Sunday, August 11, 2013

Are You a Possibilian?

First off, I hope that I'm not stealing Jim's thunder. Based on a discussion over the weekend of Dave and Cara's wedding, I know that he was ruminating over a blog post discussing the task of science in the face of the vast amount of uncertainty we face about just about everything. I suggest that Jim look at this post perhaps more as an introduction.

Here we have David Eagleman once again. And now he proposes a new philosophy -- or maybe it's a religion -- of Possibilianism. Possibilianism rejects the explanations of the world of traditional theism, the position of certainty in atheism and the passivity of agnosticism -- in favor of another view which favors active exploration of all the possible explanations. Here is Eagleman's own definition of Possibilianism:
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.
I pretty much agree with everything Eagleman says here, except this: I still don't think he fully understands the complexity of religion. Religion is not simply an alternative explanation to science for natural phenomena for us to consider alongside of science.  As Terry Eagleton (not Eagleman) points out, to say that religion is botched attempt to explain the world is like saying that a novel is botched sociology or ballet is a botched attempt to run for a bus.

Part of the problem is that nobody can agree on a definition of religion. This is what Alfred North Whitehead said:
Religion is the vision of something which stands beyond, behind, and within, the passing flux of immediate things; something which is real, and yet waiting to be realized; something which is a remote possibility, and yet the greatest of present facts; something that gives meaning to all that passes, and yet eludes apprehension; something whose possession is the final good, and yet is beyond all reach; something which is the ultimate ideal and the hopeless quest.
J.M. Yinger calls religion "... a system of beliefs and practice by means of which a group of people struggle with the ultimate problems of human life."

Daniel C. Maguire, Professor of Ethics in the Theology Department of Marquette University, defines relogion as follows: “Religion is the response to the sacred. So what is the sacred? The sacred is the superlative of precious. It is the word we use for that which is utterly and mysteriously precious in our experience. Since there is no one who finds nothing sacred, religion is all over the place.”

Some argue that religion doesn’t really exist — there is only culture. Jonathan Z. Smith writes in Imagining Religion: 
...while there is a staggering amount of data, phenomena, of human experiences and expressions that might be characterized in one culture or another, by one criterion or another, as religion — there is no data for religion. Religion is solely the creation of the scholar’s study. It is created for the scholar’s analytic purposes by his imaginative acts of comparison and generalization. Religion has no existence apart from the academy.
In any event, no one defines religions as any patently ridiculous explanation of natural phenomena.   Indeed, none of these definitions place religion in conflict with science, unless science is prepared to prove that nothing is sacred.

I think that religion is closer to art and literature than it is to science.  Certainly, religion has produced plenty of literature and art.  Where science seeks to provide explanation, religion attempts to provide insight.

Anyway, Eagleman is marvelously entertaining -- another well-spent 20 minutes.

David Eagleman on Possibilianism from PopTech on Vimeo.


James R said...

I have perhaps a squeak from time to time but no thunder. If Eagleman reveals little sophistication about religion, at least he reveals the attitude of a philosopher. To me the unbeatable combination is a scientist who knows philosophy. He comes closest to a religious understanding in his climax, when he says "See if you can live a life full of wonder and free of dogma."

He continually invites us to hold multiple explanations for nature. As F. Scott Fitzgerald said, "The sign of an educated man is one who can hold two contradictory ideas in mind at the same time and continue to function."

And I love how he calls both religious and scientific narratives "stories." Myk likes to refer to religion as poetry. I think science (especially with theories of multiverses and strings and holograms) would like to get more poetic.

Anyway, this type of thinking is becoming, hopefully, more prevalent. I believe it will continue as science continues to raise philosophical questions.

James R said...

By the way, I think Myk again has delivered a maxim for the ages: "religion [has no] conflict with science, unless science is prepared to prove that nothing is sacred." (with spelling corrections)

Big Myk said...

If I can put in a shameless plug for one of the more recent additions to my council of gurus, it's interesting that Nicholas of Cusa (Nicolaus Cusanus) anticipates Eagleman, but from a neoplatonic viewpoint. He said that because the human mind was imperfect, it could not know anything perfectly. He conceptualizes human knowing as measuring, and he proposes that our minds cannot measure things exactly. In one sense, he goes beyond Eagleman. Not only are we ignorant, we cannot be otherwise.

Therefore, all that science can do is conjecture: “You have seen that the exactness of truth cannot be attained. The consequence is that every positive human assertion of the truth is a conjecture…." Eagleman call these conjectures stories.

I don't think that this is post-modern subjectivism. We can advance in our knowledge. But, I suspect that Eagleman would agree with Nicholas: "Nothing could be more beneficial for even the most zealous searcher for knowledge than his being in fact most learned in that very ignorance which is peculiarly his own; and the better a man will have known his own ignorance, the greater his learning will be."