Coded gray.

Monday 13 March 2006

Winter landscape

Pic of the day: Well, obviously everything came into existence through an explosion. Including this entry.

Voluntary confusion

On this day, Monday the 13th of March, an online friend (who may or may not want to be anonymous for his own protection) sent me a link to a most unusual booklet. Freely available in PDF format (readable by the free Adobe Acrobat Reader) it is a short novel or long short-story, not particularly complex as such writings go. Written by Scott Adams of Dilbert fame, it is very much not a Dilbert story or a harmless funny story. It is not so much a story at all as a way to look at the world and everything in it. A deeply disturbing worldview, at that.

"God's Debris" is about a worker meeting an old man who questions everything he has held true, from religion to science. The more they talk, the more everything fall apart and a different pattern arises, in which religion and science are simply two different ways of looking at the same thing, and none of them is correct. The human brain is an illusion generator, and we pick our superstitions and substitions not based on factual correctness but on how well they function in our life and in society. Beliefs that make us happy and productive win over those that make us depressed or destructive, no matter which is more true.

In the end, it is revealed that humans exist at five levels of consciousness, of which skeptic is the fourth and next to highest. The main character, initially a skeptic, must choose whether to give up his comfortable worldview and advance to the final level.

The website contains stern warnings, and I concur. Don't let your kids read this. Not because it is smutty or evil, but because they have greater power to suspend disbelief. Disbelief is essential while reading the book. It is not meant to be true. The message of the old man is not the message of the author. His intent is to make you see whether you would be able to withstand such a coherent, tempting worldview and be able to pick it apart. At the same time, hopefully you will start to doubt your own existing worldview and modify it as you learn (or unlearn) more.

I found the book a pretty good read. It is on a level with some of my own most disturbing entries. You know that I sometimes write things that make people go hmm in the night. I like to shake up complacent people. To be honest I will probably not read the book again, because I don't need it. I already got it. But I recommend it for all skeptics. As a skeptic, you normally don't have further to go, right? You have already cut out the comforting illusions and only believe in what can be proved. Or that's what you think. If this can make you work on your own mind again, it is worth a try. Just don't let the kids at it, OK?


I disagree with the conclusion, though. I think we can all advance to higher levels of awareness, that is, lower levels of just swallowing what we're told. There are only three things that hold us back: Ignorance, stupidity and foolishness. These are three different problems and must be handled differently.

Ignorance is just a lack of information, and can be fixed just by being told. If you have grown up in some remote village and have no education, it may make perfect sense that the sun rises like a balloon in the morning and sinks down in the west; after all, you have seen it with your own eyes often enough. But once you have seen enough pictures taken by astronauts, it makes more sense that Earth is round and rotates. And so on with many things.

Stupidity is just a lack of brainpower. You have the pieces but you can't fit them together. It can be remedied by taking more time to think, or by thinking together with others. I am personally too stupid to understand quantum physics to any useful degree. I know plenty of the data, some of which seem counter-intuitive. Some of them make sense, but I could not do the maths if my life depended on it. Luckily it doesn't (though it may depend on Stephen Hawking doing his maths right ... if the Hawking radiation fails to show up, the first black hole made at the Large Hadron Collider will eat the Earth, presumably in 2007).

Foolishness is a different beast. It is the choice, consciously or subconsciously, to ignore facts and refuse help in order to continue doing what we want to do. I think we all have some of it, but it is also such a bad thing that Jesus warns: "But anyone who says, 'You fool!' will be in danger of the fire of hell." (Matthew 5.) This seems to imply that he took it very seriously, which makes sense if it really is a moral deficiency rather than bad circumstances.

And yet foolishness can be overcome, though I don't think others can do that to us. We have to give up our own illusions that we know everything so well and can't possibly be wrong. Humility is the core of wisdom. But humility is nothing more than a subset of realism. Reality is that we don't know a lot, don't understand even what we know, and often jump to the wrong conclusion. As Adams so fittingly lets the old man point out: Each generation thinks that they know almost the whole truth about the universe, but why would our generation be the one who gets it right?

Actually, over my lifetime our supposed knowledge of the universe has dwindled rapidly. By now, matter and energy as we know them are supposed to make up less than 5% of the universe, which is being blown apart by some force stronger than gravity but totally unknown to us. The speed of light seems to have varied slightly over time. Quantum mechanics and relativity, the two theories that best describe the known universe, are in direct conflict. The most popular attempt to reconcile them (superstring theory) requires at least 10 dimensions and lots of particles that have never been observed. The second most successful explanation (loop quantum gravity) presupposes that time is not continuous but rather follows microscopic clock ticks as if the universe was run on a computer.

Today is a good day to be confused. Enjoy.

Yesterday <-- This month --> Tomorrow?
One year ago: Another cold
Two years ago: Secret Saturday
Three years ago: Shut up, Mr Ambassador
Four years ago: Synchronicity and e-books
Five years ago: Stock market fools
(Six years ago I was in hospital.)
(Seven years ago I was on vacation.)

Visit the archive page for the older diaries I've put out to pasture.

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