Scott Adams (of Dilbert fame) has released as a free e-book God’s Debris, a short fray into religion and philosophy. I’ve read several of Scott Adam’s books before. Most of these have been comic books – compilations of Dilbert strips. Others have been his interesting, satirical books on office life and tongue-in-cheek guides to survival in cube farms. God’s Debris is somewhat different. It is a work of fiction which centres on the conversation between two individuals with, at least to begin with, radically different views on the nature of God and the universe. The elder of the two, the self-defined “Avatar”, talks little of his beliefs, instead choosing to speak widely and knowledgeably of facts he is privy to: facts based on assumed premises such as free will and, in a roundabout way, creationism. The younger – the protagonist and a blatant representation of “the majority” – is a non-commital monotheist who has neglected to put more than a modicum of thought into his beliefs. Like most of the monotheists I know, I guess. And, sadly, many of the atheists. The two talk about the nature of the universe through a series of short, well-written chapters, loaded with comprehensive analogies but with a significant amount of “thinker material” if the reader cares to delve deeper. The book is designed as a thought experiment, and has moderate success. Spoiler Warning – what follows is a discussion about some of the significant points of the book – if you’re going to read it (it doesn’t take long: I read the whole thing in just over an hour) then go read it and come back here later. Or to jump to the conclusion of my micro-review, scroll down until you reach the “end of spoilers” section. I’ve had a closer look at the chapters of the book:
- Introduction (Introduction, The Package, The Old Man) – the story is set-up well, quite obviously as a work of fiction. Several mentions are made to thought processes of the individual and behaviour in accordance with society’s rules, which will be referenced later. The writing style of the introductory chapters, like the rest of the book, is charming and welcoming, and approachable on many different levels. The deliveryman and the Avatar – the two characters in the story – are introduced, and the latter is done so with an air of mystery which I feel is possibly unbefitting of the status (“level 5”) he later declares. Probability, which forms a major part of the story and of the Avatar’s beliefs, is introduced through a coin-flip metaphor, but, again, the level of mystery and suspense induced is perhaps too much for a small, easy-reading volume such as this one.
- Free Will and Determinism in Omnipotence (Your Free Will, God’s Free Will, Science, Where Is Free Will Located?) – The concept of free will is introduced; that is, that a thinking organism can have control over it’s own activities, and the discussion turns to that of determinism: if there is a single entity in the universe which truly knows everything, including the future, then there is no free will for any entity, but there can be an illusion of free will. As a determinist, I have no problem with this statement, which is presented as being bold and world-changing, however Adams seems to try to present it as something shocking; perhaps to cater to readers who may not have entirely followed the free will vs. determinism thought train through. However, the characters then go on to dismiss the idea of universal determinism, without further discussion, which left me feeling somewhat cheated. Thankfully I carried on reading regardless, drawn on by the excellent writing style, because (as you’ll see below) I found the book very enjoyable despite the fact that the author seems almost to expect that the reader will agree with him on basic premises like the existence of free will. These chapters go on to discuss God, the soul, etc. in a way that, for a moment, made me fear that the novel was going to continue to use these “woolly” terms to avoid having to talk about any real philosophical, moral, or religious issues at all! However, I was proven to be, again thankfully, mistaken…
- Facets of Belief, and Religious Incompatibility (Genuine Belief, Road Maps, Delusion Generator) – The Avatar and the deliveryman go on to discuss the value of religion and where it comes from (again, of course, in the belief set of the Avatar), in what turns out to be a well thought-out couple of chapters. Analogies are drawn which let the reader begin to think about religious teachings and their place in our world, which are referenced wonderfully by the later chapter Curious Bees. Several well-written chapters. The nature of abstraction and the need for mental models through which to understand the world is touched upon, although not in a terribly detailed manner.
- Understanding God, and The Avatar’s Beliefs (Reincarnation, UFOs, and God, God’s Motivation, God’s Debris, God’s Consciousness, Physics of God Dust) – At long last, the Avatar goes in to detail about the nature of the universe as he understands it: that there is/was (the temporal difference is subtle) an omnipotent God, and the only possible thing that an all-knowing, all-seeing, all-powerful God could be motivated to do is to bring about It’s own destruction (Adams repeatedly uses “He” when referring to God, which irks me slightly, but not enough to count against his book). The Avatar’s reasoning is this: that for such an entity, any other course of action or inaction is entirely pointless, as there is no motivation to do so. There is no motivation to do so because all possible other states can be conceived already, and, through their conception, they exist (that they exist as “thoughts” is irrelevant, because the perception of the universe as we experience it can not be demonstrated to be more than a thought belonging to some deity with a wandering mind). As a result, the Avatar reasons, the only experience different to universal omnipotence for a universally omnipotent entity is to cause Itself to become something that is not omnipotent: the Avatar believes that this is what the universe is – the remains of a God that destroyed itself.This line of reasoning doesn’t sit well with me. Wouldn’t an entity with ultimate power and knowledge in an (obviously) determinist reality equally be able to appreciate the results of even such an operation? And if not, It has demonstrated Itself to be subject to rules such as “existence”. As I see it, if there is an omnipotent entity, It has a form which resides outside of the rules of existence, which leads us back to the original conundrum that It would not be motivated to do anything at all, and it would be entirely undetectable in any form anyway. I’m far more comfortable believing in one of two God scenarios. The first is, as hinted above, of an omnipotent God of which the universe as we understand it is a fleeting figment of It’s perception. The second is of a non-omnipotent God, of the type that most theists seem to believe in (even if they think they don’t). A non-omnipotent, or, shall we say, flawed, God could have a great deal of motivation to do anything, including “working in mysterious ways”, creating a universe, talking to mortals, etc. As Adams says, it is an imperfect existence that causes motivation to act. And in every religious text I’ve read, the descriptions of God point to a belief in a non-perfect deity. In any case, I’m babbling, and the conflict between my beliefs and that of the Avatar do not make the story any less good. But from this point on, it’s important to realise that the majority of my interest in the book came from the same source as my interest in other people’s beliefs in general: that I’m fascinated by religion and belief systems.
- Free Will Revisited (Free Will of a Penny) – Now within the context of the Avatar’s viewpoint, we revisit the idea of free will, and apply the idea that the probability in the universe (alongside matter/energy, part of the remnants/being of God) is universal in scope, and that it is as valid to say that humans have free will as it is to say that a penny has free will to determine what side it lands on when it is tossed. The analogy is perhaps un-necessary, but, like some earlier examples, it would illustrate the author’s point in a way that is approachable to anybody.Surprisingly, these ideas are not put forward with the “shock value” that it felt some of the earlier ideas were supposed to: the writing style is changed in order to present the information more fluidly. I, for one, found this more readable, but I’m interested to hear how other readers found it – presumably we’re supposed to face the revelations of the previous chapters as facts for the purposes of understanding these ones. Which is fine.
- Evolution, Skepticism, And ESP (Evolution, Skeptics’ Disease, ESP and Luck, ESP and Pattern Recognition) – What follows are the best-written chapters in the book. The Avatar and the deliveryman discuss skepticism and how inexplicable phenomena – such as extra-sensory perception (ESP) – fit in to the Avatar’s model of the universe. Some wide and varied explanations tease the reader with ideas that invite further thought and comment. ESP is described as the result of probability on the mind, or perhaps as the acute perception of forces elsewhere. Having already discussed gravity and magnetism, earlier, we are reminded that every thought is characterised by physical transformations in the brain – chemicals, electrical impulses, matter changes – which, of course, exert fields such as gravity into the universe. As a result, like it or not, thoughts do travel through the air, although this isn’t in a form that might be recognisable as a thought.
- Light (Light) – A quick examination and hurried explanation of the more confusing points of general relativity follows. Those of a physics disposition or even a physics interest may find this a little patronising, but a point is made at the end, by way of excessive analogy. One is left wondering to what degree Adams – or, at least, his fictional Avatar character – understands some of the more interesting properties of light (such as that it is affected by gravity, or that it’s speed is not necessarily constant), and this casts a shadow of doubt across other things he’s stated as fact. Nonetheless, an interesting chapter.
- Curious Bees (Curious Bees) – Using a great analogy involving bees looking through the different colours of stained glass window of a church, the Avatar talks about the nature of religion. Superficially, the chapter is similar to Road Maps, but goes into greater detail about the Avatar’s belief in the necessity of human models by which to understand the world. It’s also a lovely bit of writing.
- Willpower (Willpower) – A further examination of free will and relativity, this time from the perspective of humans. Issues of the subjectivity of morality are hinted at, but not at a level that would excite a philosopher. The chapter uses some interesting metaphors, but if you’ve read books on philosophical morality before, you won’t find anything new here.
- Prelude To The War (Holy Lands and Fighting God) – The Avatar incites a discussion with the deliveryman about the nature of religious artefacts and their irrelevance, and hints at the purpose of an Avatar – to facilitate improved communication between intelligent individual entities in order to get closer to the state of understanding of the God from which all probability originally came. It is implied that the Avatar believes this to be “the great plan” of where the universe is headed, and it makes fascinating reading, despite my inability to facilitate his beliefs. Later, it is implied that there is to be an important war, fuelled by religion, and I’m left wondering why Adams didn’t take the obvious opportunity to make reference to this idea before, during – for example – Curious Bees. Or maybe he did and I just didn’t notice.
- Relationships (Relationships) – The Avatar dispenses some general advice on living life in a way that improves the value of the lives of others, and, by proxy, yourself. This doesn’t really feel like it belongs in this book, but is good reading nonetheless, particularly if you’ve had any formal training in skills like active listening.
- Affirmations (Affirmations) – In another ‘aside’, the value of human thought and determination is explored. This ties in more closely with the rest of the story than Relationships did, talking again about ideas of probability and of noticing the results you want to notice (the same kinds of phenomena that cause superstitions to be reinforced). Good reading, but, like Relationships, you’re not sure why.
- Fifth Level (Fifth Level) – In a slightly pompous way that feels unbefitting of it’s own definition, the Avatar declares himself to have reached the fifth level of consciousness, the level at which God’s nature can begin to be understood. In order to try to alleviate the tension caused by this revelation, the Avatar explains the importance of other levels, with particular reference to the most influential political and religious leaders, who are typically of lower levels (as it is valuable for them to be able to close their minds to particular outside ideas). The whole chapter’s a little woolly around the edges, but prepares the reader well for the final revelations.
- The Religious War (Going Home, After The War) – It is implied that in the years that follow there is a great religious war of the kind alluded to by the old Avatar. Now the former deliveryman is the new Avatar, and he himself is old, having survived the religious war (who’s build-up is described, over several chapters, in terms that are chilling when explored in reference to the political climate of today’s real world). It’s suggested that the Avatar is responsible for ensuring that the war ends peacefully, as part of a longer-running plan to reunite the many distributed facets of humanity into the “great plan” of a re-assembled God, but other suggestions are hinted at, too.
End of spoilers – if you skipped the bit above, it’s safe to start reading again here. The book is an interesting one, with some well-presented ideas (behind a little bit too much woolly thinking). I’d have no problem with recommending it to anybody with an interest in religion, or to anybody who needs their theism or atheism challenged. However, if you’ve explored an interest in philosophy or religion before, you’re unlikely to find much that is new or that can excite you in this book, except for the story it wraps inside it. The book takes a very direct route to it’s destination without exploring any of the alternative beliefs: for example, I disagreed entirely with one of the earlier premises, but the story as told by the protagonists left no room for dispute, and just pushed onwards towards it’s inevitable conclusion. This made little difference to me: I was reading it because I enjoy trying to understand the beliefs of other people – even fictional ones – but I can see how it could infuriate people who don’t expect their beliefs to be dismissed at the drop of a hat. On the other hand, it’ll only take you a few hours (at a maximum) to read it, and it’s free, so go download God’s Debris and make an afternoon of it. I’ll be delighted to discuss in finer detail the book with anybody who’s read it.