Beneath its deliciously absurd humor, The Hitchhiker's Guide to Galaxy (2005) raises some serious questions about the meaning and purpose of sentient existence, even as it mocks the endeavor of philosophical inquiry. I will briefly examine the film's treatment of these questions, and suggest why its proposed solution - or rather, deliberate avoidance of a solution - is ultimately unsatisfactory in the actual human condition.
Only minutes into the film, the viewer is invited to accept the premise that the entire enterprise of humanity is insignificant and pointless. The entire planet is destroyed by a bureaucratic species, the Vogons, in order to make way for an interstellar highway. This sequence is presented in overt parallelism with the plight of our protagonist, Arthur Dent, whose home is destroyed by a soulless bureaucracy shortly before humanity as a whole suffers a similar fate. Everything for which an individual strives vanishes to nothing before a faceless social machinery. If the life of each individual is so futile, why should we expect better for humanity as a whole?
In a display of comic irony, the Vogons do not see themselves as passionless drones, but sincerely believe they have the gift of poetry. They are dreadfully mistaken about their own talent, yet the seriousness of their attempts suggests that they do seek something in life beyond the mechanisms of control they have created - perhaps it is love. At any rate, we are not treated to a mushy, cliché change of heart, and the Vogons soon revert to character, where they remain for the rest of the film.
After some exposition, we eventually learn that millions of years ago, the leaders of an intelligent species asked their supercomputer to calculate the ultimate answer about "life, the universe, and everything." The narrator suggests they did this only so people would stop bothering them about it, not because they were seriously troubled by philosophical matters. This supposed lack of concern is belied by the expressions of the characters, who appear to be very much in earnest in seeking this answer.
The people stipulate that the answer ought to be simple and easy to understand. This is obviously a tweak at popular religions and philosophies, which purport to offer ultimate answers that are intelligible even to the uneducated. It is here implied that this is an absurd request. After all, one might argue, given the complexity of physics and other sciences, we should hardly expect a pat answer to what is beyond our comprehension. The supercomputer ultimately obliges the people in their request for a simple answer, and seven million years later, they are told the answer is "forty-two".
Naturally, the people become upset because the answer is too simple. They wanted to hear something profound, though within their capacity of understanding. The supercomputer points out that they should not have expectations about the answer when they do not even know the question. Here we are finally given the main characters' objective: to find the ultimate question. The suggestion that the question is more important than the answer is consistent with a philosophy where the process of living is more important than the end point.
If I may address a humorously raised concern with seriousness, the simplicity of the ultimate answer is not an unreasonable expectation, if we mean only linguistic simplicity. After all, the entire endeavor of science reduces complex phenomena to increasingly simple principles, so we might expect the ultimate answer to be simple, not in the sense of being easy to understand, but as uncompounded or non-synthetic. Even the cheeky answer "forty-two" could be a serious candidate, since it might represent that the entire universe is reducible to forty-two degrees of freedom, where any more or fewer would result in chaos for topological reasons.
To borrow an example of a simple answer to an ultimate question, the old Baltimore Catechism answers the question, "Why did God make me?" as follows: to know, love and serve God in this life, and to be happy with Him in the next. This answer is linguistically simple enough, yet each element is incomprehensibly profound. How does one know God, whose essence is incomprehensible? How can one love God unless one knows God? Is "love" here a mere affection, or are we to love God as God loves us, with divine caritas? How can one serve God? Is it merely by following a set of precepts? What sort of happiness awaits us in the next life, of which we know practically nothing?
It would be impossible to attain an explanation of this ultimate answer by human reasoning alone; it must be learned through direct experience. A philosopher might prove the existence, unity, eternity, and omnipotence of God using the principle of causality, but he would arrive at these truths only after great difficulty, and he might easily persuade himself of the contrary if he loses sight of a thread in his argument. This philosophical knowledge of God will not help us "know" God as we know other people (in the sense of the Spanish verb conocer). Our only hope is if God somehow reveals Himself to us. In Christian theology, God is known by faith, and He is loved by charity, both of which are divine gifts. Even the ability to serve God by living morally and faithfully is a divine favor (or "grace"), not reducible to following a set of rules. The felicity of the next life is something that we cannot understand, but is the object of hope, and we may believe it only because we trust in a known God. In other words, the only way for a weak human to grasp this ultimate answer is if the answer is directly revealed. This necessity is imposed on the intellectual and the uneducated alike.
Since the film limits itself to considering what can be known through unaided human reason, it must ultimately despair in its philosophical inquiry. Arthur Dent is told that it is extremely unlikely that anyone will ever figure out the meaning or purpose of life, so he ought to keep himself busy and be content with the process of living. Throwing oneself into one's work, sometimes even making a religion out of one's career, is a common coping mechanism in contemporary secular society. However, work can only be fulfilling if we have the implicit assurance that it is meaningful or purposeful. This is why those stuck in bureaucratic positions are often discontent, even if they are well compensated. This is why the Vogons write poetry.
Arthur eventually acquiesces to an anti-philosophical view, as he laments that none of his questions ever made him any happier. Yet was it the act of questioning that made him miserable, or despair at the lack of answers? It is facile to enjoin people to live in the moment and not worry about ultimate questions. Finding the philosophical life too difficult, we might content ourselves with ordinary pleasures. Yet it is only possible for us to enjoy work, love and friendship if we are able to persuade ourselves that these are purposeful, meaningful experiences. We need not necessarily think of the future to enjoy the present, but we can hardly enjoy our present experience if we regard it as futile. Ascribing meaning to our experiences is not the peculiar domain of philosophers or even intellectuals, it is our very mode of consciousness as humans.
Furthermore, once you have considered the deeper questions of meaning and purpose, "You just don't turn it off," to quote John Rambo. Even Douglas Adams, the creator of The Hitchhiker's Guide, seems to have recognized this. Much of his creative opus evinces a preoccupation with precisely those philosophical questions that he ridicules as unimportant. We may see his humorous treatment of these issues as an attempt to relieve the nagging discontent that philosophical inquiry brings. I submit that such discontent is not something to be avoided, but it is the very driving force of self-improvement and becoming more fully human. As Captain Kirk once said, "I don't want my pain taken away! I need my pain!" Asking ever more probing questions is essential to the perfectability of man, a basic theme of science fiction. Ironically, this very film, even as it mocked philosophical inquiry, hit upon an apt metaphor for the human condition, by depicting the entire earth as the computer for generating the ultimate question.
© 2009 Daniel J. Castellano. All rights reserved. http://www.arcaneknowledge.org