Author Topic: This 22 minute TED Talk has me drifting away...  (Read 1372 times)

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This 22 minute TED Talk has me drifting away...
« on: April 24, 2012, 09:08:35 AM »
I may be becoming a Possibilian. This speaker (Dr. David Eagleman, a neurobiologist) feels that the atheism/religion dichotomy is useless in this day and age, a fight not worthy of our knowledge base. He jokingly made up the term "Possibilian" a few years ago but seriously proposes a different way to look at science and the universe.

I searched the site and was surprised that the idea hasn't been discussed before.

But I like it. (Don't worry, one doesn't have to stop not believing, but he asks that we all consider other possibilities as well. He pretty much discards the god ones though.)

It's a bit long, but worth viewing.



You guys fight amongst yourself over this today. I'll be gone for the next six to eight hours. I'm curious what my standing with the site will be when I return.

Note: This thread is relevant to the "how much do we know" thread going on right now. But I thought it was worthy of its own discussion rather than inserting the video in the other thread.

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Offline velkyn

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Re: This 22 minute TED Talk has me drifting away...
« Reply #1 on: April 24, 2012, 01:14:08 PM »
so,is this pretty accurate per the video?:

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Our ignorance of the cosmos is too vast to commit to atheism, and yet we know too much to commit to a particular religion. A third position, agnosticism, is often an uninteresting stance in which a person simply questions whether his traditional religious story (say, a man with a beard on a cloud) is true or not true. But with Possibilianism I'm hoping to define a new position — one that emphasizes the exploration of new, unconsidered possibilities. Possibilianism is comfortable holding multiple ideas in mind; it is not interested in committing to any particular story."
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Possibilianism

A purple furred, twelve eyed sentient fruit orbiting Rho Ophiuchi right now: it's possible.  So's the Cat in the Hat and the caterpillar from Wonderland.    However, the probability is essentially zero.   

I can hold many ideas in my mind, but that doesn't mean that those ideas are ever going to be real. Some of them might be shown to be real.  That I reject *any* far out possibility doesn't mean I can't think about things, can't accept changes to what I know and that doesn't mean I can't be quite  happy, and correct, committing to reality.   
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Online jaimehlers

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Re: This 22 minute TED Talk has me drifting away...
« Reply #2 on: April 24, 2012, 01:53:27 PM »
I don't think Possibilianism is about believing that a given idea is real until we have proof of it.  I think it's about not dismissing an idea as impossible unless it can be reasonably shown that it isn't possible.  However, I think that Eagleman's description is wrong.  We don't have to hold all those ideas in mind, especially if they're too wildly improbable.  We simply have to accept that what we don't know, we don't know, and not go wild on rampant speculations regarding our lack of knowledge.

Offline atheola

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Re: This 22 minute TED Talk has me drifting away...
« Reply #3 on: April 24, 2012, 06:16:45 PM »
Possiblillian? Wow...that's a new one on me.. I suppose there really was an invisible man under my bed at night 48 years ago, but that house is now occupied by another 5 year old and it's HIS problem now. :P
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Re: This 22 minute TED Talk has me drifting away...
« Reply #4 on: April 24, 2012, 06:24:02 PM »
Possiblillian? Wow...that's a new one on me.. I suppose there really was an invisible man under my bed at night 48 years ago, but that house is now occupied by another 5 year old and it's HIS problem now. :P
See my post just above.  To put it bluntly, this argument is a strawman.

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Re: This 22 minute TED Talk has me drifting away...
« Reply #5 on: April 24, 2012, 07:07:02 PM »
The point that I liked from the talk is that science doesn't know everything, and for us to pretend it does and use that to justify our atheism is to overlook a lot of gaps in our knowledge base. And even more important, most of us are at one end or the other of the continuum between belief and disbelief, and none of us in those categories are open to many alternatives.

We know enough to dismiss the gods that have been described so far. But we don't know enough to know if the universe if entirely natural. There are big mysteries out there and for us to simply assume each one has a natural explanation and then act accordingly does not allow for other possible explanations. Other civilizations or other forces we can't possibly comprehend might have a hand in who and what we are. And they may not. As long as we can't say for sure, we shouldn't shut our minds.

I feel that as an ardent atheist I have been shutting my mind. This has nothing to do with gods. It has to do with the unexplained and concocting gross generalizations that try to allow for what we don't know.

We often argue here that "we don't know" is an okay thing to say when we don't have the answers. And I agree. But for me to say that even though we indeed don't know, I am still positive that there is a perfectly logical and naturally definable reason for every phenomena means that I am making the assumption that I know even though I don't know.

I've decided I don't want to do that exact thing any more. And that maybe the term atheist, as it is currently used, does not quite apply to me the way I thought it did.
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Offline atheola

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Re: This 22 minute TED Talk has me drifting away...
« Reply #6 on: April 24, 2012, 10:01:32 PM »
Stop with the strawman finger will ya? I know exactly as much about an unknowable god as anyone and that is exactly none. The strawman finger is growing stale...real stale.
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Offline joebbowers

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Re: This 22 minute TED Talk has me drifting away...
« Reply #7 on: April 24, 2012, 10:03:59 PM »
How is this any different than the common theist appeal to ignorance?  We don't know everything, therefore God exists.

Science doesn't know everything. No atheist claims it does. However we do know enough to disprove God, unequivocally.

This guy is saying that we should keep open the possibility that people will far less knowledge than us may be right, because our own knowledge is not complete. Sorry, this argument doesn't hold any water where God is concerned. To suggest that God may exist after all because we haven't covered every inch of the universe looking for him is absurd. We know the origin of the myth, we know that the men who wrote the bible didn't have spaceships and so didn't go looking for him themselves, and we know that most of the stuff in the bible never happened.

It is certainly possible, even likely, that there are beings out there much more intelligent than us. Beings capable of creating sentient life and complex ecosystems. I don't doubt that at all. But they are not gods, they don't listen to our prayers, they probably don't know we exist yet.
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Re: This 22 minute TED Talk has me drifting away...
« Reply #8 on: April 24, 2012, 10:14:55 PM »
I shouldn't have brought this up.
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Offline Bad Pear

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Re: This 22 minute TED Talk has me drifting away...
« Reply #9 on: April 25, 2012, 04:41:53 AM »
It seems to me that he hasn't really read any of the "neo-atheist" books that he's trying to put down. Dawkins, for example, explicitly states that he "doesn't know" and is therefore technically agnostic at a 6.9 on his own religious scale. I honestly don't find many atheists making the dogmatic claims that he says we are making regarding things that we cannot know. To me this seems like useless quibbling at best and another example of someone not understanding what atheism is at worst.
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Offline Quesi

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Re: This 22 minute TED Talk has me drifting away...
« Reply #10 on: April 25, 2012, 07:42:07 AM »
Thank you for posting this video.  This is the first time I’ve heard the term Possibilianism.  However, I guess I don’t feel that the concepts that he is presenting are particularly earth shattering, and I don’t think that he successfully defended his premise that “We know too little to commit to a strict interpretation of atheism.”   

Of course science doesn’t know everything.  A dozen generations from now, a thousand generations from now, our descendents will accept our limited understanding of the universe the same way we accept the limited understanding of our ancestors who believed, based on the evidence available to them, that the earth was flat and that the closest oceans were absolute boundaries beyond which nothing existed. 

I don’t see how accepting our limited knowledge in any way negates atheism, which is simply the non-belief in supernatural deities.  If, at some point in the future, scientists discover powers or forces or consciousnesses that are beyond our current comprehension, then that will be science, not metaphysical mumbo jumbo. 

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Re: This 22 minute TED Talk has me drifting away...
« Reply #11 on: April 25, 2012, 09:57:24 AM »
PP - it's a good topic, and we need to talk about it!  I'm going to respond when I get back from Orlando.

Offline screwtape

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Re: This 22 minute TED Talk has me drifting away...
« Reply #12 on: April 25, 2012, 10:57:00 AM »
I shouldn't have brought this up.

why not?
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Offline Dante

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Re: This 22 minute TED Talk has me drifting away...
« Reply #13 on: April 25, 2012, 12:20:47 PM »
We often argue here that "we don't know" is an okay thing to say when we don't have the answers. And I agree. But for me to say that even though we indeed don't know, I am still positive that there is a perfectly logical and naturally definable reason for every phenomena means that I am making the assumption that I know even though I don't know.

But you're making this assumption on the track record of science, which, so far, has yet to require the use of any supernatural qualifications to explain anything.

http://whywontgodhealamputees.com/forums/index.php?topic=11160.0

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The theologians retreat and retreat and retreat. Where once virtually everything in Nature was governed by the activity of some Invisible Magic Person or other, the IMPire has been reduced to three rather small remaining redoubts of ignorance: the first tiny instant of the Big Bang, abiogenesis, and the mystery of consciousness.

Given the Invisible Magic Person theory's unbroken string of defeats over the last few centuries,2 supernaturalism doesn't look like a good bet for winning those last three rounds. Of course, God can hole up in the detached, abstract mind-space of philosophy forever.
Actually it doesn't. One could conceivably be all-powerful but not exceptionally intelligent.

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Re: This 22 minute TED Talk has me drifting away...
« Reply #14 on: April 25, 2012, 12:28:49 PM »
Stop with the strawman finger will ya? I know exactly as much about an unknowable god as anyone and that is exactly none. The strawman finger is growing stale...real stale.
This has nothing to do with what I actually posted, and you know it.  You said, "I suppose there really was an invisible man under my bed at night 48 years ago, but that house is now occupied by another 5 year old and it's HIS problem now", and I called that out as a strawman because it wasn't what ParkingPlaces was suggesting at all.  The idea he's propounding on is that things that we don't know, we don't know, and we shouldn't come to a definite conclusion about things we don't know or understand for the simple reason that we don't have enough knowledge to base that conclusion on.

Science is built around finding natural explanations for things.  But our definition of natural has changed as we've expanded our knowledge.  Things we accept as natural today would have been seen as supernatural wonders even a century ago.  I think that pattern will continue to hold true in the future as well, which is why we shouldn't assume about things we don't know or understand.  The natural explanation may be something that would seem completely bizarre to us today.

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Re: This 22 minute TED Talk has me drifting away...
« Reply #15 on: April 25, 2012, 08:06:55 PM »
I shouldn't have brought this up.

why not?

Sorry, I was in a bad mood when I wrote that. Such things don't happen to me much. I'm over it now.

It seems to me that he hasn't really read any of the "neo-atheist" books that he's trying to put down. Dawkins, for example, explicitly states that he "doesn't know" and is therefore technically agnostic at a 6.9 on his own religious scale. I honestly don't find many atheists making the dogmatic claims that he says we are making regarding things that we cannot know. To me this seems like useless quibbling at best and another example of someone not understanding what atheism is at worst.

Nope, he has read them. He's not saying that atheism is wrong, that it is a stringent stand that depends upon science being right. And science isn't right about everything yet. Because of the "we don't know" part. Atheists such as myself are making the assumption that science will eventually explain everything.

Keep in mind that he is a neuroscientist working on the cutting edge of human perception. He understands that the model of reality we each have in our heads is created by a brain that is dependent upon our senses, our cultures, our genes and a few other variables to construct said reality. And that reality is somewhat wanting in the information department. We can perceive, on our own, less than 1% of the electromagnetic spectrum. We treat color as real, when it is a construct of our minds. Hence we are assuming that what we perceive is actually "real". It is a reality of sorts, but not necessarily accurate.

We have gaps on our knowledge, gaps in our perception, gaps in our awareness, gaps in our understanding of even just ourselves. And to assume that we can know that science will someday answer every important question to our satisfaction is setting the human race up for at least a little disappointment.

But you're making this assumption on the track record of science, which, so far, has yet to require the use of any supernatural qualifications to explain anything.

If you happen to have watched the video, note that he said science could tell us whether or not anything was true. But whether or not the truth is scientific is an unknown. That is, there may be some explanations out there for some of our existence that are beyond the ken of science. And there may be explanations out there that we aren't expecting.

Right now there are researchers seriously exploring whether or not our existence is a hologram. Serious scientists. And they think they will be able to prove whether or not it is sometime in the near future. Or at least show that it is more likely than not that we are. Now I'm not all the well read up on the use of holograms by nature to accomplish things, but methinks this would be a fairly amazing discovery. If true, how do we explain it. We have no fossils of holograms, no way to date holograms. Such a discovery would make the universe really really weird.

By insisting that all is explicable, we are setting ourselves up for a certain amount of disappointment. And shutting out other possibilities. What if we are, in fact, some sort of experiment by aliens. I don't think for a second that we are, but how can any of us, lacking complete knowledge about reality, say that we absolutely are not?

Dr. Eagleman is simply trying to tell us not to be to frickin' cock sure of ourselves. The unknowns are incredible and none are guaranteed to follow our assumed scientific scripts.

If it does turn out the every last mystery can be and is solved by science, so be it. Hell, even being an alien experiment can still be solved by science. But nothing is as certain as I, a 7 on Dawkins scale up until a day or so ago, might think it is.

I don't for a second think a god is involved. It's just that there may be influences and causes that are not as cut and dried as physics and biology and such would like it to be.

Note: He mentioned that we don't even know what 90% of the universe is, because what we observe gravitationally and what we predict based on the observable mass of the universe is so different. Science has given this stuff the name "dark matter" but it is a complete mystery. How much are we in control of information about reality when we can't define over 90% of what is out there? And science has things under control?

The dude is asking us to be open minded. We atheists don't like the god of the gaps, and he is saying we should be a little careful about the science of the gaps too. We just don't know enough yet.

And again, he expects us to use the methods of science to confirm anything we find, whether it is scientifically explainable or not. If he was saying we needed to abandon science, I too would be suspect. He's not.
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Offline screwtape

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Re: This 22 minute TED Talk has me drifting away...
« Reply #16 on: April 25, 2012, 10:36:55 PM »
He says we know enough science to not commit to any specific religion. I'm not sure what he means by that.  I think he made a pretty strong case that all religions are preposterous.  What is the alternative he is offering?  A different religion?  I dunno.  He seems like a smart guy, but he also seems confused.  Do we really not know enough to write off the idea of the classic omnimax god?
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Offline gonegolfing

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Re: This 22 minute TED Talk has me drifting away...
« Reply #17 on: April 26, 2012, 08:10:29 AM »
At the end of the day Eagleman is still an atheist by definition. He willingly has no connection to religions and is willingly without beliefs in gods. No biggie.

However, I reject possibilianism's description of strong atheism as having too high a degree of certainty, when in fact it's uncertainty at root that compels us to be in our position. Atheists are not certain at all that a god does not exist, but we are certain that there is no viable evidence to validate the god hypothesis. Our uncertainty of the existence of the one combined with the certainty of the existence of the other--drives us to be in the position we're in.

Possibilianism to me, is intellectually stifling and untrustworthy as it asks my mind to contemplate beyond its capabilities and to perhaps even accept the absurd as possible. The way I understand this line of thought, is that it also asks individuals to be accomodationists and to accept and hold numerous possibilities at once and to sit in this position witholding judgements until viable evidence comes in to make one of them absolutely true over all the others. I see that approach as an affront to the simplicity and quickness of Occam's Razor.

Having an open mind to rational possibilities testable by the scientific method is good. Having an open mind to possibilities that are absurd and untestable is not good and wastes the intellect and time of the individual.

Possibilianism may stick it to "traditional" theism, but it opens the door wide for a "new" theism.

This philosophy is ancient. It's possibilianism that allowed the god idea in the first place was it not ?  ;)
« Last Edit: April 26, 2012, 08:13:59 AM by gonegolfing »
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Offline velkyn

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Re: This 22 minute TED Talk has me drifting away...
« Reply #18 on: April 26, 2012, 08:34:25 AM »
Dr. Eagleman is simply trying to tell us not to be to frickin' cock sure of ourselves. The unknowns are incredible and none are guaranteed to follow our assumed scientific scripts.
I quite certain that the universe won't suddenly produce a cat in the hat that breaks every law of physics.  Not all "unknowns" are equal.  That's what Eagleman seems to want to claim and it's ridiculous.
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Re: This 22 minute TED Talk has me drifting away...
« Reply #19 on: April 26, 2012, 09:17:27 AM »
I just found out that Eagleman was invited to, and agreed to, discuss this subject with Sam Harris on Harris' web site. Eagleman never responded after that.

This is what Harris wrote to start the discussion on his blog. Again, Eagleman never responded. I don't' know why.

http://www.samharris.org/blog/item/whither-eagleman/

Perhaps I should consider the matter closed. I tried to find serious discussion on the subject elsewhere on the web and have yet to find anything that lasted long enough to link to. Most atheists said more or less what the rest of you said above.

There were aspects of Eagleman's point of view that interested me. I can easily incorporatea the ones I liked into my atheism without changing the name. For me, the matter is settled.

Eagleman is a very interesting scientist doing some amazing research on the brain and should not be dissed too much for the concept. He is a little too nice for this planet, he wanted to make things better, and he probably found out that there isn't much worth accomodating for on earth. Hopefully he is a little wiser now.

Me, I'm hopeless.  ;D
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Re: This 22 minute TED Talk has me drifting away...
« Reply #20 on: April 26, 2012, 09:35:39 AM »
He appears to be a weak/agnostic atheist who has dressed up the position to make it more palatable.  I was neither impressed nor upset by this video.  It was just meh.  I was however depressed that he never meets people familiar with the Hubble deep field image.  I'm pretty sure everyone I know has seen it and I've even seen some good amateur reproductions made with rather small scopes using a shit ton of stacked long exposures.

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Re: This 22 minute TED Talk has me drifting away...
« Reply #21 on: April 26, 2012, 09:52:49 AM »
Yes, it saddens me too that more people don't know about it. The photo still amazes me every time I look at it.

And it turns out he was wrong about the dark matter numbers. He said the universe is 90% dark matter. In fact, it is about 25% dark matter and 70 % dark energy. Two different things. You can't add them up to get a 90% (or in this case 95%) number.



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Re: This 22 minute TED Talk has me drifting away...
« Reply #22 on: April 26, 2012, 10:24:00 AM »
I quite certain that the universe won't suddenly produce a cat in the hat that breaks every law of physics.  Not all "unknowns" are equal.  That's what Eagleman seems to want to claim and it's ridiculous.
Of course not all unknowns are equal.  But some things that seem utterly preposterous to us now could very well turn out to be true, just as things that we take for granted now would have been utterly preposterous even a century ago (or less!).  Yet we can't know in advance which of those things will actually turn out to be real.  People base their understanding of things on what they currently know.  If you'd asked someone in 1912 about the future of automobiles, he probably would have confidently said that they would never be anything but a toy for the rich, and a public nuisance for everyone else.

People in 1962 never would have anticipated the explosion in computer science and technology we enjoy today.  Or how critical transistors would prove to be in the development of computers.  The first personal computer I ever used didn't even have a hard drive, it loaded off of an operating system stored on a 640 KB floppy disk, and yet I type this post on a computer with a 300 GB hard drive, six orders of magnitude greater than the floppy disk.  Who could possibly have planned on computers this powerful fifty years ago?

So, should we anticipate discovering a cat in the hat that can break the laws of physics?  Certainly not; it's foolhardy to anticipate something which we have no knowledge about.  Which is the entire point, really.  We wouldn't have anticipated virtual particles that constantly pop into and out of existence before we discovered them, because the concept would have been absurd.  Nor would we have anticipated the idea that observing electrons going through a slit would affect the path they took.  Some of the things we've discovered that really exist are weirder than a cat in the hat could ever be.

Offline velkyn

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Re: This 22 minute TED Talk has me drifting away...
« Reply #23 on: April 26, 2012, 10:58:54 AM »
Jaime, would you say tht the real existence of cars in 1912 and computers in 1948 led to the changes we know?  My point is that what Eagleman claims seems to be in a vacuum and what we know doesn't come from nothing.  Computers don't magically appear countering all physics. 
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Re: This 22 minute TED Talk has me drifting away...
« Reply #24 on: April 26, 2012, 02:54:35 PM »
Jaime, would you say tht the real existence of cars in 1912 and computers in 1948 led to the changes we know?  My point is that what Eagleman claims seems to be in a vacuum and what we know doesn't come from nothing.  Computers don't magically appear countering all physics.
Right...but I didn't get the impression that he was claiming that things would magically appear out of nothing.  Could you elaborate?

Offline velkyn

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Re: This 22 minute TED Talk has me drifting away...
« Reply #25 on: April 26, 2012, 03:15:12 PM »
Jaime, would you say tht the real existence of cars in 1912 and computers in 1948 led to the changes we know?  My point is that what Eagleman claims seems to be in a vacuum and what we know doesn't come from nothing.  Computers don't magically appear countering all physics.
Right...but I didn't get the impression that he was claiming that things would magically appear out of nothing.  Could you elaborate?

I see no caveats on his claims of new possiblities to be held.  I suppose he could mean what you say but I don't see it in any quotes from him.
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Re: This 22 minute TED Talk has me drifting away...
« Reply #26 on: April 26, 2012, 04:02:36 PM »
Okay.  So why do you think that his claims are coming from a vacuum?  What it sounds like to me is that he's arguing that we shouldn't come to conclusions about things which we don't have enough knowledge about, not that we could have things pop into existence, fully formed, from nothing.  Things like the computer, the automobile, the telephone, the lightbulb, all of them were possible even before they were conceived of by anyone, even though once they were made, they had to be developed from the very crude and basic forms we had originally into what we have today.  And I think that's his point.

This isn't "snap your fingers and make it true just because it's possible" woo, this is "we know there are things which are possible that we don't know about yet, so we shouldn't make assumptions about things we don't have sufficient knowledge about".  It doesn't eliminate the need to find evidence to support something before we start taking it seriously, and it doesn't mean assuming that ridiculous claims about something unknown have any validity.

Offline velkyn

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Re: This 22 minute TED Talk has me drifting away...
« Reply #27 on: April 27, 2012, 08:21:52 AM »
Here's a quote from him:  "I call myself a Possibilian: I'm open to ideas that we don't have any way of testing right now."  I don't see i this that he is arguing that we should only limit our selves to what we already have some knowledge about.  Take our cat in the hat.  We have no evidence that this could happen but according to Eagelman's defintion of possibilianism, "one that emphasizes the exploration of new, unconsidered possibilities", we should consider it could.  He's not talking about probabilities but possiblities.  I suppose it could be a matter of semantics but I find the two words very different.  If we cannot test for it, and there is no other means to restrict what is "possible" since Eagleman things we dont' know everything yet, the cat in the hat is just a valid an idea as a telephone. 

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Re: This 22 minute TED Talk has me drifting away...
« Reply #28 on: April 27, 2012, 09:24:51 AM »
It probably is a matter of semantics.  You see, he said he's open to ideas that we don't have any way of testing right now.   In other words, he's open-minded and willing to think about them, which does not mean he's proposing them as valid.