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God's Debris

God's Debris is a book which – according to its author – can only be described as a "thought experiment." It's fiction (in the sense that it involves fictional places, characters, and events), but it doesn't incorporate a narrative story – it's just a conversation about philosophy, told from the perspective of a regular guy talking to a wise and quizzical old man.

The author in this case is Scott Adams, whose daily comic strip Dilbert reveals his uniquely tilted view of life, but whose fascination with pondering the secrets of the universe had been largely hidden from view until he started his new Dilbert Blog. Recently he offered a PDF version of the book online for free, and considering the curiously thoughtful tone of his blog, it seemed at least worth the price.

Right away in the introduction, Adams warns his readers not to go further if they don't like having their beliefs challenged. It's hard to imagine people who have matured to adulthood but still absolutely can't stand the thought of having their beliefs contradicted by a book, even when presented with the clear evidence in our current political climate. But it's a good thing Adams included the cautionary introduction, because although I like to think of myself as open-minded, there were moments reading God's Debris when I had to remind myself to calm down and think of it as a thought experiment.

As an armchair philosopher, Adams likes to make a lot of his arguments by defining things. "If we take 'intelligence' to mean..." or "If we define God as..." – that sort of thing. In his blog, he's recently defined God as the universe and its physical laws; in God's Debris, the old man defines God as dust and probability. It's an interesting way to conceive of things (I've said before that I'd believe in a God defined roughly the way Adams does in his blog post) – with the benefit that the old man character can liberate his perspective from a human-centered view, and start pondering the history and purpose of the universe from alternative viewpoints. This sort of discussion could lead to some very interesting things, if you spent enough time unraveling the reasoning.

Unfortunately, Adams doesn't. The book skims mostly along the surface – clearly intended as a conversation starter, not a conclusive argument. It opens with some fascinating concepts about things most of us seldom think about: the nature of God, the purpose of the universe, the meaning of life. At times, it gets bogged down in strange details, and you have to sort of go with it, remembering that it's chiefly about the general viewpoint, not about any of the specific conclusions the characters draw. Then, toward the end, it becomes more about life lessons, and it loses its tantalizing charm. No longer is Adams presenting ways to conceptualize the universe: he's just discussing ways to organize your career goals.

But even though it wanders off course in places, it's a fascinating read and certainly worth more than the price of admission. For starting a conversation with friends and family about the way the universe works, it's a great tool. For a beginner's entry into the concepts of philosophy, I'd recommend The Simpsons and Philosophy first. It's a basic, readable primer (written by philosophy professors, not Simpsons writers) using the familiar characters of Springfield to illustrate philosophical schools of thought.

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