Life, Universe & Everything

27 Oct

I was telling somebody earlier today that I have a four-year-old daughter and was very, very interested watching her face when she was in her first 2 or 3 weeks of life and suddenly realising what nobody would have realised in previous ages—she was rebooting!

Thus starts this beautiful speech by Douglas Adams called Debate with Self. Adams deals with the the commonalities that define us as living beings. And I must admit, it’s a fascinating question. It’s also fascinating to see one of the most beautiful brains of all time deal with that question in a rambling monologue, which is littered with gems along the lines of:

Tools have enabled us to think intentionally, to make things and to do things to create a world that fits us better

And as an answer (or is it a challenge?) to all those who believe in man as the pinnacle of evolution (a view hotly contested by all evolutionary biologists), he says:

Early man thinks, ‘Well, because there’s only one sort of being I know about who makes things, whoever made all this must therefore be a much bigger, much more powerful and necessarily invisible, one of me and because I tend to be the strong one who does all the stuff, he’s probably male’. And so we have the idea of a god. Then, because when we make things we do it with the intention of doing something with them, early man asks himself , ‘If he made it, what did he make it for?’ Now the real trap springs, because early man is thinking, ‘This world fits me very well. Here are all these things that support me and feed me and look after me; yes, this world fits me nicely’ and he reaches the inescapable conclusion that whoever made it, made it for him.

This is rather as if you imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, ‘This is an interesting world I find myself in—an interesting hole I find myself in—fits me rather neatly, doesn’t it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!’ This is such a powerful idea that as the sun rises in the sky and the air heats up and as, gradually, the puddle gets smaller and smaller, it’s still frantically hanging on to the notion that everything’s going to be alright, because this world was meant to have him in it, was built to have him in it; so the moment he disappears catches him rather by surprise. I think this may be something we need to be on the watch out for.

Adams introduces the powerful notion of the Four Ages of Sand. Each of the Four Ages not only extends the boundary of our knowledge, but also provides us with a new perspective, a new way of looking at the world around us, and at our place in the world.

The first age was Astronomical. When people made glass out of sand, and telescopes out of glass, and focussed the telescopes on the stars, they realised that the Earth was not the center of the world. And among the things they realised was the really disturbing notion that large parts of this universe were composed of NOTHING!

The next age was microscopic. And as we put the glass to use, studying the microscopic elements of life, and other matter, we gain another rather worrying perspective. That at the microscopic level, the world again seems to consist of large parts of NOTHING, “but only the probability that there may be something there.

There seems to be no way to define Life from observation alone, using the laws of science. As Adams says:

The reason we had no idea how cats worked was because, since Newton, we had proceeded by the very simple principle that essentially, to see how things work, we took them apart. If you try and take a cat apart to see how it works, the first thing you have in your hands is a non-working cat. Life is a level of complexity that almost lies outside our vision…

But then comes Darwin’s “Origin of Species” challenging our credulity, and once we’ve come to grips with it, providing a new perspective, a new way to look at life.

After this comes the Third Age of Sand: Computers. Computers “enable us to see how life works.” We can look at computers and understand how iterative, repetitive cumulation of a simple form leads to progressively more complex forms, and voila! evolution explained! Because computers demonstrate that complexity can emerge from lower levels of simplicity!

And then Adams sticks his neck out, and talks about how if you were debating various economic/ political/ social ideas, you could say anything without worrying about offending people. Because if they disagree with you:

…I just think ‘Fine, we have different opinions’. But, the moment I say something that has something to do with somebody’s (I’m going to stick my neck out here and say irrational) beliefs, then we all become terribly protective and terribly defensive and say ‘No, we don’t attack that; that’s an irrational belief but no, we respect it’.

And here he demonstrates why I call him “one of the most beautiful brains”. While refuting the notion of sanctity for any of the religious concepts, he nevertheless proposes that because we design & create an omnipotent, super-entity, an “intentional designer“, and then behave as if there really was such an entity, “all sorts of things begin to happen that otherwise wouldn’t happen“. Because when we tie the notion of religion to the socio-cultural milieu, it allows us to evolve traditions that make perfect sense in that context. Adams says,

…as we become more and more scientifically literate, it’s worth remembering that the fictions with which we previously populated our world may have some function that it’s worth trying to understand and preserve the essential components of, rather than throwing out the baby with the bath water; because even though we may not accept the reasons given for them being here in the first place, it may well be that there are good practical reasons for them, or something like them, to be there.

The Fourth Age of Sand is the communication between us driven today by the internet. Because the net allows you to influence the world in ways as yet unexplored, and sometimes unimagined!

Today that’s almost a “ho-hum; so what’s new” concept, but do bear in mind that the speech was given in 1998, and you’ll once again marvel at the ability of Adams to make sense of the technology, and accurately predict it’s future. And if you’re still in doubt about his brainpower, may I suggest reading The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy?!

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Posted by on October 27, 2006 in Biz/Tech, Life, Quotes, Thoughts


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