The Meaning of Life

I recently discovered the meaning of life.

And you think I’m going to tell you?

Well okay I will.  This is the edited version of course.  I have thousands of pages of rough workings but this is the short version.  The meaning of life is this: 42. 

Yes, I appreciate that you already knew that.  As a card-carrying science fiction fan (actually, are there cards you can carry to say you’re a science fiction fan? and where do I get one?) you will have known for many years that the meaning of life, according to the great guru Douglas Adams, is 42. 

The question to the answer, however, is; why?

Why 42? Why not 41? 12? 7?

In order to answer the question to the answer (stay with me guys!) we have to go back in time to the days when the gods walked the Earth, and miscegenated like nobody’s business.  Thus it was, that the Greek god Hermes merged with the Egyptian god Thoth, in a somewhat inexplicable fashion, to become the deity Hermes Trismegistus.  And this divine being (according to various authorities) left behind a library of divine texts, based around a core of forty-two (42!) essential texts.

The forty-two texts of Hermes Trismegistus are one of history’s great legends; and the devotees of the Hermetic sect (who survived into the 20th and possibly the 21st centuries) have long believed that all the answers to all the secrets of existence are to be found there.  Douglas Adams may, possibly, not have known this – but what are the odds on that? He knew; hence 42. 

Various documents allegedly written by Hermes Trismegistus circulated through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, and were almost certainly forgeries.  But the myth of ‘thrice-great-Hermes’ burned brightly, and was a great influence on the celebrated Elizabethan scientist John Dee.  Dee was a cartographer, an astronomer, and a magician (what a hyphenate!), and, as well as believing he could talk to angels, he was also a passionate numerologist.  In other words, he believed that numbers contain hidden within them great truths about our existence.

John Dee, I will just mention in a brief aside, is a real historical character much beloved by fantasy writers, including John Crowley and Michael Moorcock; and in Neil Gaiman’s graphic novel 1602 his role in the Elizabethan court is taken over by Dr Stephen Strange.  Along with Aleister Crowley, Dee is one of the most famous occultists of all time.

Enough of the aside; back to numerology. 

Numerology (bear with me,  for this is a rocky  paragraph in turbulent seas) is an ancient discipline which is nowadays regarded as a) bonkers and b) a form of pseudo-mathematics.  Numerologists,  you see,   find patterns in numbers which mean nothing – they are just random patterns, like clouds which look like horses. Whereas mathematicians find patterns in numbers which, erm, do mean something.  The distinction is a fine one; but the trick of modern science and modern mathematics is to favour theories which can predict, and hence can predict rightly or wrongly; and so can be ‘falsified’, in the Karl Popper sense of that word.   With numerology, the pattern is all that matters.

But numerology and mathematics are both driven by the same instinct – a belief, a blind faith – that patterns in numbers are important.  In Pythagorean numerology the name and birth date of an individual are used to divine personality traits about that person. Which is nonsense! (Isn’t it?)  By contrast Paul Dirac discovered a pattern in numbers that amazingly connects gravity and the universe – expressed in an equation that shows that the strength of gravity is inversely proportional to the age of the universe.  And that’s clearly an important discovery! Or is it? Damn, no, it turns out that most scientists regard Dirac’s equation as nonense – as, in fact, numerology. (But are they right, to say he’s wrong? It certainly seems a fishy coincidence to me…)

The fact remains that numerology, hermeticism and magic were the dominant philosophical traditions in the years and centuries when science as we know it was created.  John Dee – magician – was also a pioneer of science.  Nicolaus Copernicus, who revolutionised astronomy by arguing that the Earth goes around the sun and not vice versa, was much influenced by the pagan concept of sun-worship, and invoked Hermes Trismegistus as one of his authorities - since the old Thrice-Great had believed the Sun to be the ‘visible God’, and hence, had  to be at the centre of our universe.   There were, of course, sound scientific reasons for Copernicism to flourish – but in truth, it wasn’t all that much more accurate than the old Ptolemaic hypothesis (Copernicus’s figures were based on the hypothesis that the planets orbit the sun in perfect circles, which in fact they don’t,  they travel in ellipses.) But for many of his contemporaries, the fact that Copernicus was implicitly invoking the great sun god Ra – now that made it a theory worth supporting…

And then there’s Newton. 

I have a great soft spot for the great scientist and mathematician Sir Isaac Newton, ever since I discovered he was also a celebrated thief-taker and murderer (true!), and then wrote a radio play about him.  But when he wasn’t being a great scientist, or interrogating felons, Newton was engaged in his real passion – alchemy.  His pursuit of the prisca sapienta – the unified theory of the principles of the universe – led him to study all the great occult authorities of the past, including Hermes Trismegistus and all the probably bogus texts attributed to him. This occult exploration was his life’s work; and  Newton’s laws of motion and theory of gravity were, in effect,  just trifling discoveries that occurred to him along the way. 

This side of Newton is usually dismissed by modern commentators – even though his alchemical and quasi-occult writings occupied vastly more of his energy than his purely scientific work.  But the question I would pose is: can you have one, without the other? Would Newton have created a theory of gravity, if he hadn’t been impelled by a passionate, blind belief in the hidden secrets of the universe that were there to be discovered, and which already HAD been discovered?  The 42 books of Hermes Trismegistus are more than just a legend; they are a myth, a dream, an aspiration. 

Or to put it another way: without faith in magic, there might have been no science.

Of course, that was then, and this is now.  Modern science is sane and rational, and there’s no mumbo-jumbo whatsoever going on. 

But is that really true? 

Science is after all getting crazier and crazier.  Like many SF nerds, I was alarmed to read that two scientists have theorised that the failure of the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland to create Higgs Bosons is because the boson is abhorrent to Nature, and so at the moment of its creation ripples travel back in time to prevent it becoming created.  (Whilst driving a De Lorean, we might surmise).  This theory is so lunatic that it makes even MY books looks sensible; but it’s not a gag. The two scientists involved have even devised an experiment to test the hypothesis.

Quantum physics is also, of course, an affront to common sense.  Einstein mocked it, and refused to believe God would play dice with the Universe.  It is a theory with such devastating implications that it challenges our every assumption about what reality is, and how it works. 

So there comes at a point at which we have to wonder: bearing in mind that science is stranger than magic, and more fantastic than magic, and was to a very large degree in its early stages created by magicians (or hermeticists, or sun-worshippers) is science merely a more effective and experimentally-confirmed form of magic?

Or to put it another way; the fact that most magic is bunk, doesn’t mean it’s all bunk.  The history of occult philosophy is littered with false hopes and lies and forged documents and self-delusion; but the underlying principles do seem to work. There is a hidden order in things; patterns found in numbers actually do mean something, and can reveal huge truths; and, (according to the formulations of quantum physics)  the impossible can happen, and should happen more often than it does.

All this, I would surmise, Douglas Adams knew, because he was one smart fellow.  Admittedly, when quizzed about his reasons for chosing the  number  42 as the answer to everything, he claimed it was ‘a joke’, a number chosen at random, which he happened to feel was the funniest of the two digit numbers.  This may all  be true; or it may  be a cunning lie he told to conceal his deep reading in Hermetic literature.  We shall never know (though apparently Stephen Fry does know, but is hugging his old friend’s secret to his bosom.)

But I am 100% confident that Adams did intend to obliquely refer to Hermes Trismegistus when he wrote those hallowed numbers ’42′; for, in the spirit of the great occultists, I am only too happy to believe what I want to believe.   

And the heart of my argument is this:  the  meaning of life (in this particular context) is that, in pursuit of 42 texts that almost certainly didn’t exist, written by a god who didn’t exist, many very obsessive individuals have fumbled their way through lots of wrong and crazy ideas until, through trial and error, some less crazy and more useful  ideas coalesced and evolved.  And thus was created the entire scientific-intellectual fabric of our 21st century society. 

None of this would have happened without the dream, the blind faith, the conviction that everything that could be discovered had been discovered – the myth of the 42 texts.  Practically minded engineers do not seek the truth about the meaning of life; it takes a wild dreamer to do that.  And many of these wild dreamers, I would argue, were inspired by the Myth of 42.

There, that’s the meaning of life done and dusted. 

In my next blog, I shall explain how to build an FTL spaceship and travel through the space to a fertile Earth-like planet populated by sexy aliens who will worship you. 

So keep watching this space….


(First published on the Orbit website.)

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