4 Philosophical Questions Examined in Light of The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

23:45 Mon 23 May 2011. Updated: 15:05 12 Mar 2012
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Unsurprisingly, yesterday’s explorations of scale led me to ponder questions of meaning and meaninglessness, and reminded me of this excellent article by Julia Galef over at 3 Quarks Daily. The answer, of course, must be 42; the questions Galef addresses are:

  1. What’s the point of anything if we’re all going to be dead someday?
  2. What’s the purpose of our existence?
  3. How can any of our lives matter in the grand scheme of things?
  4. Things seem to happen without rhyme or reason.

(Presumably the last one should have been “why do things seem to happen without rhyme or reason?”)

Galef’s explorations are more interesting and amusing than mine, and you should read the article, but what’s a blog for if not to grapple with questions like these?

Galef cites Wittgenstein at the start of her post, and Wittgenstein is quite relevant to these questions. What does “the point of something” even mean? The first question might be better as “doesn’t the fact that we’re all going to die deprive our existence of any possible meaning?”

To that, of course, I say, “look upon my works, ye mighty, and despair!” Although Galef’s take on this is excellent, contrasting our belief that our mortality renders our actions meaningless with our belief that immortality would render them meaningless in a different way, I see this as a different way of addressing scale; this and the third question are very similar, and all of the questions could be at least partly restated as:

  1. What is the purpose of our existence (if we’re all going to die (and our lifespans are insignificant with respect to the Universe))?
  2. What is the purpose of our existence (if we’re a tiny speck in the larger Universe and our wildest successes magnified a billion times could never affect more than an infinitesimal sliver of the Universe)?
  3. What is the purpose of our existence (if the Universe is random and there is no system or set of rules to guide it or us)?

The purpose is what we make it. Each of us, for ourselves, and perhaps in solidarity with each other. But we have to recognize that the purpose comes only from within us; any reference to greater forces is a desire to avoid this terrible responsibility.

I don’t mean that to sound as if I’m above it—I’m not, as I certainly live my life as if external rules applied to it. I don’t mean the positive ethical “rules” that I consider entirely reasonable; I mean a host of others I’m not always even aware of, social programming and just a general sense that I should take things seriously… while the facts of existence as laid out in those questions argue quite hard indeed against taking things seriously, and for a joyously hedonistic approach to life (note that I don’t mean this in the narrow sense; also note that regardless of any levels of meaninglessness we should treat each other well).

There is nothing after death: we have our given span, and that is all; this applies to each of us individually, to our societies, our cultures, our planet, our star, our galaxy, our universe.

The universe is unspeakably vast: if we are to find meaning, it is not in our affecting that vastness in any way.

Randomness and tremendously complex systems whose workings can be altered by tiny unpredictable fluctuations are dominant pillars of our reality—further, those pillars are entirely indifferent to us: meaning will not come from deciphering a larger system of any kind.

We can and should refer to the wisdom of others, but must ultimately each decide for ourselves, and on some level, no matter how hard we cling to the idea that we’re serving some “objective” purpose, we all know this to be true. Since we must decide for ourselves, better to do it knowingly and openly.

“No eternal reward will forgive us now for wasting the dawn.”—Jim Morrison

I haven’t thought of that line in years, and I don’t think I’ve considered it in this context, but it makes sense to me here. Morrison might not have meant, as I do, that there is no eternal reward, but I think he did mean that no dawn should be wasted, ever.

How not to waste the dawn, however, is left as an exercise for the reader.

2 Responses to “4 Philosophical Questions Examined in Light of The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

  1. jeffliveshere Says:

    You are likely already aware that your position regarding creating meaning (and of not attempting to avoid responsibility for creating meaning) is Sartre’s position, sketched out nicely in his article “Existentialism is a Humanism”. http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/sartre/works/exist/sartre.htm

  2. Tadhg Says:

    Yes, I’ve been strongly influenced by Sartre’s viewpoint on this, and my reaction to first encountering, in college, his take on it (in that essay) was, “that makes sense”; no alternative to it has made sense to me since.

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