Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder

28 Nov 2001, 23:57 p.m.

I took a break from writing my paper -- at…

Hi, reader. I wrote this in 2001 and it's now more than five years old. So it may be very out of date; the world, and I, have changed a lot since I wrote it! I'm keeping this up for historical archive purposes, but the me of today may 100% disagree with what I said then. I rarely edit posts after publishing them, but if I do, I usually leave a note in italics to mark the edit and the reason. If this post is particularly offensive or breaches someone's privacy, please contact me.

I took a break from writing my paper -- at this rate it'll be done in May or so -- to try to finish off my thoughts on something that happened today.

I gave in a bit to temptation this evening. On my way home, I stopped at Barnes & Noble's. I could rationalize it as "waiting for the rain to stop," but that's not why. I saw in the B&N window an ad: Scott Adams, of Dilbert fame, will speak about his new book (God's Debris: A Thought Experiment) on 6 December at the Berkeley Barnes & Noble's at Shattuck and Durant. So I stopped in and found the book and skimmed it all the way through. It took me about thirty minutes to read about a hundred pages. I found it useful, but not terrific.

Adams uses the hoary old Socratic-dialogue framing device, which creates some problems. First, our protagonist-questioner doesn't ask some questions or make some counterarguments that I'd like, and the maddening "all-knowing wisdom" of the Old Man goes unquestioned. But -- second -- Adams can deflect criticism of the flawed arguments that his characters make, saying that the book is only a work of fiction, not a philosophical tract and not necessarily representative of his own thoughts.

In addition, Adams can hide behind his subtitle, excusing himself with "it's only a thought-experiment." A thought experiment should contain provocative, well-thought-out questions. God's Debris certainly contains some of those, but there's very little there that strikes me as new. Free will, God, yawn. Adams entertains with his writing style, and makes the questions more palatable for a mainstream audience, but I've asked myself these questions already, so they don't shock me.

In the first third or so, Adams -- excuse me, the Old Man -- tears down the naive reader's worldview. In the second part, he builds an elaborate and (to me) questionable cosmology involving God and probability. In the third, he gives the questioner advice on how to live happily.

The third part is the best.

I found the advice generally useful (except for the "inherent gender differences" parts), so certainly one wonders whether that implies that its basis is valid. Well, even a stopped clock is right twice a day, which is just another way of saying "be careful of reckless correlation." One does not need to believe the advice-giver's philosophy to recognize good advice. Recognize the probable and act accordingly, the Old Man says, and I agree. As a final note, I must remark upon the Scott Adams media empire and how its existence colors my view of any artifact emerging from it. Mr. Adams has Big Ideas and spreads them quite effectively via his books, e-mail list, comic strips, and other media. I urge caution of Scott Adams's unabashed memery. I sense some large, frightening plan in the offing, and I would rather not be one of his minions.