Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Double Helix And The Absurd

A reader posed a couple of questions that go us thinking…

He asked: “You have said that whatever we do doesn't matter… [However], I feel all people who have contributed to [the present] kept some goals and worked accordingly right? Does that not conflict with the absurd?”

First things first…

First, we can imagine an absurd man doing just about anything – writer, doctor, construction worker, plumber, whatever. It’s really about awareness and acceptance of the absurd. A writer can be absurd and anti-absurd. A doctor can be absurd or anti-absurd.

Besides this, the only other key leg of the table of absurdity is that the absurd man does not wish to take away from others the freedom he cherishes for himself. (As Camus put it, with his usual style, in the Rebel: “The freedom which he demands he claims for everybody; that which he rejects he forbids all others to exercise. He is not simply a slave opposing his master but a man opposing the world of master and slave.”) For this reason, we can’t imagine, say, a murderous despot as absurd even if he agrees that nothing matters.

With this groundwork, it’s easy to see that just because you create something that outlasts you doesn’t mean you can’t be absurd. The absurd man does nothing for the eternal, Camus says somewhere, which is another way of saying that the absurd man rejects the sacrifice of present happiness for some abstract promise of future happiness (or happiness beyond death).

This doesn’t mean the absurd man – lacking grand life goals, living in the present – can’t create things that outlast him. It doesn’t mean he can’t advance the body of human knowledge. In fact, in our experience and studies, we find lots of scientists are actually quite absurd.

Take Watson and Crick, who discovered the Double Helix structure of DNA, as described in Richard Ogle’s book Smart World:

“At times the two central protagonists behaved like people whose day job was working up skits for Monty Python....they had distinctly lackadaisical work habits. Watson played several sets of tennis every afternoon and spent his evenings alternately chasing 'popsies' at Cambridge parties and going to the movies. Crick, who rarely showed up at the lab before 10 AM and took a coffee break an hour later, repeatedly appeared to lose interest in the problem of DNA. On more than one occasion, vital pieces of information were obtained not through hard work but as a result of chance conversations in the tea line at the Cavendish laboratory.”

Is that great or what? Is that not the portrait of two absurd men? We don’t know enough about Crick and Watson to say whether they were really absurd men or not, but his snippet by Ogle is a great snapshot of absurd men in action.

Scientists in general, as we say, are often absurd. They are, after all, at the frontier of absurdity. They know how little we know. Every answer simply raises new questions. They are fully aware of how small we are in this great big universe and how that great big universe doesn’t give a rat’s behind about humanity.

In the end, science affirms the absurd in many ways.


  1. Thanks guys for the promised post..

    - The absurd man rejects the sacrifice of present happiness for some abstract promise of future happiness -

    What about Abraham Lincoln, Nelson Mandela - They are great but they are not absurd and their achievements like abolition of slavery in US and independence to South Africa will benefit the humans who have come after them. Isn't it? They have encountered many hardships for achieving what they believed and they achieved it. So are these really worthless? I agree they are worthless when human race becomes extinct but in a span of a lifetime, they do seem worthy right?

    Does that mean absurd man can't have goals which require long waiting time and the gratification is delayed?

  2. Connected-

    In a word...yes. But it is not just that the absurd man does not have long-term goals - he has no goals whatsoever. He recognizes the futility of such pursuits, and so chooses to live fully in each moment rather than hold out hope for some "better" moment in the future (whether that future is later today, next week, or 50 years from now).

    Re: Lincoln and Mandela, two points. First, you claim their actions benefited others. But how do you define this benefit? As discussed in our "What Makes Us Happy" post, humans assume certain states of affairs are preferable to others, but there is no objective reason for this to be so.

    Further, even if we grant you that non-bondage is "better" than bondage (for example), you assume that the current state of the world is preferable to that which would have existed without Lincoln and Mandela. But implicit in this is the assumption that you know how things would have turned out without their involvement (e.g., the US would still have slavery without Lincoln). This is, of course, a false premise - there are innumerable possible paths history could have taken without these individuals' involvement that would have led to "better" outcomes for current individuals.

    But the more important point is the basic notion that you cannot have it both ways - things either "matter" or they don't. Thus, you cannot logically claim some action is "worthy" for some defined period of time, but meaningless in the grand scheme of things.


  3. When I write here I feel one second that what I write is logical but than in the other I can’t see any logic in my comment. So please help me make it more clear…

    I agree that one can't state that the world would be worse without let's say Mandela because we don't know, it didn't happen that way.
    But than also can we state that there are innumerable ways that would lead to a better world? We can just suppose it, because again they didn't happend, so we again don't know, no?

    Concerning “better” and better. I agree with what is written in “What make us happy” but I don’t see that not fighting against slavery or neoimperialism for example is comparable with one man’s acceptance that he will die in a week. I see the difference here. First thing can be changed and the second can’t be. So in the second example we are enjoying what we have, because we can’t have it other way. In first example, fighting against something - why isn’t it enjoying life in the moment? Yes, while fighting we are hoping for a change, but while we are fighting we are also living the change we desire. This somehow leads me to Gandhi : “there is no path to peace...peace is the path”. Is it anti-absurd to go through a process, to change oneself, world? Is it a “pause” or letting life pass beside us? Why is it concerned not living the moment?

  4. Hi Rick,

    As a man realizes the absurdity of life, it may bring him to question continuing with such meaninglessness as many existentialists argue. However, when he chooses to go on with life based on his instincts or reasoning, he is bestowed with the various choices that life offers. Going by personal inclinations he may choose to live in a particular manner or may choose a different way of life ever day.

    My question is - Is this choice solely made on the present moment? An absurd man, however aware of the futility of any particular goal in life may still choose physical comfort over physical discomfort....pleasure over pain since he is still not free from nature's programming (and based on this, may be it can be said that physical comfort is a happier state than physical discomfort). In fact once the social conditionings and convictions are eradicated (or reduced), I believe this probably will be a dominating factor in most of the choices that one makes. And to avoid the same physical discomfort, one may resist from choosing the best option available considering only that moment. Instead of making the best out of that very moment, one may choose to make the most out of life as a whole. Of course as you have pointed, one doesn't know how things would turn out to be. But based on statistics and experience we may still extrapolate certain things with reasonable level of certainty, at least in the short term. Although I do agree that simply choosing a goal to make the future "better" may not be the most sensible thing to do.

  5. Susan-

    Certainly the absurd does not preclude any of the choices you present. But perhaps that is the point - it does not matter whether the absurd man chooses to live for today, tomorrow, or next year, so long as he realizes the futility of the quest.

    We would take issue, however, with defining certain states as "better" than others. As we recently discussed in "Circumstantial Evidence," circumstances are irrelevant to happiness - there is no reason the imprisoned man (for example) should be more or less happy than the billionaire playboy.

    Perhaps we need to better define "happy" versus "content." To us, the concept of happiness has become perverted by society, with people pursuing things (material possessions, relationships, activities, etc.) they believe will make them happy. But of course this is an endless treadmill, with each "victory" simply setting up new goals for which to strive, none of which bring internal peace. To be content, on the other hand, requires nothing more than internal calm, which is available to each of us every minute of every day.

    Therefore, to us there is a contradiction in your statement that "Instead of making the best out of that very moment, one may choose to make the most out of life as a whole." We believe life is simply a series of moments, each of which offers the prospect for peace and contentment. There are no "better" or "worse" lives, and the cumulative whole of our life is no more or less significant than each individual moment. So even were we to set some "goal" we wished to accomplish, we would do so solely within our current role, knowing our "success" or "failure" would be merely a mirage.

    The ability to live fully in each moment - neither regretting the past nor worrying about the future - this, in a nutshell, represents the true nature of the absurd man.