Absurdity (Part 3 of 4): The Positive Leap

I noted in a previous post how Camus was critical of intellectuals who had discovered the absurd, only to seek refuge or escape by creating some transcendental truth or value. After determining that nothing in the world has purpose or meaning, they go on to find purpose or meaning in it; something is created out of nothing. “They deify what crushes them and find reason to hope in what impoverishes them (Camus, p. 35).” For Camus, this can only be achieved by some kind of logical leap or a subtle parting ways with reason. It is what Camus judges to be a ‘philosophical suicide’ or a suicide of the intellect.

Camus argues that Kierkegaard, for example, having discovered the waterless deserts of the absurd, ends up reducing the problem of absurdity to the human desire for truth and clarity; he then finds a solution by concluding that this desire is equivalent to a kind of ‘sin’ against humanity which must be renounced. “Christianity is the scandal, and what Kierkegaard calls for quite plainly is the third sacrifice required by Ignatius Loyola, the one in which God most rejoices: ‘The sacrifice of the intellect’ (Camus, p. 40).” And Camus is no less critical of non-religious sources of ultimate meaning and purpose. He discerns a leap, for example, in the Marxist deification of history or the belief that means are capable of justifying their ends. The ‘end’ is always dependent on an elusively utopian future that is never realized. Lucid awareness is again abandoned. We slit the throat of reason to find refuge in an ideology that creates structure, order and purpose, out of chaos, uncertainty, and meaninglessness. Neither Marx nor Hitler saw their utopian societies realized, but the nostalgia for unity and meaning fueled the intoxicated hope that fantasy would one day turn reality – it created an ethic, a purpose, and a meaning that would feed the psychological needs of both prophet and follower.

It is interesting to note that Camus never saw himself as a philosopher on the grounds that he had ‘insufficient faith’ in human reasoning. But he was also critical of a science that claims to have unearthed some objective source of human meaning or ultimate ‘Truth’ about our place in the world:

… all the knowledge on earth will give me nothing to assure me that this world is mine. You describe it to me and you teach me to classify it. You enumerate its laws and in my thirst for knowledge I admit that they are true. You take apart its mechanism and my hope increases. At the final stage you teach me that this wondrous and multi-coloured universe can be reduced to the electron. All this is good and I wait for you to continue. But you tell me of an invisible planetary system in which electrons gravitate around a nucleus. You explain this world to me with an image. I realize then that you have been reduced to poetry: I shall never know. Have I the time to become indignant? You have already changed theories. So that science that was to teach me everything ends up in a hypothesis, that lucidity founders in metaphor, that uncertainty is resolved in a work of art (Camus, p. 25).

I believe it was Isaac Newton who said: “Physics, beware of metaphysics!” By this he was saying that theoretical physics was essentially doing philosophy. At some point, especially when talking about human nature… science turns into philosophy (which is why I argued that science must embrace it). Unfortunately, science can become overconfident in its own reach. We can see some of these trends among those who believe that an empirical science can tell us about morality, free-will, and other such things. Science morphs into ideology. Drawn by its explanatory power, we may ‘catch the faith’ of a particular theoretical worldview that purports to tell us about how the world is, and more problematically (though often implicitly), how we ought to live and what sorts of things we should value. With the decline of traditional religions, it should not come as surprising that we would turn to science for answers – but we cannot find these ultimate answers from an empirical science, any more than we could from classical religion.

Our confrontation with the absurd awakens an unconscious terror, followed by an intense desire for escape. Through a ‘positive leap,’ we create something out of nothing… absolutes that we can live by. They are solutions to our nostalgia for order, direction, purpose, and ultimate meaning. These created sources of meaning are seldom recognized for what they are… that would defeat their purpose. Since they serve emotional and existential needs that are terrifying to admit, they are largely kept unconscious; the less we question them the better. Though we are seldom cognizant of their operation, these reified meaning systems are often implicit in our day-to-day actions, how we choose to spend our time, and where we find purpose and meaning. Many examples can be found in the capitalistic values of the Western world – “I am important and successful, and hence, a meaningful person, because I own lots of things, have achieved Western definitions of success, am part of a larger march toward some utopian or symbolic ideal signifying progress, solidarity, something lasting…” and so on. Becker called them hero-projects. They can be personal or handed to us by our institutions or cultures, but they all involve creating purpose and meaning out of nothing. They are all distractions, illusions… lies. Thus, if we are not careful we may unknowingly fall slave to ideology – we partake in philosophical suicide; a death-in-life.

Camus argues that the temptation is always there to make something into an absolute source of meaning. But when seeking refuge in a more temperate climate of thought, we part ways with reason and again negate one of the terms that give rise to the absurd. We should not be so eager to destroy what cannot be destroyed. We must remain faithful to what lucid consciousness and reason have aroused – the path must remain true to its terms. We must learn how to live with it. In the final section of this piece, I will suggest some possibilities, suggested by Camus and others.

Continue to Absurdity (Part 4/4): Living with the Absurd.


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