Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Random Thoughts - The Babel Fish

The following paragraphs were reproduced in full from a blog posting titled “Evangelising has a time, and funerals are not it” under the blog called “Why are you worshipping the ground I blog on” by Wendy Cheng a.k.a. Xiaxue, the blog mistress, at These paragraphs were in turn extracted from one of my all-time favourite classics, the first of five “The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy” book series by Douglas Adams,

"The Babel Fish," said The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy quietly, "is small, yellow and leech-like, and probably the oddest thing in the Universe. It feeds on brainwave energy not from its carrier but from those around it. It absorbs all unconscious mental frequencies from this brainwave energy to nourish itself with. It then excretes into the mind of its carrier a telepathic matrix formed by combining the conscious thought frequencies with nerve signals picked up from the speech centres of the brain which has supplied them. The practical upshot of all this is that if you stick a Babel Fish in your ear you can instantly understand anything said to you in any form of language. The speech patterns you actually hear decode the brainwave matrix which has been fed into your mind by your Babel Fish."

Now it is such a bizarrely improbable coincidence that anything so mind-bogglingly useful could have evolved purely by chance that some thinkers have chosen to see it as a final and clinching proof for the nonexistance 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 would not have evolved by chance. It proves you exist, and so therefore, by your own arguments, you don't. QED."

"Oh dear," said God, "I haven't thought of that," and promptly vanishes in a puff of logic.

All of a sudden, I understood fully as to why Douglas Adams chose to name the mind-bogglingly useful fish “Babel”. For this sudden revelation, I have to extend my thanks to Xiaxue for linking the above extracts from “The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy” to the content of the blog posting as mentioned in the above. In view of the unfortunate circumstances under which Xiaxue’s blog posting was written, I shall not further elaborate its contents in this blog posting, mostly because of my sheer inability to do justice to her elegant and precise proses with my often clumsy and long-winded paraphrasing techniques. To experience the full impact, I strongly recommend that you visit her website to read it for yourselves.

Needless to say, the name “Babel” was mentioned in the Bible. Of what little that I know of the Bible, and according to the narrative documented under Genesis Chapter 11 of the Bible, the Tower of Babel was a tower built by a united humanity in order to reach the heavens. To prevent the project from succeeding, God confused humanity’s languages so that each human spoke a different language, and hence couldn't communicate with each other and thereby no work could proceed. After that time, the people moved away to different parts of Earth. The story is generally used to explain the existence of many different languages and races. There is no implication that God directly destroyed the efforts of the builders, that is the tower, and so presumably, the building fell into disrepair later on.

In view of the fact that the very essence of the Babel fish is its ability to allow the carrier to instantly understand anything that is said to him in any form of language, perhaps Douglas Adams named the fish as such in a large part due to the sheer irony of the name, and in a smaller part hoping that, even in fantasy, the natural barrier to free communication that God has imposed on humans will one day be lifted. For fear of blasphemy, I dare not construct any phrases stronger than the above :)

N.B. The noun “ Babel” derives from two roots: "bab" ("gate") and "el" ("God"), "the gate to God". However, in the Hebrew language, there is a similar word, "balal", which means "confusion".

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