I read Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy over the weekend for the first time since high school. I was glad to see that it’s a book that ages well. As a teenager I enjoyed it as a fun, imaginative science fiction romp. Now I appreciate it as a commentary on the absurdity of life and the immanence of death. (Speaking of which, this book fits in quite nicely with my previous post on Halloweeen. Hitchhiker’s Guide is definitely a Halloween classic, at least in the way I look at Halloween.)
The story is essentially a series of unrelated and random events, all designed to illustrate that life is senseless and bizarre, and that trying to find any sort of meaning in it is an exercise in futility. The vignette that best sums up what I believe to be Adams’ thesis is the bit about the nuclear missile that turns into a sperm whale, which I’ll quote in full here:
Another thing that got forgotten was the fact that against all probability a sperm whale had suddenly been called into existence several miles above the surface of an alien planet.
And since this is not a naturally tenable position for a whale, this poor innocent creature had very little time to come to terms with its identity as a whale before it then had to come to terms with not being a whale any more.
This is a complete record of its thoughts from the moment it began its life till the moment it ended it.
Ah … ! What’s happening? it thought.
Er, excuse me, who am I?
Why am I here? What’s my purpose in life?
What do I mean by who am I?
Calm down, get a grip now … oh! this is an interesting sensation, what is it? It’s a sort of … yawning, tingling sensation in my … my … well I suppose I’d better start finding names for things if I want to make any headway in what for the sake of what I shall call an argument I shall call the world, so let’s call it my stomach.
Good. Ooooh, it’s getting quite strong. And hey, what’s about this whistling roaring sound going past what I’m suddenly going to call my head? Perhaps I can call that … wind! Is that a good name? It’ll do … perhaps I can find a better name for it later when I’ve found out what it’s for. It must be something very important because there certainly seems to be a hell of a lot of it.
Hey! What’s this thing? This … let’s call it a tail – yeah, tail. Hey! I can can really thrash it about pretty good can’t I? Wow! Wow! That feels great! Doesn’t seem to achieve very much but I’ll probably find out what it’s for later on. Now – have I built up any coherent picture of things yet?
No. Never mind, hey, this is really exciting, so much to find out about, so much to look forward to, I’m quite dizzy with anticipation … Or is it the wind?
There really is a lot of that now isn’t it?
And wow! Hey! What’s this thing suddenly coming towards me very fast? Very very fast. So big and flat and round, it needs a big wide sounding name like … ow … ound … round … ground! That’s it! That’s a good name – ground!
I wonder if it will be friends with me?
And the rest, after a sudden wet thud, was silence.
The point is that we are the whale; we come into life with no context at all, we do our best to transform our sensory experiences into some sort of framework that makes sense and gives us purpose, and then we splat into the ground before we can figure it all out.
The good news of the gospel is that the ground is only an illusion. It only looks like we die — in reality our work of making sense of things continues beyond death.
The bad news of the gospel is that the ground isn’t the whale’s real dilemma. The issue isn’t that the whale dies; it’s that he’s there in the first place. Why is he there at all? On that question, the scriptures and prophets are silent.
“Why are we here? Because God made us”
“Why did He make us? To bring to pass our immortality and eternal life — because He loves us and wants us to be with Him forever.”
Those are forward-looking questions and forward-looking answers. They don’t ask, “Why are we here?” but rather, “Given that we are here, what should we do about it?” The gospel has a lot to say about that.
But the backward-looking “Why are we here?” in the sense of “Why is there anything at all? Why are we something rather than nothing?” All the wind in the world won’t help the whale answer that question.