Monday, April 19, 2010

The Absurdity of Life.

A few days ago I was browsing through various forums on the Internet (I rarely post these days and don’t plan to become as involved as I was before) when I came across a lady’s claim that she had “proof of life after death”. Having studied this subject at some length, I was nevertheless curious to see whether I would read a novel argument, a twist I hadn’t read before. My expectations were low, and they were fulfilled. She claimed to have visited a “medium” who made contact with a deceased friend of hers, and the medium’s descriptions fit to a tee some unique aspects about her friend. Further studies in this area will alert anyone with a reasonable knowledge in this field to how problematic this is. It gets complicated. First, because this phenomenon isn’t unique. People giving fairly accurate descriptions of past events, or foreign words, or even flora and fauna (to give a few examples) they could not have consciously known (as far as they were aware) isn’t an earth-shattering phenomenon. Second, so-called séances and attempts to establish contact with the “dead” have sometimes resulted in the discovery that the “dead” people “contacted” were actually still alive! Third, presenting a fictional “dead” person to a medium has sometimes resulted in elaborate readings about a fictional character.

In any case, I was interested in one comment made by a man who realised that this lady, like so many before her, was seeking meaning in life, and part of that meaning is that there’s a purpose to life, and an afterlife. That’s the grand hope of much of humanity, that we are not just wasting our time here, and that life does indeed have a purpose. This man asked the lady whether she’d ever read the writing of Albert Camus It was a subtle hint that, like Sisyphus, she was trying to accomplish a fruitless task, and perhaps grasping at straws to attribute meaning against impossible odds. The basic story of Sisyphus is:

As a punishment from the gods for his trickery, Sisyphus was made to roll a huge rock up a steep hill, but before he could reach the top of the hill, the rock would always roll back down again, forcing him to begin again.The maddening nature of the punishment was reserved for Sisyphus due to his hubristic belief that his cleverness surpassed that of Zeus. Sisyphus took the bold step of reporting one of Zeus' sexual conquests, telling the river god Asopus of the whereabouts of his daughter Aegina. Zeus had taken her away, but regardless of the impropriety of Zeus' frequent conquests, Sisyphus overstepped his bounds by considering himself a peer of the gods who could rightfully report their indiscretions. As a result, Zeus displayed his own cleverness by binding Sisyphus to an eternity of frustration. Accordingly, pointless or interminable activities are often described as Sisyphean. Sisyphus was a common subject for ancient writers and was depicted by the painter Polygnotus on the walls of the Lesche at Delphi.

This was the basis for Camus’ 1942 philosophical essay, The Myth of Sisyphus in which he lays out some of the concepts of Absurdism. It is a concept with which I entirely agree, and it’s basically this:

As beings looking for meaning in a meaningless world, humans have three ways of resolving the dilemma. Kierkegaard and Camus describe the solutions in their works, The Sickness Unto Death (1849) and The Myth of Sisyphus (1942):

* Suicide (or, "escaping existence"): a solution in which a person simply ends one's own life. Both Kierkegaard and Camus dismiss the viability of this option.

* Religious or spiritual belief in a transcendent realm or being: a solution in which one believes in the existence of a reality that is beyond the Absurd, and, as such, has meaning. Kierkegaard stated that a belief in anything beyond the Absurd requires a non-rational but perhaps necessary religious acceptance in such an intangible and empirically unprovable thing (now commonly referred to as a "leap of faith"). However, Camus regarded this solution as "philosophical suicide".

*Acceptance of the Absurd: a solution in which one accepts and even embraces the Absurd and continues to live in spite of it. Camus endorsed this solution, while Kierkegaard regarded this solution as "demoniac madness": "He rages most of all at the thought that eternity might get it into its head to take his misery from him!"

I am, like Camus, in agreement with the third option.

Having strong religious beliefs is one way many attach meaning to their lives, and the often contradictory fervour with which they hold such beliefs is, in my opinion, quite good evidence that having meaning is more important to them than a thorough examination (or more often denying) of the often glaring contradictions, both internal (within the religion itself) and external (conflict and contradiction with other religions). Trying to point this out to a believer, though, is well nigh impossible. Kierkegaard “solved” this problem with his idea that one must still believe in spite of absurdity, or perhaps even because of absurdity.

The only meaning in life is what we attach to it. What we make of it. And if there is an “objective” meaning, we are no where even close to knowing what it might be. As Camus wrote in The Myth of Sisyphus:

"Thus I draw from the absurd three consequences, which are my revolt, my freedom, and my passion. By the mere activity of consciousness I transform into a rule of life what was an invitation to death, and I refuse suicide"

Tragically, or maybe not so tragically considering a comment attributed to Aristotle, Camus was killed in a car accident in January 1960, at the relatively young age of 46. Aristotle wrote:

Wretched, ephemeral race, children of chance and tribulation, why do you force me to tell you the very thing which it would be most profitable for you not to hear? The very best thing is utterly beyond your reach: not to have been born, not to be, to be nothing. However, the second best thing for you is: to die soon.

It is important to note, though, that Absurdism is not the same as Nihilism

Life is, literally, what you make it.


  1. I think that what Kierkegaard said was that by wanting to find the meaning of life, or the meaning in life, whatever that is for every individual, lets call it "perfection", you come unavoidably across imperfection. Then, instead of trying to get rid of imperfection and find perfection, you become obsessed with your discovery. You want to prove that perfection doesn't exist, you want to maintain that idea at any cost. Though, the only thing that you should do would be to try to cancel imperfection in order to find perfection. Since imperfection is everywhere and perfection is so hard to find, it is normal to find imperfection so easily at first. Instead though of getting obsessed with that fining what you must do is to try to declare it null and void so you can find perfection. I might be wrong though...

  2. Eva,

    If I understand you correctly, that sounds like the teachings of St. Paul, who basically taught that no matter how good you are, no matter how “great” you are, and no matter how much you work to keep the law, or the “law of God” (with specific reference to the Law of Moses), all of your works are in vain, hence his comment “boast not of works” (Ephesians 2:9). Or in other words, perfection. Paul implicitly believed in his own, and humanity’s impossibility of attaining perfection, and as far as Christian beliefs are concerned, if anyone could theoretically become perfect, then that person would not need the atonement of Christ. “All have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23) Hence the need for an “atonement”.

    I believe Kierkegaard thought along similar lines. He consecrated his life to God, but didn’t believe he could ever be perfect.