New Allies In The Theist/Atheist Debate

A small good thing has happened in the battle between rationalists and believers. And with luck it will grow into something truly grand. The new atheist neuroscientist and author, Sam Harris, one of the few real bright spots on the bleak horizon of America's culture wars, has reached out to fellow neuroscientist and author David Eagleman, one of this country's fastest rising and most promising young public Intellectuals.

Harris is looking for a dialogue with Eagleman in part to set him straight -- or at least Harris's version of straight. Harris writes:

"On the subject of religion, Eagleman appears to make a conscious effort to play the good cop to the bad cop of 'the new atheism.' This posture will win him many friends, but it is intellectually dishonest. When one reads between the lines--or even when one just reads the lines--it becomes clear that what Eagleman is saying is every bit as deflationary as anything Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens or I say about the cherished doctrines of the faithful."

And this, of course, is the moment when I feel the need to intrude and set a context for this meeting of the minds.

Those who are familiar with my book, Fringe-ology: How I Tried to Explain Away the Unexplainable--And Couldn't, know that I quote both Eagleman and Harris at length and admiringly. A brief summation of their positions runs as follows:

Eagleman advocates a new philosophy, which he dubs "possibilianism." After he went public with his idea, on NPR, thousands began calling themselves "possibilians." By definition, a possibilian enjoys considering all the different explanations of what the world holds or what the ultimate reality might be -- all the possibilities -- without committing to what Eagleman calls "any particular story." In this view, both the Bible and string theory would qualify as stories. The possibilian's stance would be to consider each of these ideas in light of scientific evidence. But, not being passionately, stridently, dogmatically committed to any particular position, including atheism, a possibilian like Eagleman would feel no need to smack believers around, rhetorically or otherwise.

Harris, on the other hand, is all for non-belief in God. So to him Eagleman probably looks like an accommodationist, seeking compromise where no such half-stepping should be countenanced. I find Harris a curious figure. He is, at a glance, one of the most polarizing thinkers in America today. He is willing to go to extremes to stop extremists: "There is, in fact, no talking to some people" he writes, arguing that it might sometimes be ethical to kill people for holding particularly "dangerous" beliefs. He even attacks moderate religious belief because it "provides cover" for the dangerous radicals. (How the scientifically minded Harris has ever quantified how moderate religion provides this cover has gone noticeably unsaid.) But I also see in Harris profound reason for hope. Nothing if not brave, Harris continually puts his considerable reputation on the line to speak up for practices long associated with mysticism, from meditation and contemplative prayer to the use of certain drugs. He speaks up for a broadly defined sort of "spirituality," in which the existence of a soul is not scientifically supportable (at the moment) but the concept of the individual spirit is already meaningful in every other important way.

In sum, the spark of the possibilian is there in Harris for all to see. And it's here where I see the possibility -- pun intended -- of a truly fruitful collaboration.

Harris has written that the universe may be "far stranger than many of us suppose" -- one of the lines I quote in Fringe-ology -- and in a recent essay titled "Drugs and the Meaning of Life" he writes the following incredible passage in his "notes" section:

"Many users of DMT [Dimethyltryptamine] report being thrust under its influence into an adjacent reality where they are met by alien beings who appear intent upon sharing information and demonstrating the use of inscrutable technologies. The convergence of hundreds of such reports, many from first-time users of the drug who have not been told what to expect, is certainly interesting. It is also worth noting these accounts are almost entirely free of religious imagery. One appears far more likely to meet extraterrestrials or elves on DMT than traditional saints or angels. As I have not tried DMT, and have not had an experience of the sort that its users describe, I don't know what to make of any of this."

That Harris remains willing to consider, however fleetingly, the possibility of elves is a note, I think, that runs surprisingly in his favor. And I hope when he meets with Eagleman -- be it in person, by email, skype or the archaic technology of telephony -- that he is open to more fully embracing this part of his nature. (I also hope he engages this part of his nature the next time he meets with a believer.) Because if we're going to get beyond the typical exchanges between new atheists and the religious, I'd argue that it's through figures like Eagleman and Harris that we will find the most productive path: men who are eager to use science while demonstrating a capacity to consider ideas from other areas of human experience and systems of thought.

In that same spirit, I will, in a later post, suggest a third man who should be present when Harris and Eagleman meet.