19 November 2005

God’s Debris, by Scott Adams

There’s a couple of things I’d like to note about the book. When I was doing philosophy at university, I wrote an essay in the form of a dialogue about Wittgenstein in a pub playing chess with a guy called Frank (because, well, he was frank *groan*). I’m mentioning it here because of the comment I got back from the assessor, which was something like: ‘Pretty good for this sort of thing, but there's always a Wittgenstein and always a Frank.’ What he meant was that there is always a great thinker who teaches a ‘normal’ guy in this kind of dialogue, and the real philosophical classics which use this form square off two equals, both of whom have good answers to the good arguments of the others (precisely what Scott said the Intelligent Design vs. evolution debate didn't have.) In the kind of dialogue which has a Wittgenstein and a Frank, or an Avatar (the Old Man) and the Courier (as in God's Debris), what you end up with one character proselytising, and the other fumbling for words in an attempt to reconcile the new teaching with what they experience in everyday life. The result is that the Frank figure ends up with their world-view being changed, but only because they were unable to see the wool being pulled over their eyes, or were unequipped to deal with the assault even if aware of it. Now, put a Wittgenstein in a room with Avatar, and we'd have a very different dialogue.

Ultimately, I can’t say whether God's Debris is in this sense a flawed dialogue, or whether that is precisely Scott’s point: that we encounter people like Avatar all the time - politicians, scientists, journalists, priests, anyone who tries to convince us of anything - and they are constantly pulling the wool over our eyes. The Wittgenstein/Avatar debate rarely happens, because Wittgenstein wouldn’t bother, and so all we have are conflicting wool-pullers trying to shout the loudest, and the rest of us simply try to work out whose mast we are going to pin our colours to. Even my talk of Wittgenstein falls into this trap, as I’m setting him up as a ideal of sceptical rationality - but he’s still a teacher.

I’m just streaming thoughts now. ‘Avatar’, my dictionary says, had two main meanings: 1) a manifestation of a deity or released soul in bodily form on earth - an incarnate divine teacher; and 2) an incarnation, embodiment, or manifestation of a person or idea. My guess is that Scott intends the second: that this Old Man is the embodiment of the idea that the wool is constantly being pulled over our eyes by people who seem to have an answer for everything, but actually say nothing.

How many people are aware of Popper’s falsification theory? The idea is that any scientific proposition must be testable, and indeed, the proper aim of science is to strive to falsify current theories, because no matter how much evidence you amass in support of a theory, just one iota of contradictory evidence will relegate it to the scrap-heap of history. Popper isn't talking science as such, but philosophy of science, or about the scientific attitude, if you will. And what was striking in the ID/evolution discussion on Scott’s blog was that the evolutionists would brook no challenge, merely amassing evidence upon evidence, which is scientifically irrelevant (and now I will be accused of being an ID supporter and an armchair philosopher). Yet we’re all familiar with the legal concept of ‘beyond all reasonable doubt’ - that although there may be enough evidence to convict someone, such a conviction in no way represents The Truth, and should other evidence come to light at a later date the ruling may be overturned. So why is it that science (by which I mean the ID/evolution debate specifically, although it goes further than that, I’m sure), which historically championed knowledge over belief, has forgotten the principles on which it should be based and reverted to a form of belief? - Why? Because we’re all humans.

I mention Popper’s theory because the Introduction to God’s Debris reminded me of it: Scott warns the reader to be sceptical and try and work out what's wrong with what Avatar says. If you meet someone who seems to have a simple answer for everything, the only healthy response is to try and find out what is wrong with it. However, that isn’t a thought experiment, but a puzzle: we’re warned by the author that much of what Avatar says isn’t true, that it is simplistic, and we should be on our guard. A thought experiment would rather be, for example, to see how may readers would get to that point without being told to do so, or better still, how many readers, despite being forewarned, would still have their world-view radicalised. My guess is that this is the thought experiment, or rather, experiment in thought: will you like it, love it, hate it, analyse it, contradict it, absorb it; will it change your life, make you start a new religion, challenge your preconceptions, or convince you that Scott Adams is utterly vacuous and writes things he knows nothing about? The experiment is on us, as far as I can see, and another guess I’m willing to make is that this is the main reason why Scott made this e-book free: to find out how the experiment is going, by getting all of us to email him feedback and make posts on his blog. Just a guess, mind you, since I’m also quite willing to take Scott at his word when he says, ‘You won’t discover my opinions by reading my fiction.’ That should be obvious, but how many people will think that the rest of God’s Debris is actually What Scott Thinks and that this disclaimer is in fact the only lie in the book?

An interesting and provocative read, then, which I’m not going to claim that I understand the motives behind. But even if I met Scott in a pub and he told me what it was about, I’m still not sure I’d believe him ;-)

I know this post has turned into a bit of a rant, but I wanted to make another (semantic) point: the word ‘omnipotent’ is frequently misused in God’s Debris to mean ‘omniscient’, and maybe also ‘omnipresent’. ‘Omnipotent’ means all-powerful, ‘omniscient’ means all-knowing and ‘omnipresent’ means ‘in all places and times’. Much of the discussion at the start of the book is about God being omnipotent and therefore knowing everything, i.e. being omniscient. It is very easy to imagine a being who knew everything but was powerless to act, and also one which was all powerful but did not know the future, the past, or even the present - problem of God’s Free Will solved! Generally, God is said to be all three, but any one does not necessarily entail the others. Whether this confusion is intentional (as in, intended to confuse the Courier and/or the reader) or erroneous, I can’t say. But I quite like the idea of an amnesiac God.

Incidentally, I’m well aware of the innuendo in the third paragraph above ;-)

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