Thursday, March 25, 2010

Absurd simplicity

As Inigo recently mentioned, he is currently in Central America visiting an old friend who "has a Thoreau-like lifestyle." His updates have been like catnip to us - how wonderful, we find ourselves thinking, to live so simply, with the beach at one's doorstep, no cares, no responsibilities...

Wait a minute! Is not the stated and relentlessly repeated mission of this blog to inform and educate people that such a lifestyle is available to anyone, anywhere?!? Have we not argued extensively (some might say a bit too extensively...) that all experiences are equivalent; that the "pleasures" we think we experience are no better (or worse) than the worst horrors imaginable?!?

We have, and we have. Which, to steal a phrase from a former (and, let it be said, quite awful) Federal Reserve chairman, poses a bit of a conundrum. To wit - if all experience is equivalent, then why do we feel such a pull to the "Gone Bamboo" lifestyle (hereafter referred to as GB)? Indeed, even as we covet this bucolic existence we chastise ourselves for the ridiculousness of our feelings...yet cannot fully shake them. The reality is, when it comes right down to it...we honestly believe we would be happier living such a life.

So we wondered - does such an admission mean we are less absurd than we thought? Is a desire to live a life free of desire...still a desire? Conversely, is the individual who chooses to live such a life actually more absurd, or has he simply put himself in a more favorable position? Put it this way - while we have argued (and still believe) circumstances are irrelevant, we have also written often about the difficulties of living an absurd life in a decidedly non-absurd world. Clearly such issues are less prevalent for one who has GB, and perhaps it is this that explains the appeal.

In other words, the simpler one's life, the fewer the obstacles to truly living in each moment. While we can devise tricks to constantly remind ourselves of the absurd, the fact is that human nature (and much of civilization) is essentially non-absurd (else we would have died off long ago). Thus, to GB could be seen as a strategy to remove such complications - i.e., to facilitate an easier path to living the absurd life.

Hmm...when viewed this way, GB sounds like just another trick (albeit a very sophisticated one) to counteract one's innate nature. The question, to us, comes down to this - would one who has GB continue to live the same carefree life if placed in a different environment? Said a different way - does the decision to live such a life mean one is inherently more absurd...or that one is simply making it easier on oneself to do so? Or are these arbitrary, thin, and irrelevant distinctions?

The unfortunate answer here is...we're really not sure. We honestly believe nothing matters, and that experiences are indeed equivalent. We can argue these points endlessly, citing numerous reasons they must be true. And yet, we cannot escape the feeling that the absurd man, in some way, belongs by the beach, eating seafood and vegetables, taking long walks, and reading tattered second-hand books.

As we said, it is a conundrum...


  1. Rick,

    Researchers have been defining and measuring happiness for 30 years. They can correlate it with performance and health outcomes, and they have found the best types of end-of-day or real-time questionnaires to capture subjective well-being. They have found things that affect it.

    But whatever happiness is, it should be obvious to anyone that some people have more than others, and that personal philosophy affects and is affected by it, and that living circumstances affect and are affected by both happiness and personal philosophy. And that genetics affects all three of the above.

    These appear to be simple facts. There is quite a bit of empirical happiness research that says, as one example, that losing a child has a significant negative impact on happiness. Also, certain types of meditation have been all but proven to increase happiness. Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, a life-long meditator, was put in an fMRI and the activity in his pleasure centers (the left pre-frontal lobe if I remember right) was many standard deviations higher than the mean of the other samples.

    The absurd philosophy, this blog even, has made me feel a lot happier. And I promise that torturing people makes them less happy than loving them. So, it is just plain wrong to say that actions, thoughts, and circumstances do not affect happiness.

    All of the references you are talking about cannot possibly be saying the following: "There is no observable correlation or causal relationship between any set of circumstances and subjective well-being." Call this statement "A". They cannot possibly be saying that, because its wrong.

    So, they must be saying something a little different. Here are four guesses (I'm genuinely unsure):
    1. Certain things do affect happiness (possibly GB is one of them), but this does not mean that these things Matter.
    2. Certain things do increase happiness, but this does not mean they are "better" (This is actually something you wrote to me in a past comment section when I talked about pins in the arm.)
    3. Certain things USUALLY affect happiness, but it is possible to find an inner source of joy that is untouched by circumstance.
    4. Experiences are indeed equivalent; it is only our believing otherwise that gives them power.

    Your post seems to be confusing statement A with 1, 2, 3, and/or 4.

    I would love some clarification about what you mean with "experiences are all equivalent". I am totally on-board with the whole "nothing Matters" thing (and grateful for how well you explain that), but I am a little confused about the thing where you say experiences are "equivalent".


  2. Rick,

    If you admire GB so much, what's stopping you doing it?

  3. Thomas-

    Excellent question. Mostly it is the fact that we have a family that would be hurt if we left, which brings up another point - while this does not "matter," it seems to us decidedly non-absurd to do something harmful to others in order to boost our own happiness. As we once put it, while it would not matter were our wife to have an affair, this does not mean we would be justified in having one of our own. One of the key aspects of the absurd (to us) is that one should be compassionate, and to abandon our family (for that is what it would amount to) in a quest for subjective happiness seems the antithesis of this.


    Perhaps we are mixing our metaphors a bit. Our statement that all experiences are equivalent is (as you say) nothing more than stating none is objectively "better" than another. In other words, while the vast majority of people (to borrow your example) prefer sex to needles in the arm, there is no particular reason for this to be so - one could easily imagine a race of beings who preferred just the opposite.

    So...we would agree with #4 - things are equivalent, but our human nature means we have certain preferences, no different from cats liking sunbeams...or dung beetles liking, well, dung.

  4. Seems I heard somewhere that some people really enjoy pain (needles in the arm)...therefore, just because one person likes sex better doesn't mean that one is actually better than another...right? Just different...

    The GB lifestyle would be nice if you like nothing and doing nothing...seems like it might be a bit careful what you wish for syndrome...I've thought a nice dirt floor hut somewhere would be good when I can get away without causing too much grief for the family...

  5. I agree that, when it comes down to it, circumstances are (or at least ought to be, if you ask me) irrelevant. But at the same time there's probably a reason why for instance monks go off and meditate in temples and not on Times Square. "... the simpler one's life, the fewer the obstacles to truly living in each moment." Exactly.

    "And yet, we cannot escape the feeling that the absurd man, in some way, belongs by the beach, eating seafood and vegetables, taking long walks, and reading tattered second-hand books."

    While this may sound like a wonderful way to spend your days, the matter of the fact is that the absurd man doesn't "belong" anywhere, and certainly not in one place over another. As Camus wrote: "Let me repeat that these images do not propose moral codes and involve no judgments: they are sketches. They merely represent a style of life. The lover, the actor, or the adventurer plays the absurd. But equally well, if he wishes, the chaste man, the civil servant, or the president of the Republic." The absurd man gone bamboo represents one style of life playing the absurd. But so does the hard-working dad, should he prefer that. Going bamboo and sitting around in the sun all day long is, albeit perhaps very pleasant, indeed at best a useful trick.

  6. Rick,

    If you agree that circumstances affect happiness, and life philosophy, then what exactly is the conundrum? It is easier in some circumstances to be absurd than in others, and easier in some circumstances to be happy. Have we not settled the conundrum?


  7. I would think that the vast vast majority of people would prefer sex to pins in the arm.

  8. As always, I enjoy reading your posts.

    I suggest that your parenthetical remark shows a foundational attachment to the world that humans have been creating. And that such an attachment would be a non-absurd framework.

    From your post: "While we can devise tricks to constantly remind ourselves of the absurd, the fact is that human nature (and much of civilization) is essentially non-absurd (else we would have died off long ago)."

    The idea that humans would have died off long ago if they were not essentially non-absurd seems to justify non-absurdity. But, I would point out that monkeys, chimpanzees, etc, have not died off, even though they have existed longer than humans. In fact, the cockroach has a long storied history, and I doubt that they are very non-absurd.

    I will go further... it appears to me that it is exactly human's non-absurd position that has pushed the Doomsday Clock so close to midnight. The "toys" created by the non-absurd attempts at control of "something" are exactly those toys that most threaten human's continued existence. I have little doubt that the absurd cockroach shall continue to live long after the non-absurd human has vanished from earth.

  9. Anonymous-

    A belated tip of the cap - this is an excellent point and we are a bit embarrassed to have missed it. Clearly humans do not owe their survival to non-absurdity, and you are quite correct that this trait may well end up dooming the race.