Neuroscientist David Eagleman calls himself a possibilian. What’s that?

A possibilian?

A recent profile of neuroscientist David Eagleman explains what that is:

Eagleman rejects not only conventional religion but also the labels of agnostic and atheist. In their place, he has coined the term possibilian: a word to describe those who “celebrate the vastness of our ignorance, are unwilling to commit to any particular made-up story, and take pleasure in entertaining multiple hypotheses.” 

By this definition, I suppose you could say that a vegetarian is inclined to avoid the eating of meat and a possibilian is inclined to avoid the eating of just-so stories. But that sounds like an agnostic to me: stay humble before your vast ignorance and keep your mind open. And, regardless of what Eagleman calls himself, that’s what he does, as a neuroscientist, before that great question, Whence consciousness?:

“Almost certainly, we’re missing giant pieces,” Eagleman says, just as previous generations were missing a big piece of the puzzle when they attempted to understand the world without the concept of gravity. “We’re in that situation now, and the reason we know we’re in that situation is because for the most fundamental questions we have, like consciousness, we not only don’t know the answer but we don’t even know what the answer could look like.”

What does Eagleman mean by the question of consciousness? “How do you put together a bunch of physical pieces and parts, and get private subjective experience out of that? How do you get the taste of feta cheese or the redness of red or the feeling of pain?”

Neuroscience labs are busy mapping neural circuits—the signals within the brain, and between the brain and the rest of the body. But “that’s just mechanical stuff, Eagleman says, “and every single discovery in every neuroscience lab is just mechanical stuff.”

“We’re stuck with this very deep problem, this 800-pound gorilla: If it’s all just mechanical stuff everywhere we look, and if every part of the brain is connected to, and driven by, other parts of the brain, then where’s consciousness?” For most folks, the answer might be, “Well, it’s in my mind.” But that begs the question of what we mean by the mind, beyond the physical brain. What is a mind? (Your brain weighs about three pounds. How much does your mind weigh?) Eagleman has no clear way to frame the question of consciousness, much less a way to describe subjective experience: “There’s no equation that can give us the taste of feta cheese.”

So what’s the allure of pursuing the science of consciousness if it is hard to even know where to begin?:

The awareness that there is always potentially a game-changing discovery around the corner is, for Eagleman, the allure of science. “I don’t think people would want to go into science unless they thought there was something big to be discovered. You go in because you think, ‘I want to kick over the whole fucking chessboard.’ That’s what makes a good scientist.”


Eagleman offers an analogy: The work of science is like building a pier out into the ocean. We excitedly add on to the pier little by little, but then we look around and say, “Wait a minute, I’m at the end of the pier, but there’s a lot more out there.” The ocean of what we don’t know always dwarfs what we do know, he says. “During our lifetimes, we will get further on that pier. We’ll understand more at the end of our lives than we do now, but it ain’t going to cover the ocean.”

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About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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1 Response to Neuroscientist David Eagleman calls himself a possibilian. What’s that?

  1. Pingback: Neuroscience story from Wired Science « DUML Physhead

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