The answer to life, the universe and everything

(Originally published here)

The Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein gets credit for pointing out that many classic philosophical conundrums are unsolvable not because they are so profound, but because they are incoherent. Instead of trying to solve such questions, he argued, we should try to dissolve them, by demonstrating how they misuse words and investigating the confusion that motivated the question in the first place.

But with all due respect to Wittgenstein, my favorite example of the “dissolving questions” strategy comes from Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which contains a cheeky and unforgettable dissolution of which I’m sure Wittgenstein himself would have been proud:  A race of hyper-intelligent, pan-dimensional beings builds a supercomputer named Deep Thought, so that they can ask it the question that has preoccupied philosophers for millions of years: “What is the answer to life, the universe, and everything?”

After seven and a half million years of computation, Deep Thought finally announces the answer: Forty-two. In response to the programmers’ howls of disappointment and confusion, Deep Thought rather patiently points out that the reason his answer doesn’t make any sense is because their original question didn’t make any sense either. As I’ve written before, questions like this one, or the very similar “What is the meaning of life?” question, seem to be committing a basic category error: life isn’t the kind of thing to which the word “meaning” or “answer” applies.

But in this article I want to take my analysis a little further than that.

After all, in fairness to those poor, disappointed, pan-dimensional beings, it’s not always easy to figure out what question you need to ask to resolve the confusion that you’re feeling. And throughout the course of human history, many people have felt an overwhelming confusion when they contemplate life and the universe, and concluded that there must be some key which if they had it, would make them say: “Aha, now life makes sense.”

Of course, there isn’t necessarily going to be any such key.  But here, at least, is my diagnosis of the four most common reasons why people feel like there should be such a thing, and what The Hitchhiker’s Guide has to say about each of them:

#1: What’s the point of anything if we’re all going to be dead someday?

In The Hitchhiker’s Guide, Earth is demolished suddenly and unceremoniously by aliens called Vogons, who are clearing a path for a hyperspace bypass. Our real-life future may not hold a Vogon constructor fleet, but it definitely holds our demise. Eventually the human race will be wiped out, whether through war, or a virus, or some environmental disaster like an asteroid of the sort that did in the dinosaurs. Even if we manage to escape all those risks on Earth, eventually our Sun is going to expand, boiling away all of our oceans and atmosphere, and probably swallowing us up. And even if we manage to escape our solar system, eventually the universe will expand until it rips apart all of our individual molecules.

For many people, the fact that the world is going to end someday invalidates everything that happens up to that point. When Ford Prefect accidentally teleports two million years back in time to prehistoric Earth, he says as much to the people living there. “I’ve seen your future,” he tells them. “It doesn’t matter a pair of fetid dingo’s kidneys what you all choose to do from now on… Two million years you’ve got, and that’s it.”

It’s a common attitude. I’ve met many people who have argued that life is pointless since we’re all going to be dead someday. And you might remember the iconic scene at the beginning of Annie Hall in which Woody Allen’s character, as a young boy, has just found out that the universe is expanding. (“He won’t do his homework!” his mother shrieks, beside herself. “What’s the point?” little Woody glumly replies.)

In several ways, however, it’s an odd position to take. The assumption seems to be that if all paths lead to the same endpoint then it doesn’t matter what happens along the way.  But why should we place all the importance on the endpoint of our story and none on the rest of it? Does it really not matter to people whether humanity has a long and glorious existence, or a short and miserable existence, as long as both end in our destruction?

What’s even odder is that even if it weren’t the case that “we’re all going to be dead someday,” many people would still feel like life lacked meaning. There’s another Hitchhiker’s Guide character who represents a common fear about immortality: that it would be soul-crushingly dull. Wowbagger the Infinitely Prolonged, an alien who has had eternal life thrust upon him after a freak accident with an irrational particle accelerator, a pair of rubber bands and a liquid lunch, enjoys his immortality immensely at first. But then the ennui sets in:

“In the end, it was the Sunday afternoons he couldn’t cope with, and that terrible listlessness which starts to set in at about 2:55, when you know that you’ve had all the baths you can usefully have that day, that however hard you stare at any given paragraph in the papers you will never actually read it, or use the revolutionary new pruning technique it describes, and that as you stare at the clock the hands will move relentlessly on to four o’clock, and you will enter the long dark teatime of the soul.”

I don’t mean to suggest that we can know what the actual psychological effects of immortality would be. The reason I’m juxtaposing Ford’s attitude with Wowbagger’s is just because of what it reveals about our conception of meaning: if you feel that life lacks meaning if it’s all going to end someday and you feel that life would lack meaning if it’s going to last forever, then that says more about the incoherence of your own conception of meaning than it does about the nature of the universe.

#2: What’s the purpose of our existence?

At one point in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the characters are under attack by automated missiles. In desperation, Arthur activates their spaceship’s “Infinite Improbability Drive,” a new invention with the power to trigger vastly improbable events. The missiles promptly transform into a bowl of petunias and a sperm whale. As the confused whale plummets down through the atmosphere, his freshly-minted mind is racing with questions: “What’s happening? Er, excuse me, who am I? Hello? Why am I here? What’s my purpose in life? ”

Of course, we readers know that his life has no purpose. He’s just a random creation of the Improbability Drive, generated with no intent and for no end. And after a few paragraphs of excited rumination about the world and his place in it, the whale splatters onto the rocky surface of the planet below. It doesn’t take too much poetic license to see this as an encapsulation of human existence, boiled down to a minute and a half.

It’s true that scientists have a pretty solid explanation of the series of events that led to the existence of humanity. We’re still uncertain about how the very first life actually formed, but we have some good hypotheses, and we’re clear on the subsequent process of evolution which produced homo sapiens. But to many people, that isn’t an answer to the question of “why” we are here. When they ask “why” we exist, they don’t mean the question in a causal sense (i.e., “What was the series of events that caused our existence?”). They mean the question teleologically — they’re seeking some externally-bestowed purpose for our existence.

But what if our lives did have a predetermined purpose? And what if we could learn what it was? There’s no guarantee that it would yield the sense of meaning we crave. Just ask Arthur Dent, who finds out in The Hitchhiker’s Guide that the Earth was actually a giant computer program commissioned, paid for, and run by a race of hyperintelligent pandimensional beings… or, as we know them in our dimension, mice. For a concise rebuttal to the idea that discovering the purpose of our existence would give our lives meaning, you need look no farther than Arthur’s facial expression after he discovers his. I’d describe it less as “serene enlightenment,” and more as “dismayed bewilderment.”

 #3: How can any of our lives matter in the grand scheme of things?

Here’s how Douglas Adams describes the introduction to the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy:

“’Space,’ it says, ‘is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly hugely mindboggingly big it is. I mean you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist, but that’s just peanuts to space. Listen …’ and so on… The simple truth is that interstellar distances will not fit into the human imagination.”

My suspicion is that the enormity of the universe plays a key role in the sensation that life lacks meaning. Psychological research suggests that when we evaluate an act of charity, we don’t judge it based on the amount of good it would accomplish — we judge it based on the amount of good it would accomplish relative to the size of the problem. For example, one study found that people cared more about saving 4,500 refugees if they were told that the refugees lived in a camp of 11,000 than if they lived in a camp of 250,000. In both cases the same number of lives were at stake (4,500) but in the latter case saving those lives was judged less worthwhile because they seemed like just a drop in the proverbial ocean.

So you can see why contemplating the vast size of the universe might seem to rob life of meaning: however consequential our lives and our actions typically seem to us, they’re going to look pretty insignificant when we start comparing them to the universe as a whole. Who cares about humanity’s joys, agonies, and achievements? Divide them by an infinite universe and they dwindle to nothing.

That’s the logic behind one subplot in The Hitchhiker’s Guide in which a character invents something called the “Total Perspective Vortex.” It’s a fiendish contraption which, when you step inside it and turn it on, displays to you the entirety of existence. The shock of seeing how infinitely tiny you are in comparison to the universe immediately annihilates your brain. The takeaway: “If life is going to exist in a Universe of this size, then the one thing it cannot afford to have is a sense of proportion.”

#4: Things seem to happen without rhyme or reason.

So much of what happens in the world is random or unpredictable or unfair, at least compared to the orderly way we feel like things should work. We expect good deeds to be rewarded and bad deeds punished; we expect hard work to pay off and major events to yield lessons or morals.

Absurdist fiction and theater tries to capture what it feels like to have those expectations upended. In the worlds of the absurdist master Franz Kafka, people wake up to find themselves transformed into giant bugs, or put on trial and convicted of unspecified crimes. The examples are fantastical, but the feelings are real: the world makes no sense, and you’re a small, helpless and insignificant entity being tossed around by vast forces you will never comprehend.

Although it’s more lighthearted in tone, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has a strong absurdist streak, especially in the incongruity between causes and their effects. In The Hitchhiker’s Guide, the Earth is destroyed mere minutes before the completion of its multi-billion-year program, just so some aliens can build a highway. Devastating wars are triggered when a trivial comment falls through a freak wormhole into another time and place. And the entire universe is ruled by a simple-minded hermit who isn’t sure whether anything exists outside his little shack.

So where did we get our futile expectations of an orderly world? One plausible hypothesis is that the ability to pick up on patterns and causal relationships evolved to help our ancestors notice predators hiding in the bushes, learn to avoid poisonous fruits, figure out where the best fishing spots were, and so on. And if pattern-seeking is a survival skill, it’s also not surprising that it goes into overdrive when we feel threatened or helpless. Recent experimental evidence shows that when people are feeling vulnerable, they’re more likely to see correlations in financial data; to perceive objects in randomly-generated visual noise; to believe conspiracy theories; and to see cause-and-effect relationships between events with no logical connection, like a man stamping his foot three times before a business meeting and then succeeding in his business pitch.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide offers a cheeky explanation for the absurdity of the world: the confusing things that happened to us were all part of an experiment run by mice. In fact, the narrator says, it is very odd that Earth humans were not aware of that fact. “Because without that fairly simple and obvious piece of knowledge,” he says, “nothing that ever happened on Earth could possibly make the slightest bit of sense.”