Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Modeling Meaninglessness

Here's a paper I'll be presenting in November: Modeling Meaninglessness: The Uses and Abuses of Sisyphus

Abstract: Sisyphus’s futile stone-rolling is often presented as a paradigm of meaningless activity. Recent philosophers often suggest variations on the Sisyphus example as a way of identifying what changes would make his activity meaningful. However, imagining Sisyphus’s activity without reference to its mythical context or to the complexities of Sisyphus’s psychology (beyond his first order desires) renders his situation practically incoherent and inhuman. If we are seeking an account of meaning in human life through reflection on Sisyphus, then we need to imagine him—and other such exemplars of meaning and meaninglessness—in greater detail.

Saturday, July 25, 2020

"What's the Point?"

Here's a short essay I wrote awhile back, when I was first starting to think again about Camus and meaning in life. I have been keeping a notebook since my daughter made the comment below to me, and this was an attempt to sum up one of the main lines of thought in it.

“What’s the Point?” (revised 7/25/20)
“If sub specie aeternitatis there is no reason to believe that anything matters, then that does not matter either.” – Thomas Nagel, “The Absurd”
One evening my daughter blurted out, “What’s the point of doing anything if we’re all going to die and everyone we know is going to die?” She was twelve years old. We were all sitting around the living room after dinner, not doing much of anything. My wife and I sat on our brown sofa, and my son, four years younger than my daughter, was sitting across from us on a matching loveseat. My daughter had been sprawled in an armchair that marks the rough boundary between the living room and the dining area, and her question—or perhaps her declaration—came without any prompting or preface. I wondered to myself what middle school crisis might be behind her question, but as a philosopher, I was also prepared to treat this as a serious question about the value and meaning of life.

I remember at the time suggesting to my daughter that asking about THE point might be a mistake. Why assume that there is—or that there needs to be—some single, underlying answer that gives life and all the varied activities of our lives a meaning big enough to counteract the prospect of death? There are many different things we do that all have various points—some big and some little. No one asks what the point is of taking aspirin since we’re all going to die eventually. The point is to relieve the pain we feel right now. Similarly, we do all sorts of things because they are fun, engaging, challenging, inspiring, decent, kind, and so forth. The point of much of what we do is to be found in the doing of it, not in some future gain that unfortunately gets cancelled out by death.

Some would say that the prospect of death intensifies our reasons to do certain things now, while we can. Certainly, we each have limited time, of which we become increasingly aware as we get older. Hence the idea that we should cherish our loved ones today because we never know when the end will come to them or us.

But—my skeptical daughter might retort—what’s the point of cherishing all of these people and experiences if it’s all going to be wiped out?! There’s not much one can say in response except, “Because these people and experiences matter to me now.” As long as we’re not doing anything seriously objectionable, that seems like a good enough answer. The point is in the experience, the connection. The shared moments of love and joy that we create together don’t seem to need any larger justification. The point is inside the relationship.

For some of us there are moments—of fatigue or depression or anxiety or skepticism—when we take a reflective step back from our ordinary routines and commitments and it all seems to come to nothing. Albert Camus and Thomas Nagel both describe this as the feeling of the absurd. My daughter’s question reflects it. What do our hopes and dreams, our accomplishments and failures, our joys and our sufferings all amount to in the end? We’re all going to die. It’s all going to vanish. Our awareness of it will vanish. All that we have been will disappear into the void.

Camus wondered (in The Myth of Sisyphus) why we shouldn’t kill ourselves if the world we live in is so pointless. If we are trapped in a job or a relationship that is boring, brutal, or unfulfilling—and if the whole world is ultimately like that—then life hardly seems to be worth the trouble. However, Camus argues that the absurd is not some feature of the world but of our own attitude toward the world—what is absurd is believing that the universe is indifferent to our hopes and dreams and yet still being upset that that the universe doesn’t care!

Camus urges us to revolt against the feeling of the absurd—not to be taken in by the wild and inconsistent ideas it inspires: “If nothing matters, then I may as well blow everything up!” This kind of destructive nihilism simply does not follow from the supposition that nothing matters. If nothing matters, then nothing matters, and nothing can change that. There is nothing to be changed. Nothing follows from nothing. That is Thomas Nagel’s point, too: the thought that life is absurd leads nowhere. It is a dead end.

So then what?

For Camus, the answer to questions like my daughter’s is ultimately to stop theorizing and to get out into the world and to interact with other people and places and things. To seize upon moments of joy, beauty, delight, and solidarity with other people. To push back against those who would make our lives, our jobs, our institutions feel pointless and absurd. This forces us out of the realm of abstraction and back into the everyday world, where our talk of things mattering or not mattering is framed by specific projects, goals, responsibilities, and relationships.

If we happen not to believe in the existence of some ultimate, cosmic justification or purpose for our lives, then there is no point in bemoaning its absence. We have to learn, as Camus puts it in his later book The Rebel, some moderation. Instead of asking, “what is the point of doing anything?” we should ask what is the point of doing this or that particular thing, in the context of our actual life and circumstances. When we contextualize the question, it may help us to evaluate how we spend our time and and motivate us to search for ways to make life—for ourselves and others—more joyful, beautiful, and just.