Monday, July 6, 2009

The illusion of meaning

The raison d'etre for this blog is our belief that individuals should embrace the absurdity of life as a liberating tonic, freeing one to live however one wishes. However, is there not an inherent contradiction in such a position? For one who believes the world is purely physical (and that we are purely physical beings), beliefs about what we "like" or don't "like" are almost certainly illusory--how can I "like" steak, for example, when my neighbor detests it? Am I wrong? Is she? Is there an objective standard for enjoyment?

Put a different way, if one believes life has no meaning, then why bother? Isn't embracing and celebrating the absurd simply another method for manufacturing the illusion of meaning? How can I "enjoy" life? What does that even mean? And how can I enjoy something that others do not (or vice versa)? Aren't all feelings, good or bad, simply chemical processes in our brains?

These are, of course, fascinating questions, and philosophers have spent countless hours debating them. However, for one who truly embraces the absurd they are irrelevant. In our view, all "meaning" is indeed illusory--while things seem to matter, they actually do not. It does not matter how much money we have, how prodigious we are at sowing our seeds, or even when and how we die. We might as well debate the "meaning" of shifting sand dunes at the beach. Were the Earth to be wiped out by an asteroid tomorrow, what exactly would be the meaning of our retirement account? The fact that it probably won't happen does not change the underlying logic--namely, all our trivial hopes, dreams, and worries are just that.

Nevertheless, given that these illusions feel like reality, why not make the best of them? Camus, for example, suggested individuals view life as a role in a play--put simply, one should act as if things matter even when one knows they do not. We find this to be wonderful advice. In other words, just because we know this is water doesn't mean we have to drown.


  1. The Jewish sages of old came to the conclusion that it would have been better if man was not created—but since we were—make the best of it by behaving well with future rewards (or pay the consequences) after death.

  2. Half of the entries in this blog exhort us to abandon the pretense of meaning and this entry exhorts us to embrace the pretense.

    Exactly what does it mean to "act like it matters"? More to the point, what is the practical difference between "acting like it matters" when it does not matter, and "acting like it matters" when it *does* matter? If I am faithfully "acting", there should be no discernable difference from "acting truly".

    If it is wrongheaded to "act like it matters" while believing that it matters, how can it possibly be wise to "act like it matters" and believe otherwise? This seems a recipie for insanity.

    If life is meaningless, then why oh why act as if it holds meaning?

    The pretense here is, in fact, that life DOES matter, because life here on earth is all we have. There is no before, no after. It is only now. It matters AND YET it is absurd. The recommendation to "*act* like it matters (wink, wink)" seems merely a feeble, weak, and ultimately doomed attempt at self-defense in face of the likelihood that the absurd hand of fate will deliver us a horrible blow, as it will, for roughly 1/3 of us.

    It is probably more truthful to recommend "if things go really bad, act like it doesn't matter, because that is the only way you can cling to your sanity."

  3. Well, perhaps we have not been clear enough on this point. We do not think one should act as if things matter; quite the contrary. The absurd man accepts that nothing matters and thus lives for experiences in and of themselves, rather than for future happiness, either in the physical world or some supposed afterlife.

    To us, your premise of things "going really bad" is nonsensical, since to the absurd man all experiences are identical. There is no difference between enjoying a sunset with your lover and sitting in a jail cell - the only reason we perceive a difference comes down to biological and cultural factors. There is, in point of fact, no objective reason to "prefer" one to the other, which is (once you truly understand it) wonderfully liberating.

    Thus, our position is emphatically that life does not matter, and more importantly that acceptance of this simple yet powerful fact frees one to live a content life--a life, in other words, free from the scourges of worry and regret.

  4. Mr Rick, thanks for the reply. "all experiences are identical" - you sound like a person who has a home and a family, and who is not in a jail cell.

  5. While this is in fact true, the point we are trying to make is that our happiness does not depend on circumstances. To begin with, humans are remarkably adaptive creatures, and we often underestimate our ability to cope with adverse circumstances (and overestimate how much a "positive" event will add to our happiness). But beyond that (as we explored in "What makes us happy"), ask yourself why having a home and family should be preferable to sitting in a jail cell.

    Consider the following example. One man has a home and family, but knows the IRS will seize his assets tomorrow. Another man sits in a jail cell, but has been informed he has won the lottery and will be released tomorrow. Who will be happier? More importantly...why?

    The answer is that most people do not live in the present. Instead, they spend most of their time regretting the past and worrying about the future. They are, as David Foster Wallace once put it, trapped inside the prison in their heads.

    Circumstances are irrelevant. True happiness always comes from within.