Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Thin veneers

"It was toward the end of my career; I knew it was probably my last shot. That set bad with me. It's like, what is life all about?"Former Purdue University basketball coach Gene Keady, on failing to make the Final Four in 2000.

We have not posted in quite a while, due in part to the epic snowstorm that hit the mid-Atlantic U.S. last weekend (and knocked out our power for two days). Indeed, we and our family, including our black lab, ended up fleeing our house early Sunday morning when the inside temperature hit 44 degrees.

Not surprisingly, the experience provided us with an interesting insight into the absurd.

As you know, we have argued extensively that circumstances are irrelevant, and all experiences equivalent. Thus, our weekend (which consisted mainly of shoveling snow, trying to keep warm (and fed), and searching for flashlights and candles) was no different than that of someone sitting on the beach drinking pina coladas. And yet…

In fact, our early Sunday flight to a hotel was prompted by being awakened at 4:00 by our 4-year old daughter, and our abject pain at watching her sit in the cold, dark bathroom—our protective instincts (which reside in the ancient, reptilian part of the brain) simply overrode any other (i.e., more rational and objective) assessment of the situation.

This was of course obvious in retrospect, as we sat in our warm house this morning and considered that there was no objective difference between Sunday and today; in other words, there was no particular reason to prefer one environment over the other. Yet clearly we did.

This was particularly interesting to us in light of the recent discussion on the blog (and a recurring theme) about the existence (or lack thereof) of meaning. In short, our feelings and actions were certainly consistent with preferring one situation over another. So how can we argue they are the same?

The rub is this: Just because we have a preference for one over the other does not mean it is inherently better. To fully grasp this, consider our weekend experience from the perspective of our dog. Indeed, we joked with our wife several times that the dog seemed to be enjoying the weekend more than usual; she spent the entire time with us (as opposed to being outside or in her crate), and the trip to the hotel was even better—not only was the whole family in two rooms (and thus easily accessible), but she was allowed on the bed!

The message here is pretty simple, of course—the inherent “goodness” of experience is purely subjective.

Now, at this point we are sure some of you (you know who you are…) are chomping at the bit to tell us your version of meaning is subjective—it is, as the Buddha said, your world, and you create it with your thoughts. So let’s explore this.

The view expressed by certain commenters is (as we see it) essentially this: what they refer to as meaning is not some transcendent experience, but rather some sort of personal meaning inherent to them (and them only). Thus, to say a sunset (or anything else) has “meaning” could be true to one person and not to another. The meaningfulness, in other words, is internal rather than external.

However, when looked at through the lens of our recent experience, it strikes us that such beliefs are mere illusions, made possible thanks only to the thin veneer of civilization. Put it this way—the man struggling day and night for survival has no time for thoughts of meaning (internal or external); it is only when he is able to sit and reflect that his actions and desires take on a “significant hue.” What are mere instincts when survival seems to be at stake (protect my offspring!) somehow transform into deep and meaningful statements of “who” we are under less stressful circumstances (I am deeply committed to my family—they matter to me).

The difference, of course, is purely ephemeral—under both circumstances we are merely physical beings playing out ancient scripts hard-wired into our genes—but as the latter feels different, we delude ourselves into believing it has some significance outside our physical (and instinctual) reality.


  1. Let me chime in about what this subjecive, internal, personal meaning is.

    Human beings want certain things. They make choices and take actions that appear to be some attempt to lead toward those things. The things include chocolate pit, sex, protecting our kids, protecting ourselves, and so on. Another thing that humans want is more elusive. It has to do with identity and our desire to have an acceptable life story (to have a meaningful life story we would say). Deep inside we are always saying what does this MEAN about me? When we begin to lose out faith in an external arbiter of what it does mean, we can still say, "What does this mean about me, TO ME?" Well, this is malleable, but we still have this desire to have our life story be acceptable to US. To have our "role" in the universe be acceptable to ourselves alone. This is a vast improvement in freedom over believing in external meaning.

    This is now a desire just like any other. It does not have to be logical. We humans get utility out of whatever we get utility out of. If we want to get utility out of our life story, then so be it. EXCEPT that our life story doesn't exist. There are still these concerns about my life story, and who I am, and where does this fit in (per my own standards), and am I living up to my own morals - in short, concerns about things that don't even exist. And these concerns about things that don'e exist can ruin my day, which does exist.

    The freedom of NO meaning is not just freedom from others' attempts to, or God's imagined attempts to, but even my own attempts to: improve myself, judge myself, pigeon-hole myself, and DEFINE myself.

    In my opinion, living for personal meaning is much better than living for external meaning, but personal meaning is a lie. Meanwhile, there is a reality here, now, and you can do whatever you choose in it. It doesn't matter. The real you doesn't owe one cent to your personal opinion of what your life means.

  2. Btw, that was me, Arthur. I need to get credit for it so my life can mean something.

  3. chocolate pie, not chocolate pit, whatever that is.

  4. So, here is the progression I am proposing:
    1. What it means to God, the universe, other people (on a gut emotional level: what it means to Mommy and Daddy).
    2. What it means to me (a huge improvement)
    3. It doesn't mean anything, it just is.


  5. Sorry for the serial commenting. One last thing I want to clarify.

    "The real you doesn't owe one cent to your personal opinion of what your life means."

    By 'the real you' I certainly don't mean your soul, or even the inner you, or your best or actualized self. I just mean the actual living, breathing, currently-existing animal and nothing more. As you read this sentence, in the very room you're in, in front of a computer screen, sits a living, breathing animal. Quite simply, this particular creature is the one that owes nothing to your "identity".

  6. In my opinion, living for personal meaning is much better than living for external meaning, but personal meaning is a lie.

    Now you see, this is what amuses me no end. If all is meaningless, then the concept of "truth" is also meaningless, is it not?

    How, then, can one have a "lie" without first having truth?

    The exercise being performed here is akin to questioning the validity of logic via the formal use of logic. To meaningfully deny meaning is a self-imploding activity.

    What is really happening here I think -- and perhaps, to some degree, what this blog is all about -- is an exercise in subjective value judgment, crafted to the particular aesthetic tastes of the comfortable first worlders who eat the food and find it good eating.

    The individual who states that all experiences are the same, that nothing matters, that nothing can possibly matter, is actually assigning subjective value in a manner that gives him utility.

    Consider the "get out of jail free" nature of this assertion for example. If nothing matters, there are no personal responsibilities. There is no fear of failure. There is no concern for striving and coming up short. And there is no need to fret over loss of comfort or social standing.

    Such a worldview might be highly attractive from a personal utility standpoint for, say, a moderately successful western world individual with privately unexpressed deep seated fears of failure or marginalization, would it not?

    Now let us take another individual -- say, an aspiring Olympic athlete. Rather than fear failure, this individual fears mediocrity... fears the leading of an ordinary life. In order to train for a major goal of multi-year duration -- like, say, competing and winning in an Olympic venue -- it would naturally behoove this individual, from a personal utility standpoint, to put value in things. To set store by certain things that fire spark and motivation, that move him or her through the endless hours of arduous training, and so on.

    Both these individuals might be atheists -- might agree that nothing matters in the ultimate sense. But the first has chosen a belief system for its utility as a buffer against fear of failure or loss of comfort... whereas the second has chosen a more personally aggressive, striving-oriented belief system for fear of mediocrity or not getting the most out of life.

    This is just a devil's advocate example. The point is that where some individuals gravitate towards belief systems that validate their lack of action, others will gravitate towards belief systems that spur and encourage action.

    Which choice is better? It can't really be said. It wholly depends on personal utility! But for one individual to declare the other "living a lie" seems a bit small-minded -- and perhaps deserving of a sharp retort. ("Living a cop-out" perhaps, displaying a fear of going for the gusto and embracing life.)

    In otherwords: The view that "nothing matters" and that "all experiences are the same" has great personal utility for some. But given the clearly subjective value judgment nature of such statements, to port them over from personal opinion to unquestionable dogma is to set one's self up as a sort of absurdist Pope.

    The logical alternative is to operate from a standpoint of pragmatic utility, recognizing Nietzsche's observation that philosophy is more about interpretation than "truth."

    Lance Armstrong is not a hypocrite for recognizing that "nothing matters" in the atheistic sense, yet training for a mad bastard in pursuit of tour de france victories. Others who elect to assign richness and significance in their lives need not be saddled with the accusation that they are living a "lie."

  7. "It was toward the end of my career; I knew it was probably my last shot. That set bad with me. It's like, what is life all about?"

    p.s. Were he to ask me the question, my answer to Coach Keady would be:

    Life is about whatever you decide to MAKE it about, dude. The universe is silent; it ain't helping you out on this one. The choice is thus your own personal responsibility - and refusing to choose (or letting others choose for you) is a choice in itself.

  8. Jack, Jack, Jack...

    Really? This tired straw man yet again?

    While your example seems compelling at first glance, it is in fact riddled with assumptions and contradictions. To begin with, the assumption that the absurdist worldview is somehow code for fear of failure is...well, we're not even sure how to respond to this, it is so ludicrous. While it is true that we find the absurd (as we have detailed) a bulwark against our human tendencies to worry about the future and regret the past, your characterization of us as "a moderately successful western world individual with privately unexpressed deep seated fears of failure or marginalization" is a bit much, no?

    Further, as to the Olympic athlete or Lance Armstrong, we have discussed several times that there are many ways to live the absurd life - we have never said "successful" lives must necessarily be contradictions (although they are for those who chase success as a form of validation).

    You seem to want desperately to believe that "your" life matters in some way that makes it meaningful, even if only to you. (And despite the fact that, short of being a religious fundamentalist, there is no logically consistent way to even believe in a self separate from your physical being.) We do not feel this compunction, but are happy to agree to disagree.

    We also can't help but notice that you have cleverly avoided addressing the main point of this post, which is that our individual "preferences" are almost certainly no more than complex expressions of deep-seated biological urges. Thus, in order to say they "matter," one must also agree that (for example) our dog "enjoys" chasing cats, or that mosquitoes have a "preference" for blood over milk.

    Finally, as to your high-minded statement that the absurd life is no "better" than others...agreed! You are the only one making subjective value statements - all we have ever said is that we find the absurd extremely useful in living a content life, and that we also find it compellingly consistent from a philosophical standpoint. But as we argue that none of us "exist" in the first place, how could one life possibly be "better" than the next?

  9. Jack,

    My comment about the lie of subjective meaning was sincere and mostly introspective, about falling for this lie. I didn't mean to put anyone down. Wouldn't you yourself talk about the lie of universal meaning? Would it be rude if you did? No, it wouldn't. But yes I believe that subjective meaning more generally also does not exist. Anyone who believes in subjective meaning is accidentally just sectioning off a certain class of desire and calling it meaning - but it is more accurately described as whichever of the following it is for that person: nostalgic emotion, self judgement, desire about the story of my life (which story does not exist! but the desire does). If you want to define subjective meaning in any of these ways, then even Rick should agree that it exists (although he might quarrel with so defining). I think that I personally am better off living as free from subjective meaning as I am capable of (which is very imperfectly). But I did not say that everyone would be better off this way. I don't think there is some universal principal which states that believing the truth is always better for everyone.

    Finally, you conflated truth and meaning early on. I think assertions can be true or false; that is, they can be or not be so. I don't think "Truth" as some palpable entity independent of a particular assertion exists out there in the ether.


  10. Cap'n Jack has a good point, and one that I have suspected in the authors/owners of this blog. It is true that one can latch on to the version of the absurd presented here as a crutch for inaction. Knock-on effects of this may include manipulating others do the heavy lifting so one can sit back on pontificate on absurdity and meaninglessness in the happy-sad chair. The defensive reaction from Rick may give him away.
    On the other hand (so I can have my cake and eat it too) the survival instinct is addressed by this relatively wealthy (in a global sense) blogger and I get the hint that he may realize that consciously living his version of the absurd life could possibly be a luxury; at least I hope he does. Westerners, especially bloggers, rarely encounter existential crises where our physical survival is at stake, so it's difficult the gauge the personal utility of the absurd for those who have. This is just my reading and I mean in no way to demean or insult the bloggers or this blog.
    Having an ongoing debate about absurdist utility is a good one to have and one of the reasons I keep reading here and the bloggers have presented some interesting scenarios and perspectives. We must keep in mind though that there are positives and negatives, pitfalls and opportunities, and that balance is essential, whatever that means to one, or has no meaning to another. The whole point, if there is one, is liberation. And what I just wrote is nothing more than vapor....
    Peace to all - gatorcog

  11. Jack,

    If you are going to argue for the existence of subjective meaning, it would help for you to clearly define it in a couple sentences.

    Let's think for a minute about whether it is "significance". If you want to give your wedding ring subjective meaning in the form of significance. This is what you mean when you say you create subjective meaning at will? Well, what have you done? You have decided that you don't want to lose it and want to be near it and sometimes want to hold it and remember stuff. Is your definition of subjective meaning just "a decision of this type". Where's the subjective meaning? You haven't created something in the world that anyone else can see. They can't look just at the ring and see Jack's subjective meaning all over it. Anyway, please provide a definition. This is very interesting stuff.


    I don't agree with your first paragraph. Why would anyone need a crutch for inaction? If one wants to be inactive, them be so. Only in a world of meaning and judgment would the level of someone's activity be judged over and above the impact or utility of said inaction on themselves and the world. We don't live in such a world.

    This is similar to something Jack said. How did you guys decide that those who disbelieve in meaning are particularly inactive?

    I do agree with the end of your comment:

    Peace to all,


  12. gatorcog-

    Well said. Apologies for our seemingly defensive reaction - it was more a good-natured attempt to tweak our old friend Jack...

    Your analysis is spot on regarding our having the luxury to live this lifestyle, and indeed this was part of the point of this post - we found it interesting that even the hint of true danger threw many of our supposed absurd sensibilities out the window.

    As you say, the point is liberation, and this is the main point of disagreement between ourselves and Jack - we believe his version of "personal meaning," rather than liberating him, instead binds him to whatever he deems "important" as much as anyone who believes in external meaning.


  13. Rick and Gatorcog,

    "It is true that one can latch on to the version of the absurd presented here as a crutch for inaction."

    Can you explain this comment that Gatorcog made and Rick agreed with? How exactly?

    Secondly, Rick you do seem to be more of a "happy nihilist", as RH calls it. I mean, you believe what you believe, but if it was to be categorized, it would fit one of the versions of nihilism best. Philosophical absurdists believe in intrinsic meaning taken with irony, but not extrinsic meaning.

  14. "Btw, that was me, Arthur. I need to get credit for it so my life can mean something."

    Arthur, you make us smile...

    As to this:"It is true that one can latch on to the version of the absurd presented here as a crutch for inaction."

    The point is simply that a man of inaction may be absurd; it's not to say all absurd men are men of inaction. The absurd man may be a driven fellow. He may be a poor beggar. The absurd doesn't really mandate a lifestyle. It's more about awareness and liberation.

    And to no one in particular: While our version of the absurd may reflect our comfortable Western lifestyles, it doesn't mean the absurd is a philosophy for comfortable westerners.

    We've found absurd ideas in all kinds of settings, from indigenous peoples. to eastern philosophies, from rich to poor. And, let's not forget that while incidences of survival may trigger anti-absurd hard-wiring, it may also, upon reflection, create profound feelings for the absurd. (As Rick's post here suggests.)

    It's no coincidence that absurdity bloomed in the years after WWII in war-torn Europe. Camus was part of this milieu and the experience of those times, the death and destruction and senselessness of war, brought out absurd thinking in more than a few people.

    We also recently read Salman Rushdie's book The Jaguar Smile about a trip to Nicaragua in the 80s, and we were struck by some of the absurd thoughts voiced by people in that bloody drama of revolutionary Nicaragua.

    The absurd can spring from anywhere.


  15. To the Anonomi
    "It is true that one can latch on to the version of the absurd presented here as a crutch for inaction."

    Let me explain my statement: One can sit on their ass all day, every day, and do absolutely nothing in life, for all I care. But when the purpose of other people is to do things for you that you refuse to do for yourself then that can present a problem. Going out of one's way to inconvenience others to so that you will not be inconvenienced, or to make things more convenient for, yourself is a selfish motive. Declaring that life has no ascribable meaning and that nothing really matters is a very easy way to justify this attitude. I know this from people I am close to who have all of the sudden discovered "the absurd" for, what I think, is an incorrect interpretation.

    I am not asserting that this is a characteristic of this blog's authors by any means. I do appreciate their actually taking to time to maintain a blog like this that present some very enlightening perspectives and I enjoy the banter; in this regard, the absurd is apparently opportunity for personal fullfilment, even as they call it meaningless (wink), instead of some other nefarious agenda. Their wives may have another opinion on this. heh Like I said - balance.
    Thank you very much.


  16. gatorcog-

    You raise an interesting point here - indeed, we have for some time kicked around the idea of a post titled "Is this blog absurd?" We're not sure of the answer, but think it is an interesting question to explore.

    Re: using the absurd as an excuse to "sit on one's ass," we largely agree with your characterization. However, we are also surprised at the number of people who assume the absurd is code for this...and this only. Often when we discuss the absurd with others, we either get responses such as "Well, then why do anything!", or people assume we are looking for an easy way to shirk responsibilities. (Needless to say, we generally choose not to pursue such conversations - one must come to the absurd voluntarily or not at all.)

    Finally, it is worth noting that our perception of the absurd has changed a bit since we began writing this blog (less than a year ago). Early on, we assumed we would at some point be capable of jettisoning our human tendencies and truly living in each moment, blissfully free from worry and regret. However, it turns out the human condition is a bit more stubborn than anticipated! Thus, we have become more accepting of our foibles, viewing them as comedic relief than grievous lapses to someday be vanquished. We suppose this goes to your notion of balance.

    As to our wives, they generally greet any mention of the absurd with a roll of the eyes and change of the subject...


  17. Well, I haven't been around here long, but there has already been a significant lowering of the pressure and a turning down the importance of everything - which is one aside of admitting the truth. Somewhat counterintuitively, I have felt more active, not less. I have the tendency to sit and stew and seek some escape from my big scary super-important life. This gets obsessive and can turn into a lot of time. Reducing pressure reduces this anxious need to escape and be lazy. Being lazy is actually getting boring sometimes.

    Secondly, I spoke recently with the most succesful (by far) professor in our department. He told me that there is no meaning in life. He has believed this since he told his Mother when he was ten that he was an atheist.

    Thirdly, we should not jump to the conclusion that Lance Armstrong achieved because he placed excessive importance and meaning on winning. Perhaps he did, but perhaps he LOVES to win. This is different than thinking winning MATTERS. Or, much more likely, perhaps he LOVES to ride, and train, and push himself to the limit, with winning being a by-product.

    I think the best just LOVE what they do, rather than having decided that things matter and making a personal committment to it. I think those that are the best couldn't imagine doing anything else, even if what they're doing didn't matter at all. I can think of several specific examples - retirees who can't stay retired being just one.


  18. whoa. I am thoroughly confused ( mostly by the comment thread) , or perhaps to lazy to read every line. hurts my head.

    Still, I am loving this far.