The Ultimate Question

As I stare at the blinking monitor on my computer screen, searching for a topic, I am somehow drawn to the Ultimate topic, or, as Douglas Adams–author of the irreverent and existential Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series– calls it, The Ultimate Question: The Meaning of Life, the Universe and Everything.

This is, understatedly, a complex question.  Not because no one knows the answer to it, but because everyone thinks they do. Even philosophers who tell you they haven’t found it yet are implying with such a response that the purpose of life is, in fact, to search for it, which may not necessarily be the case.  Instead, one could, as Douglas Adams does, turn away completely from teleological philosophy and instead revel in the purposeless, or “absurdity” of it all.  There is some basis to his questioning whether the world is so immaculate, orderly and precise in its design after all; is our universe of Human Tetris, Snuggies, and currency that has neither intrinsic value or material existence, really so intricately and logically structured that it could only have come about by immaculate Design?

I remember playing a game with family and friends, which upon later reflection was probably very annoying: I would ask a “Why”-related question on any topic, and, after receiving an answer from a friend or family member, I would then follow up with another “why”, and receive a new answer.  I’d repeat this “dialogue”—sometimes for hours—until finally the answer would eventually become “Because God made it that way”.  After that, I knew the next answer would be a weary “Because He’s God”; this was always the dead-end; the grand finale; No matter the first question, this answer always seemed as deep as I could get–the only remaining answer once all the scientific explanations were used up.  Sometimes if my little game had gone on for a particularly long session, however, I might get a sassier answer: “Because He felt like it”.  That proposition—that perhaps things are here by whim rather than by calculated and purposeful design—may very well have prompted me to question whether there is an intricate teleological purpose for every supposedly interlocking piece in the matrix that is the universe.

Even if the world does, in fact, have a purpose, it is possible that we are not meant to know it, and even more probable that it is unknowable to us; one could argue from a religious standpoint that the Bible discourages certain types of curiosity and truth-seeking in banning Adam and Eve from eating from the tree of knowledge.  Thankfully–we hope–television and the internet happily assume the role of Prime Distractor from this question and absorb us in the mundane and the earthly, preoccupying us with cat videos or encouraging us to focus on increasing our attractiveness or our wealth so that we can collect products and services that may or may not better our current or near future lives, but will hopefully make other people become impressed and jealous at all the imaginary currency we have just traded away.

Defining any sort of meaning or “value” in terms of consumerism, even as a hobby, is problematic in its subjectivity, at the very least.  Let us take the example of diamonds for example, one of the most allegedly “valuable” materials: While what is most unique and valuable about diamonds is their sharpness and ability to cut things, it is a testament to people’s stubbornness that they still insist on placing them on their fingers or on strings around their necks, rendering their sharpness completely superfluous–unless you get into a street fight and by fluke punch someone in the face while wearing an engagement ring.  It is nothing short of amazing that we’ve denied the sharpest substances in the world their most singular function–cutting things–and instead designated them as gifts as tokens of human affection or devotion.  And yet, somewhat ironically, small children who collect shells or shiny rocks from the beach and give them to their parents with the same devoted intentions, are often laughed at by adults for their naiveté about the generic and valuelessness of these small stones.  I imagine these adults would likely lose their knowing chuckles if they learned that the “rare” diamond on their fingers is but one of billions just like it locked in caves somewhere far away and trickle-released into the market little by little to preserve their illusory reputation of being in scarce and limited supply.

This arbitrariness of our notions of worth and objective value calls to mind Nietzsche’s challenging of the robustness of physics and other man-manufactured tools we use to understand and relate to the universe into which we find ourselves jarringly thrown.  Do the laws of physics —which seem to apply almost magically to our surrounding conditions — actually tap into the secret threads and universal building blocks of our universe, or are we simply connecting the dots between variables we have already defined to fit within our constructed system of objects and terms, like creating a word-search and then solving it yourself.

The answer to the question of the meaning of life has a connotation of grave importance, since its seemingly ultimate and universal answer would likely affect everyone and give each life the same specific direction and purpose.  Some people, somewhat confident they have found The Ultimate Answer to The Ultimate Question, encourage others to achieve what they believe is the meaning of life; you might find these people running election campaigns and making promises and insulting their competitors, betraying the very principles they claim to stand for in order to be elected, and then, if and once elected, spending the majority of their time saying things they don’t mean and shaking hands with people they don’t like very much to make sure they get to stay in the seat of power until they forget the reason they wanted to sit there in the first place.  Disappointingly, those people who started off with a vision of bringing mankind closer to our Ultimate purpose end up doing basically the same thing: helping certain people either acquire more things (usually by taking them from other people) or helping people get rid of things faster in exchange for numbers on a computer screen, the implied promise of things to be acquired in future.

Maybe then there is no singular Ultimate Question; perhaps there never has been.  Maybe, although we think we understand each other when discussing the topic, there are few points of intersection between minds during these discussions while, for the majority of conversations centered around words such as “meaning” or “life”, we are neither on the same page nor speaking the same language.  This ties into linguist Ferdinand de Saussure’s theory that all words, sound patterns acting as linguistic signifiers, are linked to their significations only in the mind, and are thus subject to vast differences and subjectivities between cultures and individuals.

This kind of non-universal subjective view of the world reminds me of another obnoxious “game” question I used to ask, usually directed at my sister during long car rides. Desperate to distract myself from motion sickness, I’d ask her, “What if we see colors differently?”  Pointing to trees rushing past the window, she’d counter, “aren’t those leaves green?”  to which I’d counter “What if my green is different from yours but we both just learned to call whatever we see ‘green’ anyway?”

Perhaps there is room for this kind of linguistic disconnect in all signifiers and significations, including life and its meaning.  Perhaps then, the best way to go about solving the meaning of life—if indeed that is something of worthy or possible pursuit— is to stop looking at what other people are doing to go about it; maybe they are seeing different signs, and are thus answering a different question entirely.

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