A Hitchhiker’s Guide to God, Science, Truth and Other Fictions

Introduction

The following remarks are from a speech given by Douglas Adams in 1998 at Cambridge University :

“So, my argument is that as we become more and more scientifically literate, it’s worth remembering that the fictions with which we previously populated our world may have some function that it’s worth trying to understand and preserve the essential components of, rather than throwing out the baby with the bath water; because even though we may not accept the reasons given for them being here in the first place, it may well be that there are good practical reasons for them, or something like them, to be there. I suspect that as we move further and further into the field of digital or artificial life we will find more and more unexpected properties begin to emerge out of what we see happening and that this is a precise parallel to the entities we create around ourselves to inform and shape our lives and enable us to work and live together. Therefore, I would argue that though there isn’t an actual god there is an artificial god and we should probably bear that in mind. That is my debating point and you are now free to start hurling the chairs around!”

Is there an Artificial God?
Digital Biota 2
Magdelene College
Cambridge University
Douglas Adams, 1998

Link to the transcript of Douglas Adams’ lecture at Digital Biota 2.

Link to audio of Douglas Adams’ lecture: Mp3.

Link to Douglas Adams’ biographic notes.

Living with Uncertainty

I have attempted to address a couple of the main issues that seem to underlie Adams’ comments elsewhere, both from the perspective of our emotional lives, as well as with regard to our thought processes, especially from the vantage point of the nature of our scientific convictions (such as, for example, in the realm cyberculture or digital life).

When Adams reflects upon the realm of the unknown, he conveys the idea, both visualized and imagined, of being confronted by the prospect of finding “more and more unexpected properties [beginning] to emerge out of what we see happening.” It is an awareness that the modern condition no longer allows us to call upon religious, mysterious, and awe-inspiring forms of truth, upon authority founded in such revealed truth. One of the consequences of this disenchantment is that the ultimate and most sublime values have retired from public life, at best into the brotherliness of immediate personal relationships. At the same time we are required either to suffer a great deal more uncertainty or, more constructively, learn how to embrace it.

The Stare of the Other

With regard to emotional and/or interpersonal perspectives, one might metaphorically conceptualize interpersonal relationships as the recognition of and by the other, represented by the “stare” of the other. The stare is the other’s attempt to fix “me” in the present, to transform me into Being for others, establishing a sense of connection and attachment. In addition, the gaze of the other jolts one to realize the significance of one’s personal choices in determining the course of one’s life. In other words, while we may not know ahead of time how the course of our lives will turn out, it is not all simply a matter of fate.

In terms of more intimate interpersonal relationships, underlying current for many informed contemporary thinkers is that no one has access to ultimate truth. There are minor situational exceptions, of course, such as the reality that I have written this and that you are there reading it. On the other hand, it is still the case that there is no ultimate truth about the interaction between my writing and your reading of it, about my meaning and your own interpretation. So it is with “love,” or “being in love”: the paradoxical perspective offers celebration for the complexities that abound in our attempts to specify the particulars of those states.

Science, Theory and Truth

With the growing plurality of theoretical schools in the arts, social sciences and psychoanalysis (and many other fields), as well as the post-positivist turn in our thinking about theory itself and its relation to truth, there is a new urgency about our relation to the observational data of everyday life. On the one hand, we can no longer presume any definitively correct theoretical framework. Even if we are ourselves persuaded about the truth of our own particular perspective, we are forced to be modest about its claim on reality. This is the lesson of pluralism.

Conversely, we are increasingly forced to recognize that the facts, the data themselves, are always imbued with meaning. That is, there is no clear distinction to be made between facts and theories; there is no place to stand apart from our theories. If truth with a capital “T” is no longer attainable, even the particular local truths of a given situation are contingent and provisional, laced with ambiguity and uncertainty. Our interpretations rest on interpretations, rest on interpretations, rest on interpretations. This is the lesson of post-positivist science.

The emphasis upon the ambiguous and uncertain nature of our lives can vitalize and enrich our experiences of surprise. In other words, expanding our capacities to become engaged in depth with the ongoing events in our lives requires that we learn to become prepared to be unprepared for new experiences. This is an important characteristic of being open, or of openness. It is complemented by being prepared to make mistakes, no matter how diligently we attempt to receive the unknown. Here the stress is on having the flexibility to recover and re-find one’s bearings.

This being said, it is nevertheless very difficult fully to accept that we are, whether artists, scientists (or whatever mix) always taking temporary, limited and highly personal sightings in endlessly changing circumstances, sightings marked not only by new corrections but also by new errors. We can never know how to do that, but we can know that that is what we have to do.

Once one’s mind has been freed of its repetitive ruminations over what it is afraid to face, or its compulsive need to hang on to what it believes it knows, it becomes able to truly question the unknown that is actually there. There is a parallel shift from attempting to create meaning from reconstructions of the past to the realm of the “living moment” in which one is an inquiring subject. From this perspective, we are always asking questions. Our questions are always in search of other questions, and of the questions of others.

There are reasons why the unknown often is kept at bay in the present, reasons derived from old experience. If the notion of the dynamic unconscious is less viable as the crucial point of origin for repressed impulses, it is nonetheless true that there are dynamic processes that actively work to screen our perceptions and curtail our activities in order to protect us from encountering what past experience have made us afraid to know.

Further, the realm of the unknown is in itself is a source of fear. We may be able to contemplate the vastness of space with awe, for example, but when we actually venture into it we become acutely aware of needing to know more than we do. Our relation to unknown places demands upon us to know what we cannot know. It is not surprising that being able to tolerate this confrontation with the unknown often requires us temporarily to “stand back,” something analogous to creating a space in which to move. Such a space allows us to recover or develop the capacity to think about what has previously not been available for thought. For this to happen, an “opening” has to occur in the mind within which the new potential for thinking can occur.

“Space” is used a metaphor here, but as one of those metaphors which allows perspective to develop and reflection arise. If we can “stand back” from an initially overwhelming immediate experience, we are creating something that can be thought of as a “distance” that allows a new relationship between experience and thought. Or one might think of it in terms of time: a delay or a pause that occurs between the act and the thought, which makes it possible for us to listen and hear or feel ourselves in a new way.

Douglas Adams: Hyperland

Douglas Adams’ Hyperland: On Cyberculture and Digital Technology

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