42 is a number that means a lot to a lot of people, so I thought I’d say what it means to me. Most of the time when I say it, it just means I love the Hitchhiker series and I hope you are a fellow fan and we can identify by our common knowledge of the connection of 42 to classic sci-fi comedy. But I love the books and Douglas Adams work in general, partially because they gave me such an elegantly compact expression to sum up my understanding of the universe and humanity’s place in it.
In the Hitchhiker series, 42 is the answer generated by the unimaginably complex computer ‘Deep Thought’ to a vaguely proposed ultimate question about ‘life, the universe, and everything’. The answer, 42, was confusing and unsatisfying. So ‘Deep Thought’ was tasked with designing an even more unimaginably complex computer to finally phrase the question itself. Spoiler Alert: The computer it designed to phrase the question turned out to be Earth, and humans were processing units in its existential calculations.
So some of that’s just plain fun, and it seems about right for people to spend so much effort on an absolute solution to a question they haven’t bothered to understand. But I also gather it means that Doug understood that any answer can be calculated, but it takes a conscious mind to ask a question in a way that gives an answer any meaning to a conscious mind. I think it’s that much more impressive that Doug was thinking that before computation had come to dominate every aspect of our lives and we’d come to rely on and even have faith in answers to questions we don’t even bother to understand.
To me the significance of ‘42’ is that it represents the paradox of creation creating the meaning of creation.
42 was the painstakingly calculated answer to a question that had not really been asked yet. Likewise, I think the universe itself is the answer to questions that have not been asked yet. Earth, and hopefully a bunch of other planets, are the calculating machines formulating the questions to which the universe is the answer.
And because answers are meaningless without meaningful questions. Our questions give meaning to the answers we seek about the universe, and by extension maybe the universe itself. It’s all tied to the old idea that we’re the eyes and ears of the universe, or the universe trying to understand itself. For me 42 just focuses all the confusing, paradoxical meaning I’ve found about being a conscious being in the universe into an elegant, and humorous symbol that I can sometimes use to relate to other interesting humans. That said, it’s just a pop cultural reference now. For a while if you knew 42 had any special meaning at all it meant you’d probably read the books. Now it might just mean you have a reddit account.
While I’m taking the liberty to pontificate on Doug’s work I feel obligated to say thanks in general to Douglas Adams and credit his work as a critical inspiration. Never met him and don’t know him as a human being, but his work was very important in my life. It was just fun, and appreciation of his work is still a general identifier for thoughtful humans.
42 is by far the best known Douglas Adams reference and has a really deep storyline behind it. But there’s a more obscure one that I use as a header on the website.
“We apologize for the inconvenience.” In So Long and Thanks for all the Fish, Doug said this was God’s Final Message to His Creation, written in letters 30 feet high on some planet somewhere. I. Freaking. Love It.
It could have been a joke about people making up messages that purport to be divine, but I don’t think so, and that interpretation doesn’t inspire me much so I went the other way. I probably can’t do justice to how much this phrase and its origin resonates with me, but I’ll try.
First off it’s a humble message. Any entity or being I’d call a creator ‘God’ would be way more humble than religion tends to give it credit for. Humans give God and Gods all these anthropomorphic qualities but humility doesn’t seem to get included. I think a compassionate creator god would be humbled by his creation as much as he expected it to be humbled by him. So if there is anything like a God that does anything like ‘messages to creation’, it seems like this one could be genuine. So I’d accept the message, and the apology, though I’d still have a few questions.
I also like that he said ‘We’ apologize. I think ‘We’ is just a better pronoun for divinity than ‘I’. To me omniscience and omnipresence imply a plurality of mind that is nothing like the singular consciousness we experience that leads us to distinguish ourselves as ‘I’. I just don’t think God would choose that pronoun if it was self-translating to human language. Imagine a world where most humans had been taught that God chose to speak in the first person plural. “We Are” instead of “I Am”. I just feel like that alone would change a lot of basic cultural perceptions in dramatic ways.
Regardless how the universe came to be, if a conscious ‘creator’ had anything to do with it- I think “We apologize for the inconvenience” is the message they should send to other consciousnesses that bubble up in their creation. God’s creation may be ‘perfect’ in some transcendental sense, but he’s got to know it can sometimes suck really, really, bad to wake up as a cog in this grand machine without knowing anything about it. So seems like a responsible creator would go out of their way to clearly acknowledge that fact and 30 foot high letters seems like a decent effort.
Also If I wake up in an afterlife where I’m me and remember my life as me- “We apologize for the inconvenience” better damn well be the first thing I hear, followed by a comprehensive explanation of how the universe actually works and why it appeared so different while I was living in it.
As far as I can tell in a lot of ways the universe really is the elemental chaos that the existentially challenged are so terrified of. It just doesn’t bother me because I think we are or can make the meaning we’re so worried about elemental chaos not having, and we should do that instead of following myths that take energy from our efforts to continue surviving in the universe in ways that don’t suck. So I’ll be pretty goddamn put off if I die and it turns out the physical universe was apparently a big set up or illusion. If my physical body dies, but my consciousness and experience continues in some other realm, it implies a lot of deception or misperception that I’m not comfortable with. So if there’s anybody else around when I wake up that has anything to do with what’s going on, “We apologize for the inconvenience” better be the first thing they say to me or I’m just going to start throwing things.
Though all that said, I’ve read that Doug suggested the message written in those 30 foot letters was personalized for whoever saw it, and “We apologize for the inconvenience” was just what Marvin saw. So the fact that this resonates with me so well might just imply that in God’s eyes I’d be basically identical to an existentially crippled robot… that seems most right somehow.