Monday, October 12, 2009

Circumstantial evidence

One of the issues we find most difficult to convey about the absurd is that circumstances don't matter. This is not debatable--if nothing matters, then it truly doesn't make a bit of difference whether you are sitting on an idyllic beach drinking a Mai Tai...or in some medieval dungeon being stretched on the rack. That is not to say we wouldn't choose one over the other; however, it is important to realize our preference for one does not mean it is objectively better.

Consider the following question: Is it better to be free or in jail? Most people would answer the former; indeed, many might say this is a case in which one option is objectively better. Who, after all, would prefer confinement to freedom?

Well...glad you asked. In fact, what got us thinking about this issue was a scene in The Shawshank Redemption, in which an inmate who has been in prison for 50 years (Brooks) is released from jail, and finds the outside world so unbearable that he hangs himself. In other words, he not only finds prison preferable to freedom, but considers freedom so horrible that life is not worth living.

The point, of course, is that everything we think of in terms of "better" and "worse" is simply personal preference masquerading as truth. To most people, the thought of life in prison is an unimaginable hardship; to Brooks, it was the only way to live.

Arguments that Brooks was not in his "right mind" because he was "institutionalized"--in other words, freedom is better, but Brooks can't see it because he has been brainwashed--quickly fall apart. Indeed, even our original example--that of a choice between a pleasant beach and a medieval dungeon--is not so simple as it appears. Would a sadomasochist really choose the beach?

Again, the point is not that most people would not choose one or the other, but rather that such choices represent physiological and biological factors (e.g., people who enjoy pain are more likely to die young and thus leave fewer offspring than those that don't) rather than some external truth waiting to be discovered.

Now, this may seem much ado about nothing. After all, we can all agree most people would rather be on the beach than in the dungeon, so who cares if one isn't really "better" than the other. Can't we just accept that for for most people the beach is the better option...and leave it at that?

Ah...were that things were this simple. The problem with such a stance is that once we introduce any sort of experience "rankings" into our thought process, we are laying the groundwork for conflict and unhappiness. It has long been established, for example, that humans tend to overestimate both the joy received from some "good" event and the pain suffered from something "bad." In other words, humans are remarkably adaptive creatures (more so than we realize), and thus we tend to see future events (big raise, new house, loss of a loved one) as more consequential than they end up being in practice.

Thus, by investing our happiness in external factors we doom ourselves to unhappiness. First, no matter what we consider "good" or "important," it is of course impossible to maintain that state of affairs all the time. But even if it were, once we adapted to it we would find ourselves no happier than before. This is why people in California are no happier than people in the rest of the US, despite having better weather and (in theory) a more laid-back attitude and approach to life.

It is also why the correlation between happiness and material well-being breaks down shortly after people reach a very basic level of subsistence--in other words, once we have enough to eat and shelter, more stuff doesn't make us any happier. According to Charles Murray: "Happiness is very low until subsistence is reached, rises very steeply immediately thereafter, but quickly levels off as subsistence is left behind."

As Inigo has noted in some of his recent posts, the concept of everything being relative also becomes readily apparent when one explores other cultures, where people may take pleasure in rituals (to choose an extreme example--cannibalism) we find repulsive. Are we right and they wrong? How would we know? If we were raised in their culture, would we have different beliefs?

The bottom line is that this notion of objective truth is not only false, but ultimately quite destructive. In short, people strive for whatever they believe is "good," or "meaningful," only to still be unhappy once they achieve it, ad nauseum.

A fellow blogger explored a similar theme recently, and concluded thus:

"What is the way out? I'm not entirely sure, but what I am practicing is: To question one's biological and social goals, and to risk meaninglessness, and then to come upon contentment in which there is an inherent significance to living and experiencing, and not an imposed one on the content of one's experiencing."

We could not agree more. Those who rely on circumstances for happiness are doomed to a never-ending cycle of fruitless striving for unachievable goals, an endless struggle against (ultimately) the dying of the light. We, on the other hand, embrace this reality and the boundless freedom that comes with it--the freedom to be content regardless of circumstance.


  1. “In other words, he not only finds prison preferable to freedom, but considers freedom so horrible that life is not worth living.” I must strongly disagree here. He doesn’t prefer prison to freedom just because he can’t stand freedom. He was waiting 50 years to get out, and he gets out when he is old. Old people need everyday routine, or an everyday ritual. They need to feel secure, comfort. When people become old they resemble more and more to children. Old people can’t just go out there and start something new. How huge shook it is to go out of prison after 50 years and have nobody to help you to adjust. He didn’t dislike freedom he was just scared. He got accustomed to prison, because he couldn’t do anything about it, and he had that little hope that he would be free one day, but it doesn’t mean he liked prison. One thing more here, Kant said that it is comfortable not to be free. This is because during whole your life you make decisions and it’s not easy to be free, to be responsible, to make choices. But it doesn’t mean we are happy when not being free. And you can say that he should be happy just being alive, but I’m sorry but you can’t be sitting in your comfortable chare, writing your blog, having what to eat every day, not having to think how to survive till tomorrow, being a part of an intellectual elite, or maybe not, maybe just being an intellectual, having family, friends, education and claim that you would be happy and that you would embrace life in the same way as you do it now. Or could you? I think absurdity can be applied just to privileged people. And by privileged people I mean all those that have something of above mentioned not just all living people, even if you claim that is the only thing that we should be happy about.
    I am reading your blog, because it is very interesting and I really enjoy it. Some of your thoughts I share, some I live but in a less radical way, some I just must oppose. If my words sound rough it’s because English is not my mother tongue so please, pardon me for that is not my intention.

  2. thing more, which I think is important for my statement, is that I find myself among the privileged people.

  3. I think a good and fruitful division can be made between convenience and contentment.

    To prefer convenience is worthwhile, to work for it to a "reasonable" extent is also justified (and I make no prescriptive claims about what is reasonable for a particular person, but probably the availability of leisure, and non-comparison with others, while one works towards a convenient life is a good yardstick).

    But to link convenience with contentment is fraught with the dangers of frustration and discontent.

    Somebody once told me that a wise man does not get unhappy when inconvenienced. I found it to be a very insightful statement. :-)

  4. Om Ri said, "I think absurdity can be applied just to privileged people"

    Although it might seem easier for privileged to have the time and resources to find this philosophy and apply it, anyone can benefit from the absurd. In fact, think of Jack Kerouac, when he was living as a bum (from the Dharma Bums), and he felt like a king. He enjoyed the world in ways that no rich man could.

    I guess what I am getting at is that your statement about privilege relies on a false assumption that more is better. But is it? Of course hunger precludes happiness, but you mentioned friends, education and family as the privileges that one needs before being able to benefit from the absurd. I counter that one can choose to be happy even without those things, because those things are all illusions (or at least very temporary) anyway. When you recognize that the self and its possessions are illusions, then you are free to be happy with or without them.

  5. Luke,
    I appreciate your answer and respect what you say. I just simply don’t believe, and I accept that I might be wrong…in the end no one knows the final truth. I believe that people who state that they could be happy no matter what, know that in fact they will never be left without all of those precious people in their lives. They have safety net when they claim it. Have You ever been without all those people and happy, have you experienced it?
    I don’t think more is better. I just think one can’t be happy without love for the others. I believe it is in the nature of every human being… to be dependant…it is like that in the very beginning, we become from another being. In Matrix they cherish it and as a matter of a fact they reject all the illusions and accept love as the only truth, love there is not an illusion. Illusion or not it doesn’t matter to me I realized till now. I will cherish every day of my life, sometimes enjoying just it- a naked life alone, but then I will miss the people and run to love and be loved. Yes to be happy with yourself alone, but that isn’t enough, I think that is just the first step to happiness, than to be happy with others. Just, my way…
    I won’t be bothering again, sorry for all the space I took, but I will be reading the blog, maybe I’ll change my mind, but now apparently is not that time… or I just haven’t read something that convincing…

  6. Om Ri, I also appreciate your answers and respect your words here. In no way do I consider myself an expert on anything or necessarily correct about anything.

    To sum up my own feelings or thoughts about the absurd, and keep in mind this is new to me, everyone deeply desires security. We are a social species, as you alluded to. We want love for whatever reason, perhaps because we are conditioned to believe we need love, perhaps because of biological reasons. But, security is an illusion. Love won’t last forever. Yes there will be times that we find ourselves alone or broke or in some other less than ideal situation. Wealth and family are temporary too, even the wealthiest die and watch their family members die. When bad things happens, why do we choose to live? It can’t be about privilege and other external signals that we should be happy.

    Your idea seems to be that privilege is necessary for happiness. You asked, “Have You ever been without all those people and happy, have you experienced it?” Well, this is an excellent question.

    I grew up in much less than a privileged situation, as a child in “the system” with no family and certainly no luxuries. As an adult I’ve gained some privilege, a wife and children to love, but certainly not much material or monetary wealth. And I’m finding that the more I give up the struggle to keep up with what the norms of American society tell me I’m supposed to have, the happier I am. However, I suspect that those who know more about the absurd than I do, would say that they are still humans with emotions and are susceptible to loneliness like anyone else, but train to think in a way to appreciate life as it comes and not look to external stimuli for happiness.

    Just my thoughts. Once again, I’m reading this blog to learn, I’m certainly no expert on this material. Thanks for the chance to express these ideas and learn from you as well.

  7. Luke-

    Well said - we wholeheartedly agree with this. Indeed, one of the greatest challenges of the absurd is that we live in a world in which most people are not absurd; further, we are biologically "programmed" against absurdity. Thus, it is not always easy to keep one's perspective, although we find that the more we integrate the absurd with our day-to-day life, the easier it becomes.

    Om Ri-

    We agree with much of what you say. For example, you state one cannot be happy without "love for others," which is quite perceptive. But it is very important how you define the concept of "love." To us, there is no reason to love any person (or creature, or object) more than another; we are all the same. This is a critical component of the absurd, for once you start loving certain individuals more than others, you by definition create conflict (what of those you do not love?).

    In this light, the absurd man is never "alone," since he does not tie himself to some specific group on individuals, but rather considers himself one with the world. Is this difficult? Absolutely. But that does not mean it is false.

    The question we would ask is why you feel compelled to love certain individuals more than others. More to the point, how is the love of which you speak different from desire for material objects or physical pleasure?

  8. I said I wouldn’t write again about this matter to avoid me being annoying, but I must… be annoying. Thank you for your thoughts, they made me wonder so much, that’s why I wrote so much here, because I listened so to what you said and try to conceal it with my inner self. That is a tuff task for me… Thank you for that challenge and pardon me again.
    It might be that we love out of biological reasons, but then why fight nature? Love won’t last forever you believe. I believe that love is circular. For example, when our grandparents die we bring to the world our children and then they bring theirs. So we lose grandparent but we get grandchild. We lose a parent but we become parent as well and get our own children. (This has nothing to do with the topic but here I find number 3 so fascinating, just a thought) Love goes around like this from person to person. We lose a lover, we find another. We lose a friend we find another. But the love we lost are special to us, they are NEVER REPLACED. It’s like a hole that stays after, never to be filled again. But then eventually a new hill of love will grove beside it opening a new part of us but never filling the old holes. It’s how I look at life, new and old holes and always new hills…
    About material and wealth. I don’t think it’s important. BUT in this world it can pay expensive medical treatments and save your life. BUT if you ask me, healthcare, as well as education, should be free.
    You were growing up not being privileged, so… were you happy? You had no family, but did you have friends? Or there was just the system? But would you leave your own family now and be happy still?
    “When bad things happen, why do we choose to live? It can’t be about privilege and other external signals that we should be happy.” This stayed in my head like an echo and to me it is possibly the crucial question about absurdity. I think it’s connected with the suicide about which Camus talks about. Rick, am I wrong? When I try to answer it I start to doubt all my statements. But this is why I am reading this blog, and writing too much here. There is a certain unexplained energy in a dying (physically and psychologically) being which forces us to live. I believe that it’s love for people. Perhaps it’s just love for life… I wonder… and I’ll be wondering… Thank you for this.

  9. Rick,
    If you say there is no reason to love one person more than another, why than you choose a specific person as a friend or a lover? Or could you, for example (maybe such a plastic example but in the end it comes to this), switch your child with someone else’s, never to see yours again and love that someone else’s in the same way, never regretting…? And at the end why do you choose at all to have friends, lovers, family at all when you can be happy without all of it? You don’t live isolated in the middle of the desert or a mountain or a forest. Why not?
    “In this light, the absurd man is never “alone”.” Are you saying that absurd man doesn’t want to be alone or in a way,“alone”? I understand that he actually doesn’t mind to be alone, but how come he doesn’t mind if he is never alone. Then he doesn’t know if he minds or not. No?
    Why do I love certain individuals more than another? That is a difficult question, and I keep posing it to myself all the time. But in another way, actually I make a distinction between:
    1. Love for family
    We don’t choose it. It’s biological. We become from them. We are part of them. Without them we couldn’t celebrate life at all. Thanks to them we exist. The reverse with children, they are part of us and we give them life.
    2. Love for friends
    We choose them. But also I have two categories here.
    a) the ones who are similar to me, so we can cherish life in same manners
    b) The ones that gone through many things with me so we are somehow friends by accident, here I agree it could be anyone else but now when we know each other so much we are each other’s “advisers” in life and so they become more important than the other possible friends
    3. Love for a lover
    With this one I struggle soooo much and don’t have the answer. Before marriages were arranged as it is something to be done, something practical. To help each other, continue the specie. But still they were falling in love beside marriages. Now we are infected with those illusions we create from films, books… Romantic love. We expect much, we disappoint even more. But sometimes we just find what we need searching for something that we think we want. This is such a big topic and I think it has very much to do with the concept of absurd. And here I’m confused soooo much!
    4. Love for an idea (like absurd)
    This is the matter just of a decision right? I mean you can rationalize, rationalize but then you come to a point where you just simply choose to prefer one thing over another. No?
    Why is love for people different from the desire for material things or physical pleasure? Material things I don’t love, I just like, desire, but oh I don’t love! Material things can never love me back. Or even just like me or desire me back. And material things will never know I like them and never cherish life. About physical pleasure. It’s biological. Why fight nature? It’s healthy for the body. The difference? It’s temporary, love isn’t. But then absurd is about enjoying temporary?

  10. Om Ri-

    First, let us say we don't find these comments annoying at all! Please keep them coming...

    Our first thought when reading your most recent note was to recall what George Bailey said to his bank depositors in the middle of the bank run in "It's a Wonderful Life": "You're thinking of this place all wrong, as if I had the money back in the safe. The money’s not here. Your money is in Joe’s house and in the Kennedy house and a hundred others…"

    The point being, you are making a distinction we do not believe exists - that "love" for individuals is somehow different than other physical processes. More broadly, that there is some "self" that exists independent of the physical world. For without such a self, then the concept "I" think of as "I" is but a figment of my imagination, as are all those with whom I interact. Thus, how can there be any meaning in "loving" another individual?

    Further, your comment that those you love "love you back" brings up an interesting point. Why do you feel the need for this? Can you not be happy (or content) without it? If not, why not?

    Regarding the concept of being alone, perhaps a better way to say this is that we are all alone, now and always, and it is this recognition that sets the absurd man free. In other words, much of what we do is based on our (ultimately futile) struggle for security, and one of the primary ways to feel secure is to have strong bonds to others. It makes us feel less alone, but is ultimately no less an illusion than the concept of a self.

    We covered much of this ground in our post "Embracing the Abyss" - put simply, either everything matters...or nothing does.

  11. Rick or Inigo please,
    Can you answer me 2 questions that would help me in my thoughts about absurdity and that would help me answer the questions?
    1.-For an absurd man where does an illusion come from?-
    If in absurd philosophy everything is in illusion, than “I think-I exist” or “I doubt-I exist” isn’t correct? What I want to ask, say, is that if I is an illusion it couldn’t be I where from the illusion comes.
    2.-Does an absurd man ever get in dilemma?-
    Not about the absurd philosophy, but about decisions in life.

  12. Om Ri-

    Wow - these are certainly big topics.

    Re: 1, in essence you are asking what is the foundation of consciousness. We certainly do not claim to know the answer (and don't think anyone else does either), but as we have mentioned in the past, we think Douglas Hofstadter's book "I Am a Strange Loop" is an excellent place to start.

    Our personal belief is that, as you state, everything is an illusion (at least in terms of being meaningful). As to "where" this illusion comes from, this may be asking the wrong question. In other words (and again, we urge you to read Hofstadter's book, where he discusses this in great detail), the concept that there is some "I" where everything originates may itself be the original illusion. It may be that sufficiently complex self-referential creatures simply come to believe there is some "I" separate from the physical. (This, of course, is what makes the illusion so powerful...)

    Re: 2, of course the absurd man can have dilemmas. As we have discussed, the absurd philosophy is really just a means to live a content life, not a method to get at some ultimate "truth." Thus, there will be times when the absurd man is unsure how to act. However, such indecision is typically short-lived - one of the benefits of the absurd is that it favors action over inaction. Said a different way, the absurd man will not freeze up in the face of a dilemma, nor will he spend much time agonizing over what is the "correct" choice. Instead, he will choose one or the other course of action, content to live with whatever consequences it brings.


  13. Rick,
    Thank you. It seems that it doesn’t exist in my country, just “Gödel, Escher, Bach” but I’ll try to find it on a book fair in the end of the month, seems like the neighboring country published it. I’m very anxious to read it. Will be back with new questions… I must say that so far I like “flirting” with the concept of absurd but I reject to embrace it. I think of it not as a possible truth that I might accept, but as someone else’s very much interesting theory. Our starting points are just different but I enjoy that…