The Technium

Possibilians vs Agnostics

Neuroscientist David Eagleman has articulated a new religious vocabulary that many, including me, find attractive. It’s kind of a third way, a nerd way. It is neither traditional belief in religion, nor traditional atheism. Nor is it traditional agnosticism. Here’s how David descibes it:

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 would add a few more points about the difference between possibilism and agnosticism. We have to acknowledge that both Possibilians and Agnostics belong the church of I Don’t Know. Both positions support I-don’t-knowism. And I-don’t-knowism is the founding beatitude of science. But here’s how they are different:

Agnostics end with the lack of an answer.
Possibilians begin with the lack of an answer.

Agnostics say, we can’t decide between this and that.
Possibilians say, there are other choices than this or that.

Agnostics say, I Don’t Know, it’s impossible to answer that question.
Possibilians say, I Don’t Know, there must be better questions.

Both start in humility, but agnosticism is bounded by our great ignorance, while possibilism is unbounded by our limited knowledge.

Watch Eagleman’s 20-minute sermon on why possibilism is a possible theology. It’s very convincing.

  • Berta09

    i consider myself agnostic. in other words, prove to me within a shadow of a doubt either creationism or evolution (i lean toward evolution) and i will be a believer . my daughter is an atheist but feels that there might be something else out there in the cosmos . we are a mixed bag; my oldest grandson being atheist and my middle grandson and grandaughter being christian. I would love to watch your sermon, but we live “out in the sticks” and have a dial -up system that will not load properly. i suppose there will always be the big question and you have stimulated further possibilities. i’ll keep track.

    • Bigbasslur

      Berta why does it have to be one or the other, creation or evolution ? As not only both are possible but are indeed reality. The simple fact that you exist is evidence of creation and the fact that organisms change over time is proof of evolution. The real problem with those who try to figure this out is that they try to prove one or the other.

  • Along the spirit of what he’s saying, the category of “religion” is basically a Western invention, where we categorize separate philosophies that address “religious topics.” The kind of objectivity he’s advocating, taking into account what we know and what we truly don’t know and refusing to arrogantly claim impossibilities where it’s only our limited perceptions is a magnificent approach.

    And as a practical matter, if you actually want to go and do something in the world, it’s very useful. Take what you know, acknowledge what you don’t know, and go about exploring possibilities in a sane way that is inspiring to the human spirit.

    Rock on.

  • once you said it, i knew that this is where i have been for a long time. I dont believe in god but i dont believe in “nothing” and i dont beilieve that theres maybe a god or maybe not. i believe there is so much more than either of those possibilities and it excites me to no end. but maybe the term could be shortened to “possiblist” and “possiblism”…just a thought.

    so happy that the technium is back. my RSS feed missed you.



  • shakey

    Isn’t this just Skepticism?

    >To the Greeks “skepticism” meant inquiry, and a skeptic was an inquirer. The skeptics so named themselves because the essence of their position was not doubt or denial or disbelief, but continual inquiry. They did not believe in the reality of a god, for example, but neither did they deny it. Nor did they even say that nobody could ever know for certain one way or the other, as agnostics do. Skeptics said instead, “I personally do not know at the moment but I am trying to find out.”

    The differences between this and atheism, agnosticism, and indifference have led to confusion. All three components of the skeptics’ statement are important. (1) They speak only for themselves and confess only their own ignorance. (2) They speak only for the present and do not claim that their ignorance is inescapable. They do not say that knowledge is impossible for themselves or for others. (3) And they always add that despite their own present ignorance they are inquiring for the truth of the matter. They have not given up; they are optimistic —or at least hopeful —or at least undefeated —or at least unrelenting.

    • Kevin_Kelly


      Yes, I think there is much overlap with Classical Skepticism, at least as outlined here by Peter Suber. I was not aware of this philosophical line (only contemporary skepticism) so I can’t say in what way the two depart, if they do. But you got me interested!

    • I agree. Scepticism is a far simpler description of what Eagleman is talking about. The difficulty is that the word has been so abused over the years (think Hollywood cinema) that it has a deeply negative connotation in the eyes of the general population.

      If I had to brand myself, I would call myself a ‘freethinker’. I find this label appealing as it evokes the sense of creativity and wonder that was noted in the presentation while at the same time referencing reason and doubt.

      Despite Eagleman’s stressing the need for scepticism, on a superficial, linguistic level, ‘possibilian’ sounds like being so open-minded that your brain falls out (to paraphrase Carl Sagan). I’m not surprised he was approached by a UFO buff.

  • I really like these ideas, however, I’m not sure if this breaks from my understanding of agnosticism.

    I am agnostic, not only about religion, but about most of everything. The way I define it has little to do with a lack of certainty between two opposing view. I think this is, to a certain extent, simplistic. Rather, I define agnosticism as holding no beliefs to be absolute or true. Or, perhaps, better, as holding no beliefs. Beliefs being understood as an absolute certainty about a particular idea or set of ideas.

    When certainty is stripped from my ideas then I’m left with a set of idea types. Of the types, some of them regard things that one can be more or less certain about. That are more or less probable. Possible.

    So, given my particular brand of agnosticism, I’ve been a possibilian the whole time. I consider this a type of re-branding. And I’m totally ok with that. Anything that brings more light to I-dont-knowism is fine with me.

    • Kevin_Kelly


      Yes it may be some sort of rebranding. Possibilism seems to be a type or brand of agnosticism. Not all agnostics are possibilians.

  • stillchip

    Interesting, Apparently I’ve been a possibilian long before it had a name.

  • Richard Kearney laid out this position as “Anatheism,” in book length form in a philosophical position last year:

    • Kevin_Kelly


      Haven’t read Anatheism, and I can not make much sense of the review you link to. I do like this sentence from the review: “Turning to the introduction, Kearney introduces anatheism with the unfortunate appeal to the nefarious “third way,” here between what Kearney calls dogmatic theism and militant atheism (pg. 3).” That is I like the “nefarious third way.” But I am not sure I will be able to connect with the vocabulary of the book.

  • Jeff Vail

    Nice. Reminds me of Robert Anton Wilson’s “Maybe Logic.” Highly recommend his book “Prometheus Rising.”

  • All sane atheists, Richard Dawkins and myself included, are slightly agnostic. They base this point of view on a complete lack of evidence of any deity. They would certainly switch sides if sufficient evidence came to light of a celestial intelligence.

  • this is real very good…

  • I just saw a quote from Freeman Dyson, about one source of truth or belief which I thing resonates with this idea and the idea of the skeptic as well: “Everybody distrusts Wikipedia, and everybody uses it.” I feel that is just right for that source and pretty much all sources of information, on both counts. It’s even not so far from Trust but Verify.

  • I wish he had come up with a better name for it.

  • Kevin-

    I enjoyed the talk, and I also recommend picking up his book “Sum: forty tales from the afterlife”.

    I do have a question for you, if you are willing to share. How do you fold this line of thinking into your Christian viewpoints?

    My own walk has been taking me down embracing science/evolution/technology and all that it brings, while also seeing the ultimate limitations of it (problem of induction (black swan), our species constraints, and overall inability to grasp the “possible”) and trying to integrate it into my Faith (both biblically and currently with my own interpretation of the Christ story which is far outside of mainstream Christianity).

    Regardless of my little side-question thanks for your work. I really enjoyed the latest book and am always excited to check the blog.

  • I think its main content is still agnosticism, but with a different attitude towards how we treat the fact that we have a limited knowledge (which is just the same thing as saying there are still multiple possibilities).
    It suggests an optimistic attitude when facing our ignorance, and tells us that instead of feeling uncertain and intellectually inferior, an impression that agnostic often suggests, we should feel awe and humble in front of the universe.

    • kbsamurai

      I agree with you it’s mostly repackaging and about attitude. I don’t thing that’s a bad thing. I haven’t been satisfied with the labels agnostic or atheist for a long time. To define myself by a term that means the negative or absence of has never settled well with me.

  • Wow! This talk requires:

    1) A profound ignorance of the contemporary philosophical basis of modern Atheism. (New Atheists do NOT subscribe to “strict atheism” and his entire argument revolves around a straw-man!)

    2) A profound ignorance of the contemporary philosophical basis of modern Agnosticism. (Secular Humanists and Free Thinkers typically and commonly embrace the limits of human knowledge — agnosia — and espouse this principle to foster open debates and research. Again, David here deals in straw-men.)

    3) A very shallow acquaintance with basic scientific concepts and little understanding of scientific frontiers. (New Atheists are usually scientists — think Dawkins, Dennet, Krauss, Myers, Plait, etc. — who profoundly grasp and embrace scientific uncertainties and even research areas in the frontier of knowledge. Again, David deals in straw-men!)

    4) A juvenile taste for disjointed humorous anecdotes that do not reinforce the hypothesis being proposed. (Religious mythical tales that only the most ignorant superstitious people would embrace; The Hubble Deep Field does not illustrate the depth of scientific ignorance, as he seems to imagine, but the promises of ever expanding body of scientific knowledge; etc.)

    5) An utter ignorance of the Scientific Method proper. “An active exploration of new ideas, and a comfort… with holding multiple hypotheses in mind?” Yeah, that’s called SCIENCE, mate! (Physicists are still decades away from a Theory of Quantum Gravity — unification of General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics — and yet great strides have been made in the last couple of decades and nobody’s given up and nobody’s taken to dogmatic dichotomic positions; Biologists and Chemists are decades away from a Theory of Abiogenesis, and yet…; Neuroscientists are decades away from a comprehensive Theory of Conscience, and yet…; etc.)

    Based on this talk, it seems that Eagleman’s propositions smack of sciencey feel-goodery new-ageism, not unlike the ones put forth by other pseudo-scientists/pseudo-intellectuals like Deepak Chopra.


    • Israel Muñoz

      Hi, I read your comment but I failed to fully understand it.

      Could you explain your points further please?

      • Israel, my apologies for never responding to you, but I had failed to realize there were replies here until today. Which point would you like me to elaborate on?

    • Bigfootspotter92

      You are pathetic. Anyone who watches a well constructed, humorous and interesting speech and decides he could have done it better is a fool. If you feel that he did a poor job, perhaps you should pony up and do a better job.

      • Hahahahahahahahahahaha!!!

        You, of course, must have realized you have done the exact same thing to me as you complain I had done to him. I had, at least, the decency to lay out (however briefly) the reasons for my profound disagreement with the talk, whereas you just contributed with a personal insult.

        Please, realize that you have tried to insulte me, whereas I never insulted Eagleman. My adjectives were all directed at his arguments, not his person. Can you understand the difference?

    • NIK

      Well, he’s a neuroscientist at Bayor College of Medicine. He outright claims to reject every single current creation myth. He even says that having testable evidence to prove any of these theories is a requirement for being a Possibilian. He does work with one of the most complex systems known to man kind. We have the deep oceans. we have the cosmos, and we have the complexity of the nerves and synapses within our brain. I think its safe to say he’s “atheistic” to Christianity and Islam and Hinduism and every other archaic myth. 

      It is also safe to say that there is probably a bunch of shit in the universe, given its size, that we’re completely unaware of – so why shouldn’t we remain skeptical, as well as open minded? None of these options in mind would be considered true, they would just be considered in an array of options that have to hold up to testable, demonstrable evidence. No sufficient evidence? Probably not true. 

      Still, I think you have a point – this seems like some strange branch of agnosticism or atheism, but those two terms are a huge semantic game in the secular and free-thinking community. 

      Also, please calm down. Having nice chats with people is sometimes really nice! 

      • Nik, my apologies for never responding to you, but I had failed to realize there were replies here until today.

        First of all, I don’t think there’s any need to “calm down”. If you take the time to re-read my comment carefully, you will notice that all my adjectives were directed at his logically and factually flawed arguments, and that my reasons are clearly, albeit succinctly, laid out.

        Calling out an irrational or illogical argument as irrational or illogical has nothing to do with emotions but rather the fact that they are irrational or illogical.

        Perhaps my last adjective was awkwardly placed and might have allowed people to misconstrue it as an epithet against Eagleman. His arguments and his talk were pathetic, but I never meant it to describe him as a person or as a professional (even though I would expect a Neuroscientist, or all people, to have a firmer grasp of Science, the scientific method, and scientific frontiers).

        I didn’t quite understand what your point about his atheism and/or skepticism was all about. I never bothered or cared about his personal positions and only mentioned (complained) about the (very specific) logical problems with his argumentation.

        I also didn’t understand your point about “bunch of shit in the universe” for the same reason that this was something I hadn’t addressed in my original comment.

        I am all for “having nice chats with people” and I agree with you that they are “really nice”. I, however, enjoy chats (or talks) that are firmly based on reason, logic, and reality. Eagleman’s talk, whatever his ultimate point may be, is entirely constructed on a foundation of logical fallacies and ignorance of basic science. Personally, I tune out of these sorts of chats.

    • Bob

      This is precisely the kind of arrogant and condescending garbage that I see constantly from from both sides of the “god debate”. Polarizing intellectual bullies that cannot abide uncertainty and are mired in emotion, hostility and prejudice. Insulting people is a poor method of discourse and not particularly convincing either.

      • Hahahahahahahahahahaha!!!

        You, of course, must have realized you have done the exact same thing to me as you complain I had done to him. I had, at least, the decency to lay out (however briefly) the reasons for my profound disagreement with the talk, whereas you just contributed with insults.

        Please, realize that there is nothing “emotional”, “hostile” or “prejudiced” in my remarks. Had you taken the care to actually read my remarks, you would have noticed that all my adjectives were all directed at his logically and factually flawed arguments, and that my reasons are clearly, albeit succinctly, laid out. Reasons which are all within the confines of facts that can easily be checked by anyone. Can you understand the difference?

  • James Kirk Wall

    There is nothing new about this. This is repackaged agnosticism per the definition by Thomas Huxley. Huxley was not agnostic about any of the existing religions. 
    “I have no doubt that scientific criticism will prove
    destructive to the forms of supernaturalism which enter into the constitution
    of existing religions.” 
    Huxley was agnostic regarding something beyond the intelligible universe. 
    True Agnosticism will not forget that existence,
    motion, and law-abiding operation in nature are more stupendous miracles than
    any recounted by the mythologies, and that there may be things, not only in the
    heavens and earth, but beyond the intelligible universe, which “are not
    dreamt of in our philosophy.For an honest book that’s not a rip off of other philosophies, check out Agnosticism: The Battle against Shameless Ignorance.

  • Noch

    “Our ignorance of the cosmos is too vast to commit to atheism, and yet we know too much to commit to a particular religion”

    I disagree with this. Atheism is simply no belief in god. If anything, the more we learn about the cosmos, the less likely any god seems.

    • TheMechanicalAdv

      I think the operative word is “commit”. If you sincerely disbelieve something, it’s not a commitment; it’s a freedom.

      There’s an attitude that tends to go along with atheism online, which doesn’t directly have to do with absence of gods. It’s hard to put one’s finger on, but in the context of that quote I think “positivism” fits.

      I’d also add that firstly it isn’t just ignorance. It’s a peculiar combination of knowing exactly what things happen but in some cases not having the faintest idea how or why. Secondly, it’s not just the very large but also the very small. I would definitely say that the weirdness of reality is too vast to commit to positivism.

  • Mike Swayze

     Several hundred million years of dinosaurs and we have only a ‘few’ bones…
    The only way to know the ‘real’ truth would be to ask GOD when you see him; everything else being supposition and guesses…

  • Colin

    Well, this is just a another form of agnosticism, he says that most agnostics are ignorant and don’t consider anything else other than “we can’t know”. This is true for “Apathetic” Agnostics. I used to call myself just an agnostic because I was also on the quest for knowledge, dismissing claims those are without evidence and so on. David has given these kind of agnostics a new name, Possibilianism. And that is a really good thing.