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Don’t Panic! It’s the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus

Mathias Brochhausen envisages Wittgenstein Hitchhiking around the Galaxy.

There are probably many people who have had the following experience in recent years: When confronted with the question of the meaning of life, the number forty-two automatically and almost compulsively crosses their minds – only to be banished in favour of a long and elaborate answer containing an array of ideas taken from the jigsaw puzzle that is the philosophical and religious legacy of humankind. This short numerical answer to one of life’s perennial questions was famously proffered by Douglas Adams in his book The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. However, this answer is not only a good example of humorous literature; it can also be seen as an illustration of some central thoughts in Wittgenstein’s philosophy.

In the first volume of his five volume Hitchhiker’s Guide trilogy (sic) Douglas Adams recounts the following story: In the distant past a hyper-intelligent pan-dimensional species became fed up with the interminable discussions and quarrels regarding the fundamental questions of existence, and decided to solve these problems once for all. In order to accomplish this they created a mighty supercomputer called ‘Deep Thought’, who after seven and a half million years was to present them with the answer to The Question of Life, the Universe and Everything.Seven and a half million years later, the answer is: 42. Confronted with disbelief from the representatives of the species, Deep Thought explains that the answer is true beyond doubt, but that his creators did not know the question, nor had they asked him to discover it. To find the question, a new, even better computer has to be built. This new supercomputer is the Earth itself, and life itself is the computer program.

How does this story link to Ludwig Wittgenstein, whose thinking gave rise to a number of trends in 20th century philosophy? Adams’ story can be understood as closely related to Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, specifically to its position regarding the frontiers and limits of language and knowledge. The crucial point is in the following paragraph, Tractatus 6.5:

“When the answer cannot be put into words, neither can the question be put into words. The riddle does not exist. If a question can be framed at all, it is also possible to answer it.”

Now what did the hyper-intelligent species of Adams’ novel do in relation to this? They didn’t put the question they wanted answered into words, they only paraphrased it. If Deep Thought is to be believed, they did not really understand the question at all. Nevertheless they received an answer; a numerical answer that was as simple and elegant as it was inscrutable. So, in seeking an answer to life’s most important question by means of the most automatic of reasoning processes, the alien race discovered that the answer that could be arrived at by such means, while perfectly understandable in its own right, fell far short of what had been expected.

This corresponds with one of the main themes of Wittgenstein’s philosophy: The problems of life ultimately can not be solved by science and philosophical reasoning alone. Whereas earlier philosophers believed that philosophy should concern itself with questions such as the meaning of life, and the nature of beauty or of good and evil, Wittgenstein helped to usher in a conception of philosophy whose primary concerns are with the natural sciences, logic and language. On Wittgenstein’s view, many of the perennial problems of philosophy had simply been assigned to a discipline that was incapable of providing answers to them. However, Wittgenstein was far from denying that the problems of life exist or are of importance. In the preface to the Tractatus Wittgenstein declares that the importance of his book might well be to show how little is gained by solving the problems it (and by this he meant philosophy itself) addresses. Similarly, the answer to life which Deep Thought’s operations render is meaningless because the hyper-intelligent species try to get the answer by logical and scientific means, which cannot by their nature provide answers of this kind. Wittgenstein knew that: Answers to ultimate questions cannot be given in language. As the above quote would indicate, we are unable even to formulate the right question.

To Wittgenstein, things like ultimate meaning lie outside the limits of language, if they exist at all. Thus the question the hyper-intelligent species asks Deep Thought is not one that can be answered by logic, science or the words of any language.

It seems likely that Adams indeed wished to comment on philosophy in his books. Deep Thought’s first sentence after being turned on was after all Descartes’ famous phrase, “I think therefore I am”. Further, it is certainly a hint towards Wittgenstein that the answer the computer gives to The Ultimate Question is a number. As far as Wittgenstein thought it possible to do so, the Tractatus aimed to solve philosophical quandaries by the methods of formal logic. This is similar to the attempt to get philosophical answers by means of computers, insofar as computers also work on formal systems of logic. The situation Adams describes seems surreal, since everybody, not least the alien creatures themselves, would expect a rather long and difficult answer in normal language to the question of life, the universe and everything. Yet, we get exactly what can be gained from a computer. Searching by logical and mechanical means for answers to unknown questions can only bring us to this point: Meaninglessness.

To see this more clearly, consider the last part of Adams’ story. Deep Thought proposes to build a new and mightier computer: The Earth. The question to which 42 is the answer will, Deep Thought promises, be found by this construction. It will be found, that is, by the ongoing activity of life on Earth itself. How does this fit into Wittgenstein’s point of view in the Tractatus?

Wittgenstein’s most obvious idea of the meaning of the world, is his view that if answers to questions about meaning exist at all, they must exist outside the world itself ­– that is, outside of what can be discovered and meaningfully talked about using logic, natural science and ordinary language (Tractatus 6.41). The world, according to Wittgenstein, is ultimately demarcated by language, and this is why no meaningful contribution towards the question of everything in the world raised by the alien intelligence in Adams’ story can be given in language. One would have to step outside language to comprehend everything that is expressed through language.

Yet Wittgenstein’s rejection of the existence of answers to the ultimate problems of life, as I’ve already mentioned, is not total. He concedes that there most likely are truths which cannot be meaningfully put into words. These truths are ethical, aesthetic or religious; for Wittgenstein ultimately they are something mystical, and they become manifest, or show themselves, in the process of thinking and living (Tractatus 6.522). Becoming manifest can be interpreted as saying that the mystical appears and is part of life, even though we are not able to put it into words. Furthermore, Wittgenstein says that the solution of the problem of life is the vanishing of the problem (Tractatus 6.521). This makes perfect sense with regards to Adams’ story, since the problem of the question that gave rise to the answer will also vanish, aptly as a result of the process of life itself. This is the astonishing circularity of the solution provided by Deep Thought: In order to find out about life, you have to model life itself. (Douglas Adams also said at the beginning of The Restaurant at the End of the Universe that if the meaning of life ever became known, the universe would be instantly replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable… and that this has already happened.)

A glance at Wittgenstein’s biography indicates that he himself was searching for meaning and was constantly in doubt as to whether or not philosophy was the right thing to do. He worked as a gardener, an architect and a school teacher between periods of graduate teaching and research at Cambridge, and he raised for himself the question of how it is possible to be a good logician if one has not first become a good human being. For both Adams and Wittgenstein it seems that the methods of philosophy, logic and science have to stop where language ends; but life itself indeed does not.

© Mathias Brochhausen 2006

Dr Brochhausen is at the Institute of Formal Ontology and Medical Information Science at Saarland University, Saarbruecken.

With thanks to Andrew Spear.

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