Sunday, April 22, 2018

42: The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

Back when I started this blog in December 2014, I had a lot of ideas for what it might include, and one of these ideas would seem to be essential for any blog on philosophy and science fiction: a review of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy!  For the past three and a half years my circuits have been irrevocably committed to composing this review.  I've also been preparing by spending much of that time wearing digital watches.

But considering that The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy has become a sacred text for science fiction fans, what can my humble exegesis contribute?  Giving up on the pretense of originality, let me discuss a few personal impressions, partly based on having re-read the novel most recently as part of my course on philosophy and science fiction.

The highest praise I have for this book is that it's not just a zany, hilarious read (although there's plenty of zany hilarity), it's also really good, thought-provoking science fiction.  And that's no mean feat - not quite infinitely improbable, but close.  My only real complaint is that Trillian (basically the only woman in the whole book) has almost nothing to do, although if I remember correctly, this changes in the later books.

(Spoilers ahead, but if you can't be bothered to take interest in your local affairs, I can't be held responsible...)

In my course on philosophy and science fiction, The Hitchhiker's Guide was part of a unit on, you guessed it, the meaning of life.  Arthur Dent loses more and more of the perceived meaning of his life as the novel progresses - he cares about his house, which is to be demolished, a fate mirrored by the Earth, of course.  He discovers that humans are only the third most intelligent species on Earth, and that the Earth was a giant computer all along.  Arthur's story mirrors the existential angst you, too, can feel from your armchair here on Earth by reflecting on the vastness of the universe and the seeming insignificance of your life and the lives of all human beings in the grand scheme of things.

So, how to react to this?  One can take the route of Albert Camus in The Myth of Sisyphus and shake your fist at the universe and find your life meaningful, anyway, through sheer will power (this is an admittedly somewhat superficial reading of Camus; read more here).

Another route is provided by philosophers like Susan Wolf (my students read her paper, "Happiness and Meaning: Two Aspects of the Good Life").  One could realize that human life contains many possible meanings that are nonetheless objectively meaningful (Wolf's type of theory is often called an "objective list theory" because there's a long, unspecified list of meanings available).  But, according to Wolf, one must be doing something meaningful while also finding it interesting (so philosophy is a meaningful thing, but for it to be a fully meaningful part of your life, you have to enjoy it).

This is a subtle theory I'm not adequately explaining here, but what I like is that it recognizes that when most people find something meaningful, it's because they recognize it as having meaning rather than somehow fashioning subjective meaning out of nothing.  In other words, do you like something because it's meaningful or is it meaningful just because you like it?  While the second answer sounds nice and egalitarian and all, it doesn't really explain anything.  It seems to me that "meaning is whatever I want it to be" is where a reflective person's inquiry should begin rather than where it should end, because you have to figure out what you want, which requires inquiry into what it means to be meaningful, which might require some philosophical advice and ... oh, wait, this was a review of The Hitchhiker's Guide...  Er, sorry.  (More on what I was getting at here.)

Can Arthur find meaning in his life again after the events of the novel, maybe through friendship, learning, the quest for a proper cup of tea, etc.?  Is Marvin's life meaningful even if he takes no pleasure in it?  (Poor Marvin...)   What should we make of the answer to life, the universe, and everything?  Sure, 42 is absurdly hilarious, but does this raise a serious point?  (It also makes me excited for my next birthday, but that's another story). Do we really want an answer to that question?  Would we understand it if we had it?  Or is the question itself what's important?  As another, less funny British writer, Bertrand Russell, once said...

Philosophy is to be studied, not for the sake of any definite answers to its questions, since no definite answers can, as a rule, be known to be true, but rather for the sake of the questions themselves; because these questions enlarge our conception of what is possible, enrich our intellectual imagination and diminish the dogmatic assurance which closes the mind against speculation; but above all, because through the greatness of the universe which philosophy contemplates, the mind is also rendered great, and becomes capable of union with the universe which constitutes its highest good.
-Bertrand Russell, The Problems of Philosophy

My favorite treatment of these questions, and my favorite part of the book, is Chapter 25.  After the computer Deep Thought is set to answer the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything, a pair of philosophers show up to put a stop to it as members of the Amalgamated Union of Philosophers, Sages, Luminaries, and Other Thinking Persons.  The scene is deeply comical, partly for its depiction of the bumbling philosophers, but also in their demands for strictly demarcated areas of doubt and uncertainty.  After all, if Deep Thought gives the answer to the ultimate question, it would put philosophers out of business!  Deep Thought, of course, proposes that its time frame of 7.5 million years gives the philosophers plenty of time to cash in on speculation about what answer it will give, at least if they have clever agents.  (The 1981 BBC adaptation contains a faithful adaptation of this scene).

Aside from the question of whether a computer could even in principle answer this sort of deep philosophical question (I'd like to say no, but I may not be entirely disinterested), Chapter 25 raises at least two deep issues: Could we ever find the answer to life, the universe, and everything?  Would we want the answer if we could have it?

I'm inclined to agree with Susan Wolf that there are many things that make human life meaningful: forming good relationships, writing book reviews, remembering to bring a towel, and many, many more.  I suspect the openness of the ultimate question is not so much that there is no single answer, but that there are so many answers we could never finish listing them all.  I also agree with Wolf that Camus-style absurdity represents "an irrational obsession with permanence."  Once you give up on the idea that a human (or robot or Betelguesian) life can be meaningful only if it has cosmic significance, maybe you can have a happy, meaningful life wherever your hitchhiking takes you.

Besides, if you think about it, the human condition is pretty funny in itself: here we are thrust into a universe we don't and maybe can't ever fully understand, one that seems almost determined to make us feel insignificant, and yet we find time to laugh, love, write books and book reviews, and more (often while wearing digital watches).  I, for one, find a great deal of meaning in laughing at this whole situation.  And I'm glad we had Douglas Adams with us long enough to help us live funnier, more meaningful lives.

Rating: A classic beyond ratings ...  but if you insist, let's say 42/42.

See also my Goodreads review.

No comments:

Post a Comment