It is a very cute and powerful rhetorical trick to take two seemingly-extreme positions and place yourself in the middle or outside of the two factions. "Ignore these two bickering children: we're the mature adults in the middle."


Recall that both Obama and McCain tried mightily to position themselves as outside of the usual left-right beltway squabbles. Each of them claimed to be the "maverick middle." It's very powerful to claim oneself as the "sane center" between two extremes.


Possibilianism: A Maverick Philisophy

Now we have Possibilianism, the maverick philosophy. "Possibilianism is a philosophy which rejects both the idiosyncratic claims of traditional theism and the positions of certainty in atheism in favor of a middle, exploratory ground" Or as its founder, David Eagleman says: "I don't pretend like we've got it all figured it out. So sometimes I have felt that we know too little to commit to a position of strict atheism and too much to commit to a particular religious story."


That's the definition. That's the mantra. And yet everyone on Think Atheist or /r/atheism or any other atheist forum can spot the lie immediately. Atheism is not a position of certainty. It is an acceptance of an appropriate degree of uncertainty. It is an unwillingness to accept answers that are unproven.


If we define "strict atheism" as the claim that there is 0% chance that there is a life after death, or a deity, then there are virtually NO strict atheists and in particular: none of the leaders of the atheist community (the so-called "new atheists) are "strict atheists".


Based On a Strawman

If it's true that the New Atheists do not express certainty, then possibilianism is based upon a strawman argument. Its partisans redefine atheism so that they can define themselves as different than it. Let's amass some evidence for my point that the "New Atheists" are comfortable with uncertainty.


Sam Harris on Uncertainty and Speculation

Sam Harris on death

I’m not pretending to know that you get a dial tone after death. I don’t know what happens after the physical brain dies. I don’t know what the relationship between consciousness and the physical world is. I don’t think anyone does know.

Sam Harris on the limits of current neurology

Is the ego an illusion, and, if so, what implications does this have for human life? Is there life after death? These are ultimately questions for a mature [i.e. future] science of the mind.

Sam Harris on mind/body

The truth is, I don’t know what happens after death. Is it dogmatic for me to doubt that you and the pope do? What reason have you given me to believe that you know that “something” happens after death, or that your something is more probable than the Muslim something, the Hindu something, or the Buddhist something? The question of what happens after death (if anything) is a question about the relationship between consciousness and the physical world. It is true that many atheists are convinced that we know what this relationship is, and that it is one of absolute dependence of the one upon the other. Those who have read the last chapters of The End of Faith know that I am not convinced of this. While I spend a fair amount of time thinking about the brain (as I am finishing my doctorate in neuroscience), I do not think that the utter reducibility of consciousness to matter has been established. It may be that the very concepts of mind and matter are fundamentally misleading us.


Christopher Hitchens on Uncertainty and Speculation

Christopher Hitchens on death

I don't know that there is no such thing as consciousness without the brain. I very much doubt it, but we don't know enough to say it is impossible. I do know that it's impossible that other human beings know the qualifications for survival…it will be a pleasant surprise [if I survive my death]. I quite like surprises.

Hitchens on God

Is it possible for an atheist to say, that God positively can be said not to exist. No, that's a very common misunderstanding about my fraternity or sorority. The atheist says that no persuasive argument in favor of the existence of God has ever been advanced or adduced without convincing rebuttal. … We cannot say that we know that there could be no much such entity. Among other things we are too reverent of the extraordinary time of discovery, innovation, pushing back of the frontiers of knowledge and understanding that has taken place just in our own time, to make any such remark.

Atheists do not say we know there is no god. … The same with the afterlife. Of course we don't say that we know that there isn't one. Rather we say that we don't know anyone who can build any reason to think that there is. The only thing that is certain is uncertainty. The immediate loser in an argument of this nature is the one who says "I already know all I need to know, indeed I've been given it by a supernatural body."

Richard Dawkins on Uncertainty and Speculation

Dawkins on a hypothetical theory of an Intelligent Designer that co...

It could be that at some earlier time, somewhere in the universe, a civilization evolved, probably by some kind of Darwinian means, probably to a very high level of technology, and designed a form of life that they seeded onto perhaps this planet. Now, um, now that is a possibility, and an intriguing possibility. And I suppose it's possible that you might find evidence for that if you look at the details of biochemistry, molecular biology, you might find a signature of some sort of designer.

Richard Dawkins on the "Matrix Hypothesis" in The God Delusion:

Science fiction authors . . . have even suggested (and I cannot think how to disprove it) that we live in a computer simulation, set up by some vastly superior civilization.

Richard Dawkins on uncertainty about God

I'm not saying that there's definitely no God. But the arrogance of a Christian who says that they not only know that there's a god, but that it is THIS god. That's arrogance! I'm not absolutely convinced that there is no God, but I'm also not absolutely convinced that there are fairies. Until someone comes along with a good argument for Gods or Fairies, I'm not going to waste my time believing in them. I'm agnostic about gods in the same sense that I'm agnostic about fairies. Which means that I'm both an a-fairiest as well as an a-theist. I think that's a kind of cautious thing to say. I'm not saying there is definitely no god.

Damned if you Do, Damned if you Don't

To the extent that the New Atheists might occasionally express certainty, one can certainly understand the temptation given the rhetorical strategies of their opponents.

Consider the situation of a "New Atheist" like Richard Dawkins. If he is completely unwilling to concede the possibility of an intelligent designer, or a Spinozan God or a life-after-death scenario, then he is termed closed-minded and over-sure. Conversely, if he expresses the tiniest shred of doubt then Creationists seize upon it. They claim their story has no gaps or uncertainties in it.

If he speculates on the existence of aliens, Creationists claim he believes in aliens, which just shows how silly he is. Actually, it shows how deceitful Creationists are.

If a New Atheist mentions offhandedly that the deist God seems more plausible than the Christian one, then Creationists claim that he's "converting" to deism/theism (which of course they'll conflate when it is convenient).

Possibilianism is a form of Atheism

So I think that I've established that Possibilianists hold exactly the same positions as mainstream atheists. The question is whether possibilianism is completely irrelevant and meaningless or still salvageable? I claim it is still salvageable.

Possibilianism is a form of atheism that puts the emphasis not on the falseness of pre-existing truth claims but on the active investigation of potential alternatives. Where the "New Atheists" are constrained by their deceitful Creationist debaters from active exploration of the "possibility space", self-declared "possibilianists" can be the "LSD-tripping hippies" of the atheistic movement. "Dude...what if the whole universe is just like a projection of our own brains...let's see if we can come up with an experiment to test that."

But this would require them to admit that they are not an alternative to atheism, but rather a special form of it. Can they swallow their pride, admit their mistake and join us? Let's see.


Views: 154

Comment by matt.clerke on July 19, 2011 at 9:46pm

Sorry but I(and I suspect many others) have to disagree with you here. Atheism does not posit certainty. Let me explain it thusly:

Theism is the belief in a god(the Christian god is a good example). Theism does not claim that God exists, it merely describes that theists believe a god exists.

The opposite to that: atheism is the belief that there is not a god. It does not state certainty, it states belief.

Also related is gnosticism, which states knowledge of existence. So a gnostic theist knows that their belief is true.

Conversely an agnostic atheist(which I think is generally what a "new atheist" is) does not know about the truth of their belief.


Some examples: it is safe to assume that the pope knows he is in the correct religion and his beliefs are correct. So he is a gnostic theist. He knows that his belief is true.

Some atheists are known by Richard Dawkins' scale of 1 to 7 to be "Strong Atheists" which means they are gnostic atheists. They know that their belief that there is no god is true.


The important thing to keep in mind is that everyone is either gnostic or agnostic and everyone is either a theist or an atheist. They literally cover all possible beliefs and knowledge of such belief. Being just an atheist does not even suggest that a person knows or doesn't know anything.

Comment by Paul Prescod on July 19, 2011 at 10:42pm
Matt Clerke, I don't know what you are disagreeing with.
Comment by matt.clerke on July 20, 2011 at 12:52am
Maybe I misread...I am just saying that atheism is not a position of absolute certainty. If you ignore my first sentence, my post basically still makes sense.
Comment by Albert Bakker on July 20, 2011 at 1:03am

I have to admit that I don't know to what extent this "possibilianism" was serious. I heard it first at a Nature podcast and I was mightily unimpressed and mildly annoyed by it.

I must say that his enthusiastic and rhythmic Tony Danza-like voice and matching down-to-earth use of language did succeed in distracting me a little bit from the nonsense contained therein.

I'm glad you took the time to set this foolish repackaging of agnosticism straight with more seriousness than it probably deserves.

Comment by Tim on July 20, 2011 at 1:23am

@matte.clerke - You made the same major mistake that most theists make. Atheists do not "believe" there is no god, we only claim that we see no evidence of any god.

Comment by Paul Prescod on July 20, 2011 at 4:28am
@matt.clerke : What I said in the blog post is "Atheism is not a position of certainty." What you said is "

atheism is not a position of absolute certainty." So I still think we are in 100% agreement. If the blog post is confusing then I'd like to understand better how I can improve it. Thanks for your help with that.
Comment by Apple on July 20, 2011 at 9:48am

Sounds to me like it's another group of atheists who don't want to be considered as such because of "social stigma."  Atheist does not mean anti-theist.  And even anti-theism does not mean that one is closed minded to the possibility of a god existing, as Hitch demonstrated. 


The problem with theism is that they use their "certainty" to attempt to control the lives of everyone through legislation.  They often believe they have a divine warrant for this.  As Sam Harris says, we need people to stop pretending to be certain about things which they cannot possibly know.

Comment by Tim on July 20, 2011 at 11:20am

As a self-proclaimed Possibilian, I guess I'll have to respond.

First off, such underlying hostile feelings towards the word.

For me and my understanding of the position (which may be wrong), it's simply a matter of clarification and specificity. I still consider myself an atheist. With Possibilianism being such a small movement, I've never really heard or read anything more than a Wikipedia page that I stumbledupon.

Comment by Paul Prescod on July 20, 2011 at 11:28am

Rich Hugunine: I think that there are a relatively small number of definitions of atheist out there. I'd say Dawkins roughly covers it:


People tend to gravitate to their portion of the scale and claim that is "true atheism". Or else they wish to disclaim atheism (as the Possibillionists do) and define it as something other than what they are.

Comment by Paul Prescod on July 20, 2011 at 11:32am

Tim Zook: my only concern with Possibilionism is that it presents itself as a "middle ground" between fundamentalism and atheism, when it is really a subset of atheism. In doing so, it perpetuates the myth that atheists are "just as bad as" or "the same as" fundamentalists, and that we claim to have certain knowledge of things we cannot know. In short, it is positioned in a fundamentally deceitful way. Even on the short wikipedia page, you can see how atheists are thrown under the bus: " Possibilianism is a philosophy which rejects both the diverse claims of traditional theism and the positions of certainty in atheism in favor of a middle, exploratory ground."


What prominent, well-known atheists do you know who profess "certainty" about the afterlife, or the diety, or abiogenesis or any other big questions?


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