So I crank up the engine the other day and and lo and behold, it seems my truck has decided to start communicating with me through binary…
Now I couldn’t quite place it at the time, but there was just something about the number 101010 that was familiar, which for me usually means there’s a related snippet of some movie or television show tucked away somewhere in my skull. And sure enough, once I had the time to look it up, the connection was obvious. It turns out that in the binary numeral system the number 101010 = 42. And 42, as any Sci-Fi fan worth his or her salt should already know, is the very number which is the answer to the ultimate question of LIFE, THE UNIVERSE, AND EVERYTHING as calculated by the supercomputer Deep Thought in Douglas Adam’s Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.
Now, just in case you’ve managed to avoid science fiction for the past thirty years and are not familiar with the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in any of its many incarnations, it’s the story of the last two earthlings in existence (our planet having been blown to smithereens by a Vogon construction crew to make way for a hyperspatial express route) who traipse around the cosmos in a stolen starship accompanied by the alien Ford Prefect, his cousin Zaphod Beeblebrox (the three-armed two-headed President of the Galaxy), and Marvin the Paranoid Android (a morbidly depressed robot with a self-proclaimed brain the size of a planet). This band of misfits eventually make their way to the planet Magrathea where they are indeed presented with the ultimate answer to LIFE, THE UNIVERSE, AND EVERYTHING, only to be informed that nobody knows what the actual question is.
Now, lots of people have spent way too much time trying to figure out what Douglas Adams meant by making the answer to the ultimate question be the number 42. Was he referencing the angle in degrees at which light reflects off of water to create a rainbow (awww, sweet), or maybe the number of rules in the game of cricket (Adams’ favorite sport), or perhaps even the forty-two-lettered name of God from Jewish tradition (though an atheist, the author confessed a lifelong fascination with studying religion). Adams never said, passing the whole thing off as a whim. “The answer to this is very simple.” he related in an interview, “It was a joke. It had to be a number, an ordinary, smallish number, and I chose that one. Binary representations, base thirteen, Tibetan monks are all complete nonsense. I sat at my desk, stared into the garden and thought '42 will do' I typed it out. End of story.”
Of course, there’s still a lot of people to this day who refuse to accept Adams’ own explanation, so the speculations continue. But whether or not there is a hidden meaning to 42 is probably missing the point. Being that The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy was a farcical satire written by a (mostly) committed atheist, it’s seems more than probable that Adams was taking a potshot at what he saw as the seeming futility of posing such metaphysical questions in the first place. After all, if life has no externally determined purpose, as atheists believe, then to ponder what meaning life has is nothing but a big waste of time. Or as it plays out in the Hitchhiker’s Guide, if you ask something nonsensical like ‘what is the meaning of life’ then all you’ll get in response is a nonsensical answer like 42.
And yet, as noted, despite atheism’s general disdain for anyone’s claim to having at least some of the answers to life’s big questions, Douglas Adams admitted in interviews that he just couldn’t seem to stop thinking about God, philosophy in general, and the questions they both raised, things like why are we here and does anything we do really matter in the end? And that ultimately says something good about the man. Peter Kreeft, renowned Catholic philosopher, wrote that “anyone who is simply not interested in these questions is less than fully human, less than fully reasonable. Reasonable persons, even if skeptical about the possibility of answering them, will not dismiss them as unanswerable without looking (that is not reason but prejudice) but will examine the claims of philosophers to have given reasonable answers to these questions before settling into a comfortable, fashionable skepticism.” Professional atheist Austin Cline actually agrees with this, writing that “although there is a role for dispassionate research, philosophy must derive from some passion for the ultimate goal: a reliable, accurate understanding of ourselves and our world. This is also what atheists should seek.” So, while on the surface the eternally morose Marvin the Paranoid Android might seem like the epitome of atheism as he bemoans, “Life? Don't talk to me about life!”, the opposite is actually true for the mature atheist.
Which leads to a strange instance in which a thinking atheist can actually agree with something in the Catechism, at least where it states “Catechesis on creation is of major importance. It concerns the very foundations of human and Christian life: for it makes explicit the response of the Christian faith to the basic question that men of all times have asked themselves: ‘Where do we come from?’ ‘Where are we going?’ ‘What is our origin?’ ‘What is our end?’ ‘Where does everything that exists come from and where is it going?’ The two questions, the first about the origin and the second about the end, are inseparable. They are decisive for the meaning and orientation of our life and actions.”
The difference is that the subsequent answer to the ultimate question of LIFE, THE UNIVERSE, AND EVERYTHING arrived at by Christians turns out to pretty simple, to know and love God, and from that to be able to know and love his creations. That’s how we’re to orient our lives (and we even manage to do so on our good days). But what about the atheists? By asking the same questions, yet rejecting the religious answer, to what ultimately are they orienting their lives? The pursuit of one’s own self interests? Meandering from one fleeting moment of happiness to another? Resignation to nihilism? I guess they still have a lot of questions to ponder, huh? Me, I think I’ll stick with the few answers provided so far by faith. They make a lot more sense.
And to think, I was reminded of all that just by looking at a odometer. Well, that and the fact that I needed an oil change, but still. Funny the weird places you find God in sometimes.
(Oh, and speaking of Binary, feel free to go here and listen to the song of that title by the Catholic folk duo Popple. It’s pretty catchy)