Book Review

The Salmon of Doubt: Hitchhiking the Galaxy One Last Time

Douglas Adams
(ed.) Peter Guzzardi, (Pan Books, 2003)


Peter S. Williams

If I were not an atheist, I think I would have to be a Catholic because if it wasnt the forces of natural selection that designed fish, it must have been an Italian. – Douglas Adams (p. 61.)

The Salmon of Doubt is a wide-ranging (or disparate, depending on how you look at it) collection of interviews and articles and previously unpublished (and even unfinished) work by that master of absurdist literature (especially science fiction), Douglas Adams.  Adams, most famous for the increasingly ill-named Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy trilogy (available in five volumes), died suddenly of a heart attack on 11 May 2001; leaving behind him his wife, daughter, and the contents of his beloved Macintosh computers, including the Big Draw of The Salmon of Doubt, an unfinished third Dirk Gently novel (cf. Dirk Gentlys Holistic Detective Agency & The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul).

The Salmon. . .

Editor Peter Guzzardi has cunningly placed The Salmon of Doubt proper at the back of this volume (which is vaguely organized into three sections: Life, The Universe, and Everything), after the manner of supermarkets that put the bread and milk as far away from the front door as possible in order to make you walk past all the things you dont need in order to get at the necessities of life.  There is a Prologue by the editor, and a Foreword by Stephen Fry to read through before you even reach anything by Adams himself.

When you do finally arrive at The Salmon of Doubt (you might like to skip to this first, but it is hard to find given the sparse contents page), what you find is eleven intriguing opening chapters of a novel bodged together from three different drafts found in Adams Mac (computer, not coat).  Not having access to the excluded material, one has no way to judge the editing together of these various drafts; so it may be purely down to the unfinished nature of the material that The Salmon of Doubt is a more than usually perplexing read.

Publishing a detective novel with not only the last page missing, but the last chapters missing, is the sort of irony that Adams would undoubtedly have appreciated; and one feels sure that everything would come together in the end; but since we dont have the end, nothing does, and this is very frustrating.  The Salmon of Doubt makes a poignant epitaph to Adams life cut short mid flow – but it doesnt make for a satisfying read.

The ideas we do get though, are satisfyingly oddball.  Just one example to whet the appetite:

though she had of course tried contacting him through a medium the only message shed for from him was that he didnt believe in all this stupid spiritualist nonsense, it was all a damned fraud, which she thought was very rude of him, and certainly rather embarrassing for the medium. (p. 199.)

In a fax to his editor Adams summed up The Salmon of Doubt: Dirk Gently, hired by someone he never meets, to do a job that is never specified, starts following people at random. . . (p. 189.)  I imagine this pretty well sums up Adams conception of life, the universe, and everything.

. . . of Doubt

The Salmon of Doubt gives a broader and more personal insight into Adams than can be gained simply from reading his fiction.  In particular, we learn from Adams that: As a child I was an active Christian. (Prologue)  His father was at one time a postgraduate theology student.  However, Adams apparently equated this with an appreciation for the aesthetic and emotional content of faith: I used to love the school choir and remember the carol service as always such an emotional thing. . . (Prologue)  Perhaps unsurprisingly then, Adams drifted away from Christianity and into Atheism: I really do not believe that there is a god – in fact I am convinced that there is not a god (a subtle difference).  I see not a shred of evidence to suggest that there is one. (p. 96.) [1] According to Adams:

A number of people I know and meet are scientists, and in those circles atheism is the norm.  I would guess that most people I know otherwise are Agnostics, and quite a few are Atheists.  If I was to try and look amongst my friends, family, and colleagues for people who believed there was a god, Id probably be looking amongst the older and (to be perfectly frank) less well-educated ones.  There are one or two exceptions. (p. 100.)

This is interesting as a sociological report on the company Adams kept, but hardly constitutes a strong argument from common consent for atheism any more than the fact that most of the people most Christians know are also Christians constitutes a good argument for Christianity.  The facts are that: In 1900, something like 6% of the worlds population were self-confessed atheists.  Today that figure has shrunk to just a little over 4% . . . Every opinion poll for the last two or three decades has shown a steady increase in the level of religious belief. [2] (Britain is simply among the few exceptions that prove the rule of Christian growth.)

As for Adams implicit argument from authority (i.e. most educate people Adams knows are not believers), he seems to ignore the fact that around 40% of scientists believe in God, and the fact that the single largest interest group amongst contemporary philosophy is represented by Christian philosophy societies. [3] Atheist Quentin Smith has highlighted the influx of talented theists in philosophy and notes: today perhaps one-quarter or one-third of philosophy professors are theists, with most being orthodox Christians. [4] Smith laments: academia has now lost its mainstream secularisation . . . If naturalism is the true world-view and a “Dark Age” means an age when the vast majority of philosophers (and scientists) do not know the true world-view, then we have to admit that we are living in a Dark Age. [5]

Adams atheism was particularly influenced by reading the work of Oxford atheist and zoologist Richard Dawkins.  Adams even noted The Blind Watchmaker as The Book that Changed Me (p. 14).  Adams main professed reason for believing atheism is the same as Dawkins, namely: God used to be the best explanation wed got, and weve now got vastly better ones. (p. 97.)  Like what?  Like Darwinian (naturalistically interpreted) evolution (of course, one cant interpret evolution naturalistically unless one already knows that God does not exist. . .): we started out as some kind of slime and got where we are via being a monkey. (p. 136.) [6]

Adams professes: It has always struck me as being bizarre that the idea of God as a creator was considered sufficient explanation for the complexity we see around us, because it simply doesnt explain where he came from. (p. 139.)  In fact, this objection to theism comes straight from Dawkins Blind Watchmaker:

To explain the origin of the DNA/protein machine by invoking a supernatural designer is to explain precisely nothing, for it leaves unexplained the origin of the designer.  You have to say something like God was always here, and if you allow yourself that kind of lazy way out, you might as well just say DNA was always there, or life was always there, and be done with it. [7]

Unfortunately, Dawkins and Adams both fundamentally misunderstand the nature of explanation.  Philosopher William Lane Craig comments:

It is widely recognized that in order for an explanation to be the best explanation, one neednt have an explanation of the explanation (indeed, such a requirement would generate an infinite regress, so that everything becomes inexplicable). . .  believing that the design hypothesis is the best explanation. . . doesnt depend upon our ability to explain the designer. [8]

William A. Dembski notes: The who-designed-the-designer question invites a regress that is readily declined. . .  such a regress arises whenever scientists introduce a novel theoretical entity. . .  the question is whether design does useful conceptual work. [9] Moreover, as Jay Richards observes, no one would make a similar objection to the design hypothesis in any other field of explanation: If a detective [say, Dirk Gently] explains a death as the result of a murder by, say Jeffrey Dahmer, no one says, “OK, then who made Jeffrey Dahmer?”  If someone explains some buried earthenware as the result of artisans from the second century B.C., no one complains, “Yeah, but who made the artisans?” [10]

This said, theists not only hold that God was always here, but they hold that God exists necessarily rather than contingently, and that it therefore makes no more sense to demand any further explanation for Gods existence than it does to ask why 2 + 2 = 4.  DNA and life, on the other hand, clearly do not exist necessarily.  Saying these things exist just because just wont wash, despite Adams protestations that when you hear the word “Why?,” you know youve got one of the biggest unanswerables on your hands. . .  Why not?  Dont ask stupid questions. (p. 10.)  This is a surprisingly unscientific attitude to the big questions.  While it doesnt make sense to try to explain Gods existence (beyond noting that if God exists he does so necessarily - necessity being opposite to impossibility), it does make sense to try to explain why DNA and life exist. [11] Neither Adams nor Dawkins believe that DNA was always there or that life was always there any more than they believe that God was always there.  On the other hand, saying that God was always there makes perfect sense given the understanding of God as a necessary being.

In one of his speeches Adams recalls an argument I remember being stumped by once, to which I couldnt come up with a reply. . .  A guy said to me, “Yes, but the whole theory of evolution is based on a tautology: That which survives, survives.”  This is tautological, therefore it doesnt mean anything. (p. 128-129.)  Adams eventual response was its a unique tautology in that it requires no information to go in, but an infinite amount of information comes out of it.  So I think that it is arguably therefore the prime cause of everything in the universe. (p. 129.)  First, a tautology is not literally meaningless, but rather uninformative, in the sense that it cant serve as an explanatory principle (e.g. Question: Why arent you married? Tautologous answer: Because Im a bachelor.  Explanatory answer: Because Im a Catholic Priest.).  Thus the objection was misstated; but Adams response is equally misstated.  Adams seems to view evolution as the ultimate free lunch, a case of getting something (indeed, an infinite something) for nothing – which is of course impossible.  Adams correctly identifies the creation of information as the central issue in biology, but his tautological explanation amounts to a refusal to provide an explanation. [12] Besides which, evolution cannot possible be the prime cause of everything in the universe because evolution presupposes a fine-tuned universe and the existence of organisms capable of evolving – neither of which can possible be explained by the evolutionary process itself.

 Adams would have been better off replying that the proposed explanatory point of evolution by natural selection is that exactly what survives is sometimes explicable in terms of its relative advantage over its rivals in a given environment – hence life alters over time through descent with modification.  Of course, this reply would still leave open the question as to whether descent with modification is in fact a sufficient scientific explanation for biological reality, or merely a partial explanation, an unjustifiable extrapolation, in need of supplemental explanatory hypotheses.  Moreover, it leaves the issue of explaining the very existence of a fine-tuned universe containing organisms capable of descent with modification wholly unexplained. [13]

Adams thought he had a knock-down response to the issue of fine-tuning, likening the anthropic argument for God to a puddle of water arguing that, since the dip in the ground it inhabited seemed to fit it so well, it must have been created with its existence in mind: This is an interesting world I find myself in – an interesting hole I find myself in – fits me rather neatly, doesnt it?  In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it! (p. 131.)  But this is a deeply flawed analogy.  Water will of course fit any shape hole – the fit between the hole and the water can be explained wholly by reference to the nature of water.  However, life will not fit any environment.  The fit between our universal environment and intelligent life cannot be explained wholly by reference to the nature of intelligent life:

In reviewing the physical laws and the numerical values of fundamental constants, one encounters as remarkable precision in these values such that only small changes in the fundamental constants, such as the strength of the four forces, Planks constant, the mass of elementary particles, etc., would yield a universe without galaxies, starts, atoms or even nuclei, and consequently, without the capacity for life. [14]

Its not that life would have been different in a differently tuned universe (as water would have taken on a different shape in a different hole), but that organic life would be physically impossible in the vast majority of differently tuned possible universes.  Robert Collins argues:

one could think of each instance of fine-tuning as a radio dial: unless all the dials are set exactly right, life would be impossible.  Or, one could think of the initial conditions of the universe and the fundamental parameters of physics as a dart board that fills the whole galaxy, and the conditions necessary for life to exist as a small one-foot wide target: unless the dart hits the target, life would be impossible.  The fact that the dials are perfectly set, or the dart has hit the target, strongly suggests that someone set the dials or aimed the dart. . . [15]

As Fred Hoyle wrote: A common sense interpretation of the facts suggests that a superintellect has monkeyed with physics. [16]

At least Adams scepticism occasionally stretched to omnicompetency of science itself:

Now there are all sorts of entities we are also aware of, as well as particles, forces, tables, chairs, rocks, and so on, that are almost invisible to science; almost invisible, because science has almost nothing to say about them whatsoever.  Im talking about dogs and cats and cows and each other.  We living things are so far beyond the purview of anything science can actually say, almost beyond even recognizing ourselves as things that science might be expected to have something to say about. (p. 135.)

Hitchhiking the Galaxy

Although there is much in Adams thinking that I find problematical from a philosophical viewpoint (he was, after all, primarily a brilliant writer rather than a philosopher or a scientist), there is also much that I would want to sympathetically affirm.

Adams was committed to the cause of bio-diversity, co-authoring Last Chance to See (his own favourite book) with Mark Carwardine; but he saw the funny side of a sponsored walk-in-a-rhino-costume:

there is something very odd about this sponsored walking business.  Its always undertaken for good causes. . . wildlife conservation, and so on, but the deal seems to be this: “Okay, you are trying to raise funds for this very worthwhile cause, and I can see that its an important and crucial matter of urgency, but, well. . . I dont know. . .  Tell you what – do something really pointless and stupid and maybe a bit dangerous, then Ill give you some money. (p. 76.)

Adams was scathing about the effect of tourism on the natural beauty of the world:

Hamilton Island looks like a pretty good example of what not to do to a beautiful sub-tropical island on the edge of one of the great wonders of the natural world, which is to cover it with hideous high-rise junk architecture, and sell beer and T-shirts and also picture postcards of how beautiful it used to be before all the postcard shops arrived. (p. 49.)

This ability to take the sideways view, to highlight the self-defeating foibles of humanity whilst retaining a sense of humour (analogous to some of Jesus parables), is something I really appreciate in Adams writing:

Ive come up with a set of rules that describe our reactions to technologies:

  1. Anything that is in the world when youre born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.
  2. Anything thats invented between when youre fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.
  3. Anything invented after youre thirty-five is against the natural order of things. (p. 95.)

One Last Time

The Salmon of Doubt ends with the order of service for Adams memorial service in the church of St. Martin in the Fields.  Given that Adams was a radical Atheist (p. 96.), this strikes me at least as being strangely out of place given the tone of the preceding pages.  The service seems to have been explicitly Christian, with prayers of thanksgiving for Adams life offered to a God Adams believed does not exist.  Of course, there is nothing wrong in being thankful to God for someone who wasnt thankful to God; but this religious service for an irreligious man put me in mind of an incident insightfully recorded by Adams.  Writing about two neighbours dogs who hook up with him on a writing retreat in New Mexico, Adams observes:

Despite the fact that they would always completely ignore me whenever we went out for walks together, they couldnt just go and have a walk without me.  This revealed a profoundly philosophical bent in these dogs that were not mine, because they had worked out that I had to be there in order for them to be able to ignore me properly.  You cant ignore someone who isnt there, because thats not what “ignore” means. (p. 19.)

When I read that, the thought came to mind that perhaps this is how many people treat God – wanting him around so that they can ignore Him properly. . .  Of course, we dont know that this incident reflects Adams own state of mind – that is not for us to judge – but perhaps, as with so much of Adams writing, it can lead us to some useful introspection.

Notes

[1] cf. Peter S. Williams, The Case for God, (Monarch, 1999) for some of the evidence.

[2] John Drane, The Bible Phenomenon (Oxford: Lion, 1999), pp. 10–11.

[3] cf. Society of Christian Philosophers @ www.siu.edu/departments/cola/philos/SCP/;
Evangelical Philosophical Society @ www.epsociety.org; Theistic Philosophers @ http://theism.actualism.com/theistic.php3

[4] Quentin Smith, The Metaphilosophy of Naturalism, Philo Vol. 4, Number 2, 05/01/02 @ http://www.philoonline.org/library/smith_4_2.htm   Smith notes that in the Oxford University Press 2000–2001 catalogue there were ninety-six recently published books on the philosophy of religion, two presenting both sides and ninety-four advancing theism!

[5] ibid.

[6] This description of evolution is of course inaccurate.  The theory of common ancestry posits that humans and monkeys both evolved from a common ancestor that was neither a human nor a monkey.  Adams makes another obvious blunder when he writes that Tools have enabled us to think intentionally, to make things and do things to create a world that fits us better. (p. 130.)  How does one make a tool in the first place without thinking intentionally?!

[7] Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker, p. 141.

[8] William Lane Craig, Why I Believe in God, Norman L. Geisler and Paul K. Hoffman (ed.s), Why I Am A Christian, (Baker, 2001), p. 73.

[9] Dembski, No Free Lunch, p. 354.

[10] Jay Richards, quoted by Dembski, ibid, p. 255.

[11] On the problems of explaining DNA naturalistically cf. Stephen C. Meyer, DNA and Other Designs @ www.arn.org/docs/meyer/sm_dnaotherdesigns.htm; Dean L. Overman, A Case Against Accident and Self-Organization, (Rowman & Littlefield, 1997).

[12] On the problem of information in biology, cf. William A. Dembski, No Free Lunch, (Rowman & Littlefield, 2002); Dean L. Overman, A Case Against Accident and Self-Organization, (Rowman & Littlefield, 1997); William A. Dembski, Intelligent Design as a Theory of Information @ www.arn.org/docs/dembski/wd_idtheory.htm; Charles Thaxton, A New Design Argument @ www.arn.org/docs/thaxton/ct_newdesign3198.htm; Stephen C. Meyer, DNA and Other Designs @ www.arn.org/docs/meyer/sm_dnaotherdesigns.htm

[13] Douglas Groothuis, Leo and the Mechanic: A Cosmological Narrative @ www.gospelcom.net/ivpress/groothuis/leocosmo.htm; Dallas Willard, Language, Being, God, and the Three Stages of Theistic Evidence @ www.dwillard.org/Philosophy/Pubs/language_being.htm

[14] Dean L. Overman, A Case Against Accident and Self-Organization, (Rowman & Littlefield, 1997), p. 128.

[15] Robert Collins, The Fine Tuning Argument, Readings in the Philosophy of Religion, (ed.), Kelly Clark, p. 55.

[16] Fred Hoyle, as quoted in Fred Hereen, Show Me God, (Search Light Publishing, 1995), p. 179.

cf. Robin Collins, ‘The Fine-Tuning Design Argument: A Scientific Argument for the Existence of God @ www.discovery.org/viewDB/index.php3?program=CRSC&command=view&id=91; William Lane Craig, ‘The Teleological Argument and the Anthropic Principle @ www.leaderu.com/offices/billcraig/docs/teleo.html