Of Its Parts

by Dan H

Dan reads David Eagleman's Sum
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I was lent Sum: Tales from the Afterlives by a colleague at work after it came up in conversation. It was an interesting enough premise – forty short stories each set in a different variant of the afterlife, all written by a neuroscientist-turned-writer. The book itself was also covered in recommendations from people like Stephen Fry and Philip Pullman. “Read Sum and be amazed,” said Time, “This delightful, thought-provoking little collection … will haunt the reader long after the last page has been turned,” says Alexander McCall Smith. Pullman, meanwhile, says that “The inventiveness, the clarity and wit of the prose and the calm air of moral understanding that pervades this book add up to something completely original.” High praise indeed.

So I gave it a go. I was neither “amazed” nor “haunted”. I would characterise the prose as “quite good” and would suggest that the forty stories together add up to something that is not so much “completely original” as “occasionally interesting, mostly trite, and weirdly heteronormative.”

I should probably say now that I'm the worst possible audience for this kind of thing. I'm insecure enough that I react really, really badly to things trying to blow my mind. I'm also not a big fan of short stories. Actually that's probably not true, I'm fine with short stories. It's probably better to say that I am not a big fan of stories that have the structure GCSE English lessons tell us short stories are supposed to have. You know, the ones that go “setup, setup, setup TWIST ironic final line.” I'd also say that I didn't find the collection completely without merit, there were a couple of good ideas in there, although I thought some of its best concepts were spoiled by heavy-handed execution.

It's become something of a Ferretbrain tradition to break this sort of review down into “the good, the bad and the ugly”, so that's what I'm going to do. I should point out that the following discussions will include spoilers, which actually matter quite a lot for this book, because all of the stories are based around exploration of a single idea, and having the idea explained in advance makes the stories a bit pointless.

The Good

I don't think I unambiguously liked any individual story – although again that has as much to do with my antipathy towards the format as anything else – but I was okay with the central concept of two or three of them, and with the pithy ending of another.

The first story I liked (or liked the concept of, at least) was called Spirals. Its central premise was that humans were more or less like Deep Thought from Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy - machines created to find the meaning of existence by beings less sophisticated than ourselves. Leaving aside the logical flaws in this concept (if we are more intelligent than our creators, why can't we create machines that are as intelligent as we are?) it's a cute inversion of a classic SF trope. I've been rewatching Babylon 5 recently and the idea of an ancient progenitor race that is less wise and insightful than humanity is rather appealing.

Unfortunately Spirals lets itself down with its ironic final sentence:


You try to explain this to the creatures, but it is fruitless: not only because you realise they don't understand you, but also because you realise how little we understand about our machines


Do you see. Just as the creators made Humans which were more sophisticated than they were, and lost the ability to understand them, so we have built machines that are more sophisticated than we are, and have lost the ability to understand them. And our creations will create machines of their own, which will be yet more sophisticated, and so on in ever expanding Spirals (ohmygod that's the title of the story! I totally see what you did there!)

Except no. We haven't, and they aren't. Could I build a computer from scratch? Of course I couldn't. But as Ursula le Guin observes I don't know how to make a fish hook either. But there's a massive difference between not knowing how to do something and being unable to comprehend it. No halfway technologically literate person finds twenty-first century machines to be unfathomable mysteries, unless you count “why won't this bloody thing do what I tell it to” as an unfathomable mystery. The story seems to be making a fair enough point about the assumption that a creator must be a “superior” being when it might be no such thing, but instead takes a sharp left turn into a trite observation about how we totally don't understand technology.

The other two stories I liked the ideas behind were Microbe and Ineffable, both of which shared a broadly similar concept. Microbe posits the notion that God is a bacteria (or should that be bacterium) and that human beings are merely vast moving backgrounds to the lives of microorganisms, which we cannot imagine because we can't imagine anything operating on a scale that small. Ineffable is thematically similar, proposing an afterlife for institutions like plays, bands, platoons of soldiers and the like, which exist in the netherworld independent and unaware of the people that were part of them.

Ineffable is probably the most successful story in the collection, it was the only one that came even remotely close to presenting an idea that struck me as original. Not only that, but it articulated its central concept without spelling it out explicitly (something few of the other stories could manage). Ineffable communicates some quite subtle ideas about identity, and isn't too heavy-handed with its central metaphor (a football team is not aware of its individual members any more than you are aware of your liver as a distinct entity, we are all made of tiny individual parts, which make a complete person, but no one part is the person).

Perhaps it's Eagleman's background as a neuroscientist that makes these stories work – you get the impression that he has a quite complicated, quite sophisticated understanding of what it means to be a macroscopic being made of microscopic parts. Complicated, sophisticated ideas are the perfect subjects for communication through short fiction. It would take a very long time to explain to a layperson what it really means to be made of tiny independent components in technical language, but a well constructed metaphor can do a very good job in a very short time. When he strays outside of his area of expertise his work gets a lot worse (one of the stories is called Quantum and posits an afterlife where blah blah superposition blah blah all possible realities blah blah turns out it's a lot like women).

The last story that left me with a positive feelings (although again, not feelings I would attribute to “the unaccountable, jaw-dropping quality of genius” as the Observer does) was Death Switch. This story is a little more light-hearted, and posits not an “afterlife” but a future in which people get into the habit of trolling their descendants by setting up autoreply scripts to respond to emails and IMs as if they were still alive. Algorithms (a word which I suspect Eagleman understand the meaning of, but which the popular media tend to use to mean “magic computer fairies”) produce fake replies to emails, complete with reminiscences, shared jokes, and allusions to past experiences. Its ironic final line reads:

We are quite happy with this arrangement, because reminiscing about our glory days of existence is perhaps all that would have happened in an afterlife anyway.


I can't say why, but something about this one worked for me. I think it was the fact that it ended on a dry, faintly self-deprecating note. It also, of course, summed up the major problem with the rest of the book, and with the whole of the rest of the “imagined afterlife” subgenre. When you get right down to it, no matter how much imagination you put into it, most fictional afterlives boil down to sitting around and reminiscing about your existence, normally with some gimmicky twist like doing it all backwards (the last story in the book) or with all your experiences grouped by type (the first).

The Bad

Just as only a few of the stories really engaged me, only a few really annoyed me. The ones that bothered me, mostly did so for the same reasons: self-consciously trying to blow my mind. Or worse, self-consciously trying to blow my mind, while also making some incredibly normative assumptions about the human condition.

God appears in several stories in the book. God's first appearance is in the second story Egalitaire, and she is female. I felt deeply ambivalent about this, because my gut reaction was that Eagleman had deliberately made God a girl in order to blow my mind, but I didn't want to rule out the possibility that he'd just assigned an arbitrary gender to the Almighty.

After that, until their final appearance, God is resolutely male. Except in one story (Missing) in which god is a married couple. In that story, incidentally, the Male and Female God have a falling out, and create separate worlds containing only men and only women. But these worlds don't work because the men and women feel such immense loneliness without each other. Because presumably (a) romantic love is the only worthwhile relationship a human being can have and (b) it is completely impossible to experience those sorts of feelings without a member of the opposite sex.

Now might also be a good point to point out that “your lover” (who appears in several stories) is consistently referred to as “she”. It might also be a good point to quote the Metro, which describes the book as offering “an inventive, thought-provoking blend of science and romance.” Perhaps he's trying to provoke thought by inviting the reader to imagine themselves as a lesbian.

I'm not actually going to go into detail with specific stories here – it seems churlish since the short story is a hit-and-miss medium at the best of time and what doesn't work for me might work perfectly well for somebody else. But I do feel a little cheated, having been told by Stephen Fry that I “will not read a more dazzling book this year” to find so much of the book taken up with trite observations about the paramount importance of heterosexual romance.

Actually, I lie. I am going to go into detail about specific stories. I'm going to go into detail about the stories Circle of Friends and Subjunctive.

Circle of Friends starts well, proposing an afterlife in which the world is reduced only to people you personally recognise. This world, it points out, seems perfectly fine to begin with, apart from the lack of crowds, but gradually begins to fall apart as everything that is run by people you didn't know personally stops working. Its overall point is, I think, quite a good one. It's easy to forget how bewilderingly complicated the world is and, perhaps more to the point, it's easy to forget that most things only happen because somebody does them. Perhaps I'm just that sort of person, but I do occasionally find myself being stopped short by the realisation that something only exists because somebody put it there (my most recent instance of this epiphany being “somebody writes the jokes that go in Christmas crackers”). Once again, however, the story is scuppered by its ironic final line:

The missing crowds make you lonely. You begin to complain about all the people you could be meeting. But no one listens or sympathises with you, because this is exactly what you chose when you were alive.


Umm … sorry? What are you saying here David Eagleman? Are you suggesting that it is somehow wrong for a person, while living, not to become personally acquainted with every single human being on Earth? People don't “choose” to only meet and get to know a tiny fraction of the population of the world, it's just that the world is so spectacularly enormous that it isn't possible to get to know any reasonable portion of it. If you were to meet one person every thirty seconds, twelve hours a day for eighty years, you would have met a mere forty-two million people, which doesn't even get you through the population of Great Britain.

Subjunctive has a similar problem. It suggests an afterlife where you coexist with all of the other possible versions of yourself. Here it suggests you are tormented by the success of other versions of yourself who made better decisions, who went to the gym more, or who finished writing that book, or who studied harder, while what little comfort you have you draw from hanging out with those versions of yourself who are even bigger losers than you.

I read Subjunctive expecting the other shoe to drop at any moment. Perhaps I've just got a laissez-faire attitude to this sort of thing, but I'd vaguely assumed that the big twist would be that while you're coveting the washboard abs of the version of yourself who put in more time at the gym, he (or she, if we're assuming you're a lesbian) is wishing he'd spent more time enjoying himself instead of developing and unhealthy obsession with body image. But no, it just genuinely seems to think that people have “potential” and that if you make the “right” decisions you can “achieve” that potential, and that if you don't you deserve to be punished.

And thus your punishment is cleverly and automatically regulated in the afterlife: the more you fall short of your potential, the more of these annoying selves you are forced to deal with.


This makes no sense. For a start, the story itself admits that some of your “selves” will have just been luckier, not more hard-working (“the you who happened to board an airplane next to a company president who then hired you” for example), although it then seems to claim instead that your different “selves” have actually been living in a pure meritocracy:

They made smarter choices, worked harder, invested the extra effort in pushing on closed doors … Such success cannot be explained away by a better genetic hand; instead they played your cards better. In their parallel lives they made better decisions, avoided moral lapses, did not give up on love so easily. They worked harder than you did to correct their mistakes and apologized more often.


Because obviously people who are more successful than other people either have a genetic advantage, or else they are morally better. Now as it happens I'm generally okay with the idea that successful people usually work damned hard for their success (but then so do many unsuccessful people) and unlike many of my overeducated, underachieving peers, I accept that the reason I've never had a book published has more to do with my never having written one than with inherent flaws in the publishing industry. That said, I'm pretty sure that “more successful” does not have any correlation with “fewer moral lapses” in fact I'm pretty sure there have been really quite a lot of successful people who have behaved really quite immorally.

And the least said about “giving up on love” the better.

The Obvious

Most of the remainder of Sum is either forgettable, or just a really, really obvious idea. I'm going to limit this section of the article to short summaries, because you have already read all of these stories, even if they were by different authors in different books.

The book opens with the title story Sum in which you relive your life with all of the events grouped by type, so you spend two months driving the street in front of your house, then seven months having sex and so on. I'd say two things about this story. Firstly, it's an old idea, I remember Jasper Carrot doing a joke about it about fifteen years ago. Secondly, it's just a big damned list of what I strongly suspect are arbitrary numbers. How exactly does he arrive at figures like “two weeks wondering what happens when you die” or “thirty-four days longing” or for that matter “eighteen days staring into the refrigerator” (in fact we can reverse engineer all of these numbers fairly easily, he's assuming something like a 70-80 year lifespan, in which case 30 seconds a day adds up to something in the region of ten days, meaning he seems to be assuming that we spend just over ninety seconds a day “longing” and eleven minutes a day having sex, these numbers still seem to come from nowhere). The whole story feels like those bits in Just a Minute where Clement Freud will cite a list of very similar things as a way of filling up his time.

The final story Reversal is the plot of the Red Dwarf episode Backwards, it even explains things in the same way – contraction of the universe causes time to run backwards, so we start off dead, then get younger, and we all wind up as one glorious whole.

Graveyard of the Gods is another list. In this case a list of “dead” gods from extinct cultures. This reads like bad Neil Gaiman fanfic, and manages to count the Maori and (even more inexplicably) China amongst the cultures whose Gods have apparently passed into the afterlife.

The Unnatural is a story about how if we were all immortal nobody would do anything, because the possibility of death is the only thing which gives us an incentive to achieve anything. This is probably the least original thing that could possibly be said in a work of fiction.

Perpetuity (which comes directly before The Unnatural) presents a world in which righteous people find oblivion in death, while sinners get a perfectly pleasant afterlife. The twist is that this is because living forever is bad. This is exactly the same thing that The Unnatural says (and these two stories are right next to each other). It is still the least original thing that could possibly be said in a work of fiction.

Oz gives away its ending in its title. You are told that only those with courage can look on the Creator. You see the creator and He is Great and Terrible, then it is revealed to be an illusion and the man behind the curtain says “It is not the brave who can handle the big face, it is the brave who can handle its absence.” I repeat this story is called Oz.

Adhesion suggests that the Earth is a giant computer, and that it is trying to work out what makes relationships happen, and that this is the greatest mystery in the universe and that even the super-aliens that built the Earth-computer to work it out can't work it out. This is the second least original thing that could possibly be said in a work of fiction. Impulse tells almost exactly the same story, except that this time relationships are a flaw in the code, but one which made the Earth-computer bright enough to light up the galaxy.

Missing gets an honourable mention for being both at once trite, obvious, gender-essentialist and heteronormative. Men and women discover they need each other because love. Right.

In Conclusion

Sum is not, despite what I might have suggested over the last three thousand odd words, a terrible book. It's just that it doesn't deserve any of the hyperbolic praise being heaped upon it by the likes of Fry, Pullman and others.

It is not, as Geoff Dyer claims “mind-blowingly clever, funny, and profound.”

It is not, as the Sunday Herald suggests “brilliantly realised, blazingly original.”

It is not as the Independent insists “never short of new ideas, all of them rolled out with style.”

It is “occasionally quite interesting” and “sort of okay” and “sometimes a bit sexist.”
Themes: Books
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Comments (go to latest)
Arthur B at 22:46 on 2012-01-23
Fry and Pullman are macroscopic delivery systems for microscopic recommendations for macroscopic piles of shite.
Shim at 12:32 on 2012-01-24
Sounds fairly tedious. I've also spotted another couple of issues with the examples you offered.

The missing crowds make you lonely. You begin to complain about all the people you could be meeting. But no one listens or sympathises with you, because this is exactly what you chose when you were alive.

This is a big ol' heap of assumptions about other people's lives and tastes, and really very shortsighted for an afterlife. Not everyone likes crowds (I don't, for one), or would be bothered by their absence; find cities slightly weird, possibly, but not necessarily lonely. Also, a lot of people historically had very limited social circles and nonetheless appeared to live adequately fulfilling lives. Until things like cars, good roads and compulsory schooling appeared, lots of people rarely left their birthplace. Some people still don't. 20th-century types would be in trouble with the whole technology business, but most people from even a few hundred years back could get along pretty well. If you lived in a rural backwater without electricity and subsistence-farmed, how much would you notice the difference?

Also, how many people who are used to crowds, in a world filled with everyone they recognise at all, would be whinging about the inability to meet new strangers, especially if their world is collapsing around them? Those are exactly the people who would recognise loads of people to begin with.

There's a third problem with this idea, in terms of how the afterlives work. There aren't discrete groups of people who know each other and nobody else, so how does that work with all your friends? Are they just copies of those people, while the real thing lives out their own bot-filled afterlife?

Subjunctive has a similar problem. It suggests an afterlife where you coexist with all of the other possible versions of yourself. Here it suggests you are tormented by the success of other versions of yourself who made better decisions, who went to the gym more, or who finished writing that book, or who studied harder, while what little comfort you have you draw from hanging out with those versions of yourself who are even bigger losers than you.

Well, first of all, why should you be? I mean, an infinity of other versions of yourself is bound to offer some who are fun to hang out with. Unless you're really the envious type, why would you be bothered about the rich gits when you could be (for example) running epic multilingual D&D campaigns? Eff that. And I wonder what proportion of people derive any pleasure at all from hanging out with "big losers", let alone if they're you.

Secondly, the assumptions about "success" are bland and narrow, and as you say apparently self-contradictory. I'm forced to conclude that Eagleman has a very specific template for "success" which all possible yous should be working towards, without overdoing anything or undershooting or deviating.

I get a very strong impression that Eagleman would be no fun at all to hang out with.
Shim at 22:39 on 2012-01-26
Okay, clearly I am thinking too much about this book I haven't read, but...

reallycolossalnerd()
{
all of the events grouped by type, so you spend two months driving the street in front of your house, then seven months having sex and so on.

Look, it doesn't work. Grouping things is kind of my field, and here you run into exactly the kind of fractal grouping and co-grouping problems that make categorisation a pain elsewhere.

So firstly, "grouped by type" is one of those things which gets trickier when you think about it. You spend two months driving down the street in front of your house. But three weeks of that is spend driving north, and seven is driving south. Of the seven, two weeks is spent reversing into a parking space. Of the two, six days are spent checking the rear view mirror. Of the six, three days are spent seeing an empty street, but the other three show traffic. Of the latter three... etc. Of course, exactly what you define as "different activities" is very subjective and depends on your knowledge of the field. My "doing sports" is someone else's million-item hierarchical array.

Secondly, you are never doing only one thing. While "typing (nerdy responses to e-zine articles critiquing short stories about afterlives)" I am also sitting on a swivel chair, being at home, desiring a cup of tea, listenining to my housemate rattle pans in the kitchen, wearing a jumper (amongst other things!), breathing, respiring, digesting rice, crossing my ankles, itching slightly... Again, you can define a virtually unlimited list of things you are doing at any one time by being sufficiently specific. Their categorisation system really doesn't seem up to handling it.

NB: You could probably handle this by having each moment appear in every relevant category, which would mean the more you're doing at any time, the more times that moment will appear in the afterlife. Your basic cross-referencing, so you're basically working with hierarchical tags attached to each moment, rather than categorisation. It works okay if you have eternity to play with.

TL;DR: So the question is, where does the afterlife categorise driving erratically down the street in front of your house while having bad sex and feeling guilty about it?
}
http://for-diddled.livejournal.com/ at 23:44 on 2012-01-26
Does anybody else think that the afterlife in "Subjunctive" actually sounds rather nice? Personally I think it could be quite fun to see versions of me who became King, or Prime Minister, or a famous author, or...

Also, "don't give up on love" is probably the third least original thing you can possibly say in a work of fiction. It would have made a nice change to have versions of you who refused to give up on love, and consequently made themselves miserable trying to hook up with people they obviously had no chance with.
Rami at 15:07 on 2012-01-30
Your description of Circle of Friends makes me wonder if Eagleman, as a neuroscientist, is aware of the Dunbar number and what he thinks of the relevant research. Does he think the research is inconclusive and so not worth mentioning? Does he think it irrelevant? Did he simply fail to include the reference?

It's the sort of thing that I would have thought would be included by an author who wants to blow his readers' tiny minds.

Also, just a note about Spirals -- I think you're overestimating the number of people who fathom modern technology and its principles. Perhaps Eagleman is one of the many many people who think of computers as magic boxes of magic.
Dan H at 19:12 on 2012-01-30
Also, just a note about Spirals -- I think you're overestimating the number of people who fathom modern technology and its principles. Perhaps Eagleman is one of the many many people who think of computers as magic boxes of magic.


*I* think of computers as little magic boxes of magic, but when I read my emails I don't sit there unable to comprehend the workings of the machine, I read my damned emails. Eagleman seems to believe that if I write a computer program to solve a problem, I will necessarily be unable to understand the answer.
Rami at 20:01 on 2012-01-30
Eagleman seems to believe that if I write a computer program to solve a problem, I will necessarily be unable to understand the answer.

If you write a certain kind of program to solve a problem you're likely to be unable to understand the process that arrived at the answer -- there are a couple of artificial-intelligence computing techniques that are like this, including certain uses of a neural-network model (which Eagleman may be familiar with). Perhaps that's what he meant?
Dan H at 22:58 on 2012-01-30
I don't think it was that well thought out, and the narrative makes it fairly clear that we can't communicate to our creators the fact that we don't have any answers for them, which is sort of like suggesting that no human exists who is able to comprehend the phrase "404, file not found."
http://ang-band.livejournal.com/ at 01:10 on 2012-02-02
What tickles me the most is how arbitrary and bland writers often make the afterlife out to be.

The missing crowds make you lonely. You begin to complain about all the people you could be meeting. But no one listens or sympathises with you, because this is exactly what you chose when you were alive.

Even Cthulhu wouldn't bother with this.
http://alula-auburn.livejournal.com/ at 01:50 on 2012-02-02
"Afterlife" sounds like a rip-off of Kevin Brockmeier's "A Brief History of the Dead," but in Brockmeier it's more--incidental? than moralistic. (I mean, if you read it looking for a world-building explanation, it will probably drive you mad; it's more in the nature of a meditation that doesn't have an explanation per se. And it's fairly self-consciously literary--I like it, but I've had class with him, so I'm a bit biased.)

Honestly, the writing in this just seems really heavy-handed and laborious. Maybe I'm assuming too much from excerpts, but it feels very high school lit journal.
http://alula-auburn.livejournal.com/ at 01:51 on 2012-02-02
haha, I meant "Circle of Friends." I think good.
Wow, I've been lucky with the Random article button today. I read this book a while ago and found most of the stories so annoying, I made an unnervingly large piles of notes about how and why they were so annoying. Now that I've found a place to vent I hope you won't mind a megapost or two full of ranting ...

First, the weird heteronormativity, which you pointed out. Common advice to writers is that what they should write what they know; nonetheless, reading Eagleman's young, male, straight, Western middle-class values inflated into the great cosmic design of things just grated against me the wrong way. I found all of the 'romantic' stories distasteful, not to mention silly - romantic feelings and urges take up such a comparatively small amount of the average human lifetime and emotional spectrum, it seems stupidly naive to portray them "lighting up the galaxy", etc.

I also agree that most of the stories are astoundingly unoriginal. One I recall just used the story of Frankenstein, with God as Frankenstein and humanity as his monster - incredibly lazy writing there.
I didn't really appreciate Spirals because it felt like a misguided attempt to mimic Douglas Adams, written as a disingenuous fable about modern faith in technology. Humans don't build complicated technological systems to answer deep questions about existence. Technology as we currently use it is for facilitating day-to-day operations and processes and doing massive calculations. But this story seems to tell us that we (since our creators are a metaphor for us) actually do believe technology is capable of giving us Great Answers we can understand, and that we're fools for holding such a belief.
I liked Perpetuity, though, and found it relatable. That said, I do recognise that the story is one big middle class whinge about having life so easy, and having so many options that all of them are meaningless. First world problems ...!
I also liked Subjunctive and would love to sign up to this system, though you are right in pointing out that real life isn't a pure meritocracy. Death Switch and Ineffable were also among my favourites.

Then there's religion. I think I'd better start a new post right about now ...
One of the stories that irritated me the most was Absence, taking into account Eagleman's avowed agnostic, yet ironically 'holier-than-thou' viewpoint on religion.

I first heard about this book when I heard Eagleman being interviewed on Australian radio - he did a reading of some of his stories at the Sydney Opera House, with accompanying music composed by Brian Eno. (Interview link here if you're interested.)
In the interview Eagleman called himself a "possibilian", a term he invented to describe an active sort of agnosticism, using known facts as a starting point to explore (not necessarily adhere to) new ideas and possibilities.
It's a sort of middle position on the believing/sceptical spectrum which he appears to hold as morally superior to the sceptical end and the people on it, especially the "new atheists". In the interview he accused people such as Richard Dawkins of promulgating the idea that scientists have figured everything out and there's nothing left to explore.

This bothered me a lot because, correct me if I'm wrong, but I'm pretty sure it's *exactly the opposite* of what Dawkins and his atheist kindred actually believe. Dawkins and many other scientists usually attack religion for claiming that *it* has all the answers and there's nothing to question. Furthermore, I'm pretty sure every scientist and their dog knows that believing they have all the answers, or even that they can answer all types of questions, contradicts the whole ethos of their profession. I was frankly surprised that Eagleman could misrepresent the sceptical/atheistic attitude of some scientists like this, especially as he is a scientist himself.

Hence I could not help but read a rather smug tone in the story Absence, in which God takes extended leave from Heaven, and the people in Heaven form various schools of belief as to where he has gone, finally devolving into a state of war where everyone "becomes a crusader for their own version of God's nonexistence".
Given the interview, this story sounded like Eagleman was attempting to make a witty point about atheists being just as susceptible to dogma as the religious people they criticise. I'm sure atheists can and do fall into those thinking traps, but I think this story backfired somewhat in trying to present this.
The people in the story aren't arguing about God's nonexistence. God exists, and everyone in Heaven knows that. They're arguing about his location. Therefore, they're arguing about one of the attributes of an existing God - just what religious people, not atheists, have been doing for centuries.
It's yet another example of Eagleman trying to blow the reader's mind, on this occasion with a fallacious punchline. I was not impressed.
Ashimbabbar at 20:07 on 2015-12-06
Ermmm… actually, Spirals ( and incidentally Microbe ) <cough> has an awful lot in common <cough> with french sci-fi writer and critic Gérard Klein’s short story Les virus ne parlent pas [ Viruses do not talk ].
This short story was first published in the Fiction spécial magazine n°12 in November, 1967, then reprinted in french anthologies of Gérard Klein’s short stories :
. La Loi du Talion published in 1973, 1985 and 1992 ( by Robert Laffont then Livre de Poche )
. Le livre d’or de la Science Fiction – Gérard Klein, 1979 ( by Presses Pocket )

The scientist protagonist explains to the viewpoint character ( Klein himself ) his discovery : « And I found God (…) Oh, not the God that created the universe. That one I leave to the metaphysicians. But the God that created us. »

The idea is that evolution was engineered by a race of intelligent viruses with the goal of creating us humans or something like us ( Klein allows his character a stab at Intelligent Design ) ; the parallel with our creation of computers and that they would eliminate us as we did our creators is explicitly and repeatedly made.

Allow me an extended quotation ( the translation is mine with all its errors: I do not know that there ever was a published translation in any foreign language. )
« Yet there is a precedent. That of that hypothetical, tiny, weak species, endowed with a memory in their own eyes ( not that they had eyes ) insufficient, needing millions of years to solve problems we would consider simple enough, and therefore led to build and perfect machines that would increase its possibilities thousandfold. We are the ultimate result of those puny gods’ experiments, able to manipulate genes and all the cellular machinery. Our eyes are their telescopes and our ears gigantic antennas, able to analyze a universe of waves they knew of in theory but could not perceive any more than you can perceive radio waves. Our mouths are transmitters of colossean range. Our fingers, giant manipulators. Our brains, monstrous logical machines endowed with memory banks that must have seem to them nearly limitless. Through us, they could hope accessing a universe normally forbidden to them : perhaps that of numbers, perhaps that of stars. »
Ashimbabbar, that's interesting. The story you quoted also sounds similar to Eagleman's story Narcissus, where it turns out humans were engineered to be roving geospatial data collectors, equipped with air compression sensors (ears), dual-lensed cameras (eyes), etc.

(The flaw in this situation is that humans prefer to hunker down and canoodle with each other instead of going out exploring and discovering. That doesn't sound much like the humanity I know. At least it isn't necessarily implied to be heterosexual canoodling, this time.)
Ashimbabbar at 22:36 on 2015-12-18
Heh. It does seem Eagleman has one theme he keeps coming back too… whether he just happened on it independently of Klein or not, I cannot say.
Robinson L at 18:00 on 2016-03-21
(Sorry, not sure how to credit you):
This bothered me a lot because, correct me if I'm wrong, but I'm pretty sure it's *exactly the opposite* of what Dawkins and his atheist kindred actually believe. Dawkins and many other scientists usually attack religion for claiming that *it* has all the answers and there's nothing to question.

I admit I haven't read too much actual Dawkins or his ilk, so someone more knowledgeable please correct me if I err, but from what I hear, it sounds like he and the other New Atheists are kind of guilty of the same thing, or something close. As in, they make out as if they're the ones who have the “real” answers to all or many of the things which Big Religion types claim to have sorted out (the origin of the universe and of life, how emotions and consciousness work, why humans behave the way we do, whether the universe operates like massively complicated clockwork, and whether there exists a supernatural Creator or creative force), only their answers to those questions are backed up by Science!. Whereas actually, in many or all of these cases, what they have is their own pet hypotheses with at, best, limited scientific evidence to support their viewpoints—or, in the last case, pretty much no scientific evidence one way or another.

This is not to say that they're necessarily wrong on any one of these points, or even all of them (and certainly not to say that Big Religion is right)—but my understanding is that they've jumped the gun on a lot of these big questions where, in fact, the scientific evidence is still far from conclusive.

I've also heard it pointed out that a lot of the New Atheists conflate “Religion X” with “Extreme literalist interpretations of Religion X,” as if no moderate or progressive interpretations of that religion existed. In terms of a mainstream discourse on religions and religiosity, this has a comparable effect to the way Christian and Islamist extremists both conflate Islam with fundamentalist Islam, or the way critics of Christianity and fundamentalist Protestants both conflate Christianity with fundamentalist Protestantism. I don't know if Eagleman had that part in mind, but it's another issue I've seen raised in regards to the New Atheists.

Plus, there's the whole thing about how the New Atheists' “hate 'em all equally” approach to religion in general feeds into a “clash of civilizations” narrative where secular Western societies and value and knowledge systems are treated as inherently more enlightened than “superstitious” Middle Eastern, Asian, African, and Indigenous cultures. Pretty sure Eagleman wasn't talking about that either—and he might well be guilty of something similar, for all I know—but it's one more strike against New Atheism in this small-a atheist's book.
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