The scientific pursuits of recent centuries have been tremendously successful: we’ve reached the moon and eradicated smallpox and built the internet and tripled life spans. And we’ve discovered that the blueprints of the cosmos are deeper and more beautiful than anyone could have guessed.
But along with gorgeous answers, science never fails to provide more questions. What we really discover from a life in science is the vastness of our ignorance. When we reach the end of the pier of everything we understand, we find all the uncharted waters of what we do not know. Given that, I’m surprised at the number of books in the bookstore that are penned with certainty.
Consider the debates between the new atheists and the religious. Strict atheism points out critical problems with religious fundamentalism, but it often leaves the public with the misconception that scientists believe they have everything solved. In truth, we know far too little to pretend that we have identified all the major puzzle pieces.
On the other end of the spectrum, we understand far too much to commit to any particular religious story. Religious stories often crystallize hard-won wisdom about human nature—but the stories are too limited to embrace what we now comprehend about the cosmos.
I suggest that beyond the dogmatism of strict atheism and religious fundamentalism lies a third option. I call myself a possibilian. The idea of possibilianism is to explore new, unconsidered hypotheses. A possibilian enjoys awe at our existence, is not opposed to holding mutually exclusive ideas, and is comfortable with uncertainty.
At its root, possibilianism is simply an appeal for intellectual humility. I think it’s possible to appreciate and study the mysteries around us without dogmatism. In the end, comfort with uncertainty may prove critical for our systems of education, law and civilization.
David Eagleman will be delivering one of The School of Life’s Sunday Sermons on Uncertainty on Sunday 23 May. For more information click here.