There are of course many problems connected with life, of which some of the most popular are Why are people born? Why do they die? Why do they want to spend so much of the intervening time wearing digital watches?
Many many millions of years ago a race of hyperintelligent pan- dimensional beings (whose physical manifestation in their own pan-dimensional universe is not dissimilar to our own) got so fed up with the constant bickering about the meaning of life which used to interrupt their favourite pastime of Brockian Ultra Cricket (a curious game which involved suddenly hitting people for no readily apparent reason and then running away) that they decided to sit down and solve their problems once and for all.
And to this end they built themselves a stupendous super computer which was so amazingly intelligent that even before the data banks had been connected up it had started from I think therefore I am and got as far as the existence of rice pudding and income tax before anyone managed to turn it off.
It was the size of a small city.
Its main console was installed in a specially designed executive office, mounted on an enormous executive desk of finest ultramahagony topped with rich ultrared leather. The dark carpeting was discreetly sumptuous, exotic pot plants and tastefully engraved prints of the principal computer programmers and their families were deployed liberally about the room, and stately windows looked out upon a tree-lined public square.
On the day of the Great On-Turning two soberly dressed programmers with brief cases arrived and were shown discreetly into the office. They were aware that this day they would represent their entire race in its greatest moment, but they conducted themselves calmly and quietly as they seated themselves deferentially before the desk, opened their brief cases and took out their leather-bound notebooks.
Their names were Lunkwill and Fook.
For a few moments they sat in respectful silence, then, after exchanging a quiet glance with Fook, Lunkwill leaned forward and touched a small black panel.
The subtlest of hums indicated that the massive computer was now in total active mode. After a pause it spoke to them in a voice rich resonant and deep.
It said: "What is this great task for which I, Deep Thought, the second greatest computer in the Universe of Time and Space have been called into existence?"
Lunkwill and Fook glanced at each other in surprise.
"Your task, O Computer ..." began Fook.
"No, wait a minute, this isn't right," said Lunkwill, worried. "We distinctly designed this computer to be the greatest one ever and we're not making do with second best. Deep Thought," he addressed the computer, "are you not as we designed you to be, the greatest most powerful computer in all time?"
"I described myself as the second greatest," intoned Deep Thought, "and such I am."
Another worried look passed between the two programmers. Lunkwill cleared his throat.
"There must be some mistake," he said, "are you not a greatest computer than the Milliard Gargantubrain which can count all the atoms in a star in a millisecond?"
"The Milliard Gargantubrain?" said Deep Thought with unconcealed contempt. "A mere abacus - mention it not."
"And are you not," said Fook leaning anxiously forward, "a greater analyst than the Googleplex Star Thinker in the Seventh Galaxy of Light and Ingenuity which can calculate the trajectory of every single dust particle throughout a five-week Dangrabad Beta sand blizzard?"
"A five-week sand blizzard?" said Deep Thought haughtily. "You ask this of me who have contemplated the very vectors of the atoms in the Big Bang itself? Molest me not with this pocket calculator stuff."
The two programmers sat in uncomfortable silence for a moment. Then Lunkwill leaned forward again.
"But are you not," he said, "a more fiendish disputant than the Great Hyperlobic Omni-Cognate Neutron Wrangler of Ciceronicus 12, the Magic and Indefatigable?"
"The Great Hyperlobic Omni-Cognate Neutron Wrangler," said Deep Thought thoroughly rolling the r's, "could talk all four legs off an Arcturan MegaDonkey - but only I could persuade it to go for a walk afterwards."
"Then what," asked Fook, "is the problem?"
"There is no problem," said Deep Thought with magnificent ringing tones. "I am simply the second greatest computer in the Universe of Space and Time."
"But the second?" insisted Lunkwill. "Why do you keep saying the second? You're surely not thinking of the Multicorticoid Perspicutron Titan Muller are you? Or the Pondermatic? Or the ..."
Contemptuous lights flashed across the computer's console.
"I spare not a single unit of thought on these cybernetic simpletons!" he boomed. "I speak of none but the computer that is to come after me!"
Fook was losing patience. He pushed his notebook aside and muttered, "I think this is getting needlessly messianic."
"You know nothing of future time," pronounced Deep Thought, "and yet in my teeming circuitry I can navigate the infinite delta streams of future probability and see that there must one day come a computer whose merest operational parameters I am not worthy to calculate, but which it will be my fate eventually to design."
Fook sighed heavily and glanced across to Lunkwill.
"Can we get on and ask the question?" he said.
Lunkwill motioned him to wait.
"What computer is this of which you speak?" he asked.
"I will speak of it no further in this present time," said Deep Thought. "Now. Ask what else of me you will that I may function. Speak."
They shrugged at each other. Fook composed himself.
"O Deep Thought Computer," he said, "the task we have designed you to perform is this. We want you to tell us ..." he paused, "... the Answer!"
"The answer?" said Deep Thought. "The answer to what?"
"Life!" urged Fook.
"The Universe!" said Lunkwill.
"Everything!" they said in chorus.
Deep Thought paused for a moment's reflection.
"Tricky," he said finally.
"But can you do it?"
Again, a significant pause.
"Yes," said Deep Thought, "I can do it."
"There is an answer?" said Fook with breathless excitement."
"A simple answer?" added Lunkwill.
"Yes," said Deep Thought. "Life, the Universe, and Everything. There is an answer. But," he added, "I'll have to think about it."
A sudden commotion destroyed the moment: the door flew open and two angry men wearing the coarse faded-blue robes and belts of the Cruxwan University burst into the room, thrusting aside the ineffectual flunkies who tried to bar their way.
"We demand admission!" shouted the younger of the two men elbowing a pretty young secretary in the throat.
"Come on," shouted the older one, "you can't keep us out!" He pushed a junior programmer back through the door.
"We demand that you can't keep us out!" bawled the younger one, though he was now firmly inside the room and no further attempts were being made to stop him.
"Who are you?" said Lunkwill, rising angrily from his seat. "What do you want?"
"I am Majikthise!" announced the older one.
"And I demand that I am Vroomfondel!" shouted the younger one.
Majikthise turned on Vroomfondel. "It's alright," he explained angrily, "you don't need to demand that."
"Alright!" bawled Vroomfondel banging on an nearby desk. "I am Vroomfondel, and that is not a demand, that is a solid fact! What we demand is solid facts!"
"No we don't!" exclaimed Majikthise in irritation. "That is precisely what we don't demand!"
Scarcely pausing for breath, Vroomfondel shouted, "We don't demand solid facts! What we demand is a total absence of solid facts. I demand that I may or may not be Vroomfondel!"
"But who the devil are you?" exclaimed an outraged Fook.
"We," said Majikthise, "are Philosophers."
"Though we may not be," said Vroomfondel waving a warning finger at the programmers.
"Yes we are," insisted Majikthise. "We are quite definitely here as representatives of the Amalgamated Union of Philosophers, Sages, Luminaries and Other Thinking Persons, and we want this machine off, and we want it off now!"
"What's the problem?" said Lunkwill.
"I'll tell you what the problem is mate," said Majikthise, "demarcation, that's the problem!"
"We demand," yelled Vroomfondel, "that demarcation may or may not be the problem!"
"You just let the machines get on with the adding up," warned Majikthise, "and we'll take care of the eternal verities thank you very much. You want to check your legal position you do mate. Under law the Quest for Ultimate Truth is quite clearly the inalienable prerogative of your working thinkers. Any bloody machine goes and actually finds it and we're straight out of a job aren't we? I mean what's the use of our sitting up half the night arguing that there may or may not be a God if this machine only goes and gives us his bleeding phone number the next morning?"
"That's right!" shouted Vroomfondel, "we demand rigidly defined areas of doubt and uncertainty!"
Suddenly a stentorian voice boomed across the room.
"Might I make an observation at this point?" inquired Deep Thought.
"We'll go on strike!" yelled Vroomfondel.
"That's right!" agreed Majikthise. "You'll have a national Philosopher's strike on your hands!"
The hum level in the room suddenly increased as several ancillary bass driver units, mounted in sedately carved and varnished cabinet speakers around the room, cut in to give Deep Thought's voice a little more power.
"All I wanted to say," bellowed the computer, "is that my circuits are now irrevocably committed to calculating the answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything -" he paused and satisfied himself that he now had everyone's attention, before continuing more quietly, "but the programme will take me a little while to run."
Fook glanced impatiently at his watch.
"How long?" he said.
"Seven and a half million years," said Deep Thought.
Lunkwill and Fook blinked at each other.
"Seven and a half million years ...!" they cried in chorus.
"Yes," declaimed Deep Thought, "I said I'd have to think about it, didn't I? And it occurs to me that running a programme like this is bound to create an enormous amount of popular publicity for the whole area of philosophy in general. Everyone's going to have their own theories about what answer I'm eventually to come up with, and who better to capitalize on that media market than you yourself? So long as you can keep disagreeing with each other violently enough and slagging each other off in the popular press, you can keep yourself on the gravy train for life. How does that sound?"
The two philosophers gaped at him.
"Bloody hell," said Majikthise, "now that is what I call thinking. Here Vroomfondel, why do we never think of things like that?"
"Dunno," said Vroomfondel in an awed whisper, "think our brains must be too highly trained Majikthise."
So saying, they turned on their heels and walked out of the door and into a lifestyle beyond their wildest dreams.