Thursday, June 12, 2008

Mismatch and Meaning

In my earlier post, I mentioned that the lack of inherent meaning of life functions as a limit on human happiness. It is more accurate to say that the mismatch between the lack of inherent meaning in life and the human desire for meaning is what limits happiness and causes suffering. All of the limits on human happiness I proposed in the earlier post are products of some sort of a mismatch.

That the mismatch between the lack of meaning and the desire for meaning, rather than meaninglessness itself, is the cause of human suffering is a major point in Camus' The Myth of Sisyphus. Camus is interested in the question of suicide; specifically, he appears to be investigating the question of whether intellectual honesty and consistency require suicide, the way a certain view of animal suffering might be said to require vegetarianism. He is concerned with what might be called authenticity. He argues that nearly every philosophical response to the inherent meaninglessness of life takes what he calls a "leap" - toward a belief in God, or even deification of the absurd itself, to escape from the suffering (and contradiction) that meaninglessness, coupled with a desire for meaning, produce.

Camus ultimately concludes that suicide is not the only intellectually honest response to absurdity. The authentic path, he says, is to live at every moment aware of absurdity - not to lose sight of meaninglessness - but to also scrupulously avoid "leaping" into mysticism or some other escape from absurdity. In terms of terror management theory, Camus feels that the only intellectually honest way to live is to be mortality salient at all times, but never to retreat into worldview defense.

It may be true that this could be an intellectually honest life. I certainly don't think that suicide is required. But it is not a path that is realistically available to very many people. In addition, intellectual honesty and consistency cannot be the only things of value in life, in all cases. For many, they do not take precedence over suffering, or even over the subjective value of many "leaps" Camus advises against.

Nonetheless, I think realistic awareness of the many mismatches that guarantee human suffering - not least the simultaneous lack of, and desire for, inherent meaning - is required for intellectual honesty.

17 comments:

  1. I think my worldview is essentially Camusian, at least on a good day. And you're quite; it ain't for everyone.

    In his (early) depression memoir, "Darkness Visible," William Styron speculates that Camus' death may have actually been a suicide.

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  2. I read Sisyphus because I noticed so many references to it in popular literature conceiving it as some kind of argument against suicide. Camus' kind of (non-analytic, continental-style, unsupported-mystical-generalization-happy) writing is not pleasant for me to read, so I slogged through it with gritted teeth.

    Ultimately, I think Camus is making the same sort of leap he so condemns in others. Why is it valuable to live in constant mortality salience, knowing it's futile? Positing that as a happiness project is just arbitrary and ridiculous. To me, it just seems like mysticism disguised as something else.

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    1. As far as it being a leap, that was my impression. When I read it late last year, it went from, "Life is absurd," to, "Suck it up, bitches!"

      "Here's a rock and a hill. Have at it. What else is a mature human being to do?"

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  3. Like most people, I read Camus when I was young -- 17 or 18 -- when I was a bit more open to "non-analytic, continental-style, unsupported-mystical-generalization-happy" riffs. (Good line, by the way.) I now consider him to be more of an essayist and public intellectual than a working philosopher; he bears more resemblance perhaps to the American transcendentalists than to any grounded discipline and tradition.

    Still, I think he might argue that the absurdist view (living with undeceived mortality salience and no "out") simply follows from an honest apprehension of our deeper existential predicament, and that in facing and embracing this, we are permitted to create our own meaning without bad-faith appeals to some grander, false firmament. Perhaps you consider that approach to be arbitrary and ridiculous, but it may be exactly what we're left with.

    I'm not sure where Camus' retreat to mysticism might come in. Toward what manner of mysticism would he be directing his appeal? The mystical illusion of free will? Of mirthful nihilism?

    As an aside, I note add that despite Camus' criticism of Nietzsche's appeal to "power" (which I suspect he misunderstood), his position seems remarkably similar to FN's take on eternal recurrence (which always struck me as a useful metaphor, if a preposterous metaphysical conclusion).

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  4. I think Camus might be pointing to, intentionally or not, a release from repression, which is logically the other side of maintaining illusions which we know down deep are bullshit. I was over at an ex-christian website the other night, and read a letter from a guy who's in the middle of losing his faith. He described the negative aspects, but also mentioned a sense of exhilaration at the prospect; I know the feeling. It's as if a bundle of previously accounted for energy is suddenly let loose. Pleasant is an understatement.

    There's a corollary in some schools of interpretation regarding zen-like enlightenment. There seems to be something to gain in thoroughly seeing through 'the game'; even though, to those who have vested emotional interests in maintaining the illusions thereof find such insight counterintuitive. As far as any of this being some universal balm for the psychologically overloaded? Doubtful; probably more a matter of cultural, and even individual, programming. I just wanted to point out that 'mystical experience' doesn't necessarily pay homage to supernaturalism, or even to bad thinking. But I do agree that this sort of change in psychology is inaccessible to most of us; and of course, doesn't say squat about suffering as a universal feature of living experience.

    Did I make sense there at all?

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    1. Yeah. Some people feel great after losing their faith/cultural beliefs/illusions. Others? Not so much.

      In the end, everybody suffers.

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  5. Oh! One other thing: that term 'inherent' or 'intrinsic' meaning has always bothered me. What am I saying when I tell you my life has meaning outside of some relativistic context? Or, as Joseph Campbell once asked, "What's the meaning of a flea?" It's the same problem when somebody asks, "What is the meaning of life?" This all seems to me to be some sort of category error, like positing that, since causality works within existence, it must somehow be evoked to explain existence. There are depths of experience, I suppose; one-pointed moments of awareness accompanied by feelings of profudity; but when we attach 'meaning' to such things, I think we go off-track, if you know what I mean.

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  6. Jim, I think part of the problem is that most people are sort of wired to make that category error - sure, we can generate local or subjective "meaning" (worldview preservation, children, art, whatever), but we desire for there to be a purpose for our being here in the first place. Once we accept that there's no mythical being who created us as part of an important story, each with parts to play - when we accept that there's no greater story at all, mythical creator or no - then we're all on our own, and many people are just not capable of generating satisfying local or subjective meaning to fill the void. Part of Camus' point might be that the void can never be filled with local or subjective meaning.

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    1. "many people are just not capable of generating satisfying local or subjective meaning to fill the void. Part of Camus' point might be that the void can never be filled with local or subjective meaning."

      I think I was one of those people. I had something to keep me going -- a deistic belief in a God combined with Providence -- and when I lost that, at first I felt exhilaration to be figuring out how life works in many ways.

      But doing so cost me the best thing I ever had, and hurt her too. It wasn't worth it. Now she is gone, hopefully happy, and I am forlorn and lost.

      I can't create meaning where there is none and no quantity of vaginas can make up for the loss of my love. Indeed, I wrote a poem about that (I didn't use the word "vagina") before searching the world for her, and finding her, and gaining her love: that of the most decent, generous, loving woman I have ever met among hundreds and hundreds.

      I royally fucked up. There is only one way out for me. I can't live without her.

      And that's how it goes.

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  7. Nagel says: (on Camus, in his essay "The Absurd" in Mortal Question) "[Camus' rejection of suicide] seems to me romantic and slightly self-pitying. Our absurdity warrants neither that much distress nor that much defiance. At the risk of falling into romanticism by a different route, I would argue that absurdity is one of the most human things about us: a manifestation of our most advanced and interesting characteristics . . . . [a sense of the absurd] results from the ability to understand our human limitations. It need not be a matter for agony unless we make it so. Nor need it evoke a defiant contempt of fate that allows us to feel brave or proud. Such dramatics, even if carried on in private, betray a failure to appreciate the cosmic unimportance of the situation. If sub specia aeternitatis there is no reason to believe that anything matters, then that does not matter either, and we can approach our absurd lives with iron instead of heroism or despair."

    This is not to say that Nagel is anything but cheery and anti-suicide. I can't find it right now but I believe he says at some point that suicide is not a failure of philosophy, but a "failure of humanity" - an admission, I think, that philosophy has no good answer to the suicide.

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  8. Nagel argues that Camus' rebellious worldview traces to a misapprehension of cosmic indifference, and is thus unwarranted. He prefers that we instead ignore the abyss in all its distracting meaninglessness, disentangle ourselves from those existential neuroquirks, and get on with the work. In this, Nagel resembles nothing less than an old man instructing a young man on matters that reduce to marrow-deep sensibility. The view from eternity can be humbling or empowering, exhilarating or terryfying or infuriating, or "evil" as Schopenhauer would have it. But cast as we are into the predicament of facing it without hope but for relief and eventual release, I don't see how Nagel's more resigned perspective is worthy of any more respect than Camus' frisson-induced romantic defiance.

    An ill-advised analogy: The suicide is the rape victim who fights back. The absurd rebel is the rape victim who fucks back. Nagel is the rape victim who lies back, and takes it.

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  9. I love your analogy.

    Yeah, I find Nagel's argument - that the proper response to absurdity is irony, not despair - to be unsatisfying and cheery. (Oops, I just noticed I typed "iron" instead of "irony" in the quotation in the last comment - hopefully the mistake was obvious, 'cause that rather changes the meaning . . . )

    If political prisoners in a prison decide to just get on with their lives in prison and ignore the unfairness of their situation, fine for them. But that doesn't mean that response is somehow proper or mandated. Absurdity might not matter much, but the human response to absurdity (suffering) matters a great deal. It can't just be magicked away by deciding to ignore it.

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  10. Aaah, this exchage was very enlightening for me. I am beginning to understand certain attitudes better.

    Chip feels that desolation and depair are romantic. Accepting the absurdity with goom humour is "Cheery", yuck.

    Suicide is not the failure of humnity, it is the ultimate failure of the sense of humor. I'm quoting myself, here.

    Good work, Sister.

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  11. In the original edition of Lucifer's Lexicon, L.A. Rollins (whose new book I'm about to publish) defines suicide as "the taking of one's life . . . too seriously."

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  12. Haha. Oscar Wilde says it a little differently.....

    Life is far too important a thing ever to talk seriously about.

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  13. Saying the world is meaningless is more of an automatic response than an actual philosophical outrage, methinks. If the universe had an objectively provable purpose, then a well-lived life would consist of following that purpose through and through - which would still give human beings a huge potential for angst. A meaningful world would have you give up freedom for comfort, just as this world has us giving up comfort for freedom. It's basically the difference between being a Christian (in a universe where Christian doctrine is true) and being an Existentialist in this universe. Either way, you're still right in life being pretty unremarkable, it's just that life FUNDAMENTALLY cannot be satisfying in any universe with conscious beings capable of thinking logically about it. Flicking the "meaning" switch would just replace old pains with new ones.

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