Friday, September 21, 2007

Age Of The Answer

Yes, I've reached the Age of the Answer - 42!

For those who haven't the faintest idea what that means, there's two parts to it. One - the rather more banal part is that today is my 42nd birthday. Yay! (I guess... ;) No, seriously, I'm fine with that, and have had a really pleasant day. No big party, but I have treated myself nicely and been treated nicely by the people I love, and am now winding down with my boy.

Why the Answer, though? Well, that's a lot more amusing. If you haven't read Douglas Adams' "Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy" series, you are really missing out; they are some of the funniest books out there, and Adams also manages to slip in some deep observations as part of the humor. The story of the Answer is one such.


A group of hyperintelligent pan-dimensional beings decide that they're fed up with all the bickering about the meaning of it all, so they construct a computer called Deep Thought to tell them the Answer to Life, the Universe and Everything. Deep Thought is so brilliant that when it is accidentally switched on early, even without any data banks hooked up it begins with "I think therefore I am" and gets as far as deducing the existence of income tax and rice pudding before anyone manages to switch it off again.

(Note the cute philosophical point Adams has slipped in here; Descartes made a brilliant observation about the subjective nature of the human experience when he noted that the mere fact of being able to think proves to an individual that he she or it exists - but how can one go from there to proving that anything else exists? All the rest of it, income tax and rice pudding included, could be the ravings of a disordered mind. It may seem unlikely, and no doubt is, but such a theory cannot ultimately be proved incorrect.)

When the day of the Great On-Turning finally arrives, Deep Thought asks the programmers to state why they have created it, the second greatest computer in all time and space (even though it transparently already knows why). They ask for the Answer to Life the Universe and Everything, but they're a bit perplexed at the self-description since they were pretty sure they'd built the greatest. Before they can get to the bottom of it, though, they're interrupted by two professional philosophers, who object to the idea on the grounds that a definitive Answer would put them out of business! They demand rigidly defined and precisely demarcated areas of doubt and uncertainty in preference to absolute certainty.

(Doesn't this sound exactly like the whittering of any number of modern-day theologians, amateur and professional, who object so strongly to the temerity of those who would examine questions of religion with the tools of science and critical thinking? It's all very fine for making the technology and the medecine, but to critically examine religious ideas is just not on.)

Deep Thought informs them that, while its circuits are now irrevocably committed to finding the Answer, it's going to have to think about it for a bit - seven and a half million years to be exact! In the meantime they can make fortunes for themselves by speculating on what form the Answer will ultimately take. The philosophers are duly impressed - "Now that's what I call thinking! Why don't we ever think of things like that?" "Dunno, reckon our brains must be too highly trained."

(Adams is slyly pointing out that ultimate Answers don't necessarily have much to do with the business of living from day to day, and that we don't really think in spans at all appropriate to the Universe at large; seven and a half million years is an eyeblink to the Universe, but to us it's a span of time we can't really concieve of, far too long for any reasonable project.)

As well as being hyperintelligent, these particular pan-dimensional beings are able to maintain focus on a project. Seven and a half million years later they are ready and waiting. Deep thought confirms that it does have the Answer, that it is simple, and that it will indeed give it to them. But it warns them, "You're not going to like it." The answer, as you've doubtless figured out, is 42. Deep Thought points out that they've never really known what the Question was, and that's why the Answer doesn't make much sense to them. Naturally they ask it if it can tell them what the Question is, but Deep Thought says no, that's too tricky even for it!

(Daniel Dennet is very fond of pointing out that most of philosophy is a matter of finding good questions, rather than definitive answers. That's why his focus is less on whether gods exist, and more on why we humans are generally so enamored of the notion that they do.)

However, Deep Thought is able and willing to help them build an even bigger and better computer to calculate the Question. This computer will be so large and complex it will resemble a planet, and they themselves will go onto it and help guide its program. This new computer is named by Deep Thought: the Earth! "What a dull name." Sadly, after running for four and a half billion years, the Earth is destroyed five minutes before it is due to output the Question, to make room for a hyperspatial bypass just as a new type of ship makes hyperspatial bypasses obsolete.

(Even if the world has a purpose, there's no guarantee that it's a good one, or that it will be fulfilled; stupidity, randomness and chaos are forces too, and may be as strong as intelligence, purpose and order, whether we like the idea or not.)

As it happens, one Earthman, Arthur Dent, does escape the catastrophe (by hitching a ride on the prototype of the aforementioned new type of ship) with the Question embedded in his brain. After many adventures in time and space, he does figure a way to output the Question, which turns out to be "What do you get when you multiply six by nine?" As Arthur comments, "I always thought there was something fundamentally wrong with the Universe."

Actually, the process was messed up from the beginning, as the program was corrupted by the accidental inclusion of the most useless types of human beings into the program - the Neanderthals, it turns out, are not our ancestors; we are descended from hairdressers and telephone sanitizers. The rest of humanity, incidentally, was wiped out by a disease contracted by a dirty telephone.

(So who's really useless, after all?)


Well, perhaps I am, and perhaps not; certainly I'm unlikely ever to know the Question. I've reached the Answer, though, and I'm finishing out this day a pretty contented guy! :)

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