of oxygen? Or that the Earth orbits the sun?
Harris responded to Eagleman’s talk, with the URL of his response slyly calling Eagleman “the world’s nicest accommodationist.” Sam invited Eagleman to discuss the issues in an online debate, similar to the one he had with Andrew Sullivan. From Sam’s initial response:
Unfortunately, on the subject of religion he appears to make a conscious effort to play the good cop to the bad cop of “the new atheism.” This posture will win him many friends, but it is intellectually dishonest. When one reads between the lines—or even when one just reads the lines—it becomes clear that what Eagleman is saying is every bit as deflationary as anything Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens or I say about the cherished doctrines of the faithful.
I don’t know Eagleman, but I’ve invited him to discuss these and other issues with me on this blog.
Eagleman accepted Sam’s invitation on Twitter, and, over at PuffHo, Steve Volk, a staff writer at Philadelphia magazine, reported this upcoming debate in a piece called “New allies in the theist/atheist debate.” Volk breathlessly predicted that the atheist (Harris) would lie down with the accommodationist (Eagleman).
Sadly, Harris’s invitation, although accepted, has produced. . . nothing. Eagleman has not been forthcoming. In his latest post, “Whither Eagleman?”, Sam reproduces the letter he sent to Eagleman, explaining what he meant when he called him “intellectually dishonest,” and setting out his (Harris’s) position. You’ll want to read the whole letter (it’s not long), but here’s a snippet:
In your talk, you repeatedly convict Richard Dawkins et al. of false certainty. You say that we have “left the public with a misconception that scientists don’t have the capacity to gamble (gambol?) beyond the available data—that scientists are acting as though we have it all figured out.” But Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens, and I have never claimed that we can establish the nonexistence of God. We simply observe, as you do, that the God of Abraham has the same empirical status as Poseidon and that the books attesting to His existence bear every sign of having been cobbled together by ignorant mortals. This is all one needs to judge Judaism, Christianity, and Islam to be incorrigible cults peddling ancient mythology. No “possibilian” apologies necessary . .
. . . But there are no serious arguments to be summoned in defense of Judaism, Christianity, or Islam (despite the hopes of their apologists). How can I be sure? Well, for one, these faiths are embraced for the same reasons, and yet are mutually canceling. Worse still, each rests on the premise that its holy book contains the transcribed thoughts of an omniscient Deity. A glance at the books reveals this claim to be manifestly insane, as each is barren of scientific insights and bursting with logical, factual, and moral errors. You know this to be true—you say as much in your talk—and yet this knowledge constitutes nothing more, nor less, than atheism . . .
. . . I do not intend to cut our dialogue short, as I think we have many interesting things to talk about (consciousness, free will, “neurolaw,” etc.). But it seems to me that now might be a good time for you to admit that “possibilianism,” this middle position of yours, is just a piece of performance art, rather than a serious thesis.
Given Sam’s letter, I’m not surprised that Eagleman has fled the scene. I wouldn’t necessarily call Eagleman intellectually dishonest, but he is without doubt an intellectual coward.