Ultimate Questions

Article in Stretton Focus, May 2017

The number 42 in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams is the ‘Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything’. It is calculated by an enormous computer named Deep Thought over a period of 7.5 million years. Unfortunately by the time the answer came no one could remember what the question was.

Adams was one of the great creative storytellers of recent years, sadly dying when only 49. There was a strong philosophical thread through his science fiction. He took modern life and made us look at ourselves through metaphors of space and time travel, the challenge of alien cultures and cataclysmic events. It was also ridiculously funny. The number 42 lingers in the memory because of the contrast between the simplistic answer and the unknown ultimate question.

Perhaps the concept of the ultimate question is Adams’ most significant legacy. Is there such a question? If so, what is it?

Maybe the importance is that we can all conceive of an ultimate question, although its expression would be different for each of us. I can think of a number of candidates. Their ranking and priority varies from day to day. The one about the existence of God cries out for a yes/no answer, but it leads to so many follow-up questions whichever answer you decide on. If you go for ‘maybe’, the number of extra questions multiplies. Is that the nature of ‘ultimate’ questions?

In the absence of an enormous supercomputer and the luxury of 7.5 million years, we have to work on all those questions ourselves, we have to apply our own deep thought. That is one of the challenges of a modern religion, being open enough to look at the questions about faith, which matter to people living and working in the modern world.

We have also to accept that the answers may not be easy to find and may not be comfortable when we find them. How we get from question to answer can be quite challenging too. It is likely that while we each may ask a similar question, the answers we get may be different just as the journey to get there will be different. The challenge in the questioning may be matched by a challenge in the answers. The only certain thing is that none of these questions has the answer 42.

Roger Wilson

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