A lot of people quote this great joke by Douglas Adams but it seems more people than not don’t actually GET the joke. One big clue is when they cite it as, “The meaning of life.” You can tell right away that such are getting but a surface of the humor and may even just be laughing because the rest do.
The real joke here is a dig against people and philosophies that dish out answers to everything (in other words, religions) that are completely ludicrous and meaningless because they don’t answer any question asked.
For those who don’t know this joke, who haven’t read the book or seen the movie, it goes something like so:
An ancient and powerful race of philosophical beings produce the ultimate computer, capable of answering anything. They ask it some things and then ask it to answer the ultimate question. “What question is that?” the computer asks, to which they say, “The question about life, the universe, and everything!” The computer responds with, “This will take a while.”
A century later the scientists come back to the computer expecting this great revelation. They ask the computer if it has calculated the answer, to which it responds, “Yes. The answer is 42.”
Of course, everyone is now wondering what the fucking hell that means. The computer responds by explaining that it doesn’t know and can’t know that without knowing what the question is.
This is a minor plot line in The Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy meant to explain the purpose of Earth, which was to serve as the next generation of ultimate computer capable of calculating what the question was. The Volgons destroy Earth right before one person on Earth figures out what that question is. Later books describe how it’s impossible for both question and answer to exist in the same universe at the same time…which is very British but actually beside the point.
I’m very much reminded of this joke when people tell me that, “Jesus is the answer!” I’m always fond of asking, “What’s the question?” Throws them every time. I usually get replies like, “Life!” Of course…that’s not a question.
I was recently at a website selling a bumper sticker that said, “Philosophy is about questions without answers; religion is answers unquestioned.” As once being a religious person I’ll say I don’t think you’ll find one that thinks that’s an accurate view. At a fundamental level I agree with the sentiment and though religious people are often quick to say they question their religion, and in many respects they do, at a fundamental level they’re not allowed to (It’s always assumed that good people will eventually see the truth and agree with God…actual, legitimate disagreement with a deity is an absolute no-no).
However, on another level, though a great many are guilty of being blind followers, people ARE allowed (at least nowdays) to question the authorities within churches and even, in some “religions” anyway, the religious scriptures themselves. Was it really God’s word that said you must kill your son if he strays from your religion? This is something that many of the more liberal religious people are not afraid to ask and many of them conclude that this part of the bible is absurd, disgusting, and man inspired.
So while I don’t agree with the bumper sticker entirely, it does remind me of what I see as the difference between religion and other, what I’d call more legitimate, forms of human intellectual pursuit. Religions give answers. They give answers for just about everything. Religion is in the business of giving answers. Trouble with your life? Religion has answers. Trouble with your wife? Religion has answers. Can’t figure out what the fuck motivates you to get up in the morning? Religion has answers and will tell you what your life’s purpose is.
Very often I’ll run into debates, maybe I’ll be taking part in them, between creationists and those who believe in evolution. One of the most common things I’ll hear is, “What happened before the Big Bang?” The answer of course is, “I don’t know and I’m not even sure that question means anything.” Religion knows though and the creationists will be quite happy to jump on that lack of knowledge on your part and exclaim ownership of the high ground. “I do! God did it!”
Yeah, yeah, yeah…arguing against religion using it’s most ignorant of proponents is a bit of a straw man. Fundamentally though I don’t see much difference between that level and the levels of accepted, “normal” religious thinking. People read the bible like it has all the answers to everything they might need in it. This isn’t considered, like I consider it, an interesting piece of history with some both wonderfully enlightened and woefully un-enlightened thinking in it. Nope, the bible answers everything.
The thing I see here though is that though many religious people have questions, religion is not a “science” of questions. ALL forms of religion are about revelation and having answers. People become religious not to ask questions, but to have them answered. Very often by the time they do go to religion, any answer will do really so long as it makes them feel better or gives them a sense of belonging. Far be it from me to begrudge sad people from some comfort, but I think there are more productive ways.
As the joke shows us, having answers is useless if you don’t know the questions to ask. You can have all the answers in the world, but if you’ve got no questions…what are you and what have you to look forward to? One thing I think everyone should seriously consider is that: GOD CANNOT LEARN! Having answers is not a sign of enlightenment, having questions is.
Questions, unlike answers, provide benefit even if you don’t know the answer. In fact, NOT knowing the answer to a question is of more use than knowing the answer. What’s the point of asking a question you know the answer to? Not much really. What’s the point, on the other hand, of asking questions you DON’T know the answers to? Quite a lot. If the answer can be had, you learn something new. If the answer is unavailable to you then you go out looking for the answer. Maybe you learn that the question you’re asking isn’t the right one. Maybe you learn that the question you’re asking is meaningless…thereby learning something new.
People are too quick, I think, in accepting the answers given by religions. Questions about meaning, purpose, “higher powers”, motivation, despair, happiness, and love are too personal to be answered so easily. “Jesus is the answer,” is a shallow response to all of this, and so is anything else one might be tempted to put into words. “The tao that can be spoken is not the true tao.” These are questions that cannot be answered in a generic sense, which religions try to do. These are questions we spend our whole lives asking, thinking about, and evolving an understanding of. Having these questions may very well be the foundation of what it means to be a human being. If you let them be taken from you, what do you have left?
Philosophy, the pursuit of wisdom, is indeed a practice of questions. People do of course come up with their answers, or at least pieces of an answer…or new ideas about how to ASK the question…or maybe thoughts about whether the question has meaning. Each individual though continues to ask, and to think, and to try formulating their own reasons, answers, splinters of understanding, or deeper questions about questions to ask. It’s a process of learning, and of learning HOW to learn. Philosophy is not a place to go to seek answers, it’s a place to go to learn about asking questions.
Science, the pursuit of knowledge, is also a practice of questions. Why is the Sun bright? Why do ships disappear beyond the horizon? Where do we come from? Where are we going? Unlike philosophy though science is also a practice that provides some answers and gives us guidance on how to know that the answers we find are the best available, capable of predicting future events. With each new answer though comes 10 new questions. Science is thus never going to be the place to go to find all the answers. Science is where to go to find all the questions.
Religion on the other hand, the pursuit of God, rarely asks questions. It’s where to go when you have questions you want to silence. Where do we come from? Religion answers. Where are we going? Religion answers, usually by saying, “To hell if you don’t believe us.” Why am I here? “To fulfill God’s purpose.” Let alone the fact that I personally find these answers extremely unfulfilling, the fact is that this is what religion offers: answers, no matter how good. It seems to me often that people pursue religion as a bunch of stuff they have to do, or not do, in order to be “good” people…without deeply asking themselves what it means to BE good.
Religions says, “Following God’s purpose is being good.”
Think about this: you don’t adopt a religion unless you think it’s the answer; why would you?
I say, keep asking the questions! Listen to the things people say that think they have the answer, but keep looking. Don’t accept what’s handed to you. Definitely don’t accept it if you think it’s what you’re supposed to do. Without a deep understanding of the question, no answer will provide meaning. Think about the question.