I’m on a bus to Boston (the first internet-equipped bus I’ve ever ridden), so excuse the following post, written in haste.
There’s a form of accommodationism that, while attacking the deficiencies of both science and faith, tries to combine them in a wooly-minded nexus. That is what Templeton, for instance, is trying to do. This week, on New Scientist’s “opinion” site, you find David Eagleman, a neuroscientist at Baylor College of Medicine, taking atheists to task for their lack of humility and the faithful for their lack of evidence. He claims to have found a superor third way that is neither fish nor fowl: possibilianism.
So while there are plenty of good books by scientist-atheists, they sometimes under-emphasise the main lesson from science: that our knowledge is vastly outstripped by our ignorance. For me, a life in science prompts awe and exploration over dogmatism.
Let’s see—who are those book-writing scientist-atheists? Dawkins, surely, and Victor Stenger. Perhaps Sam Harris as well. It wasn’t my impression that these guys failed to concede our vast ignorance about the universe.
Given these considerations, I do not call myself an atheist. I don’t feel that I have enough data to firmly rule out other interesting possibilities. On the other hand, I do not subscribe to any religion. Traditional religious stories can be beautiful and often crystallise hard-won wisdom – but it is hardly a challenge to poke holes in them.
Those “interesting possibilities” would seem to be supernatural ones, since that’s what atheism has provisionally ruled out. Yet Eagleman’s “possibilites” seem to fall within the purview of science:
So it seems we know too little to commit to strict atheism, and too much to commit to any religion. Given this, I am often surprised by the number of people who seem to possess total certainty about their position. I know a lot of atheists who seethe at the idea of religion, and religious followers who seethe at the idea of atheism – but neither group is bothering with more interesting ideas. They make their impassioned arguments as though the God versus no-God dichotomy were enough for a modern discussion.
What if we were planted here by aliens? What if there are civilisations in spatial dimensions seven through nine? What if we are nodes in a vast, cosmic, computational device? . . .
Consider the enormous “possibility space” of stories that can be dreamed up. Take the entirety of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition as a single point in this possibility space. The eastern religions are another point. Strict atheism is another point. Now think of the immense landscape of the points in between. Many of these points will contain stories that are crazy, silly, or merely wildly improbable. But in the absence of data, they can’t be ruled out of that space.
This is why I call myself a “possibilian”. Possibilianism emphasises the active exploration of new, unconsidered notions. A possibilian is comfortable holding multiple ideas in mind and is not driven by the idea of fighting for a single, particular story. The key emphasis of possibilianism is to shine a flashlight around the possibility space. It is a plea not simply for open-mindedness, but for an active exploration of new ideas.
But doesn’t this sound just like science? Indeed, Eagletnan’s program seems to be one of scientific exploration:
Within the realm of what is addressable, we profitably apply logic to further knowledge. Possibilianism is “anything goes at first” – but we then use science to rule out parts of the possibility space, and often to rule in new parts.
And indeed, if we think we were put here by space aliens (presumably as a naked replicating molecule, since we already know we weren’t planted here as primates), we need to look for evidence for that. If evidence is impossible to get, then we might as well dismiss the project, since no answers will be forthcoming. But Eagleman plays down the fact that his “possibility” space includes a lot of supernatural assertions that are either falsified by science or incapable of scientific refutation because they’ve rendered themselves immune to disproof. And those possibilities are outside his program.
Eagleman’s problem is that he doesn’t clearly distinguish his Third Way from science itself, so I’m not sure why he wrote this piece. Indeed, I’m not sure what he means. In the end, his post seems to be a misguided way to empower supernaturalism and spiritualism—and appeal to their adherents—without saying so directly.