I just finished reading the excellent collection Philosophy and the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, edited by Nicholas Joll, a must for anyone who has ever been captivated by Douglas Adams’ comic genius and its scientific and philosophical undertones. Here I am going to briefly comment on a single table that appears in the last essay of the volume, “The funniest of all improbable worlds — Hitchhiker’s as philosophical satire,” by Alexander Pawlak and Joll himself. It’s a table about several potential meanings of the phrase “the meaning of life” and how they are related to each other.
Of course, a major feature of the plot of the Guide is precisely our heroes’ quest for the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything. The answer turns out to be “42,” at least according to Deep Thought, a supercomputer constructed by an alien race for the sole purpose of answering said question. When the somewhat disappointed builders of Deep Thought asked what sense should they make of such a superficially meaningless and preposterously simple answer, they were told that the real quest had just begun. You see, the big prize is not, as so many had assumed, the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything. The real deal is to find out the question that made sense of the answer, 42. But even Deep Thought did not have the computational power to uncover the fundamental question, so a much bigger computer, running for much longer, should be built to accomplish the new task. That computer eventually became known to human beings as “Earth,” and it was destroyed just five minutes before it achieved its objective, for the mundane purpose of building an interstellar bypass to ease local traffic (the plans to do so, and the forms to complain about, had been locked in a basement on Alpha Centauri for 50 years). If you want to know the rest of the story, you better get going reading The Hitchhiker’s Guide, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, Mostly Harmless, Life, the Universe and Everything, and So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish, which all together comprise the standard Adams canon in this respect.
But back to Pawlak and Joll’s essay in the volume exploring the philosophical underpinnings of the Guide. The authors set out to explore the possible meanings of the above mentioned ultimate question of life, the universe and everything (henceforth, UQLU&E), together with some of the answers that philosophers and scientists have come up with so far.
To begin with, according to Pawlak and Joll, UQLU&E could mean that one is interested in life’s character. This could be that of a comedy, a tragedy, or an unintelligible farce; or it could be about suffering, or struggle; or perhaps the character of life is just whatever you make of it. Needless to say, my strong intuition is that the character of existence is whatever we make of it, because there is no independent intelligent agency that might have set things in motion for any particular reason (I do occasionally entertain the so-called simulation hypothesis, which would entail a different answer, but I guess I don’t take such an alternative seriously enough for sustained consideration — at least not without a couple of martinis).
Naturally, if one is a religious believer of some sort one also thinks that the character of life is likely to be one of the others mentioned by Pawlak and Joll, depending on your taste in matters of gods and the supernatural (if you are Christian, you may go for suffering; if a stoic perhaps for struggle; if an Ancient Greek comedian, for comedy, and if a tragedian, for tragedy). The point is that the sort of answer you pick for the character of existence, following Pawlak and Joll’s reasoning, is entailed by a particular choice for the second meaning of the question: life’s cause.
Choices on offer here include god(s), some combination of scientific explanation (Big Bang followed by Darwinian evolution — Pawlak and Joll here seem for some reason to think that these two are independent alternatives, but they are clearly not), or “something else.” It is hard to imagine what a third alternative might look like (again, except for the Tron-like scenario offered up by the simulation hypothesis!), so we really have just two competitors — though they do come in a number of possible flavors: supernaturalistic or scientific explanation. Again, it will come as no surprise to readers of this blog that I think this is another slam dunk, in favor of the latter possibility. This is for a number of reasons, but the fundamental ones include: a) a “supernatural explanation” is really an oxymoron, as invoking supernatural forces explains precisely nothing; b) there is no evidential or conceptual reason on earth why anyone should take the existence of gods seriously; and c) we do have a number of very good, if always incomplete and revisable, scientific accounts of the causes of the universe.
Which brings us to Pawlak and Joll’s third meaning of the UQLU&E: the purpose of life. The link the authors suggest is that the cause (second meaning) is explained by the purpose, but I actually think they've gotten things exactly backwards here: once we agree on a most likely cause for life, the universe and everything, then we can reason about the possible options concerning its purpose. These options include some sort of assignment by a higher being, a type of purpose that can be found or discovered by us, or a purpose that can be made up or constructed by us. Notice that these three possibilities really are containers of sorts, each representing a family of possible answers. For instance, even if we agree that the cause of the universe is the creative act of a god, and that that implies a particular purpose for us that was present in the mind of that god when it created the world, it doesn’t follow that the purpose in question is of any particular type. Depending on the (unknown, and likely unknowable) character of said god, our purpose could vary from mere entertainment to the fulfillment of a cosmically narcissistic desire for attention. (Similarly, if the simulation hypothesis is correct, we may turn out to exist for the programmers’ entertainment, or perhaps to satisfy their scientific-philosophical curiosity about what happens in different “possible worlds.”)
My preferred answer here is, not surprisingly, that we make up the purpose of life as we go, and that we have a (not unlimited) number of options. More specifically, I think that a good way to think about the purpose of one’s life is within the virtue ethical framework first established by Aristotle and other Ancient Greek philosophers: that purpose is to live a eudaimonic, i.e., a morally right flourishing existence. Other options provided by other philosophies include, of course, the existentialist idea of living an authentic life, the stoic discovery of the distinction between what one can and cannot do, the Epicurean quest for ataraxia (similar to the Buddhist one for Enlightenment) and so on. The issue of the purpose of existence is an excellent reason to study philosophy, just like the issue of the cause of our existence is a splendid reason to study science.
Finally, Pawlak and Joll bring us to the fourth interpretation of the UQLU&E: what is life’s import, i.e., what should one do with one’s life? They vaguely say that this latter sense of the UQLU&E is related to the other three, because those three have “some relevance” to the fourth one. But I think the relationship is actually more specific than that: the issue of the import of life follows directly from the issue of the meaning of life.
Pawlak and Joll here provide a panoply of choices to their readers. Perhaps the import of life is that we should not bother to do anything (Camus’ famous contention that suicide is the most important question in philosophy comes to mind), or we should just live and let live (not the most awful advice, really), or strive to minimize suffering, or to create beautiful things; or perhaps we should think of life itself as a work of art, to labor on throughout our existence; or maybe we should concentrate on increasing our knowledge, or striving to achieve “oneness” with all things (whatever that means), or finally to “do what thou wilt, and that is the whole of the law.
Once again, this is the sort of quest for which philosophy will equip you well. Indeed, you may have recognized a number of philosophical precepts in the above list: some sense of becoming one with all things is a major goal of Buddhism and other mystical approaches; to minimize suffering is one of the laudable goals of a number of religious traditions; to treat your life as a work in progress, as well as to use it to increase your knowledge is the eudaimonic ideal mentioned above. The point is that the answer to the question of purpose is a matter of one’s theoretical philosophy, while the issue of the import is best treated as one of practical philosophy, and the two are obviously intimately connected.
The nice table that Pawlak and Joll have put together may also serve to illustrate one of my recurring interests on this blog: the exploration of the nature of the relationship between science and philosophy. I have said above that the cause aspect of the UQLU&E is best dealt with by science, while discussions of both purpose and import are more clearly philosophical in nature. Notice, then, that the availability of a sound scientific account of the causes of the universe does favor certain philosophical approaches to purpose and import and disfavor others. But the scientific answers strongly underdetermine the philosophical options on offer. That is, if we agree that the universe came about because of the Big Bang, and that human life is the result of a process of Darwinian evolution, we can exclude some options under purpose and import, but we are still left with pretty much no guidance on the remaining alternatives. Does the choice of a eudaimonic life follow from the Big Bang? Clearly not. Is a quest to minimize suffering, or to become one with all things logically entailed by Darwinian evolution? Again, not at all. So the scientific answers pertinent to some aspects of the UQLU&E constrain, but by no means pinpoint, the philosophical answers, reflecting what I think is a general picture of the relationship between the two disciplines.
What, then, is the status of the first of Pawlak and Joll’s considered meanings of the question of meaning, the one concerning character? As we have seen, they suggest that life’s character might be explained by the causes of life, and I think they are correct. Since I prefer the scientific causal explanation, I am left with only the option that the character of life is whatever we make of it. But that, in turn, is a philosophically broad container which, again, is underdetermined by the underlying scientific answer, thereby again fitting the general scheme just proposed. As Douglas Adams would say, so long, and thanks for all the fish.
Massimo Pigliucci has a Doctorate in Genetics from the University of Ferrara (Italy), a PhD in Evolutionary Biology from the University of Connecticut, and a PhD in Philosophy from the University of Tennessee. He has done post-doctoral research in evolutionary ecology at Brown University and is currently Chair of the Philosophy Department at Lehman College and Professor of Philosophy at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. His research interests include the philosophy of biology, in particular the structure and foundations of evolutionary theory, the relationship between science and philosophy, the relationship between science and religion, and the nature of pseudoscience.
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