Thursday, July 16, 2009

The absurd is everywhere...

"So often times it happens, that we live our lives in chains. And we never even know we have the key."--The Eagles

One of the wondrous things about the absurd is that once you know how to look for it, you tend to find it everywhere--in songs, movies, and even random conversations.

For example, we had a conversation tonight with someone about the absurdity of monogamy. He was adamant that it "mattered" if his wife had an affair, while we wondered why this should have more meaning than, say, his wife sitting in a different chair.

Interestingly, while he was unable to come up with a reason for why this should make him upset (perhaps because there are none...), he nevertheless clung to his initial belief as to a lifeline. He just could not face the reality that there is no reason he should care what his wife does, or does not do. In many ways such beliefs--drilled into us by society--are like religion, in that we accept them wholly and unquestioningly, despite the lack of any logical reason for doing so.

Now, this is not to say we don't sympathize with him. As Inigo pointed out recently, we ourselves do things we cannot explain, thanks to hard-wiring in the brain that is difficult to escape. Would we be upset if our wife had an affair? Perhaps. We would like to think not. But even if we were, we would recognize the absurdity of our reaction, and laugh at what ridiculous creatures we are.

That said, we understand that for many this is a leap too far. As Morpheus said to Neo in The Matrix: "Most people are not ready to be unplugged.
And many of them are so inured, so hopelessly dependent on the system that they will fight to protect it."

It doesn't matter if your wife has an affair. It also doesn't matter if she dies tomorrow, or next week, or 50 years from now. Everything we think we experience is simply an incredibly seductive illusion...and nothing more.

Until next time...


  1. I have to read all the posts.. damn captivating...

  2. It doesn't matter if one's wife has an affair? Really?

    It's true that the universe is meaningless in the broad impersonal sense. But in the personal context, we create meaning... and that meaning enriches our lives, especially via relationships.

    If meaning is created through the context of a loving relationship, then to pretend that a violation of that relationship "doesn't matter" is incoherent.

    I mean, just to be extreme, take the statement "It doesn't matter if your child dies of cancer," or "It doesn't matter if an old friend falls into despair without your knowing and commits suicide."

    Who would agree with those statements on a personal level? Even of those who would pay lip service to such statements, who would be emotionally detached in the event of their occurrence?

    Of course relationship oriented stuff matters. Selective empathy matters, and it should matter. Not in the big picture universal sense, but in the personal contextual sense... because relationships are part of the fulfilling web of meaning we create for ourselves.

    I think there's a serious mixup in the frame of references here. It's possible to simultaneously look at something from more than one angle. The universal angle is dispassionate about everything -- almost pure inquiry. But the personal angle is, well, personal.

    So I could easily agree with the universal sense of the phrase that an affair "doesn't matter," although to suggest such is still disingenuous. If I were drinking a hot cup of tea as someone told me "nothing mattered" including my loved ones, I would be tempted to pour the hot tea in their lap... then shrug and say "why does it matter" when they yell about getting scalded. That's the diff between universal and personal.

    And I would argue we have to embrace the risk of pain and loss if we also want to enrich our lives with the positive aspects of the personal... love, kinship, fondness, closeness, and so on... because for certain things you have to take the whole enchilada. Someone who chooses to forego the embedded joy of all relationships can bypass the downs. But for anyone who wants the ups of a beautiful relationship, they have to take the downs too.

  3. But what you are advocating here is simply a form of self-delusion - while you "know" things don't matter, you pretend they do in order to create meaning for yourself. (Our recent post "The Illusion of Meaning" discusses this in greater detail.)

    To your example - were you to pour hot coffee in my lap I would certainly "feel" like it mattered, but at a deeper level I would understand it was still part of the physical world and thus ultimately meaningless.

    As Krishnamurti once put it: "What does perception mean? Can I have perception if I am attached to my position, to my wife, to my property?...Total perception can only take place when in your daily life there is no confusion."

  4. Inigo here.

    That your wife has an affair doesn't matter, inasmuch as nothing matters in the grand scheme of things. But, as hard-wired animals, there are things that "matter," inasmuch as we have physical responses to them that are hard to control if not impossible to control (like saying “ow!” when someone sticks a pen knife in your thigh.)

    Some of these hard-wired feelings are pleasurable and some are not.

    The ultimate absurd man recognizes the meaningless struggle of existence, but still has a pleasure-pain continuum, which he cannot deny. In Camus' The Stranger, for instance, the "hero" is living the absurd life and he faces many of life's trials with the detached sense of the absurd - his mother's death, his own trial, etc.

    But he also feels pleasures – he has sex on a beach with Marie, he enjoys cigarettes, blood sausages, etc. He enjoys these pleasures, but he doesn't read meaning into them.

    We don’t mean to imply that the absurd man only seeks pleasures. Camus’ Stranger also feels unpleasantness – the hot sun, annoyance at people, etc.

    He takes his pleasures and his pains with the absurd perspective.

    Absurdity demands that we take the trials of life with grace. It demands that we find the struggle itself as sufficient, as reason enough to be happy, like the brilliant Camus metaphor of Sisyphus pushing that rock.

  5. And yet, my self delusion is the highest form of truth.

    If you take the time and trouble to dispute this statement, then I must ask you, "Why? Why do you care about what is true or not true... when truly this does not matter either?"

    To leave no room for the personal is to perpetuate a foolishness on two levels. First, it is not possible to act consistently with such words. Second, to declare ALL meaning a self-delusion is to put one's own self-delusion on a pedestal.

    Consider that great mathematical paradox, the set of empty sets. If you say to me life has no meaning and is thus absurd, then I say in reply to you that absurdity has no meaning either... and thus your absurdity is absurd.

    So where does it end? It ends where self-created meaning begins. I can infuse my life with meaning on a personal level simply by choosing to do so. And my life is made better by doing so.

    Whether you dispute this or not, you do the same thing. There is meaning in your life... and it has made your life better. The existence of this self-created meaning does not contradict or supercede the absurd. It simply dwells within the folds of the absurd.

    The more you struggle to dispute this, the more you demonstrate that something -- a philosophical code, a line of thought, or, heck, even just a taste for debating -- has been infused with some sort of self-created meaning by you.

    And so it is true that some men will care not if their wife cheats on them with the mailman. But these men have made a personal choice not to cultivate self-created meaning around concepts like trust and fidelity and exclusivity when it comes to romantic relationships. Other men, again through the channels of self-created meaning, will care... and will be right to do so.

    The set of all empty sets is a shining example for us. It shows us that, just as utter pardox can reside at the heart of mathematics, life can be personally meaningful and universally meaningless at the exact same time.

  6. Very elegantly stated. However, in our opinion you are making things a bit too complicated. The fact that life has no meaning does not mean one cannot experience and enjoy things, only that the absurd man recognizes the ultimate hopelessness of his situation. Thus, while we choose to debate you on this topic, we do not fool ourselves into thinking there is some ultimate meaning to our words, or our desire to debate you, or to having this blog in the first place.

    Further, when you say that you infuse your life with meaning, we question exactly how you define "meaning" in a meaningless universe. Should dogs also have "self-created meaning"? Chimpanzees? Larvae? The "self" as we think of it is itself an illusion (albeit an incredibly seductive one); thus, to say "I" can create meaning is no different from saying a pile of rocks can do so.

    Finally, to seek meaning of necessity robs you of the ability to live in the moment, as you will always be thinking about the past and future of things that "matter," rather than simply experiencing each moment as it comes.

    There is no contradiction here, and the recognition that life has no meaning should not be seen as fatalistic. On the contrary, recognition of the absurd frees us from the scourges of worry and regret, thus liberating us to simply and truly live.

  7. Right. Consciousness is "a hallucination hallucinated by a hallucination," as Hofstadter once put it.

    But my point still stands... self-created meaning is of great worth and utility to the creator, if no one else.

    As for dogs, chimpanzees, and larvae -- if such creatures had the ability to create meaning for themselves, I would applaud such an act. Why should Rover or Bonzo be denied the finer things in life, should the ability to appreciate said finer things somehow be instilled in them.

    But your retort is specious (no pun intended) precisely because what you suggest is impossible. Dogs, chimpanzees and larvae are not self reflecting and self aware in the manner that humans are, and thus do not have the ability to self-create meaning in the manner of which I speak.

    As for the difference between "I" and a pile of rocks... with all due respect, who is the one overcomplicating things now? ;)

    "I" am conscious. "I" have feelings and emotions. "I" have the capacity to remember, to interact, to love. "I" enjoy the extra richness and depth that meaning adds to my life. This meaning is as real and, er, meaningful, as the favorable emotions it inspires. To question the pleasure derived from such is like questioning the pleasure taken from a beautiful sunset a or a good cigar.

    A pile of rocks in contrast to all that, is, well... a pile of rocks. There is no comparison. It is all about the capacity for self awareness and self reflection, you see.

    I suspect we are dealing in semantics now, or getting close to it... but I would still encourage you to give more thought to the difference between the universal and the personal. They are two different things. And on the personal level, it is precisely the ability to infuse meaning and richness in a thing otherwise meaningless -- like a nice cup of tea or a stolen kiss -- that adds value to life. The fact that such meaning is temporary, ephemeral and restricted to the realm of the personal matters not. All things are temporary, ephemeral and personal in the end.

  8. I agree much of this is semantics. However, I am interested to see you mention Hofstadter, since his entire point in "I Am a Strange Loop" was that the concept of "I" does not exist, but is simply a very powerful illusion created by sufficiently complex self-referential systems. (While this still seems radical to those of us in the West, of course, many Eastern religions have understood the non-existence of the self for millennia.)

    Thus, my question to you would be: How can self-created meaning have "worth and utility" to the creator, when said creator is "a hallucination hallucinated by a hallucination"? How can something that does not exist create something meaningful?

    Still, your closing paragraph makes me think we mostly agree. As noted, we certainly do enjoy the "finer things" (as you put it)--we just do not impart any actual meaning to them. We view life as a movie in which we are playing a role, rather than a meaningful existence that will have some sort of permanent consequence. Such a stance does not preclude our enjoying a sunset, a stolen kiss, or any other pleasures of life--it simply means we do not need such things to be happy.

    Your choosing to view such things as meaningful (even when, at some deeper level, you know they are not) does not strike us as all that different, although we question why you feel the need to do so. As Krishnamurti put it:

    "There is no me. See the importance of it. There is no me all the time. I function, but there is no me which is seeking a higher position and all that. Though I am married, I am not attached, I don't depend on a wife or husband. The appearances may give you the impression that the me is operating, but actually, to a man who feels, 'The world is me and I am the world,' to him there is no me."

  9. Well, since you like Hofstadter, take him as an example.

    In his book, Hofstadter communicated, among other things, a deep and touching love for his departed wife. Clearly, this relationship had worth and utility to Hofstadter. His life was enriched -- and still is enriched, via memories -- by the love he felt and feels.

    Now, if you were to say to Hofstadter, perhaps after a few drinks, "Hofstadter, your love for your wife meant nothing and continues to mean nothing," I suspect he would respond with a hearty "Fuck You." And he would be right to do so! Because you would be wrong... his love DID mean something, and DOES mean something... to him.

    Again, I think I am less disagreeing with you here than trying to inject some nuance into your perspective. When I speak of self-created meaning having worth and utility to an individual, I speak of the personal, not the universal.

    It is this personal connection that underpins my point. Meaning is tethered to consciousness. I say that anything I feel affection for or allegiance to -- a friend, a lover, an aesthetic, a moral code -- has a certain sort of "meaning" to me. This is 100% correct within the context of my experience, my consciousness. It is personal... and obviously has nothing to do with the universal. But that does not make the use of "meaning" in this instance any less correct.

    I confess to not having read much Krishnamurti, but let me also add... were I Krishnamurti's spouse, I might take mild offense at his comments. There is something wrong, something off, in saying "This person whom I love means nothing to me." That is because love implies meaning in and of itself! To "love" someone is to assign meaning to that person, to one's relationship to that person. I say this in a de facto sense. I submit that if Krishnamurti truly loves his wife, then his wife (and his relationship) has meaning to him -- on the personal level -- regardless of whether he fails to acknowledge as much or even denies it outright.

    In fact, one might even say that, in the absence of universal meaning, weaving a tapestry of personal meaning is what life is all about. The personal becomes all the more vibrant and necessary in the absense of the universal. The man who lost all taste for meaning would, in this light, not be an example of triumph but tragedy -- like Antonio Damasio's famous patient who, in the absence of any emotional capacity, lost all desire to make any type of life choice whatsoever, and became content to sit inert on a park bench like a stone.

    So again, maybe it's semantics, but maybe it's something a little more... maybe it's about consistency. I submit that there is real meaning in your life, just as there is in mine... self-created meaning born of personal desires, aesthetics, and moral codes... and that I am simply being more objectively consistent here in acknowledging the presence of this personal meaning, WITHIN the broader canopy of universal meaninglessness which you extol.

  10. What is wrong with sitting on a park bench like a stone? Why is your "tapestry of personal meaning" any better? You think it is, as does most of society, but why? Is there something intrinsically better about one than the other?

    Perhaps a better question is this: Why should Hofstadter care what I say about his dead wife? If he gets upset about my comment, are his feelings for her really making his life "better?" (I personally thought the piece about his wife was by far the weakest part of that book - it was a contorted and confusing passage in what is otherwise an incredibly elegant argument for the non-existence of the self.)

    Look, it really comes down to this. If you accept that things have "meaning" (however defined), you are ceding control over your happiness (or perhaps contentedness would be a better word) to whatever and whoever makes the cut. So when you say you "love" your wife, what you are really saying is you are dependent on her for your happiness to some degree.

    Let me ask it another way. Why do you require certain things, people, or experiences to be happy? Wouldn't it be better to be content no matter what happens?

    Finally, you misrepresent our stance when you say "This person whom I love means nothing to me." It is not that she means nothing, rather that nothing means anything - how can she possibly be any different?

    The bottom line is that when you introduce "meaning" you cede control over your happiness to certain people and things. Further, you by necessity introduce conflict since your actual experience will never be the same as your desires. (Nirvana, of course, is defined as the extinguishment of all desires.)

    You, we imagine, would argue that your life is fuller than ours because you have this "tapestry of meaning" (despite your admission that it does not, in fact, really matter). But ask yourself why. Better yet, ask yourself why your life is objectively better than the man sitting on a bench like a stone.

  11. I have a thought experiment here that exposes the fundamental weakness in Anonymous's argument...

    Imagine a glass of water. The water is clear.

    Anonymous seems to argue that even though the water is clear, he can make it another color - say, blue - by thinking and believing it so, for himself. So, even though the water is not blue, Anonymous wants to believe it is blue.

    If that's the argument, then I don't know what to do with that. It seems to make a farce of logic. The water is clear; it is not blue.

    Likewise, life has no meaning. To believe one can create meaning for himself anyway is to perpetuate a self-deception, like believing the water is blue.

    I think that only muddles the beautiful clarity of the absurd view of life. And I would hasten to add, that it does not mean one can't take pleasure in things or in people or in life generally. Living the absurd life is to fully accept the meaningless of it all and to celebrate the liberating nature of that insight.


  12. Go easy on the straw man there my good fellows... methinks the poor chap is getting the stuffing beaten out of him.

    Perhaps we should backtrack a little and define our terms here. What does "meaning" mean?

    I submit, for one, that "meaning" is not something so grand and mysterious as what you suggest.

    "Meaning" as defined by various dictionaries equates to "rich in significance or implication" and "the significance of a thing."

    There is a little coastal town in New Zealand, a place where the mountains meet the sea, that captivated me long ago in my travels. I often think of this place as a sort of physical expression of tranquility, and look forward to getting back there one day... perhaps taking my laptop and working from a bed & breakfast in this tiny corner of the world that 99.999% of the human population has no knowledge or awareness of.

    I ask you, then... Would it be incorrect to say that this little coastal town (whose beautifully sonorous name I hesitate to even share) is "rich in significance and implication" to me?

    Of course not. The place is "rich in significance and implication"... to me. EWhy? Because I say it is. Because I feel it is. And therefore it has "meaning"... to me.

    Meaning, you see, is a wholly personal construct, at least as the dictionary defines. To ascribe meaning to something is simply to give it emotional weight, richness and significance in one's personal frame of reference. That is why meaning is tethered to consciousness. That is why meaning is a personal thing. And that is why, with all due respect, you persist in error with your seeming refusal to see the difference between the universal and the personal.

    To deny this is either to deny the dictionary (perhaps "meaning" means something more grand to you than what the dictionary offers up) or to deny simple Aristotelian logic.

    If A = B and B = C, then A = C. Meaning can simply be defined as "rich in signifance or implication," or "of symbolic value." There is a coastal town in New Zealand that is rich in significance and implication to me. Therefore, this place has "meaning"... again, to me.

    What I say to you (and what I have been trying to say all along) is that meaning is not some cosmic thing, bestowed by some outside force. Meaning is simply "significance and implication" -- both of which are personal terms of reference.

    As for what is wrong with sitting on a park bench like a stone... I submit you know exactly what is wrong with it, and your reponse is sophistry for sophistry's sake. (Not that I mind... I find this all a refreshing amusement, as I hope you do also.)

    Whether it is better to sit on a park bench like a stone or not sit on a park bench like a stone comes down to value judgment. Once again, value judgments are personal.

    I call your reply sophistry because, in asking "what is wrong with sitting on a park bench like a stone," you pretend not to possess value judgments... or worse still not to have the value judgments you actually do possess (as evidenced by this blog!).

  13. Also -- as for "ceding control over my happiness," I do no such thing. In fact I do the opposite thing.

    I think you perhaps confuse self-created meaning with externally imposed meaning.

    For the individual who accepts externally imposed meaning -- society says do this, the church says do that, and so on -- your assessment is correct. To accept externally imposed meaning is to subject one's self to the whims and machinations of others.

    But self-created meaning is a wholly different thing. With self-created meaning, I am the one who chooses. There is no ceding of control here. If anything, there is a taking of control... a stepping up to the task.

    Again I submit to you that everyone has meaning in their lives, not because meaning is some grand thing but because it is as ubiquitous as the air we breathe. Meaning is simply that which is deemed of significance or importance from a personal perspective.

    There is no escaping this. Even the devout buddha attaches meaning, aka importance and significance to things. If the buddha's task is to be free, to let go, then guess what? "Meaning" for the buddha is found in being free and letting go. Letting go of meaning is like letting go of consciousness. The only way to do it is to end your existence.

    But there is no trap or prison here. Self-created meaning is a beautiful thing, because one can make of whatever one chooses. One can cut off the left side of the distribution, so to speak, and tailor the contours of your metaphysical existence however one sees fit.

    And so, once again, I urge you to consider this bit of nuance... in addition to the universal and the personal, there is self-created meaning and externally imposed meaning. They are worlds apart.

    p.s. to get technical, one could say that all meaning is ultimately self-created... but the refusal to see the difference, and thus accept externally imposed meaning as self-created, is where the problem lies (the deplorable condition of which you speak).

  14. "Imagine a glass of water..."

    Funny experiment, this, for at least two reasons:

    1) Turning an imaginary glass of water from clear to blue is no hard thing. There, I just did it (in my head).

    2) Turning a real glass of water from clear to blue is slightly more complicated, but not by much. All I have to do is pop by the grocery store and pick up some blue food coloring...

    To be slightly less tongue-in-cheek, I think there is still some confusion here as to what "meaning" actually is. This confusion traces back to the riddle of consciousness.

    Consider a slightly less controversial word, like "beauty." Now think for a moment what the difference is between the two following statements:

    "Life has no meaning."

    "Life has no beauty."

    Beauty is bought by the judgment of the eye, as the bard once said. Is meaning not purchased in the same manner? You would not deny beauty, would you? So then why deny meaning?

    I say to you, to pound the table saying "life has no meaning" is not much different than pounding the table and saying "life has no beauty."

    Is it true that life has no meaning? On the universal level, yes. There is no meaning on the universal level. On this we fully agree.

    But there is no beauty on the universal level either. See the parallel here?

    The parallel exists because beauty and meaning are both the ineffable byproducts of consciousness. They are personal by definition.

    Also tieing back to the riddle of consciousness, it is easy to get muddled between the properties of physical things and the properties of self-aware experience. In the physical world, it is impossible to turn water from clear to blue in the blink of an eye (without popping some food coloring in). But in the world of consciousness and self awareness, it is the easiest thing to go from happy to sad in a fingersnap (or to make the journey back again).

    "Meaning" is not disqualified from existence just because it is ephemeral, personal and capricious. Emotions and personal sentiments -- like the perception of beauty -- follow exactly the same contours.

    And again... may I submit that this reality does not diminish or displace the absurd, but actually enhances its value. The meaningless universal gives extra incentive to cherish and cultivate the personal. Whether you agree with the words or no, ask yourself... does your heart not live this way?

  15. Bomstein, you sad, sad man.

    > when you say you "love" your wife

    Let me just stop you right there Bomstein. Anyone who uses the word love in quotes, as if to dismiss the reality of it, is either a very cynical person, or very sad. Why don't you just write "love" (as if).

    ok, back to you Bomstein...

    > when you say you "love" your wife, what you are really saying is you are dependent on her for your happiness to some degree.

    I KNOW! And how sad is that? How terribly infantile and utterly tragic and silly and oh,.. what's the word.... so tragically *human* it is to seek happiness in relations with other humans! So pointless to actually be kind, or help one another, to love one another.

    It's such a silly pursuit.

    I'm so glad you're here to impart your wisdom to the unwashed masses who actually still BELIEVE love matters (haha! hahahaha! haha! - I try but it's so hard not to laugh at those people).

  16. i came to your post because you posted something in an article about kirekegaard in the NYT...and i must say your embrace of the abyss notion sounds nietzschean and does not move forward one inch anythin...if meaning (self created or externally imposed, a distinction deemed to be false) is just a set of random relations, unstable and impermanent, and as a consequence everything we do, be it sleeping with a supermodel, or sitting in a chair is completely absurd, then i think we fall into the same trap: namely the notion that meaning is meaningless, a conclusion reached thorough establishing relations between pieces of information collected here and there while we are alive...but then again, if i decided there´s some truth to your argument, it´d become an externally imposed anti-meaning...

    i agree with the one who said: "meaning" is not disqualified from existence by reason of its ephemeral, transient nature...

    and yeah, ask yourself, what do you find in your heart?

  17. I enjoy reading the debate (Socratic Method) here. I consider myself an Absurdist but I agree with Anonymous. Campus's Absurdism was about not having hope, not denying personal meaning. The value of living in the present is a personal meaning that the Absurdist values. I like to contrast subjective meaning with the common fallacy of objective Meaning, the former being something that can assist the Absurdist in optimizing the experience of life. Gary