Friday, April 22, 2011

David Eagleman, Possibilianism, and Transcending the Boundaries of Belief and Disbelief

Rich Reynolds at the UFO Iconoclasts has written a short post encouraging people to take a look at the work of neuroscientist / author David Eagleman, in particular with respect to his ideas about memory, and his philosophy of Possibilianism, and I couldn't agree with Rich more. Eagleman is one of the most interesting thinkers of our time. His book Sum: forty tales from the afterlives, is one of my favourite novels (although to call it a novel, i.e. a work of complete fiction, isn't quite accurate).

The podcast above contains an excerpt from Sum, read by the actor Jeffrey Tambor. It also has biologist Lee Silver telling the story of a physician’s ambitious 1907 experiment to discover the weight of the soul, a discussion of when people actually die with author and researcher Gary Greenberg and John Troyer, and a conversation with neuroscientist Adrian Owen about whether or not the dead can play tennis?

Consider it an Easter gift, from me to you!

As for Possibilianism, here is Eagleman explaining it in twenty minutes:

Three quotes from Eagleman in his lecture that pretty much sum up the way I look at both science, religion, and all things about the paranormal.

After you walk the pier of everything we know in science, at some point you reach the end of the pier. And beyond the pier is everything that we don't know; it's all of the uncharted waters, the deep mysteries that we don't have insight into yet. That's the real lesson that you get from science - it's about the vastness of our ignorance.

Science is really about the creativity of making up new hypotheses. Part of the scientific temperment is the tolerance for holding multiple hypotheses in mind at the same time. Now, what we actually do is we make up new stories in the laboratory every day, and then we go and we seek evidence. We gather evidence to weigh in favour of some stories over others. But it's often the case that some questions are too far out right now. They're beyond the toolbox of science, and as a result we're unable to gather evidence for them. And in that situation it's okay. Science is comfortable holding multiple hypotheses on the table. That ambiguity is accepted as part of the relationship we have with Mother Nature. It's part of the vast mysteries around us. We have to have that ambiguity.
And finally:

This is not just a plea for simple-openmindedness, but for an active exploration of new ideas... Look around the strange world you're in, and see if you can live a life that is free from dogma, and full of awe and wonder, and see if you can celebrate possibility, and praise uncertainty.
Fascinating and thought-provoking stuff, and an example of the kind of thinking that transcends the boundaries imposed by those who insist we should simply believe or disbelieve in something.

Possibilianism is exactly the approach that I'll be taking with Beyond Best Evidence, the UFO-related documentary for which we're currently trying to raise the financing, because it's the only reasonable way of looking at the UFO enigma.

Paul Kimball


Cj said...

How is this different than keeping an open mind? The only difference I can see is that possiblilism allows one to append a new label to themselves. People seem to love to identify with contemporary or newer labels/fads and feel themselves as members of some kind of progressive vanguard. I see possibilism as really little more than that. This is just something old in a new wrapper. Contemporary vanity and silliness.

Paul Kimball said...

Not quite.

Eagleman addresses the concept of being "open minded", and shows why it's different.

Rather, Eagleman is part of a movement within science to reform it, and return it to its proper roots. Michio Kaku is perhaps the best known proponent of this endeavour.

Science has become an institutionalized and corporatized leviathan that stifles thought and true progress at the altar of immediate profitability. People like Eagleman and Kaku (and many others) are clearly disenchanted with the "either / or" way of thinking that has resulted (and that "either / or" way includes simple open-mindedness to anything). Like the Protestant reformers, they're working to strip science, and more importantly the scientific way of thinking, down to its essentials, which is what "possibilianism" represents.

With any luck, this will catch on and spread, at which point science will be about discovery again, as opposed to simply satisfying the bottom line, gaining tenure, and being "right".

Possibilianism isn't about answers; it's about how to ask the questions.


Anonymous said...

Ah, possiblilism. Makes me hark back to a great Sean Penn movie.