Saturday 29 October 2011

Total perspective vortex: the nihilist universe


Among the ways in which Douglas Adams Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy expresses his nihilistic view of the universe

(a nihilism which is in fact mainstream in modern public discourse - thought very seldom expressed with such economy and wit)

is the concept of the Total Perspective Vortex.


The TPV is a punishment (indeed a capital punishment, in all but one instance) which shows the victim the (nihilist) Truth that they - and indeed everything they might value - are in 'reality' utterly insignificant, and that reality is (therefore) meaningless.


[The modern nihilist perspective should be contrasted with the description of the human situation of pre-modern man - for example the Medieval cosmology:

[A difference was that although the Medieval cosmology shared the sense of insignificance of size between humans (and earth) and the universe, and indeed regarded the earth as the lowest and most corrupt part of the universe - there was a spiritual sense which transcended physical differential by the centrality of the salvation of each individual soul.

[Adams believed and argued that this Medieval perspective, and indeed all genuine religious perspectives, were 'evil' (that is, evil in the sense of leading to sub-optimal human happiness) - and that adoption of the actuality  exemplified by the imagined operations of the Total Perspective Vortex would lead to a better world with less suffering.


[How Adams believed this, I understand - because I believed it too - but I don't know of any coherent rational argument which truly, actually gets you from accepting the validity of insight deriving from the TPV to Left-Liberalism, Relativism and Lifestyle Hedonism. Let's just say that this link is accepted.]


The nihilist cosmology which the Total Perspective Vortex forces upon its victim has no real answer - the only answer (as Adams makes clear) is to avoid thinking about reality - perhaps by distracting the mind with serial pleasures such as going to parties, perhaps by obliterating consciousness with a Pan Galactic Gargleblaster; or perhaps by the conviction of total egotism as possessed by Zaphod Beeblebrox: the grandiose delusion of one's own importance.


For Adams, as a representative modern elite intellectual, the most important thing about reality is to avoid it as completely as possible and for as long as possible.

To do this is assisted by Lifestyle Freedom and Serial Distraction - indeed, these are imperative.

The body's 'natural' appetites are exploited to (ideally) overwhelm consciousness with absorption in pleasure (preferably pleasure, but if this doesn't work then just absorption in something like status-seeking, plans of seduction, consumption; and if this doesn't work then daydreams about these things.


Nihilism is the attempted avoidance of reality by denial of the reality of reality; because if reality really was what it seems to be, and one is really an insignificant speck, then one's own knowledge of reality could not be valid (since insignificant specks lack valid knowledge).

The choice, then, is to accept a self-refuting and paralyzing reality, which kills you; or to avoid the whole question until you are taken by death.

(Modern society does both, mostly the latter - so far - but increasingly more of the former...)


(From Episode 8 of the BBC Radio series transcript. I still recall listening to this broadcast live and for the first time - one of the great comedy moments of my life.)

The Universe, as has been observed before, is an unsettling big place. The fact which, for the sake of a quiet life, most people tend to ignore. 

Many would happily move to somewhere rather smaller of their own devising, and this is what most beings, in fact, do.

For instance, in one corner of the Eastern Galactic Arm lies the great forest planet Oglaroon. The entire ‘intelligent’ population of which lives permanently in one fairly small and crowded nut tree. In which tree they’re born, live, fall in love, carve tiny, speculative articles in the bark on the meaning of life, the futility of death, and the importance of birth control, fight a few - very minor - wars, and eventually die strapped to the underside of some of the less accessible outer branches. In fact, the only Oglaroonians who ever leave their tree at all are those who are hurled out for the heinous crime of wondering whether any of the other trees might be capable of supporting life at all, or indeed be anything other than illusions brought on by eating too many Oglanuts. 

Exotic though this behaviour may seem, there is no life-form in the galaxy not in some way guilty of the same thing. Which is why the Total Perspective Vortex is as horrific as it undoubtedly is. 

For when you are put in the Vortex, you are given just one, momentary glimpse of the size of the entire unimaginable infinity of creation along with a tiny little marker saying, “You are here”.

Scene 7. Int. Frogstar


MAN: [Blood-curdling scream]

ZAPHOD: Hey man, what was that?

GARGRAVARR: A man being put in the Vortex I’m afraid. We’re very close to it now.

ZAPHOD: Hey, it sounds really bad. Couldn’t we maybe go to a party or something, for a while… think it over?

GARGRAVARR: For all I know I’m probably at one. My body that is. He goes to a lot of parties without me… says I only get in the way. Hey ho

ZAPHOD: I can see why it wouldn’t want to come here. This place is the dismalest. Looks like a bomb’s hit it you know.

GARGRAVARR: Several have - it’s a very unpopular place. The Vortex is in the heaviest steel bunker ahead of you.

MAN: [Blood-curdling scream]

ZAPHOD: The universe does that to a guy?

GARGRAVARR: The whole infinite Universe. The Infinite sums. The Infinite distances between them, and yourself. An invisible dot on an invisible dot. Infinitely small.
The Vortex derives its picture of the whole universe on the principle of extrapolated matter analyses.

To explain - since every piece of matter in the universe is in someway affected by every other piece of matter in the universe, it is, in theory, possible to extrapolate the whole of creation - every galaxy, every sun, every planet, their orbits, their composition, and their economic and social history, from, say - one small piece of fairy cake. 

The man who invented the Total Perspective Vortex did so, basically, in order to annoy his wife. 

Trin Tragula, for that was his name, was a dreamer, a speculative thinker, or, as his wife would have it, an idiot. And she would nag him incessantly about the utterly inordinate amount of time he would spend staring out into space, or mulling over the mechanics of safety pins, or doing spectrographic analyses of pieces of fairy cake. “Have some sense of proportion,” she would say, thirty-eight times a day.

And so he built the Total Perspective Vortex - just to show her. And in one end he plugged the whole of reality, as extrapolated from a fairy cake, and in the other end he plugged his wife - so that when he turned it on she saw in one instant the whole infinity of creation and herself in relation to it.

To Trin Tragula’s horror, the shock annihilated her brain.

But to his satisfaction, he realised he had conclusively proved that if life is going to exist in a universe this size, the one thing it cannot afford to have, is a sense of proportion.

And it is into this Vortex that Zaphod Beeblebrox has been put, and from which, a few seconds later, he emerges.

Scene 8. Int. Frogstar

[The Vortex door opens]


GARGRAVARR: Beeblebrox! You’re…!

ZAPHOD: Fine, fine. Could I have a drink please?

GARGRAVARR: You’ve been in the Vortex?!

ZAPHOD: You saw me kid.

GARGRAVARR: And you saw the whole infinity of creation?!

ZAPHOD: The lot baby - it’s a real neat place you know, heh-heh.

GARGRAVARR: And you saw yourself in relation to it all?!

ZAPHOD: Yah, yeah, yeah.

GARGRAVARR: And what did you experience?!

ZAPHOD: It just told me what I knew all the time: I’m a really great guy! Didn’t I tell ya baby, I am Zaphod Beeblebrox!!


Note: In my college year book for 1982 the class elected each other for various spoof 'awards': mine was 'The Zaphod Beeblebrox Ego Award'...



Anonymous said...

Some mystics spend a lot of time trying to absorb the individual ego into the transcendent reality. They talk about a raindrop of ego merging with an ocean of total truth.

So getting a total perspective on the universe might lead to self-transcendence. That is a capital punishment for the small ego, but not a genuine death sentence.

Bruce Charlton said...

@pg - it is capital punishment for that which is human; as was I think understood by pagan mystics until recent times.

Paganism (ancient) is true but partial - and tragic in an ultimate sense.

To escape from suffering into annihilation of the ego, consciousness, attachment, hopes and fears, and escape from Love... in sum, to become not human.

This is not to solve the problem of the human condition but to eliminate it.


What I think you describe, and what we have now among Western neo-pagans (I was one) is a sunny, optimistic, wishful, selective pagan mysticism - which has smuggled assumptions in (assumptions like the reality of some or all of Love, mercy, beauty, virtue, truth), but unacknowledged.

Because these assumptions are unacknowledged, often insensible, this neo-pagan mysticism has little of no traction or resilience; and is swept along by modernity (and Leftism).

On the other hand it is a major step in the right direction - and maybe as much as is possible for many people in many circumstances - it has the important quality of re-connecting the individual with the universe, so life can be felt again.

Brett Stevens said...

On the connection between TPV and liberalism: what people see in the TPV is not a lack of meaning, but a lack of the self being the source of meaning because the self is tiny in scale. The result is not nihilism (a lack of belief in anything, including truth or communication, but interestingly not a rejection of causality) but fatalism. They have come to believe they have no effect on the universe.

What a nihilist rejects is (a) the universality of "truth" (b) its inherency and (c) any idea that it can be communicated and retain its veracity. These are sensible; what someone with Down's syndrome perceives as "truth" is going to differ radically from what a genius astrophysicist or philosopher will perceive; whatever truths we find are not inherent in the universe, but are our assessment and statement in our language of consistent attributes of reality; we can communicate these linearly, but not in such a way that the truth quotient must be preserved. We are left with logical statements that can be understood to varying degrees by varying beings, just as "truth" can. Thus truth is not inherent. What remains inherent, even to a nihilist, is reality itself, and even the callowest of those recognize reality is consistent (even if just expecting gravity to be there, the sun to come up in the morning, water to quench thirst and keep the body alive, etc).

As a nihilist, I consider nihilism the only possible gateway to spirituality. You must make a choice to see, in the patterns of "mythic imagination" as elaborated by Joseph Campbell, what is underlying the order out there. You are looking for a pattern to objects and events, not the objects and events themselves, and from that you ascertain/project an order. It is impossible to know if it is true, but you can will it to be true, and thus come closer to what Jung calls a "synchronous" perception of its truth.

A nihilist, left alone under a yew tree for seven days, would emerge a Buddha with a belief in an adualistic spirituality. Would this truth be universal? No. Would it be inherent? No: it would be a human derivate, sense-perception, of reality, which is not inherent so much as present. Would it be communicable? No, for the same reason it is not universal, namely that the perceiver determines what truths and wisdoms he or she can perceive and let into his or her own consciousness.

Anyway, that's my two cents. I have been away from here too long and have missed it. Always something good to think about, well-written and concise (which is appreciated more than the writer can possibly know, as it's hard to spot or articulate) with a positive spin that encourages all of us to see our hands as conduits to adventure, creation and greatness, instead of a meaty prison in which we languish.

Proph said...

Nihilism is such a curious phenomenon. Is there any reason even to believe that there is no order to the universe, besides the will to believe as much? I'm increasingly convinced that nihilists and liberals are really only suffering from a constitutional inability to make sense of the universe -- what I've identified before as a kind of spiritual autism (i.e., at

They grow frustrated trying to apprehend what they can't, and so declare that there is really nothing in it worth knowing. Hence their inability to engage theists and conservatives rationally, preferring instead to tar, shriek, insult, even react violently. This tendency seems especially pronounced among the high-IQ technocratic elite, who are (incidentally!) overwhelmingly liberal and who, if I recall correctly, are also more highly prone to autism.

I've often wondered how true this is, and what the implications are on a grand spiritual picture. Such spiritual autism seems to be an impediment to accepting grace and an indicator of something like a kind of grim Calvinistic predestination, if it's true.

Daniel said...

"To explain - since every piece of matter in the universe is in someway affected by every other piece of matter in the universe, it is, in theory, possible to extrapolate the whole of creation - every galaxy, every sun, every planet, their orbits, their composition, and their economic and social history, from, say - one small piece of fairy cake. "

... or to spy the Divine in a dewdrop, if only we would look with open hearts.

Daniel said...

@ Brett Stevens:

"A nihilist, left alone under a yew tree for seven days, would emerge a Buddha with a belief in an adualistic spirituality. Would this truth be universal? No. Would it be inherent? No: it would be a human derivate, sense-perception, of reality, which is not inherent so much as present. Would it be communicable? No"

Well, no, but it would be pretty sweet, right? So then, have you spent 7 days under the yew tree or not (and I don't mean that metaphorically, because we can all claim that, but I mean it literally). And if not, why not?

If it's a pursuit of the Real Actual Truth that keeps yourself from choosing the yew tree, then you are not a nihilist. If you think the yew tree option ends with feeling like a Buddha, then you should do it! I'm guessing the Buddha felt very nice most of the time, after his ordeal under the tree, that is. What else is there?

@ bgc:

It is the clearest articulators of a creed that help us most. Douglas Adams was no dummy. Thanks for highlighting this exchange. He puts forth a very forceful argument. And yet, I see how it's lacking. Weak arguments lead to weak denials; strong arguments compel either agreement or strong denial.