The Restaurant at the End of the Universe

(Warning: Spoilers for the book of this title, and for The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy follow)

Among my all-time favourite works of fiction is a set of books known collectively as The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: A Trilogy in Four Parts, written by the atheist Douglas Adams. The copy I will be quoting from is the 1994 edition published by William Heinemann Ltd. in London England. This is not a review of that wonderful book, however, but, rather, I wanted to comment on one of the most profound parts of Adams’ book, found in the second part (known as the Restaurant at the End of the Universe). The reason it is so profound is because in it, the agnostic/atheist Adams confronts the consequences of his own personal belief system, namely metaphysical naturalism, and how that naturalism affects personal morality. He is astonishingly candid, and though he does it in the context of a humourous novel, he demonstrates that he understands perfectly well the nihilistic effect his metaphysical worldview has on human morality.

The words come from Max Quordlepleen, the comedian who is the host at Milliways, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe.

‘So, ladies and gentlemen,’ he (Max) breathed, ‘the candles are lit, the band plays softly, and as the force-shielded dome above us fades into transparency, revealing a dark and sullen sky hung heavy with the ancient light of livid swollen stars, I can see we’re all in for a fabulous evening’s apocalypse!’
Even the soft tootling of the band faded away as stunned shock descended on all those who had not seen this sight before.
A monstrous, grisley light poured in on them,
-a hideous light,
-a boiling, pestilential light,
-a light that would have disfigured hell.
The Universe was coming to an end.
For a few interminable seconds the Restaurant spun silently through the raging void. Then Max spoke again.
‘For those of you who ever hoped to see the light at the end of the tunnel,’ he said, ‘this is it.’
D. Adams, The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, pg. 226-227

So the stage is set. Absolutely everything (excepting the Restaurant, which is sealed off from the Universe’s fate, having been trapped inside of some special kind of force field that allows it to re-experience this moment over and over again endlessly) is coming to an end. The entire universe ends, and with it, any hope, any reason for doing anything either good or evil. The “light at the end of the tunnel” that Max speaks of is oblivion. Period. To make certain that the reader understands the point, Adams uses Max again later to bring it home for us.

‘This,’ he said, ‘really is the absolute end, the final chilling desolation, in which the whole majestic sweep of creation becomes extinct. This, ladies and gentlemen, is the proverbial “it”…’
‘It’s marvellous though,’ he rattled on, ‘to see so many of you here tonight-no isn’t it though? Yes, absolutely marvellous. Because I know that so many of you come here time and time again, which I think is really wonderful, to come and watch this final end of everything, and then return home to your own eras . . . and raise families, strive for new and better societies, fight terrible wars for what you know to be right . . . it really gives one home for the future of all lifekind. Except of course,’ he waved at the blitzing turmoil above and around them, ‘that we know it hasn’t got one . . .’
(Ibid. pg. 229, 231)

So there you have it. Life has no purpose, meaning, future, or hope. Everything we did, do, or will ever do, is pointless because in the end, everything will end. We can, like the patrons of the Restaurant, continue to live as though what we do actually matters, but having seen the final catastrophe, we also know that we are simply kidding ourselves.

I have often read and listened to atheists explain why it is still important to do good, even though we all know that God does not exist. Yet, their protestations always sound, at best, incoherent. It is as if one can say that we can make life meaningful, beautiful, and good, simply because we will it to be so. Yes, everything came about by accident, and without purpose, and yes, everything will come to a final total, and complete end, but we must still treat life as if it has hope and meaning.

I have never understood this need by many atheists to be so insistent on this point. “If only we believe, then it will all have purpose,” he seems to be saying. If the atheist is right, and the universe itself has no purpose, and will someday simply end, leaving only oblivion, then why the insistence that there is still good, and purpose, and beauty in this life? The only answer I have been able to come up with, and I am increasingly convinced that this is the case, is that the atheist does, genuinely believe in objective truth, beauty, goodness, and purpose. What I am less certain about is why.




The problem is actually for Christian supernaturalists, because then you assume that the purpose of doing good is selfish, i.e. there is "something waiting" for those of you who do good or do bad. Therefore being a Christian (or any kind of believer in an afterlife) is a form of egotism or a long-term investment. A meaningless universe makes morality much more courageous, simply because, at least for the do-gooder, it's... simply useless.
BK said…
You have it wrong, Jaume. A Christian doesn't do good because of the long term results, we do good because we love God and seek to do his will. You are seeking to turn an altruistic response to God's love into a self-centered response which is simply not the way it works.

Meanwhile, you try to turn what is ultimately a meaningless act of doing good (which to the atheistmust be a meaningless [or at least subjective] notion) into an heroic feat. Why? What is heroic about pressing your subjective notions about what is "good" into action when it is all ultimately meaningless?

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