Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The comfort of irrelevance

"I devoted my life, longer than you can possibly imagine, in service of a man who told me that everything was happening for a reason, that he had a plan, plan that I was a part of, when the time was right that he'd share it with me, and now that man's gone so...why do I want to die? Because I just found out my entire life had no purpose."--Richard Alpert, character from Lost.

We were chatting with Inigo the other day about Karl Popper, the philosopher who said (among other things) that the way to empirically test scientific theories was not to seek confirmatory evidence, but rather to do one's best to falsify the theory. His famous example was that while one could see only white swans one's entire life and (quite reasonably) assume all swans are white, the sighting of a single black swan instantly invalidates the premise.

We find this to be of use with the absurd, as anti-absurd views often bring the benefits (and logic) of the absurd into sharp relief. For example, we keep a copy of Carl Sagan's famous "pale blue dot" picture on our wall as a reminder of our incredibly tiny and insignificant place in the universe. (For those who do not know the story, Sagan had the Voyager spacecraft take a picture of Earth from the edge of the solar system.) A colleague recently asked about the picture, and seemed visibly upset when we explained it to him. Shortly thereafter, he sent us an email with the subject line "More than a dot," with a full-scale picture of the Earth in all its technicolor glory.

While the email was at least partly tongue-in-cheek, it gets at what is so difficult about the concept of the absurd for so many people. Put simply, we live our entire lives being told, either implicitly or explicitly, that things matter--as Richard Alpert so aptly put it, that our lives have purpose. Thus, it can initially seem shattering when that sense of purpose is threatened.

Another example. We are quite fond of Cormac McCarthy's book The Road, and recently loaned a copy to another colleague. (For those who have not read it, the "plot" is that a man and his son are struggling for survival in a post-apocalyptic world. The entire novel seemed to us an allegory for the absurd--i.e., that "hope" is a false god--with the glaring exception of the ending, where the man dies and his son is inexplicably "rescued" by another man who can only be described as "one of the good guys." This, needless to say, was our least favorite part of the book.)

Anyway, our colleague said she liked the book a lot--while most of it was very bleak, she explained, she really liked the end(!) We, being unable to help ourselves, pushed on this point. "You know," we said, "the takeaway is really that all of us are on 'the road.'" She looked briefly panicked, then replied, "Well, that's depressing!"

But why? Why do people cling so desperately to the idea that things have meaning? Why must our actions have significance? Why are we so inextricably wrapped up in the ruinous cycle of achievement and accomplishment that inevitably lead to disappointment and strife?

We recently read Joe Simpson's book Touching the Void, about his near-death experience while mountain-climbing. While we heartily recommend the entire book, one passage in particular was particularly pertinent. Simpson and his climbing partner had just ascended the summit, and he recorded his reaction thus:

"I felt the usual anticlimax. What now? It was a vicious circle. If you succeed with one dream, you come back to square one and it's not long before you're conjuring up another, slightly harder, a bit more ambitious--a bit more dangerous. I didn't like the thought of where it might be leading me. As if, in some strange way, the very nature of the game was controlling me, taking me towards a logical but frightening conclusion; it always unsettled me, this moment of reaching the summit, the sudden stillness and quiet after the storm, which gave me time to wonder at what I was doing and sense a niggling doubt that perhaps I was inexorably losing control - was I here purely for pleasure or was it egotism? Did I really want to come back for more?"

For a moment, we found this terrifically insightful. For a moment. But then we read the next passage. "But these moments were also good times, and I knew that the feelings would pass. Then I could excuse them as morbid pessimistic fears that had no sound basis." (Emphasis added.) Indeed, when we searched the Internet for this passage we actually found it in a thesis that argued "if we do have a good reason for living, if we can give life meaning, impending
death is easier to bear. Some desires to die are the result of a lack of worthwhile purpose."

No doubt this is the case--many people find it so difficult to come to terms with our lives' lack of meaning that they contort themselves into all manner of logical fallacies to avoid accepting this simple fact. We have spent much time on this blog, for example, disputing the notion that individuals can create "meaning" for themselves, partly because we believe it is a bit silly, but also because it is the idea of meaning--rather than whether that meaning is defined as universal or personal--that ultimately creates conflict and unhappiness. In short, if one believes certain things "matter" more than others--regardless of why--it is inevitable that one's life will at some point not conform to these preferences.

The absurd man, by contrast, recognizes the folly of all such beliefs. While he certainly feels such things--he is human, after all--he laughs at his own foibles the same as any other individual. He rejects the notion of the "self," instead choosing to view life as akin to acting in a play, where actions seem to have consequences, but ultimately have no significance whatsoever.

To bring this full circle, we take great comfort in our own irrelevance. Rather than despairing over our lack of purpose, we celebrate it!

Until next time...


  1. So, there is often a deep core reason for living. A thing that we love, or want to do. A purpose.

    See what I did there? The first two sentences are true, but the third "sentence" does not follow. Read it again though, why does the link between the second and third sentences seem so solid and natural. I would argue that it is because of this: When people say purpose, it includes those first two sentences, sometimes mostly. And to the limited degree to which we can choose what it is, we can call this personal meaning.

    I don't believe in meaning or purpose, I am just saying that this fine line implies that we would need a new word.

    So, there is often a deep core reason for living. It is a thing that we love, or want to do. A that we like a lot. We like it so much that we make our lives 'about it'.

    Occaisonally people stumble upon one that they did not formerly have. They would say that their life has new meaning. But technically they just mean a new joy, a new thing that they love that makes life worth living.


  2. So, assume I have a deep core reason for living, a fullnesss in my life. It is a thing that I love, or want to do. A (thing, activity, cause, project, goal, opus, experience-of-living, result-that-I-find-I-can-repeatedly-be-the-cause-of, group, community) that I want to commit my life to, because that will make me happy.

    We dont have a word for this. The closest word is "purpose", but we said that also includes other unfortunate crap in its definition. I will call this my Gilgamesh. Its a selfless joy, but deep and substantial.

    It feels better if your life has Gilgamesh, but, before you worry, no one is keeping track and it doesn't matter. With this qualifier, I can ask:

    Are you free? Does your life have Gilgamesh?


  3. Arthur,

    Freedom, if such a thing exists, is bound by the limits of its constraints. If it is constrained it is not free, thus the fundamental contradiction.

    I think the point of the original post, and largely this site in general, is that one can experience happiness, enjoyment, exhilaration, and fulfillment without Gilgamesh, from the simple act of drawing a breath, or watching a sunset, or kissing a girl (or a boy depending on your preference), or myriad of other things of the moment, unrelated to any Gilgamesh.

    On the other hand, while one may certainly glean these feelings from a personal Gilgamesh, other less desirable feelings is intrinsically entwined in the mere existence of Gilgamesh. Regret, remorse, disappointment, and disillusionment, to name but a few, are inextricably bounded up in Gilgamesh.

    So if the feelings we seek, that make life worth living, are available without Gilgamesh, and Gilgamesh often brings along with it some less desirable feelings, perhaps it is better to forgo Gilgamesh and try to concentrate on the things in the moment that don't have such negative baggage attached.

    That is what I interpret from the musings of this blog. I personally believe that it is a balancing act. The absurd helps me realize that my Gilgamesh is an illusion, a mere act of fiction I impose on my world view, and since I look at my Gilgamesh with a sense of irony, knowing it is fiction, it lessens the impact of the negative while still allowing access to those things that I feel make life worth the effort. I therefore am able to enjoy the things of the moment, as well as pursue my personal Gilgamesh, which also leads to those things I seek in life. Best of both worlds, in my opinion, while still freeing me from the worse of the negative effects of Gilgamesh.


  4. RH,

    Some interesting thoughts. But no I dont think this site makes a distinction between having a deep core reason for living (even though it doesnt mean anything) and having a lot of little reasons for living (even though they dont mean anything). We all have things that make life worth living, even if its just a state of mind or an experience of the now. These are still things that make life worth it relative to suicide.

    Do you have a main thing that you primarily get your joy from? Or is it a myriad of things as you say? This distinction is different than the main one made on this blog. Does one live for a myriad of pleasures, or a deep core reason for living, a thing that we love or want to do?

    Didn't Lance Armstrong love to ride and live to ride? If he thought it meant something, then he thought he had a purpose in his life. If he didn't, then he still had one big thing that made his world go around, and he was still absurd, but he had Gilgamesh. If this was the case, you could say that riding was his life, but not his purpose in life.

    Absurdity intact, there's a lot to be said for having something to live for.


  5. Arthur,

    I meant to respond to your post sooner, but the work-a-day pace of daily life just seems to have conspired to consume my time.

    To answer your question, the closest thing I have to a ‘primary thing’ is my eclectic and insatiable thirst for knowledge. I hope that doesn’t sound too braggadocios, I don’t mean for it too, and I should add that while my knowledge may be broad in scope, it is not truly deep any given area. However, it is my Gilgamesh, if I have such a thing. But it is not my ‘goal in life' it is just something I enjoy, so I pursue it. I have always had a very absurd perspective on life, even before I knew what the hell that meant. I have always been suspicious of the social normative that proscribe how one should be to be happy.

    The whole fairy tale of growing up, falling in love, having children, and living happily ever after, or working really hard to achieve some nebulous goal, and assigning that as my reason for living, which would eventually lead to happiness and fulfillment, never really washed with me. To use the Matrix analogy, I have always felt the glitch in the machinery, I always felt that something was not quite right with the whole happiness narrative that we are all force fed from early childhood. This, in large part, precipitated my odyssey through philosophy, searching for some answer, eventually leading me to embrace Absurdism.

    So after that long answer, the short answer to your question is my primary joy comes from the myriad of small, in the moment, moments, and not from some deep core reason for living.

    As for Lance Armstrong, it is interesting that you used him as an example. While I am sure he has experienced much joy in his relentless pursuit of being the best Tour de France cyclist in the world, it has undoubtedly also caused him much hardship as well. Just on the physical front, for example, studies have shown strong correlations between bicycle saddles and testicular cancer. It may have been that his many thousands of hours in the saddle, training in the pursuit of his goal, might have lead to his struggle with cancer that nearly took his life. I am also confidant that his single minded pursuit of cycling perfection caused him to miss out on myriad opportunities to experience the small joys in life. It is only common sense that tells you if you intently focus on one thing, everything else is merely a blur.

    Now apparently Lance found the trade off worth the effort, and I certainly wouldn’t gainsay his choices, but I am fairly convinced that his life would not have been joyless had he not focused so intently on his goal to be the best, many hardships could have been avoided, while still experiencing the pleasures of living in the moment.

    This sort of goes to the point of my last post, if hardship comes with Gilgamesh, and you can still have pleasure without Gilgamesh, perhaps it is better to focus less intensely on Gilgamesh in the first place, and focus more intently on those fleeting pleasures of the moment that do not carry such heavy baggage. As I said, I believe it is all a balancing act, the trick is to find the right balance for you.


  6. Thanks RH