Possibility, Skepticism, and Certainty

February 27, 2012

By Matt Palmer


I discovered today’s video link thanks to some friends on Facebook. The video is a TEDx talk from Houston featuring Dr David Eagleman, a neuroscientist at the Baylor College of Medicine. His bio is very interesting.

Dr Eagleman’s presentation distills my own ideas about existing in the world with eyes wide to possibility. You may disagree with some of his arguments, or whether possibilianism is another form of atheism, but these issues are not what I like about his intellectual space. In fact, I have posted below a response to Dr Eagleman’s video from Sam Harris, who argues that Eagleman is intellectually dishonest in his characterization of neo-atheism.

These arguments distract from what I see as the main message of embracing being a possibilian; accepting the vastness of our ignorance of the world and the universe, and encouraging active exploration of multiple ideas and narratives, free from dogma, holding tight to uncertainty. In fact, we do not need a label for this like “possibilian” because our over labeled, highly defined world may be part of the problem. Conservative, liberal, Christian, atheist, scientist, filmmaker are labels that confine us, yet should not define the complexity of who we are as humans. I make films, but calling myself a filmmaker does not come close to defining who I am as a person.

Dr Eagleman states that science is “open-minded” yet we could probably find a few recent examples where scientific theories or models are presented as empirical fact, when in reality they are based on a hypothetical framework, still only a best guess. Failed scientific theories and models become signposts of progress. We know that the atom is not the smallest particle or that Pluto is not a planet because scientists continued to explore ideas.

Possibility lives in a space between skepticism and certainty. Read a newspaper or watch a newscast today and it’s not hard to find more examples of scepticism and certainty. Modern political systems seem to thrive on them. Vision for possibility takes leadership and courage. If Gandhi or Martin Luther King were alive today would the media managers spin messages like “I have a dream” into something like “I have a plan” because dreaming requires a vision for what can be?

I like Dr Eagleman’s prodding to accept intellectual humility, and championing the mantra of “I don’t know”. Of course, we need ideas and constructs to build a foundation for living, “I don’t know” cannot fulfill basic needs, but letting go of dogma, and praising uncertainty makes life exciting. As a storyteller these are necessary tools. We are all storytellers of one form or another, scientists, engineers, mathematicians, musicians, and children use narrative tools to explain the world. A question to consider then: are you willing to “cowboy up” to the uncertainty of possibility?

For those interested, here is the link to Sam Harris’ response to Eagleman.



About Unintended Consequences Documentary Project

I'm Producing and directing a multi-platform documentary project on global energy called "Unintended Consequences".
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2 Responses to Possibility, Skepticism, and Certainty

  1. Carla Smith says:

    Great post Matt! I too loved his openness to possibility (and the fact that Italy’s Style Magazine featured him on their cover!). I read another interesting piece today about the limitations of our language and how, by merely coining a word to communicate something, we are essentially ‘bounding’ it. As human beings we require and have evolved complex communication strategies but far too often words inherently define and limit and perhaps even close doors to possibilities that might open up with thought. I don’t know the answer to this, other than image and art and music, which seem to communicate concepts as or more clearly to our heart/mind/whole than words. This is why film and story telling can be so powerful a medium.
    I like that you are exploring these larger ‘how’ concepts that exist behind the what and why.

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