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The "42" Anecdote (Or, Words Versus Numbers).

Updated: Feb 22

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Somewhere, in a galaxy far away (or whatever), a race of intellectually superior beings built the greatest computer in existence—one capable of answering any possible question. However, this supercomputer was slow and took many calculations in order to reach a definitive answer.


One day, the beings asked the computer, "What is the meaning of life?", and, after much wait, the device has reached an accurate, potentially-objective answer—that the meaning of life is "42".


The anecdote, based on "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" (both a book and a movie), made fun of the method of philosophizing as something that is necessarily accurate and logical, as if the very act of philosophical contemplation is equal to that of a mathematical equation.


The problem with this premise is that there are still philosophical questions or premises that, at least theoretically, will never actually receive an objective answer, as if it is all about cold, calculating logic. The titular "what is the meaning of life" is of such example. Gather all philosophers in existence in one room and give them a deadline for a widely agreed answer, and they will fail the task, simply because the notion of subjectivity is also present in philosophy.


When Socrates says, "The unexamined life is not worth living", he presents a philosophical statement which is also subjective. That is because "worth" cannot be measured accurately, and because that word means different things to different people. If someone thinks the purpose of life is to pray in the hopes of a better afterlife, and that life otherwise is unworthy—who is more correct, him or Socrates?

The thing is, being a philosopher doesn't make you more entitled to a premise than anyone else, especially when it comes to key words that do not have widespread agreement on their meaning. Back to the example in question—when you claim that your life is unworthy without examining it, you do not present an objective statement that could apply to lives of every human being—and yet, it is widely considered a philosophical statement nonetheless.


Philosophy is no longer an accurate science, simply since many sciences do the job better than a philosopher, can as science requires accurate expertise, and the former, do not. Scientists have their formal education, the tests they need to go through, the thesis necessary to be written in order to be considered a scientist, regardless of what role in their exact field of expertise.


The philosopher, on the other hand, has mostly their mind, and literary anything else they can use to convey their message to the world. Compared to contemporary scientists, the "default" philosopher is therefore in an inferior position. Long gone the days when it was sufficient for the mind to make just about anything on the world. The mind is, or at least should be, a very respectable source, but like a horse, is one that needs to be trained on a regular basis, and even then it might not find a truth which any science cannot find on its own, without the need of philosophers.


This of course raises the "eternal" question of, whether philosophy and philosophers are useless. My thoughts at least about the situation is that, since philosophy is primarily a verbal-based practice, and far less mathematical, it would be hard to come up with an accurate, objective answer to anything you will find, simply because the very nature of language is fluid and ever-growing, like a living, breathing creature, unlike the sciences, that are "solid" and extremely precise.


Because of the great inaccuracy in our language, it'd be ironic to expect any answer like a number or a set of equations in your mathematics education system.


When you are to ask a barbarian what his life's not worthy without, perhaps he may say something disturbing such as raiding a village. If someone will provide the same answer nowadays, they might either refer to gaming, to a weird sense of humour, or to whatever eccentricity they have. Can that be converted to a number? Surely it can, but numbers as themselves serve almost no objective meaning beyond themselves. The answer "42" to the meaning of life is worthless not because of the sheer accuracy, but because it means nothing at all.


We know numbers as meaningful by the quantity their represent, for comparison. Because there are words attached to them, they are no longer the cold-calculated, potentially random algorithms. We know that there are more, there are few, big and small and so on. Therefore, to answer a philosophical question or an issue with a scientific/mathematical answer isn't always useful, just like philosophizing about issues that could be easily be revealed by science isn't always a good use of our time.


Back to the second example given by Socrates: how can you expect to elaborate scientifically about the notion that the unexamined life is worthless? How does science evaluate the worth of a human, and according to what predetermined values does it depend upon in order to do so? How can we know for sure that self-examination is truly a worthy measurement, good enough to be measured on every single human being?


Philosophy, in conclusion, brings us the possible fact that there are things—even philosophically—that cannot be determined by calculations or by scientific experiments. You cannot, for example, experiment on what is the meaning of life, simply because there is no point of evaluation in order to determine what is a meaningful life in the first place. These are not points that can be researched scientifically or technologically, unless there is a basic premise that most of us may agree upon.


Final words on subjectivity. Multiple answers to the same question, even if biased by subjective experience, can still contribute to one's craft, even if they do not tell the whole truth. Why do reporters, for example, interview multiple people on the same situation? Because the reporter uses the subjective experiences of others to create a general, rational narrative of which they can report on—all in order to deliver the news; you know, the media that is expected to be truth. Hence why, even subjectivity can lead to truth!


It is like claiming that because a puzzle is incomplete because some of the pieces are missing. Should you find each of them and then use to build the whole puzzle, that would be like the reporter's job used in the previous paragraph. All it takes is to read/consume as much of what your limitations might allow you (if you have any).

It doesn't matter if they are being completely objective or not, because their minds, if competent, can also be seen as a probable source once the person in question has accepted them, technically to be intelligent enough, based on their ability to estimate the world. After all, if their subjective experience isn't needed, they will not be live on a TV news program for their whole nation to hear. If said interviewees provided mathematical equations instead of their experience-based, verbal insights to the public, most likely they will not be understood by most audiences.


Science is for intellectual elitists who are also proficient in mathematics and other non-verbal data. To completely disregard the verbality of philosophy over numbers and other statistics, is to accept that questions such as "what's the meaning of life" have objectively accurate answers, which they do not, as already proven. Therefore, philosophizing still has worth nowadays, despite the increasing competency of its rivals' methods of truth-seeking.

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Tomasio A. Rubinshtein, Philosocom's Founder & Writer

I am a philosopher from Israel, author of several books in 2 languages, and Quora's Top Writer of the year 2018. I'm also a semi-hermit who has decided to dedicate his life to writing and sharing my articles across the globe. Several podcasts on me, as well as a radio interview, have been made since my career as a writer. More information about me can be found here.

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