Monday, September 14, 2009

42

I was never a big fan of Douglas Adams, but in a younger incarnation I did read The Hitch-hiker's Guide to the Galaxy and The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. And I do remember the answer to life, the universe and everything.

Forty-two.

I would rather have hoped that the answer might be a prime number, like forty-three, so that one wouldn't be tempted to parse and fiddle. I mean, if the answer is forty-two, then one is left with a niggling anxiety as to whether there is really something more basic -- two, three and seven, for instance.

Forty-two. I'll admit that was a good year. The last good year before the male mid-life crisis sets in with a vengeance. And then, once the crisis has passed, well, it's all downhil from there, physically speaking. So yes, forty-two is as good an answer as any.

The very first printed book in the West, and the first in the world to be disseminated widely, was the so-called "Forty-two Line Bible" of Johannes Gutenberg (each page had forty-two lines). For many people that book became the answer to life, the universe and everything. Still is, in later editions.

The nineteenth-century scholar Herbert Spencer said that religion can be reconciled with science only if we agree that there is no final answer to life, the universe and everything. "A permanent peace between science and religion," he said, "will be reached when science becomes fully convinced that its explanations are proximate and relative, while religion becomes fully convinced that the mystery it contemplates is ultimate and absolute."

As we enter the 21st century, I don't know of any scientist who does not admit that scientific knowledge is proximate and relative. It might be forty-two now, but a generation from now it might be forty-three, or even forty-seven. But billions of religious people right across the planet claim to know God's mind infallibly. Forty-two, they say, with unshakable conviction, now and forever. Not much chance of a reconciliation there.