I have become a Possibilian

David Eagleman reads from Sum, 40 Tales of the Afterlife

Yes, it’s true.  I have become a Possibilian. It seems that in the digital age, if you are an optimist about creating, sharing, innovating, collaborating, it’s the only sensible choice.  Anything and everything is possible.  Of course, it’s also possible that I, we, all of us, are wrong about that. Which is another advantage of being a Possibilian:  you’re open to the possibility that you are, in fact, wrong.

I learned about being a Possibilian at SxSW when I sat in on David Eagleman’s reading of his charming and brilliant book, Sum, Forty Tales from the Aferlives. Eagleman’s collection of 40 totally unrelated stories about what the author imagines might happen in the afterlife explores numerous possibilities, all of them the beneficiary of Eagleman’s rich and wild imagination.

A part-time writer/full-time neuroscientist, Eagleman spends most of his time in a lab conducting research. He took seven years to write 70 stories about what might happen when we expire, then carefully reduced the total to 40 and published his book. To his surprise, it has taken off.  Time magazine has raved about it.  Brian Eno has composed an opera.  And Eagleman has now done readings all over the world.

I can’t say that this book has much to do with either marketing or social media. But it does have an awful lot to do with creativity.

Creativity is looking at the same world or subject or problem that we’ve all looked at for ages and finding a totally new and interesting way to present it, make people think about it, or simply get them  to pay attention.

Until Eagleman, I hadn’t thought much about the afterlife in quite a while. Nor had I thought much about God or religion. But he got me to do so. How? By doing what any great creative person needs to do, whether they’re an artist, writer or photographer: he showed me something familiar in a way I’d never looked at it before. Or in this case, read me something I haven’t heard.

My favorite of his readings, was Sum, the first chapter of the book, which imagines this:

In the afterlife you relive all your experiences, but shuffled into a new order; all the moments that share a quality are grouped together.

You spend two months driving the street in front of your house, seven months having sex.  You sleep for thirty years without opening your eyes.  For five months straight you flip through magazines while sitting on a toilet.

You take all your pain at once, all twenty-seven intense hours of it.  Bones break, cars crash, skin is cut, babies born.  Once you make it through, it’s agony free for the rest of your life.

It gets better. Strongly suggest you read it if you haven’t already.  And consider becoming a Possibilian.  Join those who, according to Eagleman, “celebrate the vastness of our ignorance, are unwilling to commit to any particular made-up story, and take pleasure in entertaining multiple hypotheses.”

The concept aligns perfectly with the digital age.  As Eagleman says, “We can’t possibly know enough to be either religious or atheist.” I would add that when it comes to everything going on right now, we can’t possibly know (at least all the time) whether we’re right or wrong or whether it will succeed or fail. That’s why we keep experimenting.