January 17, 2011
Douglas Adams and the "Grand" Reflection
In the beginning the Universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move.
- The Restaurant at the End of the Universe
A Short History of DNA
Douglas Noel Adams was a best-selling British writer, born in 1952. (As you may have noticed, he had the distinct pleasure of having “DNA” as his initials.) He studied literature at Cambridge, UK, after being extended an invite on the basis of his essay writing. It appears he wanted to be part of the great university to join the the Footlights, an exclusive comedy club that was the springboard for many British comedians. There were various incredible opportunities that flew into Adams’ life, such as: being noticed by Python, Graham Chapman; being one of two non-Pythons to get a writing credit in Monty Python; performing with the likes of Pink Floyd (my favourite band) because he was friends with the incredible David Gilmour; and so on. More importantly, for us, was a radio-series he pitched to BBC Radio 4 in 1977, called The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
His Hitchhiker series was not constrained to only one medium, of course. It began as this radio-show, then leaked into other mediums: a television series, a stage show, a three part DC Comics series, a computer game, and a major film. More importantly it became a series of books. Being bored easily by sounds, the written-version (and computer game) is my favourite medium of Adams’ universal message of weirdness, brilliance and the overall irony of existence in an uncaring universe.
The overarching story in The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy (now shortened to H2G2) is about Arthur Dent who is a dreary British Earthman (a tautology to many). Dent is friends with Ford Prefect - who is not in fact from Guildford, as he claims but “a small planet somewhere in the vicinity of Betelgeuse.” In the beginning of the story, Earth is destroyed by horrible aliens called Vogons - who appear to be based on any Home Affairs Department anywhere in the world. They are making way for a “hyperspace bypass”; an event that mirrors Dent’s troubles in the beginning of the books where his own house is about to be destroyed to make way for a bypass. (The idea of mirroring houses and planets will return later in this essay.)
From there, Dent finds himself transported all over the universe experiencing adventures that involve: hunting couches, the true nature of humanity, the bored and postmodernist ruler of the Universe (not god), god’s Final Message to his Creation, the evils of making tea, time-travel, and, famously, a cynical bowl of petunias and the first and final thoughts of a sperm whale.
We discover fascinating details about humans in the series. For example, the Guide tells us something rather interesting about human arrogance: “on the planet Earth, man had always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much—the wheel, New York, wars and so on—whilst all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed that they were far more intelligent than man—for precisely the same reasons."
Yet, what makes these books and the whole series so important is the reflection that is thrust upon us as a species. Adams manages to deflate the petty worries and doubts of everyday human concerns by juxtaposing it to the movements and thoughts of greater, more intelligent alien-life forms: Beings who can create planets, talk to the controller of the universe, go to different dimensions and times, and so on. But throughout, he still manages to compact everyday human concerns but mock them at the same time.
Under the Aspect of Eternity
In Adams’ universe, humans are not special creatures. We are mocked by all the alien species for not even being able to reach Alpha Centauri to read the notification of the hyperspace bypass. The narrator describes Earth and us, in the beginning of H2G2: “[there is] an utterly insignificant little blue green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.”
Insignificant? This is indeed how some people view Earth and human life, on the cosmic scale, because there is no grand cosmic purpose of which we are part of. With the realisation of a meaningless existence, sub specie aeternitatis or “under the aspect of eternity”, comes numerous ways of reacting to it. Many people say if there is no meaning, whether its god or religion or astrology or alien-warfare, then it is better to commit suicide. The great Algerian existentialist, Albert Camus, replied that ‘absurdity’ is our situation. We are a species who yearn for rationality and stability, care and compassion, and thrust these wishes onto the empty, uncaring canvas of the universe or reality. Our death and, indeed, our life are meaningless to the universe. When our species becomes extinct - barring rapid technology that will see us live forever - no one will mourn the silence from this planet if this planet is even still here.
But many consider Camus’ pronouncements unbecoming. Michael Martin, the greatest living philosopher of nonbelief, says that Camus’ view that people really do live with these expectations is false. Maybe Camus thought that, but Martin doesn’t think most people do. Martin, for example, says that not even scientists want a perfectly rational universe or thrust this on to their canvas of exploration. He says even the idea of “theories of everything” are philosophically problematic, as any complexity theorist will say.
Martin also tells us about Thomas Nagel’s refinement of Camus conclusions. Here is Nagel’s argument as outlined by Martin in Martin’s Atheism: A Philosophical Justification:
(1) When we view our life sub specie aeternitatis, our goals, aspirations, and the like seem arbitrary.
(2) If our goals, aspirations, and the like seem arbitrary and we do not disengage from life, then our life is absurd.
(3) We do sometimes view our life sub specie aeternitatis.
(4) We do not disengage from life.
(5) Therefore, our life is absurd.
Martin says we have no reason to accept (1) and (3). Martin says: “Perhaps it may seem to us in … reflective moments as if we are viewing our life sub specie aeternitatis. But we clearly are not - only an omniscient being could do this - and the perspective that we take should not be dignified in these terms. We are merely looking at our life from another point of view from which our goals and aspirations have no importance.” Martin refines points (1) and (3) by inserting “what seems like” or “seems”; so it seems to us that we are looking at it from the aspect of eternity, but Martin claims this is just “one” view. It also does not mean we are truly looking at it from the perspective of an omniscient being.
Martin hints that when people say our lives are meaningless, they automatically equate it with viewing life sub specie aeternitatis. Martin says there is no automatic reason to equate the two views, even though they might have the same conclusion (though by definition we could never know since we are not omniscient beings).
Strangely, if we could make a judgment sub specie aeternitatis we would be omniscient beings. And if we were omniscient beings, there is a high chance we might make a completely different argument about our “meaning” and “purpose”.
A Mote of Dust in a Sunbeam, or, How Far Does Poetic Licence Take You?
The fact that we live at the bottom of a deep gravity well, on the surface of a gas covered planet going around a nuclear fireball 90 million miles away and think this to be normal is obviously some indication of how skewed our perspective tends to be.
- The Salmon of Doubt
Nonetheless, we are here on this “insignificant” blue-green planet, this tiny “meaningless” pale blue dot. And we do call it our home. As if to contrast this view, Carl Sagan poetically elaborates on this grand reflection, that looks at Earth like a full-stop written with a ball-point pen on a canvas of stars.
Look again at that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there--on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.
Whilst this is very pretty, it doesn’t do enough. It’s all very good and well to locate ourselves, to consider that every meaningful thing for us as a species is located here, but I think Camus’ absurdity remains. There remains an incongruent relationship between the way we want the world to be and the way the world is; we can call this absurdity, irony, strangeness, or, indeed, reality. But it remains.
(It seems to me to simply be reality. All articulated when Alfonso X, in the thirteenth century, declared that if he were god he could design a better world. That marks the birth of modernist thought, according to philosophers like Susan Neiman - i.e. the gap between is and ought.)
It seems to me, we are still trying to emerge from the view that there is more to life than the mountains and the river and our tribe, and indeed our species (our eyes naturally don’t travel very far when looking from the ground); we are still expanding our horizons to take into account that somewhere, someone has never felt hot water on her skin or not starved; we are still further trying to understand that our planet spins around a nuclear-charged disaster waiting to happen; and then trying to fit this into a space so far beyond most of our minds we just think of it as a long strip of black cloth decorated with glitter. It’s a universe of destruction, with stars being obliterated whilst we’re still admiring its pretty light millions of light-years away, where entire solar-systems are swallowed whole; where we might be the only entities to consider ourselves existing.
Yes, we might look on Earth as a place where all our desires and hopes and love exist. But for now, it is isolated in silence. A pale blue mote, floating next to a roaring gas ball. Around us is either the silence of fellow communicating creatures or the explosions of planets and star-systems being “eaten” by super-massive black-holes.
Adams manages to bridge both the gaps of my view, which perhaps we can term ironic-pessimism, and the poetic-hopefulness of Sagan. Adams recognises that we care about this little, “insignificant” planet. But here is a useful question that he hints at: beyond the Guide, beyond the fiction, by whose standards is our planet or sun insignificant?
Remember, that we certainly cannot make such a statement, since that would require, as Michael Martin says, an omniscience we are not capable of. Which is why we should have a problem when great communicators like Sagan say: “We find that we live on an insignificant planet of a humdrum star lost between two spiral arms in the outskirts of a galaxy, tucked away in some forgotten corner of a universe in which there are far more galaxies than people.” (From Cosmos. Emphasis added.)
It’s poetic licence for Adams but not for Sagan. Sagan is a science-writer not a science-fiction writer. By whose standards is he saying “insignificant” and “humdrum”? The only perspective we have is our own, after all we are the filters. Notice too that this contradicts the previous quotation where he waxed poetic on the significance of Earth.
The planet is certainly not insignificant for me. It is my home. Consider your own home: It might be one house out of many, in a road that twists like any other, in a country amongst others on a massive, planet, which isl... etc. You can do this and thus engage in poetic elaborations, but it reaches a point where it becomes silly.
Perhaps according to some city official, your house is meaningless: one among many. But certainly you don’t feel that way. You would feel something if it was slowly being eroded, hacked at, defaced and so on. But that is what, in some way, is happening to our planet (don’t worry I’m not going to start an eco-warrior rant).
So why the sudden leap, from Sagan, to say our home planet is insignificant? Would he say the same thing about his own home, his family and loved ones (who are merely one random group of people, amongst many, etc.)? Of course not. Also, in his contradictory paragraph that I quoted before, we know Sagan genuinely did care about the planet.
Thus, it seems, science- and other non-fiction writers need to be wary of using terms like “insignificant” or “meaningless” to emphasise their points. Because we must ask: from whose perspective are they judging our planet insignificant? We are no omniscient beings.
Adams refines this by carefully balancing our ideas of insignificance. Throughout the series, Arthur Dent is constantly challenged about loving his silly blue planet - silly to alien creatures, that is. But it’s his home. It’s where he comes from. His bizarre and irritating daughter, Random, suffers from universal isolation since she was born mid-flight in a space-ship. Her longing for a home turns her into a raving lunatic. Adams juxtaposes this with Dent who did know a home but watched its destruction.
Who has it worse? Someone who watched his home being destroyed or someone who never had one?
Amidst the rip-roaring adventures, the sheer scale and idiocy of the things Arthur Dent encounters (did I mention the fleeing couch? The bowl of petunias? How about a singular being he has killed more than a thousand times by accident, but who is constantly reincarnated only to be killed again by Dent?), Arthur still longs for Earth.
Because one thing Adams understands is that things are so bizarre already. And when I say bizarre, I hope I have articulated why and not simply asserted. Because to me, life is strange, it is bizarre. It is not rational or perfectly sound. Humans are entities that would, as Bertrand Russell said, rather die than think. We are beings that make up cosmic fairy-tales to believe in to comfort ourselves because of a fear of death, feelings of meaninglessness, and so on. Yet all science points in the direction of finitude of our lives and our existence. There is no reason to believe in souls or gods or cosmic scales or karma or astrology or ghosts.
Yet, people continue to do so.
The rhetoric involved must be carefully monitored. What Adams made me realise was the tendency to extrapolate on meaningless and irony and silliness of human life toward a cosmic view. That’s why so many nonbelievers find the answer from atheists that life is meaningless, by every possible standard outside the boring human one, so disconcerting. We appear disposed to view life this way, as some cosmic adventure narrative, drawn by the horses of meaning and the chariot of faith.
What makes the H2G2 series compelling is viewing it through the only perspective we know: the human one. Sure we might have some refined human views, say the millions of other people and their efforts to finally view germs, not demons, as the source of sickness. Let us call this view “science” because of its ability to make provable statements; that is, views we are all capable of perceiving, despite the best intentions of dissenters. In a way, we might agree with Neil deGrasse Tyson, who says we should just replace the word “science” with “reality”. Or recall Philip K. Dick who said: “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away.” No matter how much you think everything is relative, leaping off a skyscraper will still result in the same end: the pavement. Gravity doesn’t care about your views about it and will still treat you the same as Adams’ bowl of petunias.
My point is that whilst we can improve on how we perceive the world, we do it from no other perspectives but our own, whether its the rough estimations that brought into beings gods and monsters, or the refined views of science that cures polio and smallpox despite kn0w-nothing ignorant people like Jenny McCarthy.
This refinement, as I’ve iterated, is merely working on the human view - since we have no others. Science shows that we are, often, wrong about reality. “It is not common sense to believe that the earth is a sphere, or that it orbits the sun, or that planets and billiard balls all obey the same laws of motion, or that things continue moving in straight lines unless acted upon by an external force.” But when we are wrong, we can discover why.
There is no other view, no omniscient perspective to work from. That is why, regardless of one’s interests in religion or science, talking from the perspectives of meaningless of our planet is simply unhelpful. Indeed, when we extrapolate further and say human effort overall is meaningless, we come to similar problems. Because we can ask again - indeed, we can challenge Camus and Nagel - from what view are we assessing meaninglessness?
The Tawdry Omniscient View of Meaning
Life’s value, we discover, is what we give to it: here, now and to each other. It’s boring in that it’s simple. Since there is no evidence to suggest any religions’ claims remotely true, that god exists, that Jesus will come back with a bang and a flash and mighty vengeful attitude, we can conclude that there are no omniscient deities at all. Adams’ fictions tells us it is silly to regard our planet as meaningless, despite the awesome events that occur to Arthur Dent. The planet still means something to him.
Indeed, it will always mean something to us as species, even if we travelled all around the universe (we could make an argument for those whose lives were truly awful, but I will leave that for now). Therefore it is not meaningless. Similarly, our lives are not meaningless in the sense that we give our lives meaning everyday. Perhaps some yearn for some cosmic narrative, some purpose that is higher than everyday concerns. But we have earth-based, as opposed to Heaven-based, initiatives which cater for that: adoption homes, AIDS relief, women’s rights organisations, refugee facilities, etc. These are initiatives bigger than any one individual and actually have a worthwhile impact here and now.
To beings who can leap across the Galaxy instantaneously, our concerns might seem petty. Perhaps one day we will meet some that will scorn our worry over resource shortages, for example. But that is speculation, an unknown future and, for now, merely fiction. The major confusion, to me, is making this fiction real. This is the fault of religious believers, of course, but I’ve been noticing it in nonbelievers too, as I showed with Sagan. Indeed, I was the same, until Adams’ corrected me recently “beyond the grave” (as they say).
It’s a problem because it gives in to the notion we can derive meaning from anywhere other than boring everyday concerns that gets us out of bed everyday. It’s apparently less exciting because there is no grand cosmic purpose we can perceive. It’s difficult because it seems built into our discourse. What I’m asking is a change. Because when we stop talking about meaninglessness from a cosmic perspective, we can start talking about meaning from a human one. It is from here, and only here, that we can derive meaning.
For this reason, I’ve always been sceptical - if not antagonistic - toward any entity, book or person, which says it will give you meaning if you read it, listen to it, embrace its message. Meaning is boring because its not cosmic or magical or filled with fighting gods. There is nothing magical here, only human. And therefore does not need more than the occassional acknowledgement, slight shift in gear or tucking in of its shirt. Perhaps you can accuse me of doing what I hate: giving you another way to look at meaning. But then you would be making nonsense of my claim, since I’m merely deflating your expectations on what meaning is or, rather, should be. I am doing nothing more than that. I do not see the point even in non-theistic self-help fluff and eloquent diatribes on quite boring ideals.
Take it as you will. Just remember: DON’T PANIC. Life is absurd and boring and strange, or perhaps hard and difficult and painful. Whatever it is for you, I can offer you no advice on how to make it better except perhaps to realise whatever the solution no god is helping you and the universe really doesn’t care. But does that make your life meaningless? Hardly. It’s yours after all.
And if you decide you no longer find it meaningful I would also support anyone who wanted to end it.
Are Our Lives Mostly Harmless?
There is a scene in Mostly Harmless (Book 5 of 3), where Arthur meets his estranged daughter for the first time. An extract from a parenting book appears but it is one which fittingly elaborates on the theme of being human, whilst also being aware of the cosmic spaces that we live in.
We... live in strange places: each a universe of our own. The people with whom we populate our universes are the shadows of whole other universes intersecting with our own. Being able to glance out into this bewildering complexity of infinite recursion and say things like, ‘Oh, hi, Ed! Nice tan. How’s Carol?’ involves a great deal of filtering skill for which all conscious entities have eventually to develop a capacity in order to protect themselves from the contemplation of the chaos through which they seethe and tumble.
So yes. Let us find meaning here because we can get it no other way. And anyone who says to you that he can is either lying, deluded or mistaken. Because even if god swooped down on a cloud of sunshine and fire-breathing horses, in a chariot powered by orphan’s tears and relayed the meaning of life to some Prophet, it would still be a human being filtering this divine information. Is it any wonder that the supposedly infallible word of god contradicts itself, doesn’t even know of Australia or germs (not to be confused with each other)? We are dealing with humans and their search for meaning.
Let us acknowledge that. Because as soon as we start saying our lives or our planet from a cosmic perspective is meaningless, we are no longer engaged in science but science-fiction - divisions Douglas Adams knew how to straddle all too well.
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 bizarre and inexplicable.
There is another theory which states that this has already happened.
- The Restaurant at the End of the Universe
Posted by Tauriq Moosa at 12:10 AM | Permalink