SEE a video trailer for the book at txlo.corn/sum “So, if you ask me, ‘Do I have a soul?’ I would say, `You know, I kind of feel like there’s something about me that’s a little separate from the biology.’ But I have no evidence for that.” That is, there might be such a struggle if Eagleman’s brain believed that Eagleman had a soul, which he is not sure about. In fact, Eagleman’s brain is not completely sure that there is an Eagleman-beyondEagleman’s-brain at all, with or without a soul, whatever a soul might be. Welcome to the world of “possibilian” neuroscientist and writer David Eagleman. You can find him in Houston mapping the brain’s circuitry and teaching classes at the Baylor College of Medicine. But Eagleman really lives in the space between what-is and what-if, between the facts we think we know and the fictions that illuminate what we don’t know. Eagleman the scientist would love to rev up his high-tech neuroimaging machines to answer the enduring questions about the body and the soul. But Eagleman the writer knows that the machines can’t answer those questions. So while he reports on the questions he can answer in scientific journals, he also ponders the what-ifs in books. His latest is Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives, a playful series of short philosophical imaginings of life after death. And, if things work out the way Eagleman hopes, he will fulfill his childhood dream of becoming the Carl Sagan of the brain, explaining the billions and billions of neurons in our head to a curious public. Like Sagan, the youthful Eagleman has both scientific expertise and a gift for translating complex ideas into everyday language. Eagleman’s scientific and popular endeavors are part of the same creative project to deepen our understanding of a complex world. Science is always just storytelling. In the last 400 years, the earth has been pushed out of the center of the universe, Newtonian physics nudged by quantum mechanicsscience marches on, with lots of “facts” left by the side of the road to rust. Throw a stone into any contemporary university English department and you’ll hit at least one postmodern literary theorist who will talk about science as narrative. But it’s rare to hear it from a scientist who is as committed to the scientific project as Eagleman. Here’s someone running a lab with five high-test fMRI machines, 16 employees and a half-million-dollar annual budget. And it’s all just stories? “I don’t want to say ‘just stories.’ These are the best stories we have on the planet,” he says. These are stories that cure disease and make space travel possible. The awareness that there is always a potentially gamechanging discovery around the corner is, for Eagleman, the allure of science. “You go in because you think, ‘I want to kick over the whole fucking chessboard.’ That’s what makes a good scientist.” In the spiritual realm, Eagleman rejects not only conventional religion but also the labels of agnostic or atheist. In their place, he has coined the term “possibilian”: those who “celebrate the vastness of our ignorance, are unwilling to commit to any particular made-up story and take pleasure in entertaining multiple hypotheses.” Since scientists mostly talk about knowledge, Eagleman’s emphasis on ignorance is unusual. So it’s time for an analogy. Eagleman likes analogies. The work of science is akin to building a pier out into the ocean, he says. We excitedly add on to the pier little by little, but then we look around and say, “Wait a minute, I’m at the end of the pier, but there’s a lot more out there.” The ocean of what we don’t know always dwarfs what we do know, he says. “During our lifetimes, we will get further on that pier. We’ll understand more at the end of our lives than we do now, but it ain’t going to cover the ocean.” EAGLEMAN’S SMALL OFFICE at Baylor offers no indication of what’s going on in his head; it’s a rather bland space, with little on the walls or the bookshelves. The collective lab space, however, is more eccentric. sport a kind of scientific graffitiideas for projects, questions about projects, lists of things to be done on projectsthat reflects the serious but anarchic spirit of the lab. It’s clear that Eagleman’s possibilian sensibility affects the spirit of the place. As he finishes up a task on the computer, he is calm and focused. But once Eagleman starts talking, things take off quickly. Swiveling 180 degrees in his chair, his foot pushing off the various pieces of office furniture to propel him around like a wind-up machine, his verbal velocity accelerates as he describes his ideas. Those range from the experiments he’s running to age-old philosophical questions about free will. His first book, the co-authored Wednesday is Indigo Blue: Discovering the Brain of Synesthesia, explored the condition in which one sense, such as sight, is simultaneously perceived by another sense, such as hearing”hearing a color,” for example. His third book, the forthcoming Dethronement: The Secret Life of the Unconscious Brain, explains for a general audience how the human brain constructs reality. In between those two books came Sum, which spawned a theatrical adaptation staged at the Sydney Opera House in Australia with an original score written and performed by avant-garde musician-producer Brian Eno. Just out in paperback, the book’s speculative musings have captured the imagination of a small but lively group of people who claim the possibilian label, leading Eagleman to begin writing Why I’m a Possibilian. In his thinking about religion, Eagleman takes seriously the old saying “the absence of proof isn’t the proof of absence.” Eagleman recognizes that people who don’t believe in God can never say with certainty that one doesn’t exist; he’s not trying to support or rule out any particular claim but simply suggesting that it’s healthy to imagine possibilities. Sum is a series of 40 what ifs: What if there is an afterlife where we relive all of our experiences, but shuffled into a new order? What if in the afterlife we confront all 18 1 THE TEXAS OBSERVER WWW.TEXASOBSERVER.ORG
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