Thursday, January 11, 2007

Reading :: God's Debris

God's Debris
by Scott Adams

Imagine that you're eighteen and in your first semester at the University of X. You've made some fast friends in your dorm, and one night, after watching the midnight film in the student union and drinking too much Mountain Dew, you hang out and talk philosophy. You warm up over head-scratchers such as "If God is all-powerful, can He create a weight so heavy He can't lift it?" Whoa. Talk about expanding your consciousness.

God's Debris is like one of those late-night bull sessions that seem so profound when you're eighteen and so embarassing when you're thirty-five. Scott Adams, best known for his Dilbert comic strip, cops to this in the introduction, sort of:
The target audience of God's Debris is people who enjoy having their brains spun around inside their skulls. After a certain age most people are uncomfortable with new ideas. That certain age varies by person, but if you're over fifty-five (mentally), you probably won't enjoy this thought experiment. ... If you're twenty-three, your odds of liking it are very good. (pp.ix-x)

The book is designed as a dialogue, exactly like those dorm room dialogues, but between a delivery driver and a mysterious old man who discuss the nature of God, reality, and so forth. And it works exactly like those bull sessions, which is to say that it draws its apparent power by oscillating between absolute and relative statements to create the illusion of profundity. For instance, the main character argues that
words such as dimension and field and infinity are nothing more than conveniences for mathematicians and scientists. They are not descriptions of reality, yet we accept them as such because everyone is sure someone else knows what the words mean. (p.21)

But earlier the character intones that "'only probability is inexplicable'," and he uses probability as the uncontested, absolute bedrock for most of the rest of the discussion, as if probability is not an abstraction or "convenience" in the same way that the other concepts are. The dialogue is littered with examples like this one. For instance, after claiming that human beings are not equipped to understand God or judge His motivations, the character confidently claims that the only challenge that could interest God would be destroying Himself. (This notion gives the book its title.)

Reading the book and tracking its claims is like trying to get rid of that bump in the carpet: Adams pushes down on one spot, and it goes flat, but the bump appears somewhere else. It is this rapid circulation -- this process of taking one abstraction as a bedrock truth in order to challenge other abstractions -- that gives the dialogue an appearance of motion when there actually is none. Stances such as solipsism and logical positivism are tried on when convenient and abandoned just as quickly. So Adams' target audience -- "people who enjoy having their brains spun around inside their skulls" -- should be fairly happy with the circular motion of the book's argument.

I don't think I'm giving anything away by noting that the book essentially concludes that the geek will inherit the earth -- the introvert who is more interested in ideas than people, the skeptic who enjoys abstract logic puzzles, the person who has to be given basic lessons in human interaction (pp.105-121). That's hardly surprising for anyone who has read Dilbert. But part of the charm of Dilbert is that the character is self-effacing and put-upon by the world's vagaries. That self-effacement is gone here. Imagine Dilbert as Plato and you'll get the thrust of this book.

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