My first bloggish foray into possibilianism had a pretty mild title, "Nothing wrong with being a churchless 'possibilian'." After reading more about this meaning-of-life stance in the most recent issue of New Scientist, I find myself increasingly enthusiastic about David Eagleman's attitude toward uncertainty.
His piece is called Beyond God and atheism: why I am a possibilian. It's a nice blend of creative openmindedness and scientific where's-the-evidence?
I have devoted my life to scientific pursuit. After all, if we want to crack the mysteries of our existence, there may be no better approach than to directly study the blueprints. And science over the past 400 years has been tremendously successful. We have reached the moon, eradicated smallpox, built the internet, tripled lifespans, and increasingly tapped into those mind-blowing truths around us. We've found them to be deeper and more beautiful than anyone could have guessed.
But when we reach the end of the pier of everything we know, we find that it only takes us part of the way. Beyond that all we see is uncharted water. Past the end of the pier lies all the mystery about our deeply strange existence: the equivalence of mass and energy, dark matter, multiple spatial dimensions, how to build consciousness, and the big questions of meaning and existence.
...This situation calls for an openness in approaching the big questions of our existence. When there is a lack of meaningful data to weigh in on a problem, good scientists are comfortable holding many possibilities at once, rather than committing to a particular story over others. In light of this, I have found myself surprised by the amount of certainty out there.
...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.
Is possibilianism compatible with a scientific career? Indeed, it represents the heart of science. Real science operates by holding limitless possibilities in mind and working to see which one is most supported by the data. Sometimes it is difficult or impossible to gather data that weighs in - and in those cases we simply retain the possibilities. We don't commit to a particular version of the story when there is no reason to.
Possibilianism does not suggest free rein to believe whatever strikes one's fancy. It is not tantamount to "anything goes". We know a great deal, not only about the cosmos and molecules, but also about human yearning, fallibilities, poor memories and our extraordinary ability to fabricate any variety of fantastic but utterly untrue stories. 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.
Eagleman has written a book called Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlife. Each tale is 2-3 pages of his wondering... about possibilities... no dogmatism... just a bunch of "what if's?"
When I checked out "Sum" on Amazon last night, intrigued after reading a mention of the book in the New Scientist article, at first I thought that I'd take a pass at what seemed to be blue-sky hypothesizing by someone who, obviously, doesn't know any more about the afterlife, or lack thereof, than anybody else.
Then I read some reviews of "Sum," both from pros and from ordinary readers. Here's the first two paragraphs from the initial reader review:
Occasionally a book comes along of such originality that it stops you in your tracks, of such sharpness that it makes you think again about so many things and of such warmth that it makes you want to share it with everyone you meet. David Eagleman's Sum is just such a book.
Ostensibly a book about what happens after we die, ironically Sum is really an examination of what it means to live. After all the divide is perhaps not as great as we think and as John Keats once wrote, "Life is but a Waking Dream."
After perusing quite a few other paeans to the book, I pushed One Click Order.
I realized that I'm no longer so much into searching for meaning of life and ultimate reality answers. Rather, I'm passionate about pursuing the questions in the most satisfying fashion.
What is life all about, after all, but possibilities? Certainties are dead, rigid, barren, and -- seemingly paradoxically -- unreal. Uncertainty is the way of science. Also, the way of every human being.
As Eagleman says:
A scientist may tend to favour one story over the others, but will always be careful to concede uncertainty and maintain a willingness to change the balance with new, incoming information. As an example, there are two very different interpretations about the reality underlying quantum physics. It is possible that there will be no way to ever know which is correct, or if instead some entirely new theory is correct. And that ambiguity is accepted as part of the enormity of the mysteries we face, and the terms of the agreement we have with nature.
I liked how Eagleman reminds us that between traditional views of God and no-holds-barred atheism are all kinds of possibilities concerning the ultimate nature of the cosmos, which includes the option that "ultimate" is a meaningless concept when applied to reality as a whole.
Personally, and all musings about Big Questions are just that, personal, I'm attracted to the possibility of our universe being a simulation of some astoundingly advanced civilization.
This could explain why scientists are making so little progress toward a so-called "theory of everything," which would require resolving the contradictions between relativity and quantum theory.
Maybe the creator of the simulation built-in a super-tough level that would be extremely tough, if not completely impossible, for the self-aware entities who would eventually evolve in the game to crack. We're not supposed to figure out that the universe isn't what it appears to be, since this would (literally) give the game away, a la The Matrix.
This morning I had fun projecting "I know what you're up to" during my meditation period. I enjoyed visualizing the simulation's creator getting an alert that one of the billions of conscious entities in the game has made a feeble start at seeing through the illusion of the cosmos.
I also found it interesting to contemplate how my life would change (to put it mildly) if I came to realize that everything I thought was true and real, actually wasn't. What would happen if a single building block that supports my conception of reality was pulled out, and the whole structure came crashing down, leaving.... what?
Is this death, life, enlightenment, insanity, wisdom, idiocy, everything, nothing at all, all of the above, none of the above?
I was left with possibilities.
No answers. Just intriguing questions.
No preferred direction. Just interesting paths to explore.