The Hitchhiker’s Question

“The Answer to the Great Question… Of Life, the Universe and Everything… Is… Forty-two,’ said Deep Thought, with infinite majesty and calm.”

“Forty-two!” yelled Loonquawl. “Is that all you’ve got to show for seven and a half million years’ work?”
“I checked it very thoroughly,” said the computer, “and that quite definitely is the answer. I think the problem, to be quite honest with you, is that you’ve never actually known what the question is.”

 

As arguably the most famous quote in his popular book, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams suggests that it is just as important to know the question as the answer. He echoes Voltaire’s sentiment made 300 years prior to Adams of “judge a man by his questions rather than his answers”.

Firstly, lets address the elephant in the room: the question asked in his book is way too ambiguous and doesn’t really point to any specific possible answer. It’s like asking, “what is the colour red?”: it’s only half a question. The second part of the question needs to narrow this down to a point towards a specific answer, like, “what is the colour red in terms of wavelength of light?” Answer: 600-700 nm. Easy (we can be pedantic about the exact wavelength at which red ends and orange begins, but that is more of an exercise in definitions rather than science).  In this way, yes, Adams does indeed show that asking a question with a specific answer in mind is vital.  But by making such a poorly constructed question on purpose, I think he’s masking a more fundamental, interesting aspect of the problem. An aspect that is a lot more common than a poorly asked question. This aspect, I believe, has more to do with the answer, and the foundation on which that answer lies on.

Let’s assume that Adam’s question was actually properly constructed, like in the paragraph above. From there, asking a question like, “the Great Question of Life, the Universe and Everything” implies that we have all the pre-requisite knowledge to understand the answer. I cannot ask, “how does salt form crystals” if I don’t understand the foundational science on which the answers rests. You’ll only reply, “it creates ionic bonds between sodium and chlorine in a repeatable face-centred cubic lattice,” and I will be none the wiser as to what you meant. Yes, the initial question is still important as it implies a certain level of pre-requisite knowledge, but this implication leads us now to see that the problem is a lack of pre-requisite foundation, not the question. We do not blame the ocean for containing waves, consequently tipping us out of the inflatable lilo we were trying to float peacefully on top of. We blame the speedboat that hurtled past us a few seconds ago which had thus caused the waves.

Mapped out above is a hierarchical representation of the foundation on which our answer rests. We have three pieces of knowledge which form that foundation. Those pieces of foundational knowledge then are held up by their own pieces of foundational knowledge (not shown in the image), and back and back we go, like an annoying five-year-old who keeps asking his frazzled mother, “but why?” As Elon Musk says, “we need to get to first principles”, and I believe that viewing knowledge in this way is what he means. Now, I hear you ask in a slightly maniacal way, “well then where does it end?!” But don’t worry, I believe that there is an end, and it is when we manage to get down to a strong, stable foundation.

 

We don’t build our house on a weak foundation of sand: it’ll just fall down given the smallest push. In the same way, we don’t house ideas on a foundation that is weak. A weak intellectual foundation is one where we require more knowledge to understand the topic to a suitable level. There are a lot of areas of knowledge that have solid foundations on which we can learn new things, though. Apple have becoming a billion-dollar company on this fact. Do you need to know the thousands of lines of code, which come together in complex ways to eventually form the iOS on which all Apple phones run? No, of course not. We just know that the operating system exists and acts as a foundation on which we can download apps and use our phones. “It just works.” Yet it doesn’t work by accident: it has been meticulously engineered so that the users need as small amount of pre-requisite knowledge as possible.

 

In the same way, we have natural solid foundations in the hierarchy of knowledge that allow us to grow our own knowledge on top of. If we were to create a basic electrical circuit, we would need to know that electricity conducts, a few laws (like Ohm’s law) and a few other basic bits about the functionality of core components for circuits (where the power comes from, where it goes). We need not know any more. Even though the discipline of electrical engineering is founded upon the movement of electrons through conductors/semiconductors: this deep knowledge of electron movement is mostly unnecessary for the purpose of creating circuits. We have found a stable foundation.

 

We need a foundation of knowledge to understand the answer to a question, and that foundation needs to be stable. So in the same way as the answer, “it creates ionic bonds between sodium and chlorine in a repeatable face-centred cubic lattice,” “42” might well be the answer to the Great Question of Life, the Universe and Everything, but if we don’t understand the foundation of knowledge on which that answer rests, the answer is meaningless. It is the responsibility of the questioner to be aware of whether the answer will hold any meaning to her or not. She must be critical in evaluating whether she has the correct foundational knowledge. And herein lies a more difficult problem with the answer of “42”. Not only does she need to continue probing until she has found a stable foundation, what happens when she doesn’t know what foundational knowledge she doesn’t know?

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