God’s Debris

Let’s discuss Scott Adam’s novella God’s Debris

A few years back, I downloaded an e-book in PDF form. Scott Adams, of Dilbert fame, wrote it, and encouraged people to download it for free (or buy it in physical form) and discuss it.

I’m late to the party, but I finally got around to reading it. It’s called God’s Debris and it does make for an interesting read.

“I think I’d know it if we were part of an omnipotent being,” I said.
“Would you? Your skin cells are not aware that they are part of a human being. Skin cells are not equipped for that knowledge. They are equipped to do what they do and nothing more. Likewise, if we humans—and all the plants and animals and dirt and rocks—were components of God, would we have the capacity to know it?”

Why don’t you download it and discuss it with me? Again, Mr. Adams encourages you to do so. It’s not stealing, really, no matter what the RIAA would like you to believe!

Discussion

If you haven’t read God’s Debris, please do so before reading the following. Below are my contributions to the discussion about the novel. Yours can appear here too – just email me!


Adams prefaces his work by asking us to find problems with his “simple explanations.”

I’m not so sure about a lot of it, but I can confidently point out what’s wrong with the following passage, intended to disprove evolution:

“And how does the first member of a new species find someone to breed with? Being a new species means you can no longer breed with the members of your parents’ species.”

Easy! (First, recall a species is generally defined as a group of individuals which can interbreed, or more precisely, pass genes to each other.) Here’s an example. One species of gopher interbreeds, but covers a wide geographical spread. One softly defined group, which we’ll call the “north gophers,” undergo a small mutation, which started with one individual but was not enough to prevent interbreeding. The mutation becomes very popular in the north gophers, as it confers a competitive advantage to the gophers in the northern region. Some “south gophers” interbreed with the north gophers, and this is fine. Then another mutation in, say, the north gophers appears. Individuals with the first and second mutation are now capable of breeding with those with just the first, but not with indiduals lacking both mutations – such as, eventually, the entire population of south gophers. Voilà, two gopher species.

Note that if enough southern gophers have the first mutation from breeding with northern gophers, we technically still have one species, as additional genes gained by twice-mutated north gophers could be passed to one-mutation gophers and then to no-mutation south gophers. It’s a fuzzy line, and we assume for the purposes of this example that at some point such very few one-mutation gophers exist, we declare there to be two distinct species. After all, if both mutations benefit north gophers, then north gophers without one or both mutations will be outcompeted.

Thanks, Mr. Chapman, for teaching me biology so well. (Yes, some of us listened to your lectures, and loved them.)


“Then you think luck is the same as ESP?” I asked.

“I’m saying the results are indistinguishable.”

That quick exchange (p. 89) definitely called to mind Arthur C. Clarke’s famous observation, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” The two statements discuss very different topics and do not seem at all analogous at first. It would seem they only share the word “indistinguishable.” Yet a closer examination would reveal they make similar points: It doesn’t matter whether we call an apparent skill “ESP” or “luck” if the end result is the same, and to those who don’t understand it, technology could work by circuits, gears, or black magic and it wouldn’t matter to us from a practicle standpoint.

Of course, Clarke’s observation does not imply that knowing how the technology works is useless, but for Adams’ character, it seems not to matter what causes the appearance of ESP.


“Photons have no mass, the scientists tell us. That is another way to say they do not exist except as a concept.”

My understanding of photons is not as strong as I’d like it to be, but don’t they have an extremely small but nonzero mass? Otherwise, why can’t light escape a black hole’s event horizon? Why is light bent by gravity? Perhaps I misunderstood my physics readings, but that would imply photons have mass, right, unless they were simply following Einstein’s warped space?

Additionally, haven’t famous experiments like the “double slit” experiment dealt more or less directly with photons?


The section on holy land is probably one of the least debatable and one of my favorite parts of the novella.

“What makes a holy land holy?” he asked.

“Well, usually it’s because some important religious event took place there.”

“What does it mean to say that something took place in a particular location when we know that the earth is constantly in motion, rotating on its axis and orbiting the sun? And we’re in a moving galaxy that is part of an expanding universe. Even if you had a spaceship and could fly anywhere, you can never return to the location of a past event. There would be no equivalent of the past location because location depends on your distance from other objects, and all objects in the universe would have moved considerably by then.”

“While we speak, nations are arming themselves to fight for control of lands they consider holy. They are trapped in the delusion that locations are real things, not just fictions of the mind. Many will die.”

There is, you recall, more of this conversation than I reprinted here, but that’s the gist of it: Holy land is an inane concept. Perhaps it’s the skeptic in me, but I don’t think Adams’ character has it wrong at all.

I’m barely going to say it, lest I bore you with the obvious — but if only the Middle East saw things the way Scott Adams does and stopped killing for holy land!


I find it extremely interesting to note that Adams used the framework laid out in his novella, that of a dead God trying to reassemble himself as infinitesimal bits of probability, to define a framework for good and evil. One of my pet peeves is when people argue a traditional God and religion, in which God commands us to follow His laws, is necessary for a system of morality. Such a view ignores the many other ways to construct such a dichotomy, such as the popular “best for society” model, or Adams’ more original take on it.


“Women believe that men are, in a sense, defective versions of women.”

“Men can be molded in small ways—clothing and haircuts and manners—because those things are not important to most men. Women can’t be changed at all.”

I love how the genius in the story says this. Adams must’ve thought that was pretty funny.


“Most people believe they have goals when, in fact, they only have wishes.”

Wow.

This part was talking about how repeating your goals can actually make them come true, not by any supernatural or mystical means, but self-actualization and a willingness to change (move, etc.) in order to attain those goals. The quote is pretty impressive, though, because it reminds us that our goals are not achieved idly!


What did you think of the last chapter? It was a shameless plug for the sequel, the Religion War. I suppose I’m interested, though, as I’m curious how the Religion War unfolds. We’ll see if I get around to reading it.


Please send me your comments and reactions to Adam’s work and my own commentary!


March 2nd, 2008
Alan Hogan (@alanhogan).  Contact · About