The Babel fish is a small, bright yellow fish, which can be placed in someone's ear in order for them to be able to hear any language translated into their first language. Ford Prefect puts one in Arthur Dent's ear at the beginning of the story so that he can hear the Vogon speech.
Description in The Guide
- "The Babel fish is small, yellow, leech-like, and probably the oddest thing in the Universe. It feeds on brainwave energy received not from its own 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 something so mind-bogglingly useful could have evolved purely by chance that some thinkers have chosen to see it as a final and clinching proof of the non-existence 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 could not have evolved by chance. It proves you exist, and, by your own arguments, you don't. QED.' 'Oh dear,' says God, 'I hadn't thought of that,' and vanishes in a puff of logic. 'Oh, that was easy,' says Man, and for an encore goes on to prove that black is white and gets himself killed on the next zebra crossing.
- "Most leading theologians claim that this argument is a load of dingo's kidneys, but that didn't stop Oolon Colluphid from making a small fortune when he used it as the theme of his best-selling book, Well That About Wraps It Up For God.
- "Meanwhile, the poor Babel fish, by effectively removing all barriers to communication between different races and cultures, has caused more and bloodier wars than anything else in the history of creation."
Oolon Colluphid used the Babel fish as the main theme of his best-selling book, Well That About Wraps It Up For God. More specifically, Colluphid uses the Babel fish as an argument for intelligent design (or - and there are some subtle differences here) in a version of the so-called teleological argument for God's existence. But Colluphid then goes further - using the existence of the Babel fish to try to prove that God does not exist.
The whole argument runs, roughly, as follows.
- God refuses to prove that they exist because proof denies faith and without faith God is nothing.
- Man then counters that the Babel fish is a dead giveaway because it could not have evolved by chance. So the fish proves that God exists - but hence also, by God's own reasoning (see 1) that God does not exist.
- God says that they hadn't thought of that (hadn't thought of 2) and promptly disappears in a puff of logic.
- Man then remarks about how easy that was (and gets himself killed on the next pedestrian crossing).
It should be noted that most leading theologians think that Colluphid's argument is "a load of dingo's kidneys."
A counterargument to Oolon's theory can be seen in the many reincarnations of the creature, Agrajag. The unlucky Agrajag says, "I had to fight for this one!," referring to his current reincarnation in the Cathedral of Hate. Now, if that fight involved discussion with some God-like being, then such a being would have to exist - which seems to imply that there is a chance that the Babel fish is simply yet another byproduct of pure coincidence.
The Babel fish is mentioned and appears in every version of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.
Behind the scenes
- Michèle Friend, 'God . . Promply Vanishes in a Puff of Logic' in Nicholas Joll ed., Philosophy and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).