Friday, 26 September 2014

Majikthise and Vroomfondle

In Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, there is a well-known sequence in which Deep Thought, the "the second greatest computer in the Universe of Time and Space" is asked to provide the answer to 'the ultimate question ... of life, the universe and everything'. The scene features, as well as two slightly insecure computer scientists, two philosophers, Majikthise and Vroomfondle.

As a side note, knowing their names mainly from recordings of the original radio series and having read the print books only once, I have spent the entirety of my adult life honestly believing their names were actually Magic-Thighs and Broom-Fondle, and wondering occasionally what complex reference I was missing. (If there actually is a complex reference I'm missing, could someone please explain it?)

It is to Vroomfondle that Adams gives the line (in the entire series) which I find most memorable. Complaining that Deep Thought's ability to find The Answer constitutes demarcation, an infringement on and threat to the careers of all philosophers, he cries, "We demand rigidly defined areas of doubt and uncertainty!"

It sticks with me not because it's a good joke, though it is. Nor because it's a good or insightful characterisation of philosophers; I think Adams missed the mark on this one. He's much more perspicacious later, when Deep Thought points out, in giving the famous answer of 42, that "the problem, to be quite honest with you, is that you've never actually known what the question is."

Instead, it sticks with me because the only way to achieve rigidly defined areas of doubt and uncertainty is by negation - delivering some rigidly defined area of certainty and then pointing at it and saying 'not that'. What a wonderful achievement that would be!

As a philosopher, I would love to be able to come home from my days at work (I won't claim 'hard at work', though the teaching component of my job, which is by far the largest component, is very hard indeed) to a rigidly defined area of certainty. Descartes, in his epochal Meditations on First Philosophy, thought he had found one (which he later paraphrased as 'I think, therefore I am'), but acknowledged, in respect of doutbing everything else, 'this undertaking is arduous, and a certain indolence insensibly leads me back to my ordinary course of life.'

This blog post has happened, by the way, because I wanted to write a post on another topic, which I had thought I was getting a little bit of a grasp on after it had eluded me several times in the past, but it eluded me again. I feel certain about very little these days (I believe this is called 'growing up'), and I grow ever more sensitive to the dangers of Cartesian indolence - not all serious philosophical questions are as abstract as those Descartes tackled in the Meditations. Some are moral, and following the 'ordinary course of life' in moral questions sometimes, perhaps often, causes or contributes to widespread harm.

Perhaps it's best to leave this without a conclusion - I am, after all, only trying to express a confusion for which there is no answer. Thinking too much about a choice of action can make action impossible; thinking too little is dangerous. I know of no compelling argument that there will always be a happy medium between the two; tonight I feel defeated by that thought. Hopefully tomorrow (when, as it happens, I must begin preparing some introductory lectures on a different part of Descartes' Meditations) I will feel a little braver.

No comments:

Post a Comment