I was looking forward to a lively online debate about religion between Sam Harris and David Eagleman, which seemed to be in the offing but now has apparently fizzled out.
We all know Sam, and maybe you’ll know Eagleman, a young, ambitious, and polymath-ic neuroscientist at Baylor University. Eagleman was recently the subject of an admiring profile in the New Yorker, and I’ve mentioned him on this website (see here and here). Eagleman is also an advocate of a philosophy (or stance) called “possibilianism,” which he originated, and defines on the Possibilianism website:
Asked whether he was an atheist or a religious person on a National Public Radio interview in February, 2009, he replied “I call myself a Possibilian: I’m open to ideas that we don’t have any way of testing right now.” In a subsequent interview with the New York Times, Eagleman expanded on the definition:
“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.”
Irritated at the last sentence? I sure was. What if those multiple ideas you hold in your mind are incompatible, like God versus no God? Wouldn’t you want to find a way to figure out which notion, if any, was true?
Here’s a video in which Eagleman explained his position in a TEDx talk in Houston.
At 3:17: Eagleman discusses the books of the “neo-atheists,” accusing them of not having the intellectual courage to go beyond the available data. He argues, as he did above, that we know too little to commit to a position of strict atheism. . . and way too much to commit to a particular religious position.” He adds later that “certainty is an absurd position.”
I found the video irritating and a bit smug, as if Eagleman were saying, “I’m better than both ends of the belief spectrum.” If he can’t dismiss the idea of God, than neither can he dismiss the ideas of fairies, leprechauns, and fire-breathing dragons whose habitat has simply remained elusive. So possibilianism turns our brains into big Halloween bags full of appealing but unhealthy notions.
Yes, we should keep an open mind about things that may be possible, but those things don’t include God. For although there could have been evidence for a deity, none has surfaced. And, contra Eagleman, few prominent atheists have asserted flatly that there is absolutely no God. Rather, nearly all of them say that there is strong evidence against a god’s existence and, like Laplace, feel that invoking a god adds nothing to our understanding of the universe. Certainty may be an absurd position, but few atheists are 100% certain. Near-certainty, on the other hand, is certainly not absurd. Is it absurd to be nearly certain that a water molecule has two atoms of hydrogen and one of oxygen? Or that the Earth orbits the sun?
Harris responded to Eagleman’s talk, with the URL of his response slyly calling Eagleman “the world’s nicest accommodationist.” Sam invited Eagleman to discuss the issues in an online debate, similar to the one he had with Andrew Sullivan. From Sam’s initial response:
Unfortunately, on the subject of religion he appears to make a conscious effort to play the good cop to the bad cop of “the new atheism.” This posture will win him many friends, but it is intellectually dishonest. When one reads between the lines—or even when one just reads the lines—it becomes clear that what Eagleman is saying is every bit as deflationary as anything Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens or I say about the cherished doctrines of the faithful.
I don’t know Eagleman, but I’ve invited him to discuss these and other issues with me on this blog.
Eagleman accepted Sam’s invitation on Twitter, and, over at PuffHo, Steve Volk, a staff writer at Philadelphia magazine, reported this upcoming debate in a piece called “New allies in the theist/atheist debate.” Volk breathlessly predicted that the atheist (Harris) would lie down with the accommodationist (Eagleman).
Sadly, Harris’s invitation, although accepted, has produced. . . nothing. Eagleman has not been forthcoming. In his latest post, “Whither Eagleman?”, Sam reproduces the letter he sent to Eagleman, explaining what he meant when he called him “intellectually dishonest,” and setting out his (Harris’s) position. You’ll want to read the whole letter (it’s not long), but here’s a snippet:
In your talk, you repeatedly convict Richard Dawkins et al. of false certainty. You say that we have “left the public with a misconception that scientists don’t have the capacity to gamble (gambol?) beyond the available data—that scientists are acting as though we have it all figured out.” But Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens, and I have never claimed that we can establish the nonexistence of God. We simply observe, as you do, that the God of Abraham has the same empirical status as Poseidon and that the books attesting to His existence bear every sign of having been cobbled together by ignorant mortals. This is all one needs to judge Judaism, Christianity, and Islam to be incorrigible cults peddling ancient mythology. No “possibilian” apologies necessary . .
. . . But there are no serious arguments to be summoned in defense of Judaism, Christianity, or Islam (despite the hopes of their apologists). How can I be sure? Well, for one, these faiths are embraced for the same reasons, and yet are mutually canceling. Worse still, each rests on the premise that its holy book contains the transcribed thoughts of an omniscient Deity. A glance at the books reveals this claim to be manifestly insane, as each is barren of scientific insights and bursting with logical, factual, and moral errors. You know this to be true—you say as much in your talk—and yet this knowledge constitutes nothing more, nor less, than atheism . . .
. . . I do not intend to cut our dialogue short, as I think we have many interesting things to talk about (consciousness, free will, “neurolaw,” etc.). But it seems to me that now might be a good time for you to admit that “possibilianism,” this middle position of yours, is just a piece of performance art, rather than a serious thesis.
Given Sam’s letter, I’m not surprised that Eagleman has fled the scene. I wouldn’t necessarily call Eagleman intellectually dishonest, but he is without doubt an intellectual coward.
123 thoughts on “Eagleman vs. Harris: debate on atheism peters out”
xkcd said it well.
He makes me think more of Jesus and Mo.
I thought of that comic as soon as I read the phrase “Eagleman discusses the books of the ‘neo-atheists,’ accusing them of not having the intellectual courage to go beyond the available data.
What is it with people winning threads in the first post with an XKCD reference?
As others have noted, there’s really not much for Eagleman to respond with. Sam and I don’t always see eye-to-eye, but I can’t imagine how that letter could be improved upon. Even Hitchens couldn’t top it.
One minor nit I might pick out of Sam’s letter:
Ray Kurzweil regularly falls afoul of PZ.
But really, you are right. Sam says everything that needs to be said. This is a characteristic that I, personally, find Sam displays pretty consistently. Whether it’s the written word or a live debate, I usually (and again, personally) find Sam’s arguments and rebuttals most satisfying. Of course Hitchens has a spectacular way with words and often combines eloquence with wit for devastating effect. But Sam seems to me to have a way if simply laying out his position or his rebuttal with an eloquence and concision that not only make his points strong and clear, but almost obvious and self-evident.
That’s not to say I’m completely on board with ALL of his ideas. He’s got some way to go toward convincing me of his ideas concerning morality. But I’m listening…
Harris has a tendency towards black and white thinking – oversimplification of the “with us or against us” variety. It is not relevant in the present case, but in other instances it keeps me from being a complete fan of his.
Really? I hadn’t noticed, got any examples?
His comments on the Park 51 mosque, for example. His comments on torture, for another. I got the same impression from reading his two books, Letter to a Christian Nation and The End of Faith, but that’s been a while so that I cannot recall specific examples.
It seems to me, on the issue of torture, that Sam’s the one claiming there are grey areas. “No torture, ever” would be the black and white way of looking at it. I wouldn’t call it “black and white thinking” when someone simply holds a position and then argues for it.
But that’s neither here nor there. I should’ve made it more clear that the thing I like most about what Sam does is how he rebuts arguments. I almost never feel that he hasn’t addressed an opponent’s argument satisfactorily, which (and I know, who am I to pass judgment) I do sometimes feel with other big name gnus. And he usually does it with precise and succinct language, which is a plus.
I’m on board with you about Harris’s me/them instinct sometimes being a bit too reflexively prickly. However, with torture I don’t think he’s guilty — have you read his recent attempt to get his basic point across here?
Watching Eagleman’s TEDtalk made me think “I wonder if the character in the xlcd strip is a possibilian?”
But you are saying that your views are better than any other in the belief spectrum?
Curse your alacrity, Tulse! That’s exactly what I thought of when I read that.
What you call “alacrity” can alternatively be viewed as “spending way too much time at work reading WEIT”.
Eagleman seems like the typical person who wants to be special and have some magical secret knowledge. Let’s be all “possiblians” and accept that Cthullu could exist. And the FSM. and that washing machines can be possessed and take on a life of their own. And that there really could for true be a lovely silver tea set floating around Alpha Centauri. Yeesh.
I’m currently reading Eagleman’s Incognito, and it is absolutely fascinating. I do hope he attempts to defend his position against Harris–not because I think Eagleman is right but because I think it will be an interesting discussion.
And by the way, reading his book, it is absolutely clear to me that Eagleman is as much an atheist as Dawkins, Coyne, PZed or Harris. He repeated denies the influence of god on humans, relating all our behavior to biology and environment, without a sliver of possibilianism of influence, even deep at the quantum level. Perhaps he’s really a deist, but functionally there’s no difference.
The problem is that most people define atheism in the abstract as the absolute negation of the existence of any god(s). That’s why they accuse us of being “too certain” or “just as zealous as religious fundamentalists”.
Actually, it is much more accurate to define atheism *with respect* to specific deities based on the ample evidence that they’re man-made and the absolute lack of proof of their existence. We’re all atheists with respect to the Judeo-Christian god (and Zeus, and Osiris, etc.) for this reason. The dictionary is rather vague and assumes that we all mean the same thing by the concept of ‘God’. The definition of atheism needs to be revised to represent a more specific claim and not the current broad brush assertion.
There’s always the possibility of some ineffable higher power that has zero interest in human affairs. But that notion doesn’t deserve a special name or the status of a novel school of thought. It’s just as uninteresting an idea (and perhaps the same) as agnosticism.
Somewhere in The Good Book the God of Abraham says words to the effect, “I am a jealous God; thou shalt have no other gods before me.”
I perceive that this implies that the God of Abraham considers these gods to exist. I gather that the Israelites believed that these other gods (e.g., Baal) existed, though I gather contemporary Christians do not so believe. But why not? It takes a right smart peculiar personality to be jealous of something which doesn’t exist.
The “most helpful” review on Amazon gives the book a well-written thumbs down, so I guess YMMV: http://www.amazon.com/review/RKWCIG5R5501H/ref=cm_cr_dp_perm?ie=UTF8&ASIN=0307377334&nodeID=283155&tag=&linkCode=
I will be waiting my turn at the local library.
Hmmm, very scathing, I shan’t bother at all.
For me it isn’t as much that there is “strong evidence against the existence of god”. More importantly, and of this we can be absolutely certain, there is no evidence for the existence of god.
Even if it could exist at this point it’s existence is imaginary; on par with other imaginary creatures.
Well, there is strong evidence against all testable claims ever uttered in defense of any and all gods…
Any god without testable claims is unlike any god actually worshiped. And worshiping such a god turns you into a functional atheist.
Most apologists however use large doses of sleight of hand to change the one concept of a god into another depending on who is listening.
Just read Harris’ piece. Absolutely devastating. I can understand why answering it would take a month or longer. It could be shorter if Eagleman would simply retract lots of what he said in that talk.
Indeed, Eagleman’s position seems to be an ingratiating effort to appeal to both sides; to save face with God and with the Devil, as it were. Unfortunately, as Sam has written before: in committing to a middle ground stance, Eagleman betrays both faith and reason at the same time.
Kudos to Sam for trying to initiate a conversation on this. Alas, not all charismatic speakers are serious intellectual contenders.
What was it PZ Myers said about accomidationalism? Something about the middle ground being halfway to crazy town?
that word, “Possibillian”, irks me(unreasonable, i know). you’re an agnostic. just say that. that’s fine. quit trying to be cute/clever at attempting to set yourself apart from the conversation.
If one is going to go to the trouble of coining a new word, why not produce coinage that doesn’t make the listener think of “bilious”? Or is it just me?
“Possibilianism” is a perfectly cromulent word.
But it is fugly.
Actually it’s not cromulent 1) because -ible doesn’t make -bill.. 2) because its definition is so fluffy at the edges. (I take embiggen for the nyncus of a cromulent word.)
Just a small correction. Eagleman is at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, which separated from Baylor University over four decades ago.
I get really defensive when someone pulls the “certainty” card. Speaking for myself, and probably many atheists, I am not claiming certainty, if certainty means 100%. Any good scientist or scientific thinker knows not to claim certainty. It strikes me odd that Eagleman is supposed to be a scientist and then claims that other scientists would think this way (although I’m sure there are some). Like every one of the “neo-atheists” haven’t considered the problem with claiming certainty. It’s unscientific and no reasonable rational person would claim it. Straw man, indeed.
“The responsible scientist, that is, respects the fact that she is not absolutely certain, and is thus ready to be proved wrong. Indeed, any responsible scientist can tell you what evidence would cause her to abandon her hypothesis; whereas it is the rare religious believer indeed who is able to do this.” – Troy Jollimore
Oh yeah, also. WTF is “strict” atheism? A cuter way to say militant? Blerg.
Sounds like atheism with leather boots and a whip.
Eh, there’re scads of things you can be 100% certain of. With respect to the discussion at hand, you can be 100% certain that there are no entities that desire to end human suffering that have the capacity to actually do something about it (other than our own feeble selves, of course).
That right there rules out every god worshipped today; the only potential gods left aren’t ones that anybody actually worships.
The scientist can also be 100% certain that no flat surface can have a triangle with more than one right angle. If presented with something that appears to be a flat surface with more than one right angle, the scientist can be 100% certain that the surface isn’t flat, the lines aren’t straight, etc., etc., etc.
“Eh, there’re scads of things you can be 100% certain of. With respect to the discussion at hand, you can be 100% certain that there are no entities that desire to end human suffering that have the capacity to actually do something about it (other than our own feeble selves, of course).”
I don’t agree that this is certainty. Very highly unlikely. p > .99
“The scientist can also be 100% certain that no flat surface can have…….”
I think they can be certain of this within the theory that creates these laws. If their theory is incorrect or the laws no longer apply (there is a pretty vast universe), then ?????? Most people would say that they are certain gravity exists, but it is still a falsifiable theory.
That’s a false uncertainty.
Just as a single rabbit in the Precambrian would disprove the Theory of Evolution by Random Mutation and Natural Selection, so too does a single suffering human disprove the theory of a powerful entity that does not wish to see humans suffer. There’s no remaining wiggle room in either; the theories are both busted beyond repair.
And, more to the point, the certainty that there are no Euclidean triangles with more than one right angle is exactly equal to the certainty that 1 + 1 = 2. The only way to reject the certainty of the proposition is to reject rationality itself — by definition, one who does so is irrational and therefore not deserving of serious consideration.
Certainty is certainly viable, even at 100% I agree. For instance, all the drugstores that still sell film for cameras: I cannot visit every store that sells film, and I cannot look in every film container within those stores. Yet I am 100% certain, that none of those pieces of film, in any of those drugstores, contains film with images of the film “Gone with The Wind”.
I am also 100% certain that Australia and Anarctica exist, by the same definition that I exist; that is, can be verified by more than one independent observer, arriving at the same information.
“Proof” is what Eaglemann is suggesting, yet he uses the word “certainty”. Proof is for Math, and closed systems (e.g. Law). Certainty is what we use to conduct our lives as humans, and it ranges from zero certainty to 100% certainty. How about gravity, human use of oxygen, etc etc. There are so many instances of absolute certainty, it’s only more “Woo” to speak of “Possibilities”.
I dig. We are struggling with semantics I guess. Also, I don’t care for “possibilities” either. Everything is equally possible (it is or isn’t), not everything is equally probable (likely is or likely isn’t).
I feel like I’m debating a philosopher (no offense to philosophers). Look, I base my conclusions available empirical evidence. My training has made me squeamish of absolutes and I feel like many have the same feelings.
If you want to ask if I’m certain about things, I will say “yes”. BUT, only if certainty means 99.99999…..%. I am always open to dis-confirming evidence. If you are not open to these possibilities, it is you that are close-minded (and irrational) and may end up with egg on your face. Now, I don’t think you will, in actuality, with the examples you are giving, but I, personally, try not to make a habit of thinking in absolutes.
In case you are wondering, God Hypothesis for me: p > .99.
As a side note: I once had a PhD in mathematics argue that the angle thing is falsifiable using, I forget what he called it, but something like theoretical mathematics. He was trying to prove a point, but I will not try to rehash what he said here.
I re-read my post and it is not meant to be in bad blood. I hope you see it as lighthearted debate. I really enjoy it.
Cheers to you sir.
There’s a saying about open minds and brains falling out….
I see no advantage and great disadvantage to even pretending to admit a hypothetical possibility that 1 + 1 2, or that the circle can be squared. What reason can you possibly offer otherwise?
(The geometry, of course, carries with it all the assumptions of Euclideanism — specifically, a uniform flat space. Drawing a three-right-angle triangle is trivial on a sphere, but that’s no more remarkable than redefining “1” to represent “sand wetting seven purple electronic kaons” and claiming addition to be falsified.)
“I see no advantage and great disadvantage to even pretending to admit a hypothetical possibility that 1 + 1 2, or that the circle can be squared. What reason can you possibly offer otherwise?”
I see no advantage at all, just like I see no advantage to pretending to admit a hypothetical “possibility” does not exist for any other things that are 99.9999% certain. It takes no extra effort for me to be open to dis-confirming evidence. If it comes along; great, I will change my conclusion. Until then, I will continue to live my life assuming that a is true and b is not. It’s not that hard. Hell, I would not even ask you to admit that a hypothetical possibility exists.
My initial point was that I hate when accommodationists, or whomever, assume that atheists are 100% certain there are no gods or supernatural.
A hypothetical possibility doesn’t always exist though, especially with abstractions. If you don’t include abstractions, perhaps you should make that clear.
It’s simply not true that everything is possible. That’s what tempts some theologians to water omnipotence down to, “he can do anything he can do.”
I think the real point is that just about any useful calculation involving probabilities (philosophical or otherwise) will be continuous in p, so there’s no important distinction between p=.9999 and p=1.0.
Indeed! Much more concise than my last post. Thanks!
And my real point is that there are times when probability analysis is the worng tool to use.
One does not assign a probability to the chances that 1 + 1 = 2. One does not assign a probability to the chances that a bachelor is married. And one does not assign a probability to the chances that a universe with evil is infested with an all-powerful all-loving overmind. To suggest otherwise is…well, insane.
One may, of course, debate whether or not an apple with a bite out of it constitutes one apple, whether or not the man in question really is a bachelor, or whether or not there are friendly space aliens who give us a gentle nudge every now and again. But that’s all entirely orthogonal to the discussion.
I don’t assign probabilities to things that are improbable. That, I think, is where we are getting tied up. I don’t go through every observation assigning probabilities. That is absurd. I come to a conclusion and stick to that as a current “certainty”, without considering alternatives until presented. Even ones that are presented are typically thrown aside without much thought, if an “implicit” (albeit arbitrary) probability is assigned, and new evidence does not appear substantial.
Ben, Probability is an extension of logic to cases where truth values are not just 0 or 1. See Jaynes’ book, Probability Theory, the Logic of Science, for an exquisite explanation. So, probability is relevent whenever logic would be, except that one cannot establish certainty. If logic is irrelevent because the statement is meaningless then probability is not going to help. Probability is unnecessary for statements like 1+1=2 since logic (set theory) handles it just fine.
Yes, cooperator, that’s exactly what I’m trying to express.
Adam, best I can read him, is still trying to apply probabilities in such instances.
The Epicurean riddle, for example, is precisely an exercise in set theory. The set of universes with powerful benevolent entities do not contain misery; the real universe contains misery; therefore the real universe in not in the set of universes with powerful benevolent entities. No room for probabilities.
Ben Goren: The scientist can also be 100% certain that no flat surface can have a triangle with more than one right angle.
I can’t sign onto that unless you replace “flat” with “planar.”
Yes, of course. And Feynman would insist that it be specified that it’s of uniform temperature. And somebody else would insist that “right angle” be properly defined. And —
I’m not trying to re-write Elemants here. It really shouldn’t be any more necessary to spell out all of that in excruciating detail than it should be necessary to mention Einstein or Uranus or event horizons when observing that a dropped apple will accelerate at 10 m/s/s.
If you know enough to be able to get sidetracked in all the elaborations, then you should also know enough to know that those elaborations are meaningless. Might as well go whole-hog and insist that it only holds true for three-sided triangles — drawing four-sided triangles with multiple right angles is pretty easy, donchano.
I am pretty certain that you are 100% certain that you are correct about this argument of 100% certainty. Therefore, I certainly cannot change you 100% certain mind. So, certainly there cannot be a reason to try to persuade you with my theory of uncertainty. So, I certainly shouldn’t try. If this is so, then there is certainly no reason to argue with theists that are certain that there is a god. Though, I would argue that their certainty in god is precisely what makes them irrational.
Certainly. That is a strange word to say over and over. Am I high?
Well, have you tried throwing an example at him? Maybe you’ll blow 100% of his mind, in which case its current make-up is moot.
1) No flat surface can have a triangle with more than one right angle.
Don’t think I saw this objection/quibble yet.
Here’s my take on it:
The popular definition that lies behind the common understanding of ‘triangle’ itself includes the notion of a flat surface.
In other words, I think that the statement 1) can reduce down to the following:
2) No flat surface can have a triangle with properties such that it violates the definition of ‘a triangle on a flat surface’.
In other words: I think that statement 1) hides an inherent tautology by tacitly injecting the definition of ‘triangle with a flat surface’ into the structure of the argument.
By definition we can of course be certain of tautologies… But it seems to me to be a rather trivial kind of certainty.
If I had some eggs, I could have ham and eggs, if I had some ham.
Contrast this to the notion Jerry is describing, where we can be near certain. Or perhaps certain beyond reasonable doubt.
Whatever the modifier, we can use the term ‘certain’ in the sense that we are ‘certain in a non-absolute sense but still to such a very high (and justifiable) degree that for all practical purposes we can ignore the difference as negligible and just use the term certain without modification as a short hand that appropriately compromises the trade-off between precision and brevity, very much unlike this sentence-agraph.’
To my mind, these are the only two senses of the term ‘certainty’ that should be permitted: Tautology and brevity.
Hmm… Methinks that has a decent ring to it. But then again, I would, wouldn’t I?
You’re not considering a critical category: contradiction.
There are no married bachelors and there is no largest prime number. Were a rabbit to be found in the Precambrian, the Theory of Evolution by Random Mutation and Natural Selection would be falsified, and the theory that there exists a powerful entity who desires our universal unconditional wellbeing is likewise falsified.
Indeed, contradiction (and therefore falsification) is about the only thing that science actually deals in — and, make no bones about it, it’s certain.
There are no error bars on the luminiferous aether. Its nonexistence is absolutely certain.
1) There are no married ‘bachelors’.
2) There are no married ‘unmarried men’.
I spy with my little eye, something beginning with ‘T’.
3) Indeed, contradiction (and therefore falsification) is about the only thing that science actually deals in — and, make no bones about it, it’s certain.
Such falsification would only be certain beyond a reasonable doubt.
Because as a crank, I could always posit an entirely unreasonable doubt. Such as: It’s all a big conspiracy – all such allegedly falsifying evidence is a hoax!
Of course, in the absence of very good supporting evidence such a doubt is absurd – and can be dismissed as such.
But it is not beyond the realm of the remotest possibility that such a statement could be true. Laughably unlikely, yes. But not technically impossible.
So we have to lower the bar from ‘absolute certainty’ to ‘so close to certain as makes no practical difference’.
Again – tautology and brevity.
If you can turn “There is no such thing as ‘the largest prime number'” into a tautology, I’ll consider you might have something to your point.
And, as far as the conspiracy theory goes, unless you want to get into the realm of brain-in-vat solipsism, all you have to do is perform the relevant experiments yourself. Michelson-Morely would make a lovely science fair experiment for a dedicated high school student.
I do not understand some of the comments here… (or Jerry’s position of calling Eagleman a coward). Some people can survive without dogmatic belief systems that treat hypotheses as absolutes… I think it is admirable for him to try.
Eagleman states himself that his position does not entail a metaphysical stance of ‘I don’t know, so everything goes’ – he instead seems to be reacting to the oft accused ‘scientistic’ position apparently adopted by the so-called ‘new athiests.’ Yes, science tells us a lot of cool stuff about the world, yes, science seems to refute the existence of god… but it cannot offer a system of ‘value’ or ‘meaning’ that could be in any way relevant to conscious creatures existing in a world that ultimately has none – that would entail buying into some kind of metaphysical absolute… and THAT is a logical leap of faith (albeit a scientific one) that does not make sense given the absurdity of our human condition.
I don’t like the religious-like belief systems of the New Athiests or Universal Darwinists and it has nothing to do with feeling a need to be better than both… it has to do with being humble and flexible in thought (which is not the same as ‘anything goes’). Every complex scientific theory reduces to metaphor and hypothesis in the end… you’d be a fool to accept it as some kind of Truth about the world – I suspect that is what Eagleman is reacting to. And I applaud him if such is the case.
“he instead seems to be reacting to the oft accused ‘scientistic’ position apparently adopted by the so-called ‘new athiests.’ ”
And that’s what Jerry is criticizing him for. He’s attacking positions the “new” atheists don’t hold.
“Yes, science tells us a lot of cool stuff about the world, yes, science seems to refute the existence of god… but it cannot offer a system of ‘value’ or ‘meaning’ that could be in any way relevant to conscious creatures existing in a world that ultimately has none”
Good thing nobody claims it does.
Indeed. It is infuriating how many people want to treat atheism as a truth claim (e.g., scientism) so that maybe others will think better of them than of Sam Harris.
Could you please tell some of the aspects of the “religious-like belief systems of the New Atheists”?
While you’re denigrating us, you may wish to spell “Atheist” correctly.
Oh don’t be ridiculous. Eagleman is not trying to come up with a system of values. Look at his own words: he calls himself a “possibilian”. What the heck is that supposed to mean, if not leave the door open to possibilties refuted by evidence? Where exactly is he saying the stuff you are attributing to him?
Now what is the deal with “every scientific theory reduces to metaphor and hypothesis so you would be a fool to accept it as some kind of truth”? Is gravity not “some kind of truth”? If so you are more than welcome to float away.
cripes, one more person trying to make believe that atheism is a “religion”. Gee, let’s just redefine words as we want so we can make more baseless claims in order to whine “but but they do it too”. Claiming so piously to be “humble and flexible” is just self-aggrandization, congratulating yourself on how better you are. It takes neither humbleness or flexibility to have an open mind, nor does it take either to have believe anything that you like with no discernment. And ” Every complex scientific theory reduces to metaphor and hypothesis in the end” what woo-filled bs. If you actually believed this, you’d not bother with the science that benefits you everyday. But I know you are a hypocrite.
You all seem to be proving my point. All of these reactions are filled with an arrogant and caustic tone, which suggests a value position. A genuine science cannot prescribe value or a sense of meaning in any way that could be relevant to how we ‘ought’ to live our lives. The world has no meaning, but history is filled with endless attempts to create it (secular or religious). I suspect that in some cases, an atheistic and dogmatic version of science can also become an ideology. And don’t act like atheists (even ones promoting ‘science’) cannot have dogmatic belief systems… history tell us otherwise. So yes, I get annoyed when people like Sam Harris want to claim that science can tell us about our morals and other such things. And yes, I get equally annoyed when people want to shove ‘the truth’ down people’s throats as if it is going to benefit the world in some ideologically meaningful way. Is that what gives meaning and value to the militant atheist? What is a rebel without a cause to rebel against? They need the religious fundamentalists to justify their own existence.
I am not arguing against a responsible and respectful science. And if not believing in a God makes me an atheist, then so be it. What I am arguing against is an ideological and arrogant form of science that is ignorant of the philosophy of science and human history. If Eagleman wants to promote a more thoughtful use of science, then I applaud him. But, if he is selling some other kind of ‘belief system’ (which may be the case since he has apparently patented the term ‘possibilianism’), I would reject that too. But there is nothing intellectually cowardly about living in the middle ground – it is actually harder than you think. To be clear, so as not to be misinterpreted, the middle ground does not involve a middle ground between science and religion… I mean a middle ground between recognizing the human temptation toward ideological belief systems and knowing that adhering to one would be disingenuous and meaningless. Science cannot be treated as an absolute, in theory or in practice, since there are none.
“And yes, I get equally annoyed when people want to shove ‘the truth’ down people’s throats as if it is going to benefit the world in some ideologically meaningful way. ”
You don’t see any value in facts?
Further, you don’t see that having the most accurate possible representation of reality provides benefit to the world?
“as if it is going to benefit the world in some ideologically meaningful way.”
He said “benfit the world in an ideologically meaningful way”. Not just “benefit the world”. Even if it does benefit the world, it may not be in an ideologically meaningful way, which is apparently the only way worth the bother, or something.
(There should be another letter in “benfit” above. Damnit.)
It sounds like you were willing to think about my post – that takes more guts than just dismissing it (and it is more polite) – so thank you.
Do I see any value in facts? Yes, of course. But before I go further, let me briefly mention that there are also few things in the universe that can be ‘100% factual’ from a scientific worldview – if you haven’t already done so, it might be worth reading W. Quine’s ‘Two Dogmas of Empiricism’ for a critique of so-called ‘facts’ and the methods of ’empirical reductionism.’ He makes some good points and we do not have to agree with them all, but it should at the very least ‘humble’ the scientist who thinks he has discovered some kind of ‘fact’ or ‘truth.’ That’s not to say we should do away with science or all turn to solipsism and phenomenology – that is a false dichotomy. Most of the folks here want to polarize the views of dissenters (e.g. ‘Us’ versus ‘Them’), which just proves one of the other points I was trying to make (that some forms of ‘science’ are like ideological belief systems with in-groups and out-groups). At any rate, my only point here is to say we ought to keep in mind the limitations of empirical science (I do not think you’d disagree on that point in theory).
Okay, so back to the question… do these soft ‘facts’ have value? Well, yes. But let me defer once again as I remind us of the ever present human temptation to subscribe to ‘absolute’ systems of value and meaning… human history is full of such examples. We are naturally meaning-seeking creatures in a world that has none… religion cannot give it to us, science cannot give it to us, and politics or philosophy cannot give it to us either. This may sound commonsensical (at least intellectually), but the human temptation is always there to want to make something into an ‘absolute’ system of meaningful values (while denying the fact that we were the ones that had to ‘create’ it). I again worry that some people use ‘science’ in an absolute sense – and this use of science involves a DISJOINT from reality, not a closer approximation to it. It also entails what Camus would call a ‘philosophical suicide,’ since it entails ‘forgetting’ that the world is ‘ultimately’ meaningless and devoid of any value that could be meaningful in an absolute sense. Walking that ‘middle’ ground, for me, entails always ‘remembering’ this delicate path that we walk. If we keep this in mind, it prevents us from getting all ‘pissy’ and ‘angry’ when other people do not subscribe to our worldviews. We are all in the same boat as human beings.
So the answer, as far as I can tell, is yes, soft ‘facts’ are useful – especially if they keep us connected to some approximation of reality – but not when it separates us further from it. The usefulness of ‘facts’ are relative – not absolute.
So your complaint is with people assuming science is in possession of facts that we can know with 100% certainty.
Again, nobody on this thread, and none of the writers Eagleman is responding to, make such an assumption or anything like it. You are attacking a straw man, a stance nobody is taking.
Religions are once the only answer to questions (well, in a lot of cultures, holy books are the ONLY books available to masses). During those times the questioners and answerers did not know much of the world. And the answers given by holies, regardless of the factual truth or errors, actually help the people one way or another (at least stop them wasting their time trying to grasp something that they do not have any factual basis to decide).
This is why religionistas do not / will not accept total insults to what their ancestors hold dear. And lot of symphatizers try to ‘help’, if not exactly pro-religion, then whack the insulters. These transition period is totally expected.
Among these religionistas and friends, we may be able to see a spectrum here between total literal to highly accomo, this guy Eagleman is right of center. Only his arrogance is most grating …
So? go on, everybody play on each position in the spectrum. Let evolution works. Slowly, the spectrum will be narrower, but I do not expect it will ever disappear.
Just read Sam’s article fully. It is brilliant. Highly recommended.
“A glance at the books reveals this claim to be manifestly insane …”. Succinct!
Can any statement be less meaningful? Exploring unconsidered possibilities? Really?
This seems to be more of the fallacy that declared atheists (Chesterton’s materialists) are claiming fully to understand life, the universe and everything.
The answer is 42.
Eagleman is hardly the only person to take this bizarre, somewhat dishonest stance. Neal DeGrasse Tyson has famously complained that his Wikipedia page says he’s an atheist and he keeps trying to change it to say that he’s an agnostic, as if he is not also an atheist. There are many people who, if asked if they are an atheist or theist will say that they are a humanist, an agnostic, a possibilian, a Bright or whatever other term they like.
That’s a dishonest response. I can understand that people see atheism as negative and so want something positive to describe themselves but it doesn’t change the fact that if they don’t believe in a god they’re an atheist.
Next, I expect to hear them deny being a mammal because they prefer to think of themselves as an American. As if they’re incompatible.
“Atheist” is a perfectly good word and doesn’t deserve the stigma attached to it.
On the other hand, “possibilian” is a silly-sounding word betraying little substance.
To invoke another xkcd comic, there’s a graph about the quality of a work of science fiction being inversely proportional to the number of invented words that I find somewhat appropriate.
Even if there is a stigma attached to the word atheist the best way to deal with it is to “own” the word and thus force society to face their prejudice.
There are a lot of good comments on this post (although I’ve not had the time to read them all, yet), and I was going to put in my two cents when I found this one, which is related to what I have to say.
Their is a stigma attached to ‘atheist’ in this society and I’ve long said that agnostics are just closet atheists afraid of confronting both society and themselves. But in many religious circles agnostic is just as bad (or even worse) than atheist, as in ‘you’re either fer us, or agin us’, so what I see Eagleman doing is the same thing that creationists (even Madison Ave. uses this technique) do, change the name to try to sidestep a problem. The religious come up with ‘Intelligent Design’ to cloud the issue, and Eagleman comes up with ‘Possibilian’ to avoid an agnostic label. Neither can be honest even with themselves.
I personally think the phrase “nontheist” is a little bit more evocative of what we’re talking about here (no thank you, I’m a non-smoker, er uh, non-theist) and it’s a somewhat bigger tent… but I embrace the word “atheist” anyway, because it is a dirty word to far too many people, and it really ought not to be.
Neil deGrasse Tyson is a great example, because he is SOOOO an atheist, and has the right ideas about such a great many things… he’s just afraid of the label. And that’s sad.
I don’t know, man. “Non-theist” seems to be a word that non-believing Christians use. I go with “godless” as equally unambiguous. I don’t know if there’s gods. I just happen to be without one right now.
Oh, I’m so sorry to hear.
Perhaps you can find one here? It’s not good to go too long without a god….
Yep, nearly two years ago, I wrote that “possibilianism” seems to just be a rebranding of good ol’ atheism/skepticism.
I can’t work up more than mild irritation at Eagleman (I think the similarity in name to Eagleton may be amping up tempers here) as he’s basically saying all the right things about religion, he’s just pretending that he’s not saying the same thing as the Gnus even when he obviously is. It’s annoying, but it’s also a very clear testament to what the Gnus have accomplished: They have created space for people like Eagleman to express this position. Were it not for Harris, Dawkins, etc. (and even Coyne!), Eagleman’s dismissiveness towards conventional religion would be perceived as a nasty reductionist “scientistic” attack. Instead he gets to act like the nice guy, while simultaneously pointing unreservedly towards the imperial nakedness (if you will) of theism.
Eagleman’s being annoying and a bit dishonest/cowardly, but at the same time what he is doing is a testament to our success. I’m (mostly) okay with that.
I couldn’t help grinning when Sam finally calls Eagleman’s schtick out for what it really is: performance art.
I had the same thought when I first encountered Eagleman’s “possibilianism” some time ago. He’s riffing on the already existent accomodationism, and hoping to carve out a little slice of history for himself as the founder of an idea, of a movement.
I’d go ahead and call that dishonest.
So disappointed with Eagleman’s comments. He does seem to have enthusiasm, but not much content in what he says.
“I’m open to ideas that we don’t have any way of testing right now.”
-Sure, who isn’t? I’m an atheist and I’m very open-minded to new ideas. But these ideas have to be based on scientific facts. I recognize that there are things we don’t know yet, but which we will know in the future. And I’m eagerly waiting for someone to discover them for us to enjoy. But what has this to do with atheism or theism?
It seems like Eagleman is desperately trying to do some intellectual trickery just to seem smart. making up a new word doesn’t mean it is valid in any way. As we know atheism vs theism is a theological position. And that seems completely separate from his position of “possibilianism”. So which is it? Does he believe in a god or not? That decides whether he is an atheist or theist, and after that he can define himself with other words all he wants. He also seems confused by the definition of agnostic, which is an epistemological standpoint. At the moment it seems that he is in fact agnostic, he simply doesn’t understand it. He is basically saying that he doesn’t know if there is a god because of insufficient evidence (=agnostic), and he wants to be an open-minded person (good for him, who doesn’t?).
It’s possible that monkeys will fly out of my ass.
I am not sure I agree with what Sam says. To quote Vic Stenger, at some point negative evidence has to be taken seriously and cannot be simply dismissed.
The god of Christianity and Islam is omniscient. He is always reading your thoughts along with all the other billions of human beings in the world, and recording them. This claim is not just implausible-there is just no imagineable way thus could happen. Thrusts never tell us how. To say the two claims that such a thing exists v. doesn’t exist are equally likely is dishonest, as Harris says.
For other claims such as souls/afterlife, the negative evidence from neuroscience (of all places) is even more overwhelming. I really can’t imagine a brilliant neuroscientist like Eagelman not knowing this.
My prediction: Eagleman’s brainchild will die soon unless put on life support by Templeton.
Bingo! That is probably what this is all about, money for bullshit.
I am suspicious of the word “Possibillian”. In recent times the UK was governed by Lew Labour who espoused new politics – ‘The Third Way’.
To many this sounded like adopting the high ground in political debate, but later many people came to think that in practice there was no political ideology, only repeated triangulation between extremes. Purely pragmatic politics in a Sunday suit. Or perhaps performance art…
Tsk. That’s New Labour. Which in the end was neither new nor Labour.
Reminds me of Alice in Wonderland:
“Alice laughed: “There’s no use trying,” she said; “one can’t believe impossible things.”
“I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
Alice in Wonderland.
“Eagleman discusses the books of the “neo-atheists,” accusing them of not having the intellectual courage to go beyond the available data.”
Going beyond the available data, I think that it called making stuff up. I don’t think it has anything to do with lacking courage, intellectual or otherwise, I think that the so called “neo-atheists” recognise that if you make stuff up, all you have to show for it is stuff you just made up.
Possibilianism in practice:
This also works with Sam as the Mummy.
Ah yes, Benny, a perfect example of what agnostics should resemble.
It’s not really appropriate, because Eagleman seems to have gotten off the road entirely, but it does remind one of the good Professor Myers’s advice to BioLogos that squatting in between those on the side of reason and evidence and those worshipping superstition and myth is not a better place. It just means you’re halfway to crazy town.
That’s the quote I was trying to remember.
19 : that’s what i am thinking too, he shall be quick on the salarylist of the templeton foundation. Maybe this is what he is looking for.
Eagleman want to mind the gap but drowns in the data. We _can_ specify uncertainty of physicalism (say) since we can test for it.
Interesting evolution from claiming gaps to minding gaps. It is the last gasp of the gaps, since the next iteration would be lamenting their absence…
I don’t get why, if Eagleman is critical of [the strawman] of New Atheist “certainty”, that he just doesn’t start calling himself a Bayesian. That word already exists, has a set system of protocols, and is implicitly what scientists should be calling themselves since they deal with Bayes Theorem all the time anyway. We all do to a certain extent.
No need to reinvent the wheel with “possibilism” or whatever.
Eagleman BUGS me, not what he is saying but the way he treats his audience, like we are stupid. He bugs me the same way Milton Berl or Don Rickles used to by grabbing the cheek of his straight-man and shaking it. Very funny? His head is so full of possibilities which he has never catagorized or even listed. He thought he was telling his audience something no one knew about the little black hole. Sagan counted and theorized Billions and Billions of galaxies before Eagleman was born.
Doesn’t that kind of behavior go hand in hand with accomadationalism?
Aren’t we still missing a working definition of ‘god’ or ‘gods’? Something that is distinguishable from an advanced alien life form?
Without that, isn’t all discussion moot (Naked Emperor)?
Even in specific cases, such as Jebus, a distinction from advanced alien life forms tends to be more fluff than substance. I think that there really isn’t an important distinction to make there.
I think Eagleman is just trying to one up the church of the FSM. I predict the next Miss USA will be a Possibilian.
He obviously bombed with his contrived “possibilianism”, however, he does have some interesting to things to say. I was particularly impressed with “The Brain On Trial” article he wrote recently for The Atlantic. It was quite well written and thought provoking. I’m definitely going to read “Incognito”
Oh sweet Jesus. He’s even got Merch! Tell me he doesn’t have a tattoo!
“Our ignorance of the cosmos is too vast to commit to atheism…”
Isn’t this just another ‘god of the gaps’ argument? “Oh, there are parts of the universe we haven’t looked into yet – maybe that’s where the gods are!”
That is a real keeper.
I will propose two possibilities for interpreting Eagleman’s “possibilianism”:
I fail to see how leaving oneself open to unexplored possibilities differs meaningfully from being rationally open-minded and scientifically curious. Unless of course it’s to differentiate oneself from people you find distasteful for some reason and wish to hold yourself smugly above them.
Whatever label he decides to invent for it, Eagleman should leave himself open to the distinct possibility he’s talking utter shit about gnu atheists and the positions they hold. The certainty argument? Seriously? That’s something a creationist would think is a “gotcha” FFS. Has Eagleman simply not read any of the fecking discussion? Did I just ask a rhetorical question?
Is it possible then that Eagleman is just working hard to avoid cognitive dissonance?
Wonder if he’d agree.
Sam Harris- from Wiki:
[Sam] Harris wishes to incorporate spirituality in the domain of human reason. He draws inspiration from the practices of Eastern religion, in particular that of meditation, as described principally by Hindu and Buddhist practitioners. By paying close attention to moment-to-moment conscious experience, Harris suggests, it is possible to make our sense of “self” vanish and thereby uncover a new state of personal well-being. Moreover, Harris argues that such states of mind should be subjected to formal scientific investigation, without incorporating the myth and superstition that often accompanies meditation in the religious context.
“There is clearly no greater obstacle to a truly empirical approach to spiritual experience than our current beliefs about God”.
…Sam Harris also claims that there is “nothing irrational about seeking the states of mind that lie at the core of many religions…”
I would guess not so different from David Eagleman. Some here ain’t done their homework.
“Harris suggests, it is possible to make our sense of “self” vanish and thereby uncover a new state of personal well-being. Moreover, Harris argues that such states of mind should be subjected to formal scientific investigation” – from my comment above.
Looking at what is being researched here I would say Sam Harris and these scientists could find broad domains of agreement.
Here is excellent too:
I would say Sam Harris is keeping the door open just as much as David Eagleman. But both are not quite daring to step into this “unknown region”.
Indicators of this region will come from veridical data that has been discovered (see above and related studies)and data presently being analysed.
is just a piece of performance art
Lol, on his good days Sam has a way of nailing things just right. Lol.
Doesn’t every new philosopher on the scene have to somehow distinguish oneself from his/her peers? Unfortunately it seems that Eagleman has, at best, created a rhetorical distinction without a difference.
To me, this entire argument is a pointless. w The “dispute” is simply semantics. Eagleman is defining atheism differently than Harris, Dawkins, et al. There is one certain definition of atheism that is correct. So I don’t think it’s fair to accuse him of intellectual dishonesty.
Millions of people who say claim to believe in God define “God” vastly differently from each other. One writer says God is nature. Does that make her a theist? What about the person who says God is “love.” Is she a theist? It depends on how u define the word. Does it matter? I say no.
I agree. Now if you would just convince all those vegetarian restaurants to cook me a steak, I’d appreciate it. You see, I define “vegetarian” as someone who eats beef, pork, poultry, and seafood. Does it matter? I say no.
Clever, but fallacious, analogy. Vegetarianism has a clear, objective meaning–no meat allowed. God is a subjective word/idea/concept.