Possibilianism (Are You a Possibilian without Knowing It?)

I’ve recently re-viewed Dr. David Eagleman’s terrific TED talk on science and religion. Some of his comments tie into the series of posts I’ve recently completed about the fine-tuning argument for God’s existence.

Eagleman sees problems with both traditional theism and the New Atheism. We know too much, he suggests, to commit to a particular religious story. And agnosticism seems “weak” to him. Because the number of possible theories of Reality is so enormous, we should not limit ourselves to saying that either traditional religion is true, or the current scientific world-view is true. I appreciate his open-mindedness and his willingness to explore.

See: https://www.yhttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LENqnjZGX0A

Roger Christan Schriner

For my main web site, click http://www.schrinerbooksandblogs.com

The Fine-Tuning Argument for God’s Existence, Part Four

Today I’ll conclude my series on “fine-tuning.” Some scientists claim that if the basic physical laws of the universe had been just slightly different, intelligent life could never have existed. Does this show that the universe was designed by God as a home for humans? In my previous post I quoted an imaginary conversation from my book, Bridging the God Gap. Theodore, a theist, Althea, an atheist, and Agnes, an agnostic, are debating this issue, and Theodore has said:

The idea of a godless cosmos offends my intelligence. … [A]n alarm goes off in my mind when people claim that all this wonderment happened for no reason at all.

The conversation continues:

Althea: Theodore, my nonsense-detector is ringing so loud it hurts my ears. You are forgetting what is completely obvious. SOMETHING basic and wondrous did have to happen for no reason we can ever know, whether it was the universe itself or a hidden reality which gave birth to the universe.

Agnes: People who say God made the universe don’t ask where God came from, because they don’t know how to even begin thinking about something so far beyond their own experience. They just shrug their shoulders and change the subject. As Steven Wright says, “A conclusion is the place where you got tired of thinking.”

Theodore: Nevertheless there are brilliant scientists and philosophers who say that it looks like the whole shebang was set up as a home for creatures like us.

Agnes: This is all speculation on top of speculation. Sure, some scientists say the universe seems to have been designed to enable life to exist, but other scientists disagree. It’s easy to go on TV and proclaim that “researchers believe Blah Blah Blah,” but there is no clear consensus about this issue. I have a sneaking suspicion that in ten years, or ten thousand years, a bunch of sheepish physicists will publish an apologetic news release: “Sorry, everyone. We now realize that there are an unbelievably large number of ways that a universe could support intelligent life. For one thing, ‘intelligent life’ doesn’t need to be anything at all like us. Please disregard our previous statements about this matter.”

Althea: Besides, if a super-duper mind created the universe, why would it resemble our traditional concepts of God? It would have to be an incredible information-processing system with the power to shape matter, but look at all the ways that a matter-shaping mind might not be godlike. It might not be conscious. It might have no emotions, and no sense of right and wrong. It might be unaware of (or uninterested in) Homo sapiens. It might not be eternal, and in fact it might not even exist anymore. “It” might be several different entities, working together. Its attention might even be focused on some other universe, and our cosmos might be an accidental by-product of what it’s doing “over there.”

Theodore: Regardless, when I try to think about the universe reasonably, I reject the idea of existence without an intelligent cause. To me that is nonsense, pure and simple. If I am going to use my own reason, I can’t ignore what my reason is telling me.

Agnes: Theodore, I agree with you that there is evidence of intelligent design. I do find that intriguing, and I’d like to believe that it proves there is a god. But I agree with Althea that if we claim that the world had a cause, and call that cause God, we are only substituting one puzzle for another. Why not just assume that the world has no cause? Some physicists, such as Stephen Hawking, say that a causeless cosmos makes excellent sense. It seems backwards to drag in a mysterious extra entity in order to solve a mystery. Something must exist for no reason, either God or the cosmos.

Reviewing this discussion, which statements felt right to you? Which ones seemed far-fetched? What comments sounded reasonable even though they contradicted what you tend to believe? The controversy about how the cosmos began is a classic example of the way people can look at similar data and reach diametrically opposite conclusions. (From Bridging the God Gap, pp. 108-110, boldface type added.)

Roger Christan Schriner

For my main web site, click http://www.schrinerbooksandblogs.com

The Fine-Tuning Argument for God’s Existence, Part Three

The fine-tuning argument says that if the laws of our universe had been just slightly different, intelligent life could never have existed. Some say this shows that the cosmos was carefully designed by a supreme intelligence as a home for people like us.

I have explored this question in a fictional conversation in my book, Bridging the God Gap. In this discussion, Theodore is a theist; Althea is an atheist, and Agnes is an agnostic. Obviously I do not agree with everything these three people say, and some of their arguments are persuasive but fallacious. Here are excerpts from the book, pp. 106-108:

To get the most out of these dialogues pay particular attention to what the “other side” says. Notice what happens when you encounter a good idea that disturbs your preconceptions. What emotions do you feel? What impulses do you experience? At such uncomfortable moments it’s only human to look for an exit: “I’d better catch up on my emails.”

Ancient peoples tended to assume that there were only two possible explanations for the existence of heaven and Earth. Either “everything just happened” or “God(s) did it,” and the latter seemed far more likely. Although they realized there was a lot they didn’t know, it did not occur to them that their limited understanding also limited their awareness of alternatives.

Physics and biology have already given us another candidate: The universe radiated outward from the Big Bang and life-forms evolved through natural selection. Some of us agree with these theories and some do not, but at least they offer a conceivable alternative. So now we have at least four options rather than two: “it just happened,” “a Creator made it,” “Big Bang plus evolution,” or a combination in which God caused the Big Bang and included evolution in the divine plan. Importantly, future scientists and philosophers may develop other credible theories about how the cosmos could be “a watch without a watchmaker.” And of course, even if we had a million legitimate options, the right answer might still be, “God did it.”

Let’s see what our three friends have to say about this topic. Theodore leads off.

Theodore: Even if I try to convince myself that the universe could have appeared out of nowhere, it just doesn’t seem plausible. Everywhere I look I find intricate order and regularity. Unbelievably complicated systems have to work with finicky precision for me to stay alive a single second. To me all of this just screams “intelligent design!” Don’t either of you ever feel that way?

Althea: Of course it’s hard to imagine how everything could function without an invisible guiding hand. But it’s hard for me to imagine a great many things that have been well-established. I am only a moderately intelligent mammal living on a little planet near a smallish sun. Why should I be able to comprehend how the whole universe works?

Agnes: We’re just a bunch of curious little critters trying to grasp infinite subtlety and complexity. Even so, I prick up my ears when I hear that physicists have found evidence of creative intelligence. Remember that YouTube video of the debate between Daniel Dennett and Dinesh D’Souza? D’Souza claimed that if certain cosmic laws had been infinitesimally different, “we would have no universe. We would have no life.” He concludes that a creative intelligence wanted us to be here, and some scientists agree with him. This is one reason I’m an agnostic instead of an atheist. …

Althea: Right, but Dennett pointed out [in Part Seven] that there may be  lots of other universes which operate according to laws that prevent life from occurring. Some cosmologists even say there could be an infinite number of universes. Life might be impossible in almost all of these systems, but some of them might be suitable homes for living creatures. If these creatures didn’t know about all the other universes, it would seem as if “the” universe was specifically designed for their benefit. “Wow, how come everything is arranged so precisely? I guess there must be a God!” …

Theodore: The idea of a godless cosmos offends my intelligence. I had a logic teacher in college who often spotted a fallacious argument just by noticing that it sounded fishy. He relied more on hunches than on tight little syllogisms. His mind was equipped with a built-in nonsense-detector that sounded an alarm, and an alarm goes off in my mind when people claim that all this wonderment happened for no reason at all. [End of excerpt from Bridging the God Gap.]

So – which statements felt right to you? Which ones upset you? Which ones made you squirm because you didn’t agree but you weren’t sure how to reply? We’ll finish this conversation in my next posting.

Roger Christan Schriner

For my main web site, click http://www.schrinerbooksandblogs.com/

I’ll Be Back

I’ve been taking a break from this blog which has lasted longer than I anticipated. I’m completing my new book, Your Living Mind: The Mystery of Consciousness and Why It Matters to You. I’ve also been distracted by extraneous factors, such as glitches in setting up a new computer. Your Living Mind should be out later this summer, and then I’ll return to Theists & Atheists: Communication & Common Ground.

In the meantime I encourage interested readers to explore this site. This is my 118th post, and I’m happy to respond to comments about any of my previous entries.

Roger Christan Schriner

To subscribe to Theists & Atheists: Communication & Common Ground, click the “Follow” link on the upper left.


I’m facing an important deadline in preparing my new book, Your Living Mind: The Mystery of Consciousness and Why It Matters to You. As a result, I’m taking a break from this blog for a few weeks.

Roger Christan Schriner

To subscribe to Theists & Atheists: Communication & Common Ground, click the “Follow” link on the upper left.

Atheism vs. Theism vs. Agnosticism vs. Gnosticism

James Ford is one of my favorite bloggers. He’s a Unitarian Universalist minister AND a Zen Buddhist priest, and his blog-site is called Monkey Mind. He featured a cartoon by Pablo Stanley in his August 3 post:


Stanley’s cartoon pictures an atheistic-agnostic, a theistic agnostic, an atheistic-gnostic, and a theistic gnostic. It’s a bit odd to use the ancient term “gnostic” in this context; he just means someone who is dogmatically certain of being right.

Check out this theological quartet and see how they look to you. I think both agnostics seem weak and wishy-washy. They need a button I’ve seen that reads: “MILITANT AGNOSTIC – I don’t know and you don’t either.”

It’s amusing to see that both of the dogmatic fellows have their eyes closed.

James says he mostly identifies with the two atheists – the one who admits he might be wrong and the one who says theism is stupid. He reports that he floats between these two alternatives “depending on various things, but mostly who is annoying me at the time …” I can relate, James!

Roger Christan Schriner

To subscribe to Theists & Atheists: Communication & Common Ground, click the “Follow” link on the upper left.

A Materialist Philosopher Defends Dualism

I recently stumbled across a paper by a highly-respected philosopher named William Lycan. This article is quite remarkable, in at least three ways.

1. It defends Descartes’ supposedly-discredited theory of substance dualism, updating René’s ideas while retaining his basic claim that mind and matter are two radically different sorts of stuff.

2. The author of the paper does not think dualism is true. In fact he thinks that physical reality is all there is – no souls, no spiritual kingdoms, no immaterial deities. But he has also concluded that the case against dualism is fairly weak:

“Cartesian immaterial-substance dualism has few, if any, defenders. This paper argues that no convincing case has been made against substance dualism, and that standard objections to it can be credibly answered.”

3. Lycan wrote this paper after engaging in a systematic process of role-reversal, imagining himself as a dualist, to see what sort of case he could make. He candidly comments:

“I have no sympathy with any dualist view, and never will. This paper is only an uncharacteristic exercise in intellectual honesty. It grew out of a seminar in which for methodological purposes I played the role of a committed dualist as energetically I could. That was a strange feeling, something like being a cat burglar for a few months.”

In Bridging the God Gap I suggest that friends who disagree about religion try a role reversal, but it’s amazing to find someone who has actually done this. So many people find it frightening to take someone else’s lifestance seriously. This is one of the ways in which we drastically, and unnecessarily, limit ourselves.

Lycan also provides support for a bottom-line agnosticism about the big questions of life. We all need to form opinions about the nature of reality, but we do not need to assume that we’re right. He comments on “a general tendency in philosophy: When working in one area, we feel free to presuppose positions in other areas that are (at best) highly controversial among practitioners in those areas. To take a limiting example, philosophers nearly everywhere outside epistemology presuppose that we have some knowledge of the external world. If we do have it – as I too presume we do – epistemology has delivered not one tenable account of how that can be so.”

Well, now, if we haven’t established that we can know anything about the external world, agnosticism about other matters follows rather easily, doesn’t it?

One more candid comment:

“Since question-begging is such an elementary and easily identifiable fallacy, why do we seasoned professionals commit it as often as we do? (I am no exception.) I believe the answer is a more general fact: that we accept deductive arguments mainly when we already believe their conclusions.”

Lycan’s paper, “Giving Dualism its Due,” was published in the Australasian Journal of Philosophy in 2009. You can read it at:


Roger Christan Schriner

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Let’s Play “Name that Lifestance” (Revised 7/10/13)

It’s sad when a useful idea remains nameless. Words help us bring complex concepts into clear focus. Here is a lifestance looking for a label. Can you help find one for it?

What I have in mind is a form of agnosticism. Agnosticism means not knowing if there is a god, or not knowing the truth about some other contentious topic. But there are many kinds of agnosticism. One that I think is both helpful and under-utilized is based on two simple principles:

1. Whenever large numbers of sincere and competent people persistently disagree, we probably do not know who is right.

2. Principle #1 applies to a wide range of topics.

The hallmarks of this lifestance are objectivity and breadth. I have my own opinions about the existence of various sorts of gods, for example, but I also know that I could be mistaken. People who are just as smart and sincere as I am disagree with me about theology. I cannot float up above the fray and say, “Aha, that’s the truth!” Even so, I am sometimes able to sincerely acknowledge the biases and limitations of my own mind. Paradoxically, this realization helps me achieve a sort of objectivity, an ability to partially and temporarily detach from my own opinions. I can apply this principle to many issues, particularly in religion, philosophy, politics, and ethics.

What sort of label fits this wide-ranging meta-perspective? I’ve thought of several, but I’m not sure any of them are good enough.

* Wide-angle agnosticism
* Wide agnosticism
* Big-picture agnosticism
* Panagnosticism
* Metagnosticism

In Bridging the God Gap I speak of broad-spectrum agnosticism, but I’ve been told that sounds like an antibiotic.

So what do you think? And what terms would work for you? All suggestions are welcome!

Roger Christan Schriner

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Life of Pi – The Book

A few weeks ago I posted comments about the acclaimed motion picture, “Life of Pi.” Now that I have read some of the book, I can add comments about that rendition of “Pi.”

(Spoiler alert: I’m going to discuss the way the book ends, though I’ll only include as much detail as is necessary to make my point.)

In the final scenes Pi talks with two Japanese officials who are investigating a maritime disaster in which Pi was cast adrift in a lifeboat. He tells them an incredible tale about sharing this little boat with a tiger and other animals. They express skepticism about the veracity of this account, and Pi replies:

“I know what you want. You want a story that won’t surprise you. That will confirm what you already know. That won’t make you see higher or further or differently. You want a flat story. An immobile story. You want a dry, yeastless factuality.” (Yann Martel, Life of Pi, p. 381.)

Pi then presents them with an alternate version of the maritime disaster and its aftermath, recounting this grim, depressing tale in a flat, straightforward manner.

He also suggests that it’s impossible for them to know which story is correct, and that knowing which is correct would not make any practical difference whatsoever. They agree. He then asks:

“‘Which is the better story, the story with animals or the story without animals?’ Mr. Okamoto: ‘That’s an interesting question …’ Mr. Chiba: ‘The story with animals.’ Mr. Okamoto: ‘Yes. The story with animals is the better story.’ Pi Patel: ‘Thank you. And so it goes with God’” (pp. 398-99).

Earlier in the book, Pi prepares us for this crucial scene by implying that a theory of reality that has God in it is “the better story” compared to “yeastless factuality.”

“I can well imagine an atheist’s last words: ‘White, white! L-L-Love! My God!’ – and the deathbed leap of faith. Whereas the agnostic, if he stays true to his reasonable self, if he stays beholden to dry, yeastless factuality, might try to explain the warm light bathing him by saying, ‘Possibly a f-f-failing oxygenation of the b-b-brain,’ and, to the very end, lack imagination and miss the better story” (pp. 80-81).

So this is the challenge to secular humanists – to write a better story, or at least a darned good one. I’m reminded of Steve Martin’s rip on humanism, “Atheists Ain’t Got No Songs” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pci-YSLrFIA).

The challenge for theists on the other hand is to see that there are many “good stories” about life and the cosmos. Thus they can draw strength from the story which is beloved by their faith community without ridiculing other foundational tales – including the ones that creative humanists are writing this very minute.

Roger Christan Schriner

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Life of Pi – What’s the Main Message?

In a recent post I asked readers how they interpreted a key statement in the award-winning film, Life of Pi. Toward the end the protagonist remarks, “And so it goes with God.”

I don’t pretend to have “the” correct interpretation of this comment, but here’s what it means to me. In dealing with the biggest questions and deepest mysteries of life, people have concocted all sorts of fanciful stories, such as the creation myths of the world’s religions. Now science offers another sort of account, focusing on physical facts and the disciplined use of experiment and evidence.

Science has been stunningly successful in giving us greater prediction and control of physical reality. But we still, as a species, prefer more fanciful interpretations.

The film includes a reality-based story that contrasts with Pi’s fanciful tale. It is told in a flat, straightforward manner, reminding me of Sergeant Friday in the old Dragnet show – “Just the facts, ma’am, just the facts.” The story is tawdry, depressing, disturbing.

Must that be the emotional impact of the scientific world-view? I don’t think so, but no world-view will gain wide acceptance unless it appeals to human feelings, human imagination, human longings.

How can we present science in a way that inspires us instead of boring or depressing us? So far the best attempt I’ve seen is what Michael Dowd and Connie Barlow call “The Great Story.” Check out these sites to see what I mean:


Intellectuals used to refer to homo sapiens as the rational animal. Given all that we’ve learned about our own irrationality, that phrase seems pathetically inaccurate today. But homo sapiens as the imaginative animal? The story-telling animal? The meaning-maker? Yes indeed, for better and for worse. Our task, then, is to use our astonishing imaginations to write reality-based stories that heal and empower us. That, to me, is the main message of “Life of Pi.”

Roger Christan Schriner

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