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Possibilianism is a philosophy which rejects both the diverse claims of traditional theism and the positions of certainty in strong atheism in favor of a middle, exploratory ground. [1] [2] [3] [4] [5] The term was invented by Robbie Parrish, [6] a friend of neuroscientist David Eagleman who defined the term in relation to his book of fiction Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives . [7]

Theism belief in the existence of at least one deity

Theism is broadly defined as the belief in the existence of the Supreme Being or deities. In common parlance, or when contrasted with deism, the term often describes the classical conception of God that is found in monotheism – or gods found in polytheistic religions—a belief in God or in gods without the rejection of revelation as is characteristic of deism.

David Eagleman is an American neuroscientist, author, and science communicator. He teaches as an adjunct professor at Stanford University and is CEO of NeoSensory, a company that develops devices for sensory substitution. He also directs the non-profit Center for Science and Law, which seeks to align the legal system with modern neuroscience. He is known for his work on brain plasticity, time perception, synesthesia, and neurolaw. He is a Guggenheim Fellow and a New York Times bestselling author published in 32 languages. He is the writer and presenter of the Emmy-nominated international television series, The Brain with David Eagleman.

<i>Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives</i> book by David Eagleman

Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives, also simply called Sum, is a work of speculative fiction by the neuroscientist David Eagleman. It is in press in 28 languages as of 2016. The Los Angeles Times described it as "teeming, writhing with imagination." Barnes and Noble named it one of the Best Books of 2009.



Asked whether he was an atheist or a religious person on a National Public Radio interview in February 2009, Eagleman replied "I call myself a Possibilian: I'm open to...ideas that we don't have any way of testing right now." [7] 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." [3]

Agnosticism is the view that the existence of God, of the divine or the supernatural is unknown or unknowable. Another definition provided is the view that "human reason is incapable of providing sufficient rational grounds to justify either the belief that God exists or the belief that God does not exist."

In a New Yorker profile of Eagleman—entitled "The Possibilian"—Burkhard Bilger wrote: [8]

<i>The New Yorker</i> Magazine on politics, social issues, art, humor, and culture, based in New York City

The New Yorker is an American magazine featuring journalism, commentary, criticism, essays, fiction, satire, cartoons, and poetry. Started as a weekly in 1925, the magazine is now published 47 times annually, with five of these issues covering two-week spans. Although its reviews and events listings often focus on the cultural life of New York City, The New Yorker has a wide audience outside New York and is read internationally. It is well known for its illustrated and often topical covers, its commentaries on popular culture and eccentric Americana, its attention to modern fiction by the inclusion of short stories and literary reviews, its rigorous fact checking and copy editing, its journalism on politics and social issues, and its single-panel cartoons sprinkled throughout each issue.

Science had taught him to be skeptical of cosmic certainties, [Eagleman] told me. From the unfathomed complexity of brain tissue—"essentially an alien computational material"—to the mystery of dark matter, we know too little about our own minds and the universe around us to insist on strict atheism, he said. "And we know far too much to commit to a particular religious story." Why not revel in the alternatives? Why not imagine ourselves, as he did in Sum, as bits of networked hardware in a cosmic program, or as particles of some celestial organism, or any of a thousand other possibilities, and then test those ideas against the available evidence? "Part of the scientific temperament is this tolerance for holding multiple hypotheses in mind at the same time," he said. "As Voltaire said, uncertainty is an uncomfortable position. But certainty is an absurd one."

Dark matter Hypothetical form of matter comprising most of the matter in the universe

Dark matter is a form of matter that is thought to account for approximately 85% of the matter in the universe and about a quarter of its total energy density. The majority of dark matter is thought to be non-baryonic in nature, possibly being composed of some as-yet undiscovered subatomic particles. Its presence is implied in a variety of astrophysical observations, including gravitational effects that cannot be explained by accepted theories of gravity unless more matter is present than can be seen. For this reason, most experts think dark matter to be abundant in the universe and to have had a strong influence on its structure and evolution. Dark matter is called dark because it does not appear to interact with observable electromagnetic radiation, such as light, and is thus invisible to the entire electromagnetic spectrum, making it extremely difficult to detect using usual astronomical equipment.

Voltaire French writer, historian and philosopher

François-Marie Arouet, known by his nom de plumeVoltaire, was a French Enlightenment writer, historian and philosopher famous for his wit, his criticism of Christianity, especially the Roman Catholic Church, as well as his advocacy of freedom of speech, freedom of religion and separation of church and state.

An adherent of possibilianism is called a possibilian. [9] [10] [11] The possibilian perspective is distinguished from agnosticism in its active exploration of novel possibilities and its emphasis on the necessity of holding multiple positions at once if there is no available data to privilege one over the others. [5] [12] Eagleman has emphasized that possibilianism reflects the scientific temperament of creativity and intellectual humility in the face of "the known unknowns." [13] [14]


According to the Dallas Morning News and MSNBC, the possibilian concept—including various spellings (e.g. "possibillion") and modifications (e.g. "possibilitarian")—has become popular on the internet. [11] [15] By November 2009, The List Magazine wrote: "Googling 'possibilian', the position Eagleman invented to explain his belief system, throws up the beginnings of a worldwide movement." [16]

Articles about possibilianism have appeared in major news outlets around the globe—for example, in the Daily Monitor of Uganda, [17] The Economic Times of India [18] and New Scientist . [19]

In an article in the New Statesman, the atheist author Philip Pullman declared himself a possibilian, [20] as did Wired magazine founding editor Kevin Kelly in an interview in the LA Times. [21] By April 2011, "close to a thousand Facebook members had switched their religious affiliation to Possibilianism." [8]


Sam Harris (a new atheist) has attacked possibilianism as "intellectually dishonest", and its description of strict atheism as a straw man. Harris writes that the position Eagleman espouses "is, simply, atheism." Harris calls on Eagleman "to admit that “possibilianism,” this middle position of yours, is just a piece of performance art, rather than a serious thesis." [22] In response, Eagleman stated that "[Harris'] braggadocio appears to be emblematic of the neo-atheist posture, and confirms why I don't feel completely at home in that camp." [23] Journalist Steve Volk in the Huffington Post suggested that Harris and Eagleman should be "new allies": "If we're going to get beyond the typical exchanges between new atheists and the religious, I'd argue that it's through figures like Eagleman and Harris that we will find the most productive path: men who are eager to use science while demonstrating a capacity to consider ideas from other areas of human experience and systems of thought." [24]

See also

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Some movements or sects within traditionally monotheistic or polytheistic religions recognize that it is possible to practice religious faith, spirituality and adherence to tenets without a belief in deities. People with what would be considered religious or spiritual belief in a supernatural controlling power are defined by some as adherents to a religion; the argument that atheism is a religion has been described as a contradiction in terms.

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  1. Beyond God and atheism: Why I am a possibilian, David Eagleman, New Scientist, Sep 27, 2010.
  2. Envisioning the Afterlife, interview with David Eagleman on NPR's On Point , Feb 27, 2009.
  3. 1 2 Stray questions for David Eagleman, New York Times Paper Cuts, July 10, 2009.
  4. Neuroscientist Imagines 40 Different Versions of the Afterlife, KPBS interview with David Eagleman, Mar 16, 2009.
  5. 1 2 The Soul Seeker: A neuroscientist's search for the human essence, Texas Observer cover story, June 3, 2010.
  6. history
  7. 1 2 NPR Talk of the Nation: Interview with David Eagleman, Feb 17, 2009.
  8. 1 2 The Possibilian: David Eagleman and the Mysteries of the Brain, The New Yorker, Apr 25, 2011.
  9. "I'm a possibilian", Rick Kleffel's The Agony Column, Mar 13, 2009.
  10. Are you surrounded with authentic communities?, The Huffington Post, 1 March 2009.
  11. 1 2 Choose your afterlife, MSNBC.com, Sept 10, 2009.
  12. Ideas for modern living: uncertainty. The Observer (UK). 9 May 2010.
  13. Why I am a Possibilian, TEDx talk by David Eagleman, Oct 2010.
  14. Lanham, F. Writing about what comes next. Houston Chronicle. 16 Feb 2009.
  15. Houston author stunned by buzz over 'possibilian' theory, Dallas Morning News, June 16, 2009.
  16. Choose (after)life. The List Magazine, Issue 643, 4 November 2009.
  17. You could be a Possibilian..., The Daily Monitor, Uganda. Jan 10, 2010.
  18. Beyond Good and Bad, Economic Times of India, July 29, 2010.
  19. https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg20727795.300-beyond-god-and-atheism-why-i-am-a-possibilian.html
  20. Philip Pullman on what he owes to the Church of England, New Statesman, 9 June 2011
  21. Patt Morrison Asks: The Possibilian, Kevin Kelly, 13 Aug 2011
  22. Whither Eagleman?, Sam Harris, 2011.
  23. Eagleman Blog: Why I am a possibilian, David Eagleman, 2012.
  24. New Allies In The Theist/Atheist Debate, Steve Volk, Huffington Post, 8/25/2011.