Ryan's Reviews > God's Debris : A Thought Experiment

God's Debris  by Scott Adams
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Feb 20, 08

bookshelves: philosophy-history, religion-theology, own
Read in November, 2004

** spoiler alert ** My notes and quotes:

“There is more information in one thimble of reality than can be understood by a galaxy of human brains. It is beyond the human brain to understand the world and its environment, so the brain compensates by creating simplified illusions that act as a replacement for understanding. When the illusions work well and the human who subscribes to the illusion survives, those illusions are passed to new generations.
-“The human brain is a delusion generator. The delusions are fueled by arrogance – the arrogance that humans are the center of the world, that we alone are endowed with the magical properties of souls and morality and free will and love. We presume that an omnipotent God has a unique interest in our progress and activities while providing all the rest of creation for our playground. We believe that God – because he thinks the same way we do – must be more interested in our lives than in the rocks and trees and plants and animals.” (p. 34).

“Practicality rules our perceptions. To survive, our tiny brains need to tame the blizzard of information that threatens to overwhelm us. Our perceptions are wondrously flexible, transforming our worldview automatically and continuously until we find safe harbor in a comfortable delusion.” (p. 36).

“Let’s get back to evolution,” I said. “With all your talk about God, do you think he caused evolution? Or did it all happen in a few thousand years like the creationists believe?”
The theory of evolution is not so much wrong as it is incomplete and useless.”
“How can you say it’s useless?”
“The theory of evolution leads to no practical invention. It is a concept that has no application.”
“Yeah, I hear what you’re saying,” I said. “But you have to agree that the fossil evidence of earlier species is pretty compelling. There’s an obvious change over time from the earlier creatures to the newer ones. How can you ignore that?”
“Imagine that an asteroid lands on Earth and brings with it an exotic bacteria that kills all organic matter on Earth and then dissolves without a trace. A million years later, intelligent aliens discover Earth and study our bones and our possessions, trying to piece together our history. They might notice that all of our cookware – the pots and pans and plates and bowls – all seemed to be related somehow. And the older ones were quite different from the newer ones. The earliest among them were crude bowls, all somewhat similar, generally made of clay or stone. Over time, the bowls evolved into plates and coffee cups and stainless-steel frying pans.
“The aliens would create compelling charts showing how the dishes evolved. The teacup family would look like its own species, related closely to the beer mug and the water glass. An observer who looked at the charts would clearly see a pattern that could not be coincidence. The cause of this dishware evolution would be debated, just as we debate the underlying cause of human evolution, but the observed fact of dishware evolution would not be challenged by the alien scientists. The facts would be clear. Some scientists would be bothered by the lack of intermediate dishware species – say, a frying pan with a beer mug handle – but they would assume it to exist somewhere undiscovered.”
“That might be the worst analogy ever made,” I said. “You’re comparing people to dishes.”
The old man laughed out loud for the first time since we began talking. He was genuinely amused.
“It’s not an analogy,” he said with a twinkle in his eye. “It’s a point of view. Evolution is compelling not because of the quality of the evidence but because of the quantity and variety of it. The aliens would have the same dilemma. There would be so much evidence for their theory of dishware evolution that opponents would be mocked. The alien scientists would theorize that forks evolved from spoons, which evolved from knives. Pots evolved from bowls. Dinner plates evolved from cutting boards. The sheer quantity and variety of the data would be overwhelming. Eventually they would sop calling it a theory and consider it a fact. Only a lunatic could publicly doubt the mountain of evidence.”
“There’s a big difference between dishes and animals,” I said. “With dishes, there’s no way they can evolve. Logic would tell the aliens that there was no way that a nonliving dish could produce offspring, much less mutant offspring.”
“That’s not exactly true,” he countered. “It could be said that the dishes used human beings in a symbiotic relationship, convincing us through their usefulness to make new dishes. In that way these dishes succeeded in reproducing and evolving. Every species takes advantage of other living things to ensure its survival. That is the normal way living things reproduce.
You believe, without foundation, that the alien scientists would see a distinction between the living creatures and the nonliving dishes, and classify the dishes as mere tools. But that is a human-centric view of the world. Humans believe that organic things are more important than inorganic things because we are organic. The aliens would have no such bias. To them, the dishes would look like a hardy species that found a way to evolve and reproduce and thrive despite having no organic parts.”
“But the dishes have no personalities, no thoughts or emotions or desires,” I said.
“Neither does a clam.”
“The why do people say they’re happy as a clam?” I joked. He ignored me.
“Does it strike you as odd that there isn’t more evidence today of the mutations that drive evolution?” he asked.
“Like what?”
“Shouldn’t we be seeing in today’s living creatures the preview of the next million years of evolution? Where are the two-headed humans who will become overlords of the one-headed people, the fish with unidentified organs that will evolve to something useful over the next million years, the cats who are developing gills? We see some evidence of mutations today, but mostly trivial ones, not the sort of radical ones there must have been in the past, the sort that became precursors of brains, eyes, wings, and internal organs.
“And why does evolution seem to move in one direction, from simpler to more complex? Why aren’t there any higher life forms evolving into simpler, hardier creatures? If mutations happen randomly, you would expect evolution to work in both directions. But it only works in one, from simple to complex.”
He continued. “And why has the number of species on earth declined for the past million years? The rate of the formation of new species was once faster than the rate of extinction, but that has reversed. Why? Can it all be explained by meteors and human intervention?
“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. If mutations are the trigger for evolution, the mutations must happen regularly and in such similar ways that the mutants can find each other to breed. You would think we would notice more mutations if it happens that easily.”
“I have the same problem with religion,” I said. “It seemed like there were all sorts of miracles a long time ago but now we never see them. With evolution, it looks like most the mutating is petering out just when we get smart enough to study it. It does seem a bit suspicious, as if there was a point to it all and we’re nearing it.”
“Come back to the coin for a moment,” he beckoned. “If by chance you flip a balanced coin and it comes up heads a hundred times in a row, what is the probability that it will come up heads again on the next toss?”
“I know this one. The odds are fifty-fifty, even though it seems like the coin is overdue for a tails. It doesn’t make sense to me, but that’s what I learned in school.”
“That’s right,” he said. “Or to put it another way, the coin’s past has no impact on its future. There is no connection between the outcomes of the prior coin flips and the likelihood of the future ones.
“The rest of the universe is like the coin. The events of the past appear to cause the present, but every time we pop back into existence we are subject to a new set of probabilities. Literally anything can happen.”
He shifted in his chair and began again. “Every creature has a tiny probability of becoming a different species with each beat of the universe. A duck can be replaced in whole by a woodchuck. The odds of this happening are so small that it probably never has and never will happen, but it is not precluded by the nature of the universe. It is simply unlikely.
“A more likely result is that a creature’s DNA experiences a tiny variation because two bits of God-dust tried to reappear in the same location and had to make an adjustment. That adjustment set in motion a chain reaction of probabilities that affected the fate of the creature.
“When you flip the coin, it almost always lands either head or tails, even though it could possibly balance on its edge. If we did not have experience with flipping coins we might think coins regularly land and stay on their edges. The edge of a coin has perhaps ten percent as much surface area as either of its sides, so you might expect that coins come up ‘edge’ routinely.
“But probability avoids in-between conditions. It favors heads or tails. Evolution also avoids in-between conditions. Something in the nature of the God-dust made growing two eyes likely and growing two heads unlikely. More to the point, there is something about eyes that supports God’s inevitable reassembly.” (p. 72).

“If you are proven to be right a hundred times in a row, no amount of evidence will convince you that you are mistaken in the hundred-and-first case. You will be seduced by your own apparent infallibility. Remember that all scientific experiments are performed by human beings and the results are subject to human interpretation. The human mind is a delusion generator, no a window to truth. Everyone, including skeptics, will generate delusions that match their views. That is how a normal and healthy brain works. Skeptics are not exempt from self-delusion.”
“Skeptics know that human perceptions are faulty,” I argued. “That’s why they have a scientific process and they insist on repeating experiments to see if results are consistent. Their scientific method virtually eliminates subjectivity.”
“The scientific approach also makes people think and act in groups,” he countered. “They form skeptical societies and create skeptical publications. They breathe each other’s fumes and they demonize those who do not share their scientific methods. Because skeptics’ views are at odds with the majority of the world, they become emotionally and intellectually isolated. That sort of environment is a recipe for cult thinking and behavior. Skeptics are not exempt from normal human brain functions. It is a human tendency to become what you attack. Skeptics attack irrational thinkers and in the process become irrational.” (p. 74).

“What about sharing my opinions on important things?” I asked. “I’m always getting into debates with people. It seems like I always have a more thought-out view of things and I feel like I have a responsibility to set people straight. Sometimes, though, I wish I could just shut up. But when you hear the crazy views that some people have – actually, most people – how can you just let it slide?” (p. 109).

“Awareness is about unlearning. It is the recognition that you don’t know as much as you thought you knew.” (p. 124).

He explained, “The great leaders in this world are always the least rational among us. They exist at the second level of awareness. Charismatic leaders have a natural ability to bring people into their delusion. They convince people to act against self-interest and pursue the leaders’ visions of the greater good. Leaders make citizens go to war to seize land they will never live on and to kill people who have different religions.”
“Not all leaders are irrational,” I argued.
“The most effective ones are. You don’t often see math geniuses or logic professors become great leaders. Logic is a detriment to leadership.” (p. 127).
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