Tuesday, September 19, 2006

God and deja vu

One way to narrow the choice of the best books may be to rule some categories. Maybe one good candidate for exclusion would be pop-science books about God.

There are lots, and they helped to fuel the popular science publishing boom. They faded away for a bit, but seem to be making a partial come-back. Partial because the lengthy piece which just ran in the London Observer prompts serious feelings of déjà vu.

It hangs on the fact that both Richard Dawkins and Paul Davies have new books on the meaning of life. Haven’t read either, but their summary contents are pretty much what they've been writing for the last twenty years. I recall writing a column comparing their views – biology sanctions atheism but cosmology makes it seem as if, somehow we are meant to be here – almost that long ago.

Hard to believe that either of the new offerings will be a book to compare with their authors’ best. Striving for answers to questions like this tends to be unconvincing to any but the already converted.

Instead, I prescribe a dose of metaphysical minimalism for popular science. Something like this:

There is something rather than nothing.

Some of the stuff which exists appears to
become the kind of stuff which can do things.

We have no real idea whether we are equipped to work out what any stuff ultimately is, or the meaning of the things it can do.

We can have a mildly entertaining time trying, though, and there are grounds for supposing we have made some progress. We may possibly be less wrong than we used to be, in some areas.

There’s no particular reason to believe anything else anyone tells you about the nature of the universe which is formulated as a general, and universally or eternally true statement.

It is always tempting to try and make such statements, but it is tricky spotting the really dangerous ones before they do harm, so the sport is best avoided for most people.

As well as avoiding all kinds of silliness, I reckon this creed has the advantage that dragging it out to book length would never sell - so it would encourage people to write about something else.


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