A mention of the work of Douglas Adams in The New York Times, this morning, has prompted me to go back to the archives of my earlier blog, The Ethics of Metropolitan Growth, for a post from December 20, 2011.
As long as I am acknowledging my intellectual debts, I should pay tribute to a writer who had an early, deep, and not entirely explicable influence on my outlook on the world: Douglas Adams.
Yes, it does seem strange to be writing this. The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is not exactly part of the canon of essential philosophical treatises.
It’s very funny, of course, and has tremendous appeal to people of a certain culture who went through adolescence in the 1980s, but is it really worthy of serious tribute from someone who claims to be a serious philosopher?
Well, that’s part of the point, of course.
I first encountered H2G2 in the early ’80s, when the original BBC radio drama was broadcast on my local public radio station. I was only in middle school, at the time, and had not given much thought to what my future career might be. I certainly had no reason to imagine I would end up a professional philosopher.
When I did settle down to the study of philosophy, I had already developed a mental habit – reinforced, I think, by Adams – of taking theoretical philosophy with a grain of salt, especially when it is at its most pompous and self-important.
In short, as much as I am devoted to writing and teaching in philosophy, I learned early to see the absurdity into which the practice of philosophy can too easily fall.
In the fourth episode of the radio series, when the great computer, Deep Thought, is being given its charge to calculate the Ultimate Answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything, the proceedings are interrupted by a pair of hapless philosophers, representing the Amalgamated Union of Philosophers, Sages, Luminaries and Other Professional Thinking Persons.
They demand a number of things, but mostly demand that the computer not be allowed to calculate the answer, on grounds of “demarcation”:
MAJIKTHISE: You just let the machines get on with the adding up and we’ll take care of the eternal verities thank you very much. By law the Quest for Ultimate Truth is quite clearly the inalienable prerogative of your working thinkers. Any bloody machine goes and actually finds it and we’re straight out of a job aren’t we? (Adams 1985, p.76)
This is soon followed by:
VROOMFONDEL: We demand rigidly defined areas of doubt and uncertainty.
DEEP THOUGHT: Might I make an observation at this point?
MAJIKTHISE: You keep out of this, metalnose.
VROOMFONDEL: We demand that that machine not be allowed to think about this problem!
DEEP THOUGHT: If I might make an observation . . .
VROOMFONDEL: We’ll go on strike!
MAJIKTHISE: That’s right, you’ll have a national Philosophers’ Strike on your hands.
DEEP THOUGHT: Who will that inconvenience? (Ibid., pp.76-77)
Deep Thought’s observation is that, since it will take him seven and a half million years to run the program – “I said I’d have to think about it.” – philosophers who are “quick off the mark” could “clean up” as pundits, offering predictions of what the answer will be.
MAJIKTHISE: Bloody hell. Now that is what I call thinking. Here, Vroomfondel, why do we never think of things like that?
VROOMFONDEL: Dunno. Think our minds must be too highly trained, Majikthise. (Ibid., p.77)
Much later, in a plot development that didn’t make it into any of the books, Zaphod Beeblebrox finds himself hanging from the mouth of what seems to be a stone cave suspended thirteen miles above the surface of the planet Brontitall. Ford Prefect, who is, for the moment, safe inside the cave, begins rambling on about abstract questions rather than facing the reality of his semi-cousin’s plight.
NARRATOR: it is often said that a disproportionate obsession with purely academic or abstract matters indicates a retreat from the problems of real life.
However, most of the people engaged in such matters say that this attitude is based on three things – ignorance, stupidity and nothing else.
Philosophers for example argue that they are very much concerned by the problems posed by ‘real life’: like for instance ‘What do we mean by real?’ and ‘How can we reach an empirical definition of life?’ and so on.
All the various versions of H2G2 also include incisive, satirical takes on economics, consumerism, technological progress, craven corporate greed, political power, and bureaucracy. The various bits concerning the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation are particularly effective in this regard.
Part of the backstory on Brontitall, only a fragment of which made it into the books, concerns two blights on what was otherwise a prosperous civilization. Arthur Dent learns of this from the Wise Old Bird while standing in the ear of a fifteen-mile-high statue of himself.
(To understand all that, you’d have to listen to the original radio series. It’s in episode ten.)
WOB: Listen. Our world suffered two blights. One was the blight of the robots.
ARTHUR: (Sympathetic sharp intake of breath) Tried to take over did they?
WOB: My dear fellow, no. Much worse than that. They told us they liked us.
ARTHUR: (Sympathetically) No.
WOB: Not their fault, poor things. They’d been programmed to. But you can imagine how we felt. Or at least, our ancestors.
WOB: Precisely. (Ibid., p.199)
Then, inspired by a freak vision of Arthur Dent talking back to a Nutrimatic Machine – just don’t ask! – the entire civilization of Brontitall turned their backs on consumer electronics . . . only to succumb to the second blight, a terrifying economic phenomenon that is mentioned only in passing in the books but receives extensive treatment in the radio series: the Shoe Event Horizon.
Perhaps the deepest lesson I derived from early exposure to the work of Douglas Adams, though, concerns cosmology: I should not be surprised if the universe does not, ultimately, make sense, nor should I be surprised if things never work out as I might hope.
There is, of course, the well known debacle of Deep Thought and the Ultimate Answer. I won’t give it away, for any who don’t yet know what it is; suffice it to say that Deep Thought prefaces his pronouncement with a disclaimer: “I don’t think you’re going to like it” (Ibid., p.79)
And there is all that follows from that debacle, including the double disruption of the experiment aimed at discovering the Ultimate Question.
NARRATOR: There is a theory which states that if ever anyone discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarrely inexplicable . . .
There is another theory which states that this has already happened. (Ibid., p.130)
In part because the universe is as it is, things do not turn out for the best, ever, and there’s no point in panicking about it.
ARTHUR: What is it?
FORD: The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It’s a sort of electronic book. It’ll tell you everything you want to know. That’s its job.
ARTHUR: I like the cover. ‘DON’T PANIC’. It’s the first helpful or intelligible thing anybody’s said to me all day.
FORD: That’s why it sells so well. (Ibid., p.27.)
It should be said there’s an element of fatalism in Adams’ outlook. When the story begins with the destruction of the Earth, at the hands of the galactic equivalent of urban planners ostensibly working on a transportation project, there clearly isn’t much point in waiting around for a happy ending. One just muddles through, until it isn’t possible to muddle through any more.
In truth, the fifth and final book in the “trilogy”, Mosty Harmless, plays out like a Greek tragedy, with officious bureaucrats wielding radical new technology taking the place of angry gods in turning the wheels of fate . . . but I won’t give away the ending.
Douglas Adams. 1985. The Original Hitchhiker Radio Scripts. New York: Harmony Books.