Class Warfare Blog

October 22, 2019

Possibilianism?

Dr. David Eagleman is one of my favorite public scientists. (He was the writer and presenter of the six-hour television series, The Brain with David Eagleman on PBS (highly recommended).) In this lovely YouTube video (God vs. No God – And the Winner Is? ) he address what we know versus what we do not know (a theme of my last several posts) and introduces his idea of possibilianism. He prefaces that introduction with a description of the “debate” between “strong atheists” (anti-theists) and fundamentalists being carried out in books. He feels that the extremes are being represented in that discussion, but not the vast middle ground. Dr. Eagleman suggests that there is a vast possibility space between the extremes and that these possibilities are being ignored in the “great debate.”

He gives some examples of possibilities, a number of which are far-fetched but he addresses that by indicating that he was asked if he meant that “anything goes” when defining this pile of possibilities. His answer was “No . . . anything goes at first. Then we use the tools available to us to address them.” And those things that are disproven need to be crossed off the list. He gives the example of the religious claim that the earth is 6000 years old and contrasts that with the evidence that it is 4.5 billion years old, give or take.

He reinforced his call of possibilianism with a call for intellectual humility. His presentation is engaging and entertaining as always and. . . .

This is a lovely idea and it has been implemented in public discourse, just not in a systematic way. People share all of their ideas with others. We are a social species, after all. So, the ideas of crystal power, vaccinations are evil, aliens have been manipulating our DNA for millennia, etc. have been out in the open and are being discussed along with practical means to address climate change, wealth inequality, providing healthcare for all citizens, etc. In fact so of the somewhat dubious ideas seem to get more attention that the serious ones. I suggest that our possibility space is actually well populated at this point.

But the flaw in this idea is that it is based upon people making a commitment to submit their “possibilities” to the process and to abiding by the outcome. I suggest that this is not something most people are interested in. Why submit my cherished beliefs/private conjectures/unproven theories to a confirmation process, one that may show them to be correct, but may also show them to be nonsense? I don’t think so. As much as people want to be shown to be “right” they are vastly more driven to show that they are “not wrong.”

The history of Christian churches shows this often enough. Look at how resistant the Catholic Church was in allowing the Shroud of Turin to be tested scientifically. The same is true for a great many other “miracles” they claim are valid. If they don’t play the confirmation game, they can’t lose because they can have it however they want without fear of disconfirmation by not playing.

For people whose ideas are arbitrarily placed in the possibility space and tested, without their permission or confirmation, there are several procedures to follow. Discrediting the people, the process, and the data are all tried and true approaches to keeping their cherished beliefs sacrosanct. And, then, human gullibility always reigns supreme . . . after all Jim Bakker still has a ministry.

And, on top of it all, this is an inefficient use of effort. If trying to get from Point A to Point B for a vacation, for example, what do you think about the process of establishing all of the possible routes first, then evaluating them to find the best one? Rather we take shortcuts to find a sensible option, whether it is optimal is not important. We decide to take our car, then get out a road map and look for lines (roads) on a map connecting A with B, starting by leaving A in the general direction of B (not in all possible directions) and having road characteristics that appeal (freeways if time is short, back roads if the journey is paramount). Part of the attraction of possibilianism to rational people seems to be based upon getting some of the intellectual garbage we have created and culturally kept into their cross hairs, so it can be dispensed with. I don’t think the owners of those “ideas” will play that game.

4 Comments »

  1. Possiblism sounds quite attractive, but as you point out there are a lot of problems, the biggest being that it will only work if the participants fully cooperate and admit that their point of view is incorrect when presented with evidence. It’s so frustrating sometimes.

    P.S. Ah, little Jimmy Bakker – when the little ferret got out of federal prison I never thought anyone would give him a platform to start up another “ministry”. But I underestimated the greed and lack of ethics on the part of the sponsors and broadcast company, and overestimated the intelligence of people.

    Liked by 1 person

    Comment by grouchyfarmer — October 22, 2019 @ 10:49 pm | Reply

  2. “No . . . anything goes at first. Then we use the tools available to us to address them”

    This is a reasonable place to start. Anytime I go down that path though, I get to three remaining possibilities: (1) strong atheism, (2) a creator god who no longer interacts with the world so what does it matter, and (3) a very, very bad, evil, antagonistic God — possible, but not someone I want to associate with.

    “As much as people want to be shown to be “right” they are vastly more driven to show that they are “not wrong.””

    This is true in some concepts, but not for me with the god question. See, as a lifelong atheist, I WANT there to be a loving, moral, interactive god. Or gods. I want BADLY for it to be true. It just doesn’t match the facts.

    “I don’t think the owners of those “ideas” will play that game.”

    No, they won’t. But as to Eagleman’s original idea, as expressed by you, we (as a society) have already done this. Repeatedly. I don’t think there’s any point in *always* going back to the beginning and checking *all* the possibilities. Like when conservatives use the dishonest goad: “Just hear it out — free exchange of ideas” they’re ignoring that all their ideas have been around for decades, if not centuries, and they have been shown to be wrong.

    Like

    Comment by Anderson Connors — October 24, 2019 @ 1:37 pm | Reply

    • You are quite right in that we end up with no gods in the end. (Of all of the gods that have been believed, only a few thousand are still around. We are making progress.) As to “I WANT there to be a loving, moral, interactive god. Or gods. I want BADLY for it to be true.” I do not want this at all. As when a child grows up and is no longer dependent on a parent, what would a god serve as? If this god is someone we could petition to suspend the rules and make a sick person well, etc. I still would not want that as our growth as individuals, groups, and as a species involves the taking responsibility for the good and bad and everything in between. Bailouts do not serve us at this point.

      Like

      Comment by Steve Ruis — October 25, 2019 @ 11:44 am | Reply

      • If humans TRULY believed a god or gods came to their aid during sickness, we most likely would NOT have developed all the MANY curative drugs and methods that we have today. Personally, I’d rather rely on them than some fickle, mute, and invisible entity that lives somewhere “out there.”

        Like

        Comment by Nan — October 25, 2019 @ 1:51 pm | Reply


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