Probabilian Possibilianism

February 14, 2015


Albert Einstein famously said (when debating quantum mechanics) that “god doesn’t play dice with the world”.    Of course, he was using “god” to refer to the natural laws of the universe, not “God” as most people think of the term.  And, based on current scientific understanding, he is also considered to be wrong.  Quantum mechanics demonstrates that there is some inherent uncertainty in the Universe, at least from our perspective of the Universe.

I work with probabilities a lot in my job, and my learning about probability theory completely changed the way that I view the world.  Humans have always attributed events that they couldn’t understand, including good and bad things that happen to them, to a god or gods or to some force such as luck, fate, destiny, etc.  I now see most of these things as simply the unfolding of complex probabilities.  For example, there is some (rather small) probability that each of us will die the next time we travel in an automobile.  The probability depends on how far we drive, how many other drivers are on the road, when we drive, what type of car we drive, etc., but there is some probability, even if we don’t know exactly what it is.  If we should, in fact, die the next time, our relatives and friends will say things like it was a tragedy, it was bad luck, it shouldn’t have happened, and my favorite: they didn’t deserve it.  None of these have anything to do with anything.  The simple fact is that, just like many other people on the same day, someone just happened to fall on the “die” side of the probability rather than the “live” side.  The same is true for all sorts of other things.  Why are men shocked when they get a cancer diagnosis?  The current lifetime probability is about 50%.  You shouldn’t be at all surprised about having cancer; have you ever flipped a coin and gotten heads?  Same probability of getting cancer.  We constantly misunderstand how probabilities affect our lives.  And it happens for religion as well, the subject of this post.

With the title above, I just created a new type of worldview (at least as far as I know).  I was revisiting possibilianism yesterday, the idea that we don’t currently know enough to take a position of strict atheism (when one claims that we have knowledge to reject existence of all gods), but we do know enough to reject (at least some) of the claims of some of the world’s historical religions, particularly the Abrahamic religions.  This leaves one somewhere in the middle, which a bunch of different possibilities, that we seek to investigate as new knowledge arises.  Here is a very entertaining TED talk from the inventor of possibilianism, Dr. Eagleman.

Now, as something that I have thought about my whole life, my first reaction was, “Damn, why didn’t I come up with that?”  Oh well.  But seriously, I remember realizing as a kid (even before I was exposed to formal probability theory) thinking about all of the possibilities that we have imagined so far (no gods, one god, three-part god, many gods, many gods with a supreme god or some sort of god hierarchy, part human – part gods, we are parts of god, reincarnation, rebirth, universal consciousness, universal mind, an energy field, we were created by aliens messing with primate DNA, we are aliens, we are aliens from the future, we are humans from the future, we are just the bacteria swarming around on something else much larger, et al), and realizing that it was fairly obvious that none of these you can actually convincingly prove or disprove.  I would not at all be surprised if we should one day find out that this possibility (the final scene from Men In Black that posits our entire universe fits within a marble of something much larger) turns out to be the “Truth”.  Of course, I wouldn’t be surprised by hardly anything.

It seems almost silly to “believe in” any one of these positions — if the possibilities are essentially infinite, then the probability that any one possibility is right is essentially zero.

So, the only appropriate answer is, “I don’t know”.  Hence, agnosticism, or perhaps, possibilianism.  There are a lot of possibilities out there, especially for the things that leave little evidence.  At best, we can only believe in relative probabilities, that some things are more likely than others, given the evidence that we do have.



Part of Eagleman’s motivation for possibilianism is to create a more positive scientific-based view than that of the outspoken group that some have labeled the “neo-atheists” including the so-called “four horseman of the non-apocalypse” (which as a term I find absolutely hilarious).  The members of this movement are fairly outspoken and critical against traditional religious beliefs.  As Richard Dawkins has (partially) jokingly stated, he wants to foster a “militant atheism” in America (check it out — this was the first TED talk that I ever saw and it not only makes some great points but shows off Dawkin’s wit, whether you like him or not).

I have read several of Dawkins’ books, and he makes many great points.  I sometimes wish that he would tone down the degree with which he disparages the religious.  I feel the same way about Sam Harris.  I recently read The End of Faith, and although I didn’t agree with everything at first read, it contains many interesting points and it certainly makes you think.  I, for one, don’t think that we necessarily need to abolish religion.  However, I do deplore its influence on politics and policy, particularly in America, which is supposed to be a secular government.  In addition, it seems as if the religious have been able to convince people that our greatest collective intellectual achievements (science, math, logic, reason, and philosophy) are boring and uninteresting.  We would rather dazzle our children with supernatural hocus-pocus and treat them as mushrooms (keep them in the dark and feed them on shit).  It often seems as if scientists are racing ahead, while the religious are stuck a few millennia in the past.

But I don’t think criticizing them helps.  I think the best way is to engage in polite debate, presenting the scientific alternative rather than bashing what they believe.  And, above all, to recognize that there are limits to what we know through science.  This, I think, is where possibilianism comes in, if I understand it correctly.  Eagleman doesn’t want to go too far by saying something like,”We know for sure that no god was involved in the process of creating biological life”.   And I agree.  However, I think that it is very true to say, “we have no evidence that a god was involved in the process of creating biological life” and we can say that “we have reasonable but unproven theories as to how life began, but we have a very well developed and evidentially-supported theory as to how life evolved once it began and no god is required”.  In other words, there are some things about which we can assign some relative probability.  To most people that have seriously studied the evidence for evolution, the probability that a supreme being created the diversity of biological life on Earth has a very, very low probability relative to the theory of evolution.

The religious seem to dismiss this type of view because they just inherently “feel’” or “know” that they are right.  I remember a middle-school conversation with a friend that I played basketball and ping-pong with, a very bright and creative young man.  We got talking about religion somehow (geez, I can’t imagine why Smile), and at some point the conversation went like this:

Why do you believe that God exists?

I just know.

Yes, but how do you know?

I don’t know.  I just know.

Yes, but HOW do you know?

I don’t know – I JUST KNOW.


There is little room for different possibilities when you “just know”, particularly when you don’t know why you know.

The non-believers have a different type of retort.  I first came across “Russell’s Teapot” in one of Richard Dawkins’ books (I think it was The God Delusion).  Basically, philosopher and agnostic/atheist Bertrand Russell noted that while it is essentially impossible to disprove the claim that there is a teapot orbiting the sun (or, more generally, to prove a negative), we can have very good reason to say the the likelihood is low enough that we can fairly confidently claim that there is not a teapot orbiting sun.  The analogy between the teapot and God is then made.  I see the point, but I somewhat disagree with the logic.  I agree with Dawkins and others that when you look at Nature, it is hard to find evidence of anything that requires a god.  However, I recognize that what science can detect and observe is limited and at some point one has to admit that there are simply questions that science can’t answer.  I think I agree with the Four Horseman and Eagleman that we now know enough to say that the claims and gods of many religions, and the myriad of characteristics that are intertwined with them (particularly Yahweh of the Abrahamic religions) are simply too unbelievable to put much stock in.  Those, I think, can be afforded the teapot theory.  However, some more general notions of god are harder to dismiss.  And for those, I think that “I don’t know” is a good answer.

So, all we have is a bunch of ideas about what the Mystery might be.  And I hope that we continue to investigate.  And I hope that we never unravel it.  However, I do hope that we take less and less stock in some of the current ideas that lead humans to all sorts of atrocities.  It is true that we live in a world where we might one day be blown to bits in a market by a suicide bomber simply because that person has been convinced to believe that an old bearded man in the sky really cares what we do, and that this man would have us kill those that don’t follow the one true faith.  And it’s not just bombs.  Here in America there is a war on teaching science in science class because a whole lot of people believe that an old bearded man in the sky created the entire world in six days and specially creates humans.  This leads to all sorts of silliness.

Remember that same bright young man with whom I was having the conversation above?  I asked “what about fossils of dinosaur bones”?  His reply was, “God placed fossils out there to test who truly believes in him.”   Just….WOW!  If that really is god, then god can go F&*$ OFF!  We wouldn’t consider that sort of testing another as being proper moral human behavior, but it is okay for a supreme being who supposedly loves us to do it.  I say again, F&*$ OFF!  To me, that a young person as bright as he was (but being in middle school was obviously constrained in his ability to form a lot of evidence-based opinions) could say something so silly (at least to me, at the time and now), I am thinking that the members of the Four Horseman might not be too far off in claiming that teaching children a particular religious faith should be considered child abuse.

To end on a humorous note, I will leave with you with one of the late George Carlin’s classics and a song by Jimmy Buffett.  As usual, Jimmy has a catchy title, “I don’t know and I don’t care”.  For me, I think that some possibilities are more likely than others.  Therefore, like all of the religions before, I am creating a new branch of the religion that fits with what I believe.  World, please welcome probabilian possibillianism!

“I Don’t Know And I Don’t Care”

Why does the sunset in the west?
And why does my heart keep beating in my chest?
What ever happened to the Duke of Earl?
I got a PBS mind in a MTV world.
Is it ignorance or apathy
I forgot these lessons taught to me.
Some say life isn’t fair,
Hey, I don’t know, I don’t care.Ambivalent, well, yes and no.
Hey where did all the hippies go?
Our conversation sounds like actors’ lines.
Is it time for your medication or mine?
Is it ignorance or apathy
I forgot these lessons taught to me.
Some say life isn’t fair,
Hey I don’t know, I don’t care.

Therapy is extremely expensive.
Poppin’ bubblie wrap is radically cheap.
You choose which one helps with your problem.
I’m gonna get some sleep.
I’m gonna get some sleep.

Sandy beaches in distant reaches
And oh those lovely Georgia peaches.
It’s never too much and never too late
To pack your bags and get out of state.
Is it ignorance or apathy
The worried will all disagree.
Some say life isn’t fair,
Hell, I don’t know and I don’t care.

If you’re looking for a quote from me
I’ll be under the mango tree.
Just can’t say how I’ll get there
Hey, I don’t know and I don’t care.
I don’t know and I don’t’ care.
I don’t know and I don’t care.

This entry was posted in Happiness is an Attitude, Laughter is the best medicine, Musings from the home base, Science vs. Religion, Things that make you go hmmm... and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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