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Book review: "Sum" by neuroscientist David Eagleman

Posted Mar 31 2010 12:00am
I just read the book Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlife by David Eagleman, and what an enlightening read it was. Eagleman, a neuroscientist at Baylor College of Medicine, is known for his work on time perception, synesthesia and neurolaw. His literary career is also well underway, as Sum has achieved bestseller status and received many awards. Eagleman has shown in this book that brain science has much to offer to literature, and I hope to see more neuroscientists dabble in works of fiction in the future.

Sum, categorized as “speculative fiction,” is a series of short stories that takes the reader on a journey through possible circumstances that can arise in the afterlife. Most of these possibilities are not even remotely close to what people typically consider when pondering about the afterlife.

Combining scientific knowledge with creativity and an inventive imagination, Eagleman suggests that in the afterlife you could find yourself learning that all possibilities exist at once, and you can live multiple lives in parallel. Or you could end up existing in a place much like Earth, but only the people you remember exist with you. Sum is as witty and comedic as it is creative. The book can be seen as a collection of forty poems, a set of forty essays, or forty premises for sci-fi films.

Eagleman has created an original piece of work that deals with questions that we all face. This is probably why the book has been so successful. The book was named one of the Best Books of the Year by Barnes and Nobles in 2009. Despite some its controversial ideas, the book has been acclaimed by both atheists and religious groups.

In relation to Sum, Eagleman has defined a new philosophy he calls Possibilianism , a topic he is currently writing about for a new book. In an interview with the New York Times , he offered the following explanation for Possibilianism
“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.”

Are you a possibilian?
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