Last time we saw how Camus labels the situation of man as absurd, but concludes fraternity and moral integrity in a spirit of devotion to life and defiance of an indifferent universe is preferable to despair. Thomas Nagel in a 1971 essay3 attributes the subjective sense of the absurd to the brevity of our lives and our insignificant size in an expansive universe. Like Camus, who emphasizes that Sisyphus is immortal, Nagel believes an extended life span of even one million years would not affect whether the human condition is absurd. Rather the problem is the “conspicuous discrepancy between pretensions or aspirations and reality.”4 This distills down to man’s propensity to take his life seriously while knowing all matters he takes seriously are arbitrary and dubious. Even the attempt to work for a larger purpose fails because its mattering can be doubted as well. Our sense of absurdity is thus based on epistemological skepticism. Nonetheless we default to life rather than madness from over-reasoning.
Nagel notes a mouse’s life is not absurd, but if it had self-consciousness it would be. We cannot adopt the mouse’s immunity by erasing self-consciousness, but we can be aware that our feelings of absurdity are due to our ability to be a spectator in our own life. Nagel questions whether Camus’ approach to live “in spite of” the absurdity makes us less absurd, though it may make us more noble. Rather Nagel does not believe our absurdity warrants either distress or defiance as this absurdity is integral to being human and our unique ability to identify truth. In the end, nothing matters, but that doesn’t matter either.
Irving Singer, in his 1992 book, Meaning in Life, appears to be unconvinced.5 He asks where our serious side comes from if there is nothing to sustain it. He answers that a sentient being wants what is valuable and meaningful to it – which is not the same as arising out of nothing or being unsustained. What is meaningful to humans originates in the vital necessities of the human condition, which is derived from nature through evolution. Man’s seriousness and values do not contradict the world but spring from it. “To say one’s interests are absurd would be to claim that…one’s knowledge about reality inevitably contradicts the gamut of beliefs implied by one’s behavior. That claim seems to me wholly unwarranted.”6
Singer points out that absurdity, as for example rearranging the furniture on the Titanic as it is sinking, implies a non-absurd alternative. But that does not apply to human life in the sense suggested and “acting for realistic goals without harboring false expectation means avoiding the alleged contradiction.”7 He concludes man’s actions are not absurd if acting as a part of nature.
It seems to me the subjective sense of the absurdity of the universe and life, as we saw in the case of fate, is natural, even unavoidable, but not literally true. The knowledge of eventual death permits man to have reasonable goals for meaning and represents an evolutionary advance. Man as a product of nature is not absurd when pursuing the goals instantiated in his existence as a species. And as we saw earlier, nature escapes the label of absurd by virtue of its specialized laws conducive to our existence.
1Edwards, Paul (editor), The Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc. & The Free Press, 1972. Volume 2, pages 15-17.
2Solomon, Robert C. No Excuses: Existentialism and the Meaning of Life. The Great Courses. Lecture 4.
3Klemke, E.D. (editor), The Meaning of Life. Oxford University Press, New York, 2000. ISBN 0-19-512703-X, pages 176-185.
4Ibid, page 178.
5Singer, Irving, Meaning in Life. The Free Press, New York, 1992. ISBN 0-02-982905-X, pages 33-41.
6Ibid, page 36.
7Ibid, page 37.