Explaining the World with The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: Astrology, Constructivism, Science and (In)Definite Articles

I fear this is the longest title in the history of my blog, which in a way suits its topic well. I just finished the biggest book I have ever read, actually a collection of books under the title „The Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy“, by Douglas Adams. It comprises the original Guide and the other four books in the trilogy.

I bought it in Palo Alto before my real traveling started, and it has lasted me well into the second quarter of this year, of course as frequent visitors of my blog know with another big and some small readings in between.

Once again, my generally high esteem of artists‘ late work was reinforced — while the original book is funny, the later books are far better. I laughed my hardest reading the second last one, „So Long and Thanks for All the Fish“, and the last one, „Mostly Harmless“, apart from still being very funny, I found most insightful. That despite how I just read on Wikipedia the author himself describing this book as „bleak“, and saying he had a very bad year when he wrote it. I suppose that tells us something about the relationship between art and happiness…

Anyway, here are just some examples of important topics of life made understandable with the help of absurdity, Science-Fiction at its best.

Let’s start with Astrology, explained by a modern (you could say cynical) Astrologer, and en passant Parliamentary Democracy, Psychology and maybe life itself…

I know that astrology isn’t a science,“ said Gail. „Of course it isn’t. It’s just an arbitrary set of rules like chess or tennis or, what’s that strange thing you British play?“

Er, cricket? Self-loathing?“

Parliamentary democracy. The rules just kind of got there. They don’t make any kind of sense except in terms of themselves. But when you start to exercise those rules, all sorts of processes start to happen and you start to find out all sorts of stuff about people. In astrology the rules happen to be about stars and planets, but they could be about ducks and drakes for all the difference it would make. It’s just a way of thinking about a problem which lets the shape of that problem begin to emerge. The more rules, the tinier the rules, the more arbitrary they are, the better. It’s like throwing a handful of fine graphite dust on a piece of paper to see where the hidden indentations are. It lets you see the words that were written on the piece of paper above it that’s now been taken away and hidden. The graphite’s not important. It’s just the means of revealing their indentations. So you see, astrology’s nothing to do with astronomy. It’s just to do with people thinking about people.“

In a similar vain, and maybe taking that thought one step further, we get a cosmology for Constructivism (or at least you can look at it like that)…

The first thing to realize about parallel universes, the Guide says, is that they are not parallel.

It is also important to realize that they are not, strictly speaking, universes either, but it is easiest if you try and realize that a little later, after you’ve realized that everything you’ve realized up to that moment is not true.

The reason they are not universes is that any given universe is not actually a thing as such, but is just a way of looking at what is technically known as the WSOGMM, or Whole Sort of General Mish Mash. The Whole Sort of General Mish Mash doesn’t actually exist either, but is just the sum total of all the different ways there would be of looking at it if it did.

The reason they are not parallel is the same reason that the sea is not parallel. It doesn’t mean anything. You can slice the Whole Sort of General Mish Mash any way you like and you will generally come up with something that someone will call home.

Please feel free to blither now.

Next up, a painfully accurate description of the history (and in many ways present working) of scientific Psychology:

Now logic is a wonderful thing but it has, as the processes of evolution discovered, certain drawbacks.

Anything that thinks logically can be fooled by something else which thinks at least as logically as it does. The easiest way to fool a completely logical robot is to feed it the same stimulus sequence over and over again so it gets locked in a loop. This was best demonstrated by the famous Herring Sandwich experiments conducted millennia ago at MISPWOSO (The MaxiMegalon Institute of Slowly and Painfully Working Out the Surprisingly Obvious).

A robot was programmed to believe that it liked herring sandwiches. This was actually the most difficult part of the whole experiment. Once the robot had been programmed to believe that it liked herring sandwiches, a herring sandwich was placed in front of it. Whereupon the robot thought to itself, „Ah! A herring sandwich! I like herring sandwiches.“

It would then bend over and scoop up the herring sandwich in its herring sandwich scoop, and then straighten up again. Unfortunately for the robot, it was fashioned in such a way that the action of straightening up caused the herring sandwich to slip straight back off its herring sandwich scoop and fall on to the floor in front of the robot. Whereupon the robot thought to itself, „Ah! A herring sandwich…, etc., and repeated the same action over and over and over again. The only thing that prevented the herring sandwich from getting bored with the whole damn business and crawling off in search of other ways of passing the time was that the herring sandwich, being just a bit of dead fish between a couple of slices of bread, was marginally less alert to what was going on than was the robot.

The scientists at the Institute thus discovered the driving force behind all change, development and innovation in life, which was this: herring sandwiches. They published a paper to this effect, which was widely criticized as being extremely stupid. They checked their figures and realized that what they had actually discovered was „boredom“, or rather, the practical function of boredom. In a fever of excitement they then went on to discover other emotions, Like „irritability“, „depression“, „reluctance“, „ickiness“ and so on. The next big breakthrough came when they stopped using herring sandwiches, whereupon a whole welter of new emotions became suddenly available to them for study, such as „relief“, „joy“, „friskiness“, „appetite“, „satisfaction“, and most important of all, the desire for „happiness“. This was the biggest breakthrough of all.

Vast wodges of complex computer code governing robot behaviour in all possible contingencies could be replaced very simply. All that robots needed was the capacity to be either bored or happy, and a few conditions that needed to be satisfied in order to bring those states about. They would then work the rest out for themselves.

Also one of my favorites, and very suitable to the recent debate about (former) Pope John Paul II’s Beatification:

He had discovered that the reason for the carnival atmosphere on Saquo-Pilia Hensha was that the local people were celebrating the annual feast of the Assumption of St Antwelm. St Antwelm had been, during his lifetime, a great and popular king who had made a great and popular assumption. What King Antwelm had assumed was that what everybody wanted, all other things being equal, was to be happy and enjoy themselves and have the best possible time together. On his death he had willed his entire personal fortune to financing an annual festival to remind everyone of this, with lots of good food and dancing and very silly games like Hunt the Wocket. His Assumption had been such a brilliantly good one that he was made into a saint for it. Not only that, but all the people who had previously been made saints for doing things like being stoned to death in a thoroughly miserable way or living upside down in barrels of dung were instantly demoted and were now thought to be rather embarrassing.

So much for the more or less deep thoughts. Here’s something that became relevant to me in trying to get the concept of definite (e.g. „the“) and indefinite (e.g. „a“) articles across to people who’s native language doesn’t feature articles at all:

Ford shouted in Arthur’s ear, „Where did he say we were going?“

He said something about a King,“ shouted Arthur in return, holding on desperately.

What King?“

That’s what I said. He just said the King.“

I didn’t know there was a the King,“ shouted Ford.

Nor did I,“ shouted Arthur back.

I’ll finish with two little quotes that are well worth becoming aphorisms (and which I have, accordingly, added to my growing Quotes Collection). The first can be seen as relevant to psychological practice, but certainly at least as much to a traveller in different cultures like myself:

It can be very dangerous to see things from somebody else’s point of view without the proper training. — Douglas Adams, The Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Mostly Harmless, p. 742, 1992

And the second, which has the beauty and limitation of perspectivist thought in a nutshell:

“I think we have different value systems” – “Well, mine’s better” – “That’s according to your… oh, never mind.” — Douglas Adams, The Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Mostly Harmless, p. 772, 1992

Datum: Donnerstag, 12. Mai 2011 20:29
Trackback: Trackback-URL Themengebiet: English, Weltreise 2011

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