Thursday, August 6, 2009

Why do you care what other people think?

We were having a conversation recently with someone we consider "semi-absurd." (And of course, as explored in our recent piece on consistency, by semi-absurd we really mean not absurd...) This individual recognizes the validity of the absurd (i.e., he agrees there is no meaning beyond the physical world), but can't quite bring himself to embrace its ultimate conclusions. (That, for example, there is no reason to care more about one's biological family than about other people.)

Anyway, during this particular conversation he told us something was bothering him (we can't recall what it was), and referred to it as "self-imposed" stress.

But, we protested, isn't all stress self-imposed, being that it originates and resides in one's brain?

Well, sure, he said with an annoyed wave of his hand, if you don't care what other people think!

We have nothing further for this witness...


  1. Unless you are making the argument that even personal success in the physical world doesn't matter, it actually makes sense to care more about one's biological family. Because not every person is an absurd man, it is very very likely that your biological family cares more about you than about other people. Connections increase job opportunities and the care and love actually helps your personal happiness. The thing about being an absurd person is that it is also not fair to assume that everyone else is absurd and therefore a lot of the conclusions that are reached by thinking in the absurd are actually false when you are one of only a few people living absurd lives.

  2. Food for thought... this question -- "Who cares what people think" -- is a useful one, I think, for demonstrating the challenges of living the absurd life (or, indeed, of living any deliberately pursued life).

    Not caring what people think (at least certain people uniquely situated in one's life) is hard at times. It can also be risky. Not in a uniquely unacceptable way, per se, but in the sense that all major life choices carry risk, regardless of whether one pretends not to care.

    Take this interesting Atlantic piece for example:

    Opening precis: The author is ending her marriage. Isn’t it time you did the same?

    Closing para: In any case, here’s my final piece of advice: avoid marriage—or you too may suffer the emotional pain, the humiliation, and the logistical difficulty, not to mention the expense, of breaking up a long-term union at midlife for something as demonstrably fleeting as love.

    Bravo for her -- she is free enough from societal ideals to chuck her twenty year marriage into the can because it's the right thing to do for her at the time. She doesn't care what people think.

    But does this make the decision any easier? And where did she screw up? Was her mistake marrying a "male kitchen bitch" (see article) in the first place? Will she look back and wish different choices had been made?

    It would seem a central paradox of pursuing the "who cares" stance is that, regardless of how one arranges their mental affairs, life is risky. Life choices carry risk. Risk of loss, risk of disappointment, risk of heading down the wrong road for years at a time.

    To say none of this matters on a universal level is to true... but to pretend it has zero impact on a personal level is to be delusional in Jack's humble opinion.

    I guess the takeaway for me is to recognize that certain ideals -- like not caring and being detached from reality -- are platonic ideals we move towards, rather than casual guidelines easily implemented. Letting go is a desirable thing... but to pretend life is easy (or that letting go is easy) is to betray a lack of experience (or imagination) in regard to the ways life can be hard.

    p.s. I'm not sure anyone knows yet who the absurd man is. So far, he is a series of vignettes and abstracts that haven't quite come together in a cohesively convincing way... still in some respects like a comic book character, not quite three dimensional... perhaps he is still being born.

  3. Paul-

    Well, yes, we are in fact making the argument that "success" doesn't matter. That is arguably the main point of this blog - happiness is within, not provided by things (or events). As to your point about others not being absurd, why should this matter? If others believed we were all descended from Martians, would you feel compelled to play along? How about those who opposed the "flat Earth" view of the world in the Middle Ages - were they wrong to do so, or were they right to follow what they believed was truth?

    As we have noted, we view life as akin to playing a role in a movie; thus, the fact that others choose to believe the world has meaning (i.e. the movie is real) should have no bearing on your behavior.

  4. Sparrow-

    Well, finally something we can agree on! We never said this was an easy way to be, and as we have noted on several occasions, we struggle to implement the absurd in our own lives. This does not diminish our belief in it, however; it simply reinforces the reality that biological and cultural forces are powerful indeed.

    Nevertheless, we steadfastly believe that despite our deep-seated desire to believe otherwise, all experiences are identical (and equally meaningless). Thus, while at some level we would no doubt enjoy watching a sunset more than sitting in a jail cell, we also know this is simply due to genetics and evolution, and not some deeper concept of who we "are." As we hope you would agree, there is no objective way to rationalize this "preference" as anything other than a (admittedly very sophisticated and seductive) result of natural selection that for some reason favored sunsets over jail cells.

  5. Bomstein said: As we hope you would agree, there is no objective way to rationalize this "preference" as anything other than a (admittedly very sophisticated and seductive) result of natural selection that for some reason favored sunsets over jail cells.

    I am happily inclined to think (or at least to suspect) that we agree more than disagree in the big scheme of things... but what you say here goes back to another area of subtle difference between us. (Vive la difference!)

    I would not so much disagree with the above statment so much as to respond with "Mu" -- a Japanese word which roughly translates to "unask the question."

    A monk asked Joshu: "Has a dog the buddha nature?"

    Joshu replied: "Mu" (unask the question).

    My philosophical point of issue is that you act as if there is some objective external validator that exists transcendently and independently of personal existence. But there is not!

    That is to say, consciousness is consciousness... experience is experience... and there is no way to make a transcendent value judgment independent of this truth. The strange loop is a closed circuit.

    This is a VERY important point, at least to Jack, because it invalidates many of the high-minded criticisms flung in the direction of personal experience.

    Going back to Jack's preference for sunsets over jail cells, or learning experiences over rock-rolling drudgery... one could certainly argue that such preferences are merely born of genetics and evolution and so on. This argument would be true... but it would not matter.

    It is important to understand, on a deep and intrinsic level, that personal experience is self validating. If I give and receive love, if I taste a delicious peach, then it is certainly possible for me to trace such experiences to their physico-chemical sociobiological origins. But to determine the source of the experience is not to invalidate the self-created meaning embedded within the experience.

    And so when you suggest there is no way for Jack to "rationalize" his preference for jail cells over sunsets, Jack responds with a shrug because, in reference to the universal plane, there is no way to rationalize anything at all!

    This point has a philosophical dimension too. What is truth? Why do words have communication value? Why are certain statements considered more valid than the sound of, say, waves crashing on a beach?

    Ultimately there is no such thing as permanent truth. All "truth" that we know and experience is the result of an elaborate shared reference system populated by corresponding experiences. If the universe were to collapse tomorrow, then spring back open with some different set of quantum rules, all "truth" as we know it would be extinguished, even the hardest of hard truths as laid out in chemistry and physics.

    Given the above, to Jack it seems extra specious to speak of any form of transcendent judgment whatsoever. Not only is personal experience self-validating, regardless of its temporary nature, the supposed "eternal" truth that stands in judgment of the personal is temporary as well!

    Perhaps that will help explain, at least a little, why Jack feels the supposed concrete nature of the universal (all is meaningless etc.) is actually more of a merry prank than anything else... in a world where ALL meaning and ALL truth is temporary -- even the laws of physics -- there is no "eternal" to stand in judgment of the personal. And thus Jack's preference for sunsets over jail cells is, in its own way, as powerful and meaningful a truth as any other, with objective to attempts to judge it a folly. Humble chemical origins do not take away from the majesty of that which may be born. Nor does the fact that all which is born may die.

  6. Hmm...well, maybe we agree more than we thought. Our objection all along has simply been this concept of calling things "meaningful," but from your description it sounds like this "meaning" you reference is no more or less important than anything else. And with that we wholeheartedly agree!

    Still, we are probably going to have to agree to disagree on the "best" way to implement such beliefs on everyday life - but we imagine this is almost a fair accompli for you, given your perspective that we are all closed circuits.

    BTW, given that we have both referenced Hofstadter throughout this discussion, we went ahead and contacted him for his thoughts. He had an interesting reply (and pointed us to a section of one of his books that discusses this very issue), which we will flesh out in a forthcoming post.

  7. And one more thought on Paul's post:

    Just because you recognize the absurd does not mean you need to act in any particular way. One of the incredible freedoms afforded by the absurd is the ability to act however you choose. Thus, you are certainly free to (for example) play the role of a devoted husband and father. (This idea is explored in our "Channeling Nicolas Cage" post.)

    Indeed, we often find ourselves in situations when we find it interesting (and sometimes humorous) to take on different roles - to us, this is one of the true joys of living the absurd life. It is amazing how many things are possible once you shed the imprisoning shackles of the ego.

  8. Bomstein said: Our objection all along has simply been this concept of calling things "meaningful," but from your description it sounds like this "meaning" you reference is no more or less important than anything else.

    Sort of... more like self-created meaning has free rein to become the MOST important thing, because there is no other more compelling level of meaning (or meaninglessness) to dethrone it... to contemplate the universal is simply to contemplate the eventual and inevitable diminishing and extinguishing of self... on a universal level, meaninglessness itself is meaningless, thus creating a dark vacuum in which the light of self-created meaning can exist, making personal experience and self-created meaning the most important thing by far to the conscious being experiencing both...

    But yes -- nuances aside (and nuances are where Jack likes to play) we indeed seem close, particularly in contrast to those who pound the table for some form of extrinsic meaning / external validation for existence...

  9. > This individual recognizes the validity of the absurd (i.e., he agrees there is no meaning beyond the physical world), but can't quite bring himself to embrace its ultimate conclusions. (That, for example, there is no reason to care more about one's biological family than about other people.)

    Or indeed, no reason to care about people more than Coca-cola. You may just as well chuck young children into a lake, instead of skipping stones. Because... it doesn't matter. Why should we care what those children think?

    This os obviously a ridiculous statement. Or at least it seems that way to me.

    What I don't understand is how you can speak of an "ultimate conclusion", and yet very clearly you do not deal in ultimate conclusions. "There's no reason prefer blood relations to other humans" is not an ultimate conclusion. It is one step on the path.

    Why prefer people to cocker spaniels? Why prefer caring for the sick over Manson-style murder? THOSE are ultimate conclusions of your reasoning, yet you artfully ignore them. I don't think "ultimate" means what you think it does.

    You call yourself absurd, yet you take pains to clothe a child, you think about his/her schooling, and I suppose you keep him from crossing in front of traffic. Why? If there is no meaning, why take the trouble?

    It must be so bothersome to deal with all these people pointing out the naked emperor. But no problem! If you can pretend that your life stacked with meaning - caring for a child, being faithful to a spouse - holds no meaning, you can also very easily pretend the questions I raise aren't sophisticated enough for you to even consider.

  10. We remain puzzled at the confusion generated by this blog, so let us be clear. There is no contradiction generated by living as though things matter even when one knows they do not. There is also no contradiction in the admission that we are human, and thus do human things such as wear clothes, etc.

    The absurd man need not sit naked on a rock till he withers away; as we have noted, he lives for experience, knowing full well that none of it matters. This does not, however, equate to nihilism. By the decision to remain alive the absurd man admits to a value judgment - that he prefers life to death. This does not mean one matters more than the other, and he does not fear death - in other words, he neither actively seeks it nor shrinks from it.

    This blog is simply an expression of a system that we have found extraordinarily useful for living a peaceful, stress-free life. The fact that we are ourselves human with human concerns has become more a source of amusement to us than anything else - we are truly ridiculous creatures, and we find ourselves endlessly amusing.

    If such a system does not work for you we hope you find something else. The liberation and happiness we have found through embracing the absurd (as we see it) has been extraordinary, and we truly wish this good fortune on everyone.

  11. On behalf of "everyone", let me say, Thanks for the kind wishes.

    And so, living "as though" things matter - where do you stop? What is the limit of "as though"? Are you willing to stand on line in order to secure quality daycare or a coveted school seat for your child? That is living "as if" daycare or school matters. Whether it matters or not, you are demonstrating concern, you are acting as if you are concerned.

    Ok, then. Now, what if misfortune should bebfall you? Do you then "act as if" it matters or do you shrug it off?

    I repeat: Where is the limit of "as though" for you?

    Your ability to shift the line as to the definition of "the ultimate question", to suit your needs, is remarkable. Some might say, self-delusion. But I think it is more likely "self protection."

    You conduct your life as if you care, and deep down, you do. But you are afraid, and you reserve the right to suddenly "not care" if something bad should happen. You reserve the right to redefine "human misfortune" (prison, sudden loss of a loved one, disease) to be "just another experience."

    It smells like cowardice to me. You have one foot in the water of life, but not both. You are prepared to run for the dry sand if a wave comes.

    But it seems to work for you. I wish you every Good Fortune.

  12. We are sorry this is so confusing for you. Life is meaningless. We recognize this is a difficult thing for many people to accept, but there it is.

    Our decision to "act as if" life matters refers only to external actions - inside, we know it does not. It is not a defense mechanism, simply our decision to play the game as it is. There is no "line" where things matter or not. They never do. We simply choose to live because it seems more interesting than death. Deep down, we know life is nothing more than a grand illusion.

  13. Here's what I'd like you to do: stop patronizing me and just answer honestly. And you can say "but gee, I'm not patronizing you! you are too sensitive!" but you know even that is a dishonest answer. Re-read what you wrote. You will see, if you take enough time. The Buddha would never answer this way.

    The way you talk to people is not compassionate. You put people down if they don't agree with you. "We're sorry if this is so confusing," you poor, poor child. Go ahead, dig in your heels. Hold to your guns. "But I'm NOT patronizing!" Hold that thought in your head, firmly, if you like. It won't change the truth of how you come off to people, which is the only truth that matters. It has been said before by other people, and now again. How long will you reject thr mirror people hold up to your face?

    Rather than considering that maybe YOU don't understand, you turn it around. It is inconceivable that it is YOU that fails to understand, eh?

    getting back to the point.... will you let me try to restate the problem again to you?

    here it is: what is the difference between acting as if things matter when they do not, and acting as if things matter when they do?

    Is there a difference? If you are truly - truly - acting as if things matter, then you will care if someone you love dies. If you are faking it, then you can "move the line" and say... "you know, I have been acting like I care about my coffee having the right amount of foam, and acting as if I care how I dress, but it has been all an act. All untrue. A fiction. And in fact, it doesn't matter than my best friend died."

    or you can say "it doesn't matter whether I throw a child or a stone over the bridge." But then... if you say those things, you are no longer acting that things matter, are you? You are no longer "playing the game" very well. You have stepped out of character. The facade has collapsed.

    Do you see, yet?

    My point is that with your personal philosophy, you can flexibly move the line as to what is acting, and what is not, to suit your preference. You can "act as if..." when it is inconsequential. But when there is some significant human impact at stake, when your own SELF is exposed to risk, you reserve the right to flee back to "it doesn't matter." You are half in, half out. You have said other people have not drawn "ultimate conclusions", but you refuse to to draw them for yourself.

    You sir, are a fraud. And you have thoroughly fooled even yourself.

    But, if it gets you through the day, feel free to dismiss these questions. After all, it doesn't matter.

  14. Ah, now we see. Apologies for our patronizing response. What can we say; even the absurd man is, in the end, human.

    Well, this is an interesting point—thank you for raising it. In essence you are saying our position is not consistent, since there is no way to define “acting as if things matter” that will not back us into a corner. But in a sense you have hit on the main point of this blog.

    That is…the absurdity of the human condition is that he realizes he is mortal, even as he can do nothing to stop it. This introduces a number of seeming contradictions, such as the ones you have raised.

    However, this is not the whole story. As we have discussed, by the simple act of continuing to exist (i.e. not committing suicide), the absurd man introduces a value judgment into his life. This does not mean he is any less absurd, in that he still views the world as meaningless. However, it also does not preclude his choosing how to live. The absurd man could be a garbage man, a lawyer, or a politician, so long as he recognizes the futility of his quest—in other words, he is happy to simply “push his rock,” whatever form it takes.

    The bottom line is we are not “moving the line,” as you say. The line is fixed—-things are meaningless. But we can still choose to live in a particular manner. Said a different way, the issue is not whether or not we wait in line for our son’s school; what “matters” (no pun intended) is that we realize it is irrelevant either way.

  15. We are sorry this is so confusing for you. Life is meaningless. We recognize this is a difficult thing for many people to accept, but there it is.

    The trouble here, it seems, is a tendency to speak with absolute authority where such authority is neither granted, nor logical, nor deserved.

    If life is meaningless, then so too is the statement "life is meaningless." Yet you wield your "life is meaningless viewpoint" as if you were the absurd pope, cleaving non-believers in two with a canonical axe.

    Consider this assertion, or rather, this aesthetic preference: arrogance should have no place in the absurd.

    Why? Because in a world that is meaningless, it is stupid to speak in terms of absolutes. In a world where "nothing" matters, truth does not matter either!

    The truth of this reality -- that even meaninglessness is meaningless in a meaningless world -- results in an extra painful note of discontinuity when the supposedly absurd, supposedly free man goes around making pronouncements with all the pomp and circumstance of a logical positivist wielding some secular papal bull.

    This is the thing. To say that life is meaningless is to say that nothing has meaning... which in turn is to say that truth has no meaning. And of course, if truth has no meaning then lies have no meaning... and thus, to say "life has no meaning" in one breath and then to imply that other men are fools for living a lie in the other breath is to be deeply inconsistent.

    I must admit that I am resenting you a little bit here, Bomstein... not in an especially active way, but in a quiet and reflective way. Or rather, I am not resenting you, per se, but I am mildly resenting your tendency to proselytize like an evangelist without even realizing it.

    Let's see, how to put it.... perhaps consider this. The beautiful thing about accepting ultimate absurdity, ultimate meaninglessness on the universal level, is freedom from the burden of absolute truth. Freedom to be as one chooses, unfettered by prounouncements and diktats.

    And yet, the apostle of freedom in absurdity who goes around pounding the table for his personal version of absolute truth -- this would be you, Bomstein, demanding that other men accept that life is meaningless -- has forsaken one of the very things that makes absurdity beautiful and grand in the first place.

    The silent universe bears an important message... and that message is that there is no message. In the absence of any higher context for existence, Jack Sparrow and Joe Sixpack and all other conscious beings are free to create their own meaning, to define life and existence on their own preferred terms. Nor is such an act inconsistent or unconstant, because there is no higher order of truth for self-created meaning to grind and chafe against.

    And yet, you, Bomstein, seem determined (whether by accident or design) to force your universal norms on other people. You do not seem content to accept that your view of life as meaningless works for you, is true for you... instead you seem intent on demanding that ALL men see life as meaningless, even though this view is patronizing and philosphically inconsistent. Again, what IS meaning other than an extension of personal definition? And in that context, how can one man dictate to another what "meaning" is any more than he can dictate what "beauty" is?


  16. With all due respect, you cannot tell another person what is beautiful, Bomstein. You cannot tell them what to feel. So why is it you feel you have a right to tell them where meaning exists and where it does not? You can tell a man he will die, that his consciousness will one day wink out, but you cannot deny the products of that man's consciousness as they exist in the here and now.

    You say "The line is fixed--things are meaningless." What I have been trying to say subtly, and will now say loudly, is that "the line is fixed" only for you.

    If you cannot comprehend meaning as a personal phenomenon validated by personal individual experience, then your lack of imagination will fail you as a communicator.

    You can protest that your working definition of meaning is something more abstract and technical (and useless in day-to-day life), but even so, those who listen and know "meaning" by the more constant, more visceral definition by which it exists in their day to day lives will intuitively reject what you say because you are declaring a negative a positive. You are like a scold trying to tell a man in love that love does not exist -- and in that context you are also philosopically incorrect in such an assertion. I think this is where some of the protest is coming from.

    Might I suggest the fix for this is to try and recognize, on a deeper level, the ultimate implications of universal meaninglessness. If there is no universal calling, then there is no need to cast aspersions on a personal calling. Meaning is not false simply by dint of being personal, temporal and ephemeral any more than love is. In certain things the validity of personal experience is all there is to go by, and attempts to cut down meaning with the sword of meaninglessness are inherently self-contradictory.

    (This, by the way, explains why zen masters are not evangelists...)

  17. p.s. More food for thought (in airport lounge parable form):

    Three teachers sit by the side of the road.

    The first teacher cries, over and over again, "All is meaningless -- you MUST accept this!"

    The second teacher cries, just as loudly, "All has a deeper hidden purpose -- you MUST accept this!"

    The townspeople, curious as to which teacher is right, inquire of the quiet third man, hoping he will break the tie.

    But, instead of picking a winner, the quiet teacher merely smiles and responds: "These two are as noisome twin brothers -- what they say is the same. There is no universal truth... how could there be, when even the sun and moon will one day go out.

  18. Sparrow, I appreciate the contribution. It's helpful.

    If I could sum it up succintly, Sparrow, your view is that, granting the insignificance of a single human among the vastness of time and space, there *can be* meaning, on a personal level. An individual can, if he chooses, "find", or, if you like, construct, meaning for himself.

    Whereas, Sparrow, you understand Bomstein to assert that there is no meaning, and an individual's self-created meaning is always false, since there is no meaning.

    It's helpful to understand the reasonable point of difference between the two of you. Pointing out the contradictions between Bomstein's professed philosophy and his efforts to communicate, is also helpful.

    But Bomstein, to you, I am saying something different. The idea that "there is no meaning, yet I will act as if there is" is internally inconsistent. I am confortable with paradox. But the view is invalid on its face.

    It's like the explanation that the Earth is being carried on the back of a giant tortoise. When someone offered this view to Stephen Hawking, he asked, "what is the tortoise standing on?" and the reply that became a punchline: "well, it's tortoises all the way down."

    We find it amusing because it's obviously inconsistent. All it does is defer the problem. And "life is meaningless, but I will act as if there is meaning" is the same thing. It does not stand. It defers or ignores the problem.

    > the issue is not whether or not we wait in line for our son’s school; what “matters” (no pun intended) is that we realize it is irrelevant either way.

    Ah, but here is the puzzle: Given all the choices you make, the thousands of choices you make every day, big and small ones, why is it that your child is still alive? Why do you still live with him? What are the chances that you would continuously make choices to keep stability in his life, as opposed to, for example, throwing him off a bridge one day, if it really doesn't matter one way or the other? Astronomically against, I'd say. Why are you not in New Mexico eating peyote? Why are you not in Antarctica shagging arctic scientists? Why are you not swimming the English Channel? Why are you still where you are? Because there is meaning in your life, to you.

    The way you condict your life does matter, to you. Maybe the welfare of your child does not matter to you, but yet you still act consistently in his interest. In which case, consistency matters to you. Either way, there is meaning, to you.

    You previously stated that Camus confronted this kind of dilemma in "The Rebel". And he resolved it "elegantly", you said. If a person chooses to live, he has made a judgement that life is valuable, and thus he must not take another person's life. That's meaning. Fabricated, if you like. Irrelevant to 99.9999% of the universe. But meaning. And you have it, too.

    (If you like, we won't make you admit that out loud)

    Whichever way you slice it, you are not truly living the "life is meaningless" philosophy, based on the tiniest bit of information you've offered about your life here in these postings - your child, your living arrangements, and the fact that you are still here.

    There is no actual difference between "acting as if it matters when I know it doesn't" and "acting as if it matters because I know it does". If you "act as if it matters", consistently, then that is the meaning you have selected for yourself. The very fact that you have been consistent over such a long time indicates that you are motivated by some vision or meaning, personal to yourself.

    Which gets us to Sparrow's "all meaning is personal" viewpoint.

  19. Whoops - I just went back and read some of Sparrow's original comments on this blog, and ... surprise! he is saying the same thing as I have said here.

    Especially here:

    Bomstein, you have swallowed your tail!

    Sparrow also suggested in those comments, as I have elsewhere, that by refusing to care (or as seems more likely, refusing to *admit* that you care), you are acting with cowardice.

    Bomstein, you wrote once:

    > It is extremely difficult to find true peace when one imbues things with meaning, since things change, people die, and those things that "matter" will inevitably disappoint you.

    And despite that you decided to have a child? And take care of the child? And give up certain things in your own life in the interest of the child's future?

    Spit out your tail, Bomstein!

  20. Yes, we have certainly trod down familiar terrain with Sparrow. we said to him at one point, we suppose it depends what you mean by "meaning." You are correct that there is no way to distinguish our life from one lived by someone who does believe their child's life matters more than others. But part of the issue here is the fact that, no matter how much we "know" something intellectually, we remain human, with all that entails.

    So let us put it this way - were we to watch someone cut off our child's arm it would no doubt enrage us, regardless of the fact that at some level we truly believe it is no more consequential than watching someone cut off a tree branch. This is the inherent conflict between the meaninglessness of life and the fact that our biological makeup predisposes us to acting certain ways and feeling certain things.

    But the bottom line is that we still believe neither is more "meaningful" than the other. This is not cowardice - the fact that we would respond emotionally to one and not the other is simply due to the way we are constructed, not because one "matters" more. We are not trying to avoid pain - we honestly believe there is no objective difference between the two.

    The concept of the self is (in our opinion) no more than a fantastic and compelling illusion. (If you are making the argument for a soul, afterlife, etc., then this is of course a different discussion, but we do not think this is the case.) Thus, the idea that something "matters" to me is itself a false premise, since there is no "I" in the first place!

    This was the root of our disagreement with Sparrow, and it remains our contention that the concept of meaning is as illusory as the idea of a self. The fact that our own life does not completely reflect these beliefs may be read as a reflection on our own consistency, but should not be viewed as an inconsistency in the position itself. Still, at this point it does seem we are awfully close to semantics.

    All that said, we take the point that our life does not fulfill the absurd ideal. Despite our best efforts we find ourselves worrying and regretting things (although not nearly so much as in the past). How's that for irony - we "take great pains" not worry about things! So could one say we care about not caring?


  21. Bomstein said: The concept of the self is (in our opinion) no more than a fantastic and compelling illusion... it remains our contention that the concept of meaning is as illusory as the idea of a self.

    But an illusion in comparison to what?

    Jack types "define:illusion" into Google and this is what he gets:

    # an erroneous mental representation
    # something many people believe that is false; "they have the illusion that I am very wealthy"
    # delusion: the act of deluding; deception by creating illusory ideas
    # magic trick: an illusory feat; considered magical by naive observers

    The self is none of these. It is neither erroneous, nor false, nor a deception, nor a magic trick. It simply "is."

    As for the "illusory" concept of meaning, Jack is reminded of the so-called illusory taste of a delicious meal.

    Say that you have just eaten something exquisite -- a heavenly lasagna, perhaps, or a terrestrial tiramisu. Let us further say that you are at a loss for words in how to describe the tastes, the textures, the sensations of this amazing dish.

    Does that mean that your experience of the dish is "illusory"? Not really... it simply means that one is at a communicative disadvantage for lack of words to describe.

    And so it is with the "illusory" concept of meaning. For most people -- those who do not overthink the topic Jack should say -- meaning is neither mysterious nor illusory at all! The giggling laughter of a beloved child, the soulful glance of a lover, the contented sigh after a day well spent doing a whole lot of nothing... all these things elicit feelings that may be hard to describe, but the "meaning," i.e. the value, the richness, the significance, is right there for the experiencing.

    So perhaps this is another point of contention. From an academic point of view, something that is hard to describe in words, hard to pin down in precise clinical detail, may count as illusory. But for the individual who is not burdened with the need to record their experiences in academic journals... who can simply tap into their personal experience of meaning directly, and does so on a day to day basis... this idea that meaning is "illusory" makes little sense at all.

    There are some concepts and ideas and experiences that one taps directly into, like mainlining into a vein.

  22. "caring about not caring" - yes! ok, now we've all recognized the tail swallowing trick.

    You're starting to see that your professed philosophy doesn't stand. You need a dash of Sparrow's cosmological constant (self-created meaning) to keep it aloft.

  23. "Cosmological constant" -- nice! Very nice indeed.

    Riffing off your observation, Jack wonders if the cosmological constant might better be viewed as consciousness itself, with self-created meaning a key derivative of such.

    The logic chain something like this:

    -- personal experience is self-validating... there are no external validators (or invalidators) of personal experience.

    -- self-created meaning is a form of personal experience. (Buddha: "With our thoughts we create our world.")

    -- personal experience derives from consciousness.

    -- consciousness is a great mystery, perhaps the greatest mystery in the history of the universe... a nut we have hardly begun to crack.

    -- any philosophy that attempts to deny, discount, or paper over the ineffable mystery of consciousness will wind up "swallowing its own tail" to some degree because consciousness, and all the wonderful strangeness that consciousness entails (including self-created meaning), is the "cosmological constant"... the cosmic elephant in the room.

  24. Well, not really. We are still defining things differently. Think of it this way - if we are really simply actors in a "play" (analogous to The Matrix), then you can accept that there is no meaning, yet also not really enjoy watching your fellow "actor" cut off his child's arm. You know it has no meaning (since the play is temporary and not "real"), yet as a human (with human feelings and experiences) it still bothers you. These are not incompatible positions - i.e, one need not accept some sort of "self-created meaning" to have human emotions.

    Our tongue-in-cheek comment about "caring about not caring" was more an acknowledgment that there is a bit of ridiculousness about this whole discussion - basically, we all seem to agree we are illusory creatures in an irrelevant universe - so none of this "matters" more than anything else...

  25. Bomstein said: basically, we all seem to agree we are illusory creatures in an irrelevant universe...

    Au contraire, mon frere.

    With all due respect, Jack suspects you still aren't quite seeing the heart of the matter. You assume understanding of the alternate position, but in reality you continue to miss something very important.

    One reason you miss this important thing, Jack speculates, may have to do with your seeming lack of respect for paradox.

    You present your thoughts and ideas as if no true paradox exists... casually boasting of philosophical consistency, acting as if you have it all figured out, glossing over areas where the recognition of paradox and perhaps even the impossibility of consistency is vital.

    "Labeling the universe" is one such area where surface level semantics can harbor deeper structural problems.

    Consider: You casually call the universe irrelevant... casually dismiss all as meaningless on the ultimate scale... and then assume that, just because others agree that reality is temporal and ephemeral, that these very personal judgments of the universe are also agreed upon. They are not.

    Here is the problem:

    -- To declare the universe irrelevant is to make a personal judgment call. It is a value judgment, fraught with meaning born of personal experience.

    -- To assume that others agree with you simply by dint of recognition that existence is temporal and ephemeral is to make an unwarranted assumption.

    Or, to put it another way: to recognize all meaning as self-created and personal is NOT to assign a meta-level lack of meaning on the universal scale.

    If all meaning is personal, does that mean the universal is meaningless? Not really, because to define something as "meaningless" is actually to give it meaning!

    You see the head scratcher there? There is a difference between assigning a value to something -- even if that value is zero -- and recognizing that certain things lay beyond the paramaters of valuation.

    In this instance, "meaningless" = a value assignation of zero, which in turn equals an extension of meaning. One can no more assign "null" meaning to a thing than one can divide by zero.

    Jack recognizes the inherent null factor of meta-level elements and, given this, believes that individuals are free to assign values of self-created meaning derivation as they see fit. Bomstein, thus far, imagines he is being neutral and valueless in assigning a value of zero to the universe, when in reality he is simply asserting his own personal viewpoint with force.

    So: is the universe "meaningless" and "irrelevant" then, or is it not? To Bomstein, yes... because such assignations are born of personal experience, emanations of self-created meaning!

    To yet another one individual, one with a different set of personal experiences, quite possibly no... for others, the universe might well be fraught with self-created meaning, even in light of the assertion that all existence is temporal and ephemeral.

    This is where the paradox creeps in, you see... and this goes to the heart of something Jack has made repeated attempts to point out.

    Namely, that if all meaning is self-created and born of personal experience... be it individual experience, scientific experience, or collective societal experience... then all assignations of value (self-created meaning) are born of personal experience too... and thus there is no assignation of value one can casually append to the universe, the cosmos, the grand meta-picture et al, without simply speaking out in regard to one's very personal, very self-created, perspectives.

  26. Sparrow, Cosmo here again. You seem an interesting mind, and I agree with your characterization of the elephant in the room that Bomstein seems reluctant to meet.

    Bomstein, I've no problem with you viewing the universe a certain way. But your view that because I am small in comparison to the orbits of the galaxies, I am meaningless as well, does not agree with my view.

    I have the exact opposite view: for each person, only that which the person can affect is important. The other side of town is worth a conversation, the other side of the country is near meaningless, Jupiter is a curiosity, and Andromeda is imagination.

    At the same time, while you speak of the universality of meaninglessness, at every level, and at every moment, your words don't agree with your actions. You gloss over the paradox, the juiciest part of the whole meal. You tell me you are "acting", refuse to call it "living".

    There was once this odd man who articulated a novel theory which stated that things that previously were observed to be constant, and were universally accepted as constant, actually vary in surprising and non-intuitive ways. Relativity, he called it.

    Everything is relative. Even things that seem to be unrelated are related. *Everything*.

    Just because you can't see it at the moment, does not mean it isn't there.

  27. Well, we are certainly glad you two agree on this. To be clear, we certainly recognize that our position (that there is no separate self) is to some extent self-defeating. After all, if "we" don't exist, then who is writing this blog and arguing for the non-existence of the self? And on this point we wholeheartedly agree - there is a bit of ridiculousness to this whole thing - here "we" are, arguing that we don't actually exist!

    However, this is not the end of the story. As we pointed out to Sparrow in another conversation, there are only two consistent positions one can take on this issue:

    1) There is a self separate from the physical body, and this entity has feelings and preferences that have meaning (because they have been so decreed by said entity).

    2) There is no separate self. However, the concept of meaning is so vague and vapid that anything can be said to "matter," so long as a sufficiently complex self-referential creature (which does not actually "exist") says so.

    This is not arguable - you MUST choose one of these two positions.

    So...we seem to be at a dead end. As you point out, our position entails asserting that "we" (an illusory identity) have transcended the physical universe to a degree that we can say there is no meaning. Your position, on the other hand, requires you to adopt either the existence of duality or a definition of "meaning" that is purely ephemeral.

    Thus, we get back to (as Sparrow has termed them) "aesthetic" issues. As we have pointed out elsewhere, we believe that by introducing "meaning" - no matter how you define it and whatever you believe it represents - you also introduce conflict and strife into your life. You, obviously, feel differently. Perhaps we will simply need to agree to disagree...

  28. "This is not arguable - you MUST choose one of these two positions."

    A dead end, yes, most definitely. In practical life-living terms, the issue of whether the self is separate from the physical body is academic minutia (and also a violent distortion of Hofstadter's excellent observations, but that is another kettle of fish).

    As for choice number two, you present an option as suppposedly so clear cut that one "MUST" choose it -- even as you include pejorative qualifiers like "vague" and "vapid," make the utterly inane statement that self-referencing creatures "do not actually exist" (I suppose that Jack himself does not exist then?) and, finally, hang your qualification of meaning on the requirement that it is not ephemeral EVEN THOUGH those who disagree with you have stated, again and again, that meaning does NOT require permanence to be valid. For Barbosa's sake, NOT EVEN THE BLOODY LAWS OF PHYSICS ARE PERMANENT.

    This is indeed where the road ends, because your decision to be obtuse, whether deliberate or accidental, has taken the merit out of any further discussion.

    This is not a statement made in annoyance at someone who disagrees. Disagreement is fine, wonderful, good -- the stuff which allows iron to sharpen iron. A lasting disagreement can even be the seed catalyst of lasting friendship under the right circumstances.

    No, the problem here is your continued refusal to engage in fair play in terms of the debate... to recognize and acknowledge the position taken by those who disagree with you.


  29. Instead of doing that, you constantly gloss over or ignore the points made by the alternate side as if they did not exist. This strikes Jack as almost more carelessness or deception than conviction, because you continue to advance riders for your position that were ALREADY ADDRESSED REPEATEDLY as if they had never been discussed.

    For quick example:

    -- You call meaning "vague" and "vapid," even though it has been spelled out ad nauseum that a dictionary definition of meaning suffices just fine: "rich in importance or significance." There is nothing vague or vapid about that at all.

    -- You insist on putting an "eternal permanence" qualifier on meaning's validity, even though nothing is permanent at all, including the laws of physics, and you conveniently forget or otherwise refuse to address the argument, made again and again, that meaning can be very much temporal, just as all things are temporal. It would be one thing for you to disagree that meaning can be temporal, and to start a debate based on that very point of dispute... but instead you ASSUME meaning must be eternal to have validity and act as if a very important was not made (over and over and over again Jack might add).

    -- You insist on academic definitions of self that have bugger all to do with the living of day to day life. Debating whether the self exists from the physical body is like debating whether love or emotion or beauty exists separate from the physical body. Who bloody cares? There is a time and place for such discussion, but that time and place is one in which academic nitpickery takes a premium over actually living life, practically approaching and embracing life.

    -- You continue to speak like a dogmatic tyrant, saying one "MUST" choose between two positions, when the two options you present are not relevant, not logically consistent in the first place, and when the second option is loaded with pejorative riders and dead horse assumptions!

    -- The final paragraph takes the cake in terms of arrogant, dogmatic assumption: "we believe that by introducing "meaning" - no matter how you define it and whatever you believe it represents - you also introduce conflict and strife into your life. To believe such in absolute terms is to be more than a bit of an ass. Why? Because you refuse to accept any logical definition of meaning, even going so far as to reject the very dictionary's definition... and then, displaying a nearly breathless lack of imagination, you declare that all who do not follow your creed -- one based on the rejection of a concept you have not even defined or acknowledged logically -- must wind up in conflict and strife.

    The three things missing here are perspective, humility, and a sense of fair play. A fourth missing element could alternately be intellectual comprehension or a desire for personal growth, depending on whether the absolute refusal to even acknowledge (let alone absorb) the points presented to you is accidental (born of blindness) or intentional (born of stubborn desire to "win", or to preserve a path dependent viewpoint set in concrete, as opposed to considering new perspectives.

    Agree to disagree indeed...

  30. Sparrow-

    Wow - that is a lot of hostility from one so committed to civil and intelligent discourse. You do not like our message, so you resort to crude and arrogant personal attacks. Please do not persist in this - we are not interested in having a shouting match with you. Perhaps you should find another forum in which to vent...

  31. Call it what you will... Jack would suggest taking into consideration the ratio of substantive argument to the portions you would deem "crude and arrogant"... to further consider that frustration is perhaps warranted when one repeats a point, oh, half a dozen times or so and still gets dogma in reply that acts as if the point were never made... and, finally, the continued lack of fair play on your part in terms of pretending there has been two-way discourse when in actuality the repeated points of one side are neither acknowledged or addressed.

    The further comment, "you do not like our message" leaves Jack bemusedly shaking his head... you continue to blatantly misunderstand (or remarkably miscomprehend) til the very end.

    None of this matters a bit, of course, except in personal edification terms... nonetheless, a bit of rough and tumble sport is good fun (and potentially enlightening) when both sides, like boxers or wrestlers in a wring, understand the meaning of fair play.

    Good luck to you sir.