The ultimate answer to life, the universe and everything is, of course, …

I remember listening to the original radio series of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy back in 1978 and buying the book a year later. “Forty two” (42, binary 101010) was the label invented by Douglas Adams as the answer to life, the universe and everything. The Hitchhiker’s Guide achieved cult status and since 1978 a large body of writing has tried to interpret the “42” joke in a multitude of ways. Mathematicians linked it to the 3 cubes problem and  wondered if 42 satisfied the Diophantine Equation x3+y3+z3=k. There was at that time no known solution for k = 42. After much effort a team led by Andrew Sutherland of MIT and Andrew Booker of Bristol University found a solution:

42 = (-80538738812075974)^3 + 80435758145817515^3 + 12602123297335631^3

Others searched and found occurrences of 42 in religious authorities (the Bible, the Koran, the Rig Vedas and the Bhagavad Gita among many others). Numerologists and astrologers found mysterious references to 42 everywhere, some quite sinister. I like best the many connections to 42 which have been found in the works of Lewis Carroll. In Alice in Wonderland for example, the King of Hearts’ Rule Forty-two is that “All persons more than a mile high to leave the court”. In his Hunting of the Snark, Carroll writes “he had 42 boxes, already packed,”

The Question which leads to the ultimate answer to life, the universe and everything has been simmering in my subconscious ever since I first read The Hitchhiker’s Guide. Over the last few years I find that many of my posts keep returning to these questions. Probably a consequence of an idle mind in an ageing person. Not a futile exercise in my judgement, but not always consistently reasoned and often with my thoughts wandering down cul-de-sacs, making many U-turns and moving in many unexpected directions. But that is not too surprising since these are the great, unanswered, philosophical questions known since antiquity and which still remain:

  • why time must be?
  • why existence must be?
  • why causality must be?
  • why life must be?
  • why thought and consciousness are?

Thought and thinking are ubiquitous concepts among humans but not easily defined. They are labels referring to cognitive activity and are the prerogative of brains. Where we cannot recognise a brain, we do not allow thought or thinking. The “laws of physics”, as we have discerned them to be, do not explain life or thought. I suspect that all the physical and material “laws of nature” that we discover will never be able to. Clearly there is a distinction between living and thinking. Whether the two are inseparable is an open question. We can imagine a brain that is not living and even construct artificial brains. All our computers can surely compute, but mere computation does not rise to the level of what we label as thinking. While we cannot yet imagine how an artificial brain could become sapient, it well may be that such a thing is not impossible.

Thinking alone, with just emotions but without any language, is mind-bogglingly stupendous enough. Many animals do think, even if the boundary of where thinking starts is not clear. Cats and dogs and elephants certainly do. I am pretty sure that pesky flies do. I am inclined to think that, in their own fashion, bees and spiders and ants also do. I am less inclined to grant grass and trees that ability, and we would need to have a very broad definition of thinking indeed to say that a single cell thinks. Language is not as prevalent among living things as thinking is. The language club is quite exclusive. Only humans have well developed language and the range of species which could be said to have some rudimentary language is very limited. Language cannot then be a necessary requirement for thinking or thought. It seems obvious to me that thought must precede language.

But bring thinking and language together and an explosive feedback loop is established which allows us to spiral upwards to ever higher planes. It is not that language makes thinking possible but it must certainly be that thought is required to create language, which then, in turn, enhances thought, which in turn, again, enriches language. Whether language began with the imitation of sounds, or as emotional exclamations expressed as grunts and interjections, all languages quickly came to be centred around the naming of things. The naming of physical things to begin with, led to the naming of abstract things, and that, in due course, reached the dizzy heights of inventing names for unreal and imaginary things.  There is an enormous advantage in naming visible, nearby, physical things (me, you, a rock or a tree), to allow referring to them later even when they are distant, unseen things. There must, however be a step change in cognition to be able to name an abstract, but real, thing (hunger or anger or fear). To go on to invent names to communicate non-existent things (yesterday, tomorrow, fairies, heaven or multiverses) takes an even greater cognitive leap.

Language cannot be blamed for politics. Many social animals having little language (lion prides, baboon troops, … ) indulge in politics. With language though, humans have achieved unprecedented levels of cooperation within their societies. Language brought us questioning and learning. On the one hand, that gave us religion and lies and bigotry. Fortunately, that was more than offset by the development of learning, and art, and the process of science, and eventually, even philosophy. Philosophy is about asking unanswerable questions. No thinking, no language. No language, no questions. No questions, no philosophy. Once a question has been answered though, the subject exits the field of philosophy. Thinking about thinking is a popular philosophical pastime – even if it seems somewhat incestuous. Incestuous philosophy consists of circular arguments with the most infamous one being René Descartes’s “Cogito, ergo sum”. His “I think, therefore I am” is actually meaningless since the thinking “I” must first “be”, for the being “I” to think that it “is”. Other infamous cases of incestuous philosophy are that “truth consists of facts where facts are known truths” or that “knowledge is justified true belief where a belief is a proposition which may be true or may be false”. These still count as philosophy, of course, since the originating questions remain unanswered.

I am utterly convinced that the driving force for anything, and for everything, is always an imbalance in something else.

The imbalance at the core of time, the universe and everything

Without imbalance there is no change.

When all forces and energies are in equilibrium, nothing happens. Nothing can happen. At equilibrium there can be no motion, no waves no vibrations, no change. If the origin of our universe (or The Universe) was in the Big Bang, then that must have been in response to some great, prevailing non-equilibrium, the Great Imbalance which caused the Big Bang. (It always seems to me a little unsatisfactory that a Big Bang can be postulated without also having to postulate why a Big Bang would need to occur). All change is always in the direction of eliminating the imbalance which caused the change. If the universe is expanding then it must be in response to an imbalance and the expansion must work towards eliminating that imbalance. The physical world is driven by imbalances. Fluid flows and heat flows and electricity flows are achieved by creating imbalances which force the flow. Human and animal behaviour is driven by imbalances. In fact all life is driven by imbalance.

“Forty two” is just a label for the Great Imbalance which started it all and came long before the Big Bang and the bangism that followed. But we have not invented the term infinite regression for nothing. The Great Imbalance that led to the Big Bang must have started with something else.

When the tree falls in the forest, the sound is only due to language

But what of all that we cannot observe, directly or indirectly, by our limited senses and our finite brains? Is it so that if something cannot be observed, cannot be perceived, cannot be inferred to exist by any interaction it has with anything else in this universe, then it does not exist? Or is it merely that we are ignorant of its existence? Philosophy is, of course, about asking unanswerable questions. Once a question can be answered it leaves the field of philosophy.

Take bongism for example. We cannot observe it, perceive it, infer it or deduce it. It has no known interactions with anything else in this universe. But it is the imbalance in bongism which caused all existence in the first place. It is the answer to the question “Why do things exist at all?”.

Does bongism exist?

It must do, since I have a word for it.

Not the Big Bang and bangism, not even the preceding Great Imbalance, but the Great Bong and bongism provide the answer to life, the universe and everything. It may be an uncomfortable truth, but the Great Bong (of course) created itself. Viewed from an oblique angle, through the correctly coloured spectacles, certain types of minds could well see the Great Bong as a 42.


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