In Search of Meaning (Part 1/3): Absurdity & the Limits of Reason

In a four-part series of previous posts I have tried to offer a sketch of Camus’ concept of absurdity (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4). Before reading the following, I might recommend that new readers first visit those introductory posts on the topic.

 

Absurdity Revisited

We can attain some measure of the absurd by comparing ourselves with other animals. We may note that every animal continues an evolutionary trajectory whose sole purpose is physical survival and reproduction. The repetitious biological rhythm is both simple and predictable: eat, sleep, defecate, reproduce, and eventually die. In this regard humans are no different, though we are also distinct in some profound ways. Unlike other creatures, the human animal comes into the world with an anxious desire for meaning, purpose, and intelligible order. Camus was correct to say that “man is the only creature who refuses to be what he is” (Camus: Rebel, p. 11). But this desire for meaning is little more than a desperate and chilling caterwaul that echoes in the empty silence of the world. Our wishes go unfulfilled – our cries are pointless and absurd. The absurd is thus defined by two conditions: the existence of a meaning-seeking creature and the existence of a world devoid of absolute meaning. The formula might be stated as such:

 

[meaning-seeking human being] + [world devoid of meaning] = [absurdity]

Note that the world itself is not absurd – only in our relation to it as human beings, since we alone demand from the world that which it cannot provide.

It almost goes without saying that only a small proportion of mainstream society will ever recognize the absurdity of this shared human condition – fewer still are capable of sustaining that burden of awareness. Through the collective unconscious, our culture or society reflexively creates meaningful prescriptions for living. We then follow these cultural scripts without question, and the true terror of our situation remains comfortably obscured from view. In the Western world, for example, meaning is primarily attained through a Capitalist ideological system based on materialism and consumer utopianism. These illusions provide us with methods of attaining self-esteem, meaning, and a comfortable and seemingly stable societal structure.

Modern society also offers plenty of myths and psychological distractions, such as those found in our religious-like infatuation with science and technology, and our mythical belief in inevitable human ‘progress.’ Few question what we ought to be progressing toward. The method is clear: structure your life in endless pursuit of fictional cultural illusions, distract yourself, do not think too hard, and you will be rewarded with mind-numbing psychological comfort. The question of meaning is assumed and our anxiety never surfaces. We are effectively lobotomized by false illusionary structures reified by culture. The goal, it would seem, is to escape from this absurdity. But like the act of suicide (Absurdity Part 2), the creation of some absolute system of meaning entails a logical misstep – a ‘positive leap’ (Absurdity Part 3) that is nothing more than a wishful illusion… a comforting lie. And like all good defense-mechanisms, they only work so long as we allow ourselves to be deceived – forfeiting rationality for peace of mind.

The Limits of Reason

In my view, Camus’ brilliance and integrity are most evident in his resolute adherence to the uncomfortable middle-ground where absurdity is first uncovered, in his tenacious commitment to the original premises on which it is based, and in his recognition of the problem as being impenetrable to logical forms of complete resolution. Straddling this metaphysical divide, Camus was capable of identifying and denouncing ‘absolute’ values or sources of meaning that would only appear to solve the human dilemma, when in reality, they offer only denial or escape.

In The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus tracks the logical errors in finding absolute sources value in formalized religion, competing ideological and economic systems of government, the aspirational endeavors of science, and in the philosophical works of some of history’s most brilliant minds – which is why he would denounce being called a philosopher, on grounds that he hadn’t ‘sufficient faith’ in human reason. No amount of human reason can reconcile the underlying premises of the absurd without denying them. To remain logically coherent, we must keep the formula intact, without escaping the problem.

To do otherwise means ‘forgetting precisely what we ought not to forget,’ causing us to implicitly pledge allegiance to an ‘absolute’ system of illusionary values which leads to a path of ignorance, intolerance, injustice, death, and destruction. For example, how can we be in any position to seriously meet the challenge of climate change, when our part in the destruction of the environment is based on our having bought into a Capitalist way of life and consumer-defined prescriptions for happiness, success, purpose, and meaning? We have heard US Presidents talk about defending the ‘American way of life’ – without acknowledging that it is paid for on the backs of the poor, in the blood of those who live differently, and that it will continued to be paid for by the children of the future. Until we question our assumptive sources of meaning or value, reconciliation with ourselves and with humankind will remain elusive.

Camus noted that living with the absurd involves ‘lucid reason noting its limits.’ This lucidity is a requisite condition because confrontation with the absurd is both a logical discovery and a physical experience – an anxious discomfort that begs a submission of the mind in order to attain psychological distance from the problem. Only lucid awareness is prepared to authentically meet this confrontation. When Camus says that ‘reason must note its limits,’ he means that one must recognize the overwhelming temptation that causes us to leave the path of rational thought and the impossibility of reconciling the problem with logic. Reason is derailed to the precise degree of our emotional need for psychological harmony and our intolerance for ambiguity, groundlessness, and the anxiety related to our absurd human condition.

Human reason has historically engaged in a process of undermining itself when it seeks to escape the problem. This begins with a set of assumptive values that are judged infallible – such values are based more on underlying psychological needs than sound logic. These values are adopted by the larger society (usually after some bloody war that firmly establishes them in place). The reified source of meaning or value is then treated as an absolute – people are willing to live and die by it. Reason has already closed in on itself, becoming impenetrable to exterior logic.

The absurd appears to have no definitive solution. Camus claims that “the important thing … is not to be cured, but to live with one’s ailments” (Camus, MS: p. 41). Somehow we must accept the terms of the absurd and with lucid awareness recognize our thirst for meaning and tolerate our discomfort in knowing that this thirst will never be fully quenched.

Into the Blind Alley

Absurdism suggests that there cannot be any externally justifiable source of meaning or value. It wipes the slate clean and gives us a method for questioning inauthentic sources of meaning or value that will only serve to obscure or deceive. But what will absurdism prescribe as a course of action? Camus has reasoned in The Myth of Sisyphus, that one cannot sanction suicide, since it involves denying one of the premises upon which the absurd is based – it involves escaping the problem. But it begs the question as to how one ought to live. If meaning is relative and arbitrary, then what is there to believe in? What value could arise out of nothingness? How could it justify the actions of ones life? “If we believe in nothing, if nothing has any meaning and if we can affirm no values whatsoever, then everything is possible and nothing has any importance” (Camus, Rebel: p.5).

If the question of suicide is of primary importance to The Myth of Sisyphus, then the question of murder is the prominent topic of The Rebel. Camus wants to know, for example, whether political violence is acceptable in light of a lucid mind conscious of the absurd. At first glance it would seem to be at most a matter of indifference. What value can a human life hold when there are no absolute values? Why should human life be of any consequence? These questions are important, because even if we ‘play it safe’ by not acting in ways to hurt others, our inaction amounts to the same thing, since we implicitly accept the killing of others – by hands other than our own. We become a silent accomplice to murder. Should we be concerned? If so, how can we justify that concern?

Ultimately, Camus reasons that human life is not a matter of indifference and that it should cause us concern once we recognize that the fate that we share as individuals is shared by all human beings. We have reasoned that suicide is unacceptable and for the same reason murder is unacceptable.

“In terms of the encounter between human inquiry and the silence of the universe, murder and suicide are one and the same thing, and must be accepted or rejected together… if we deny that there are reasons for suicide, we cannot claim that there are grounds for murder. There are no half-measures about nihilism. Absurdist reasoning cannot defend the continued existence of its spokesman and, simultaneously, accept the sacrifice of others’ lives” (Camus, Rebel: p.7).

In order to remain committed to absurdist reasoning, we must uphold the premises of its terms – one of those terms is the conscious living and breathing human being. Once we reject absolute negation and suicide as acceptable courses of action (and to be alive and conscious is to implicitly reject it), we must accept that we are unable to deny the rights of others to live. To do otherwise would be contradictory. Camus thus observes that the same idea that led us to believe that murder might be a matter of indifference also deprives it of justification. “The absurd premise implies that human life is the only indubitable value, since it is this that makes the absurd encounter possible” (Foley, 2008).

The only coherent attitude in a world devoid of meaning and value would be to remain silent – if silence did not itself imply a value. And here the absurd can be seen as somewhat contradictory: “It is contradictory in its content because, in wanting to uphold life, it excludes all value judgments, when to live is, in itself, a value judgment. To breathe is to judge” (Camus: Rebel, p. 9). And so we remain tethered to the conscious human being who must find justification within and for him/herself, and by extension, for all of humanity:

“I proclaim that I believe in nothing and that everything is absurd, but I cannot doubt the validity of my proclamation and I must at least believe in my protest. The first and only evidence that is supplied me, within the terms of the absurdist experience, is rebellion. Deprived of all knowledge, incited to murder or to consent to murder, all I have at my disposal is this single piece of evidence, which is only reaffirmed by the anguish I suffer.”

The rebellion that Camus speaks of is of that against one’s very existence – in recognizing our shared human cry for meaning in light of this world that disappoints. Thus far we have established that the human life is of primary importance and perhaps the only indubitable value. In future posts we will explore this concept of meaningful rebellion in more detail, and show how the history of humankind can be seen as a series of rebellious acts that end in negating their own origins.

Continue to In Search of Meaning (Part 2/3): Rebellion

 

4 Responses to “In Search of Meaning (Part 1/3): Absurdity & the Limits of Reason”

  1. Alicia Says:

    This is a wonderful post that helps to build upon the four part absurdity series.

  2. JF Says:

    Another enjoyable post! Although, there are a couple of things I can’t seem to reconcile or agree with.

    The idea that murder and suicide are one and the same, both unacceptable. I understand remaining committed to absurdist thinking and the reasoning behind rejecting the idea of absolute negation and suicide, however, I can’t bring myself to agree with this. In my mind, murder is taking another’s life without giving them a choice. Whereas suicide is the choice to take one’s own life. As one example, if I am in immense pain, say, dying of terminal illness then maybe my choice is that I don’t want to be a conscious living and breathing human being. I have no issue with suicide in this scenario and I wouldn’t equate this to murder.

    Also, the idea that the absurd premise implies that human life is the only indubitable value. While I understand the argument I can’t agree with it. That human life is of primary importance seems to me to be the definition of arrogance and self-centeredness. The universe is far too large and diverse for me to accept this. For example, how can we rule out some extraterrestrial species which desires meaning? How can we rule out a relatively intelligent species (not human) on Earth having a desire for meaning? Low probability but it’s still possible.

    Like I said, I understand the arguments but can’t seem to accept them. Maybe I’m in denial…or perhaps I’m not an absurdist! 🙂

    Brad Reply:

    Thank you for those thoughtful comments. You are very right to say that suicide and murder have important distinctions. As a presumably free and self-determining agent, one arguably has a right to take their own life insofar as it belongs primarily to them (though I suppose one might argue that it also partly belongs to their extended web of family, friends, partner, etc.). Of course, the same could not be said of one taking the life of another (e.g. murder), since one presumably has no right to take away what does not belong to them. I think this is what you mean, and I do not think that Camus would have disagreed with this distinction, since he seemed to be talking about a certain ‘kind’ of suicide and comparing it to a certain ‘kind’ of murder – those primarily justified by reasoning (versus say emotion or impulse).

    I think it is important, for example, to distinguish between two types of suicide: one I would call ‘clinical suicide,’ versus a so-called ‘logical suicide.’ In my view, clinical suicide might be conceptualized as an urge, impulse, or decision, emanating from a need to escape some emotional pain that is subjectively judged by that person to be unbearable. This is the more common conceptualization of suicide, and is the one that often applies to clinical situations involving prolonged emotional turmoil or intensity. We cannot know the extent of that person’s pain and we are therefore less entitled to make logical judgments of their decision to take their own life. It is seemingly their choice, and I would agree that this kind of suicide seems to have little if anything to do with murder.

    The kind of suicide that most concerned Camus is ‘logical suicide,’ where a person arrives at the decision to end one’s life due to its absurdity (e.g. its lacking meaning). Unlike ‘clinical suicide,’ this form of suicide claims to be based on logic (despairing of absolute meaning that would otherwise ‘justify’ their existence) – and as Camus has shown, it can also be refuted with a logic that remains true to the absurd premises. Camus argues that for the same reasons that we reject logical suicide, we must also reject the ‘rationalizing’ of murder. This will hopefully make more sense in the coming posts (I’m moving at a snail’s pace right now due to other writing commitments).

    Your comment on the value of human life seems apt, though again I do not think Camus would necessarily have disagreed. If it turns out that there are other creatures in the world capable of insisting on some source of meaning in an otherwise meaningless world, then they would be in the same predicament and their life would take on the same kind of special value (e.g. insofar as that life keeps the absurd premises intact). I think it gets a bit dicier when we try to extend this unique phenomenon to other known creatures. As far as we know, we are the only creatures that can make some abstract value (or the lack thereof) more important than our physical lives. Our special dignity (and our unique burden) lies in our capacity for this abstract thought. This is not to say that we are ‘better’ than other animals – only different in some very profound ways. If anything, it may put a heavier burden of responsibility on us humans (as Peter Singer would argue) because we have the capacity to act according to higher values (e.g. morals/ethics). For example, we would not hold a wolf at moral fault for devouring a newborn calf, but we could rightly question the human treatment of animals – though that’s probably another topic altogether. Though when Camus said that human life is the only ‘indubitable value,’ I think he means more in comparison to abstract utopian concepts or values invented by humans (versus other creatures/animals). This can get complicated, since ethics are often a means to protect human life and they are based on values/reasoning… to this, Camus made a brilliant observation: ‘morality, when formalized, devours.’ More on this in the next post.

    JF Reply:

    ‘morality, when formalized, devours.’ I like that. I look forward to the next post as I’m curious how morals/ethics enter into or affect the Absurdist equation.