David Eagleman on 'Sum: Tales from the Afterlives' Bristol Festival of Ideas 25th May 2010 by Jack Hunter
David Eagleman's book "Sum: Tales from the Afterlives" is a collection of 40 hypothetical afterlife scenarios, each one presenting, in Eagleman's own words, an equally improbable possibility. The book is essentially the manifesto for possibilianism (www.possibilian.com), a theoretical position designed to overcome the repetition and tedium associated with the contemporary debate between atheism and theism. Eagleman is of the opinion that this intense form of polarisation leads to a false dichotomy - either there is a God or there isn't - whereas, in actuality, there is a great deal more that we could be talking about: the possibilities are infact endless. Possibilianism emphasises the fact of our ignorance and embraces it: we simply don't know enough about existence to cling ardently to a single hypothesis, indeed it is not even clear that we have yet devised a hypothesis that comes remotely close to being representative of the facts of existence. In light of this, then, Eagleman has proposed what he refers to as a "possibility space" within which all possible hypotheses are equal until sufficient evidence is available to either reject or accept one or more hypothesis. A possibilian holds multiple potential hypotheses in mind, and is comfortable with this stance: it is an exploratory and creative position which, to my mind, succeeds where other standpoints have failed in its ability to rationally consider alternative hypotheses without recourse to reductionism and narrowmindedness.
Of all the talks I have watched over the course of the 2010 Bristol Festival of Ideas, this was the most refreshing, and certainly the most inspiring. It reaffirmed the idea that science is a creative process and that it needn't be limited in terms of what it deems possible. Moreover, this talk exposed the audience to a magnificent wonder in the face of a universe that is still full of mystery, a fact that many contemporary commentators seem to miss by presenting science as an all-knowing font of absolute truths. Eagleman, as a practicing neuroscientist, is keen to admit that the more he finds out about the brain the less he understands. For example, he mentioned that science currently possesses no theory of consciousness: as much as is known about the physical structure of the brain we are still at a loss to explain how a jumble of cells like any other can lead to conscious experience. It is still a very real mystery, and a mystery that runs to the very heart of what we are.
To conclude this short review I will give a brief account of the successes of Sum and possibilianism. The book itself took 7 years to write and 2 years to get published, as the publishers were uncertain what audience the book would appeal to, they were even unsure whether to class it as fiction, philosophy, science or religion. Since its publication, however, the book has experienced a phenomenal surge of interest having received praise from scientists, authors and religionists alike. Sum soared to the second position in the UK book charts in September 2009 and has since had rights sold for a film. It is even being shaped into an opera for the 2011/2012 season. It is clear that the book is tapping into something in the hearts and minds of the people. The same can also be said of possibilianism which is showing all the signs of becoming a global movement. It certainly seems as though the world is now bored with stagnant polarisation and is ready to embrace a creative exploration of the infinite possibility space we call existence.