The Babelfish: Why Being Right Isn’t a Worthwhile End in Itself

In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams, the babelfish is a creature that “eats” auditory signals and “excretes” telepathic signals that can be interpreted directly by the human brain. The upshot of which is, if you put one in your ear, you’ll be able to instantly understand any spoken language.

“Now it is such a bizarrely improbable coincidence, writes Adams, “that anything so mind-bogglingly useful could have evolved purely by chance that some thinkers have chosen to see it as the final and clinching proof of the non-existence of God.” The argument goes something like this:

“I refuse to prove that I exist,'” says God, “for proof denies faith, and without faith I am nothing.”
“But,” says Man, “The Babel fish is a dead giveaway, isn’t it? It could not have evolved by chance. It proves you exist, and so therefore, by your own arguments, you don’t. QED.”
“Oh dear,” says God, “I hadn’t thought of that,” and promptly vanishes in a puff of logic.
“Oh, that was easy,” says Man, and for an encore goes on to prove that black is white and gets himself killed on the next zebra crossing.

What does this suggest about writing? On the one hand, not much–it’s just really clever. But it does point to the problem with arguing just for the sake of being right. In Adams’s exchange between Man and God, Man seems interested only in being right. The problem is that once his intellectual opponent is vanquished, he leaves a vacuum in which nothing useful exists. In other words, the argument has no real purpose, other than (perhaps) proving how clever Man is–and we see where that gets him.

When academics argue–or at least when they argue in good faith–they’re usually trying to arrive at some kind of deeper understanding of their subject matter. This “noble contending for the truth” is what philosophers since ancient Greece have called a dialectic, and that more contemporary philosophers might refer to as agonism

””Science has achieved some wonderful things of course, but I’d far rather be happy than right any day.”

 

“And are you?”
“No. That’s where it all falls down of course.” (30.11-3)

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