Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Reflections on Life, the Universe, and Everything Upon the Event of my 42nd Birthday

For several years I’ve been looking forward to the day when I will finally arrive at the age at which I will discover the answer to life, the universe, and everything.  I am speaking of course of my 42nd birthday.

I have also been predicting that when this day comes the answer will remain elusive or will prove to be more perplexing than the question. So, is the answer 42 as told in Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy?  Let’s investigate.

 The Meaning of 42

There are a lot of speculations out there about a deeper significance to the answer 42.  Actor Stephen Fry claims to know the answer, but won’t tell the rest of us.  Or is it that light refracts off of rainbows at 42 degrees, or that light takes 10-42 seconds to cross a proton?

Some of the most popular speculations (especially with computer geeks) are that 42 is in binary code 101010 or that in the ASCII computer language 42 represents an asterisk, which in turn represents “whatever you want.” 

This last one sounds plausible.  Adams was, after all, a computer geek, and “whatever you want” sounds like the kind of thing an urbane, witty, irreligious late 20th century Englishman might say about the meaning of life.

It also sounds to some people like the type of answer given by existentialists like Albert Camus: the universe itself does not care one bit about us (even if we have neat things like digital watches).  Our human aspirations are fine in themselves but absurd when compared to the universe.  Yet the key is to look this absurdity right in the eye (if it has eyes), shake your fist, and say, “Damn it, I will make my own meaning, cruel universe!”  To which the universe will merely shrug.  

I don’t want to dwell on whether this is actually Camus’s answer (I tend to think it’s not.  I recently re-read The Myth of Sisyphus for my class on horror and philosophy. Camus makes all kinds of judgments against people who he thinks are insufficiently aware of or rebelling against absurdity, so he clearly thinks some answers are better than others).

You Can’t Always Get “Whatever You Want”

Can the meaning of life be “whatever you want”?  I don’t actually think that will work.  One reason is that it seems to reverse the order of explanation.  That is, meaning is what explains what we want.  What we want does not explain meaning.

For example, say you love reading blogs.  Maybe even this one.  If someone asks you, “why do you love reading blogs?” and your answer is “I love it,” that’s not a terribly informative answer.  In fact, this is a pretty much a textbook case of the logical fallacy begging the question, which makes any argument as suspicious as Zaphod Beeblebrox because it’s using the conclusion of the argument as a premise or a reason to serve as its own reason.  (In philosophy in classical India there is a similar fallacy called “having itself as its own basis”).

If you say, “I find my life meaningful because I enjoy it” you face the same problem.  If meaning is what you prefer and you prefer things that are meaningful, you are in effect saying “I prefer what I prefer,” which is almost but not quite entirely unlike a satisfying answer.

“Life?  Don’t talk to me about life.”

I myself am drawn to what philosophers like Susan Wolf call an “objective list theory,” or the idea that there are many meanings of human life but that these meanings have some sort of objectivity beyond “whatever you want.” (In fact, Susan Wolf has shaped a lot of what I think about the meaning of life these days.  I recommend checking out her work.)

We like many things because we find them meaningful.  Even if you think the meaning of life is to have fun, to have more pleasure than pain, or to be free, that is actually (if you think about it) because you think fun, pleasure, or freedom are meaningful for human beings.  As I often tell my students, “whatever you want” or “depends on the person” is not a Get Out of Thinking Free Card, because this is where philosophical inquiry begins: How do you decide what you should want?  Can the thoughts of other people, even people in far flung places and historical contexts or even imaginary people embedded in narratives, help you decide for yourself, not by simply agreeing with them, but by giving you ideas to build from or materials to think with?

In our shallow consumerist society where freedom and choice are prized above wisdom and reasoning, it can be hard for us to see, but that fact that everyone has a right to their opinion does not mean that all opinions are equally right (I ask for forgiveness from my international audience.  I speak as an American here, and I don’t mean to speak for everyone).  “Whatever you want” may appeal to our love of freedom (especially for Americans), but like consumerism itself, it always leaves you unsatisfied and wanting more. As I’ve said before, a major trouble in American society is that we simply don’t know how to examine the ideals that drive our lives: 
No wonder modern people are so anxious: we spend our lives pursuing ideals of happiness that we not only do not examine but have no idea how to examine.

Examining Meaning with Diotima

I recently covered Plato’s Symposium in my Ancient Greek and Roman Philosophy course, which is one my favorite parts of teaching that class.  I’ve always been a fan of the wise woman Diotima’s account of reproduction as giving birth in beauty.  According to Diotima, what explains the extraordinary lengths that humans and other animals go through for the sake of biological reproduction is that they are mortals striving for immortality.  She also says that Socrates himself is pregnant!  In fact, we are all pregnant in body and soul.  We have real babies, but we also have, as I like to put it, “soul babies,” that is, we strive to produce works of art, write books, make blog posts, accomplish things in our careers, and so forth as yet another way for mortals haunted by their mortality to partake in some degree of immortality. I recently had a soul baby of my own when my book was published (read about that here), which was also a nice birthday present for me!

So why not simply say that things like having children, writing books, being part of political movements, reading blogs, having pets, engaging in a community, striving for personal accomplishments, and so on are just plain meaningful for human beings?  We don’t have to have everything figured out about why this should be the case.  Maybe Diotima is right.  Maybe our activities are meaningful insofar as they allow mortal beings to partake in immortality.  Or maybe not. 

I’d like to think our lives and actions could be meaningful not merely despite our mortality, but maybe even in virtue of it (as I’ve argued before in a talk on the film Interstellar, which is based on two earlier blog posts, here and here).  I tend to agree with Wolf that the route to Camus-style absurdity may represent an “irrational obsession with permanence.”  Our lives may not be cosmically significant or long lasting, but why did we ever want that in the first place?  As a Buddhist or Stoic might say, if wanting something is bad for you, stop wanting that thing (although those same Buddhists or Stoics will readily admit this is easier said than done).

How Did We Come to Want “Whatever You Want”?

But whatever the explanations for meaning might turn out to be, there’s no reason that “whatever you want” has to be the default.  In fact, I suspect that even the most ardent “anything goes” relativists about meaning (i.e., college students and self-styled internet intellectuals) really like things for pretty much the same reasons as everybody else: that is, protests aside, they prefer things because they are meaningful.

This answer doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t continue to inquire why some things are meaningful.  In fact, I think it demands that we think more about this. I’d actually like to think this was Adams’s point all along (more on that in a bit).

I think a lot of our problems come from false dichotomies that say things like, either meaning is 1. Definitely ordained by God, the universe, or whatever, or 2. It is definitely entirely subjective.  Think of Dostoevsky’s puzzling claim that without God all things are permitted, or Nietzsche’s equally puzzling pronouncements about the death of God. For my part I have never understood why the lack of one kind of divinely or otherwise ultimately prescribed meaning (either real or imagined) should have much to do with the meaning of human life. 

Sure, I understand the kinds of personal psychological crises someone leaving a fundamentalist religion or someone coming to terms with their faith might have, but I don’t see how this can be the basis for a philosophical generalization as there are numerous other options between the two sides of the false dichotomy.  (Full disclosure: I am not a religious person myself, but this has never been a massively dramatic affair for me.  From my perspective atheist existentialists are functioning in some sort of theistic hangover that blurs their vision when it comes to other possibilities of meaning. And if you are a religious person, then I suspect a religious context adds to more basic human meanings already in place, e.g., friendship is meaningful on its own even if your religious context might make it more meaningful).

Meaning and Human Nature: On Being Vaguely Aristotelian and Confucian

Why can’t meaning be a function of human nature, in a vaguely Aristotelian or Confucian sense?  If we are biological creatures who have somehow evolved the capacity for understanding the meaning of our lives, why can’t there be all sorts of meaningful human lives?  And why can’t we keep an open-ended, revisable objective list of what they are, which simultaneously gives us the freedom to explore new meanings as well as the normativity to tentatively reject immoral or otherwise meaningless lives at least for ourselves?  Why do we assume that talking about objective meaning must imply judging other peoples’ lives rather than a Socratic exhortation to examine how we might make our own lives as meaningful as possible?

The Joke’s Not On Us, It Is Us

Pardon the long digression, which I hope was at least 42 degrees more enjoyable than a Vogon poetry reading.  Getting back to Douglas Adams, the author himself is actually on the record about the deeper meaning of 42.  Did he mean, though ASCII code, that the answer is “whatever you want”?  In this case, anyway, the answer is clear: no. Here’s what he said.
"The answer to this is very simple … It was a joke. It had to be a number, an ordinary, smallish number, and I chose that one. Binary representations, base 13, Tibetan monks are all complete nonsense. I sat on my desk, stared in to the garden and thought 42 will do. I typed it out. End of story."

So, it was cleverly exactly what it initially appears to be: a joke! This gets at another aspect of the meaning of life that I think is underappreciated by almost everyone but Douglas Adams: it’s kind of funny.  To quote myself from my blog review of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy:
… 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.

What is 6 x 7?, or, A Plea from the Amalgamated Union of Philosophers, Sages, Luminaries, and Other Thinking Persons

So, have I at this auspicious age, discovered at last the answer to the question of life, the universe, and everything?  I’m honestly not sure.  I could very well be totally wrong, although as a professional philosopher this uncertainty frankly keeps me in business. I look forward to joining the Amalgamated Union of Philosophers, Sages, Luminaries, and Other Thinking Persons in their attempts to shut down anything like Deep Thought’s program to find a definitive answer (see the clip below).  But then again, what does Deep Thought really know, anyway? 

If anything, I’m aware of how lucky I am to have had this long to try to figure out some answers, or at least to learn how to ask better questions even if the answers remain elusive.  Given my own limitations as a mortal human being in an unimaginably vast universe, perhaps having such an opportunity is meaning enough.


I know this birthday is more Douglas Adams-oriented, but it has become my blog tradition to include one of my favorite Weird Al songs as well.

No comments:

Post a Comment