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Absurdity and the Meaning of Life
by Matthew P. Kundert
Albert Camus: poetic writer and philosopher. In one word: existentialist. Camus, like many of his contemporaries, saw a potentially fatal flaw in existentialism. In a philosophical movement that flaunts the ultimate freedom of the individual, one finds a disturbing lack of direction. Friedrich Nietzsche, a precursor to existentialism, went as far as saying, “All is permitted.” It certainly seems that if the ultimate freedom of man is taken to its logical conclusion, Nietzsche’s statement holds a lot of water. Many philosophers, however, were not satisfied with this conclusion. Many, including Camus, probed deeper into the problem of our freedom and how our freedom would ultimately affect ethics.
Camus’ search for ethics starts with three basic statements of the human situation. These statements then form the three principles from which Camus works. The first is, “God is Dead.”  Camus never actually states the principle this way, but it is derived from his atheism (the statement was actually coined by Nietzsche). The second principle is “Life is Absurd.” This is derived from examples of absurdity that individuals encounter in their lives. The third principle is “Life is Meaningless.” This seems to be derived from both the death of God and the absurdity of our lives.
From these three principles Camus works to answer, specifically, whether suicide is a viable answer to the utter absurdity of our lives. In a broader sense, Camus is attempting to find whether or not there is a foothold in existentialism for a statement of “While everything is permitted, not everything is acceptable.” Camus’ answer of the affirmative (suicide is not acceptable  ) can be taken as an ethical judgement. However, before we reach Camus’ conclusion, I would look closer at his principles. There is a discrepancy in the values rejected by the God is Dead principle. It also seems that the Life is Absurd principle can be dissolved by finding an alternative, and more fruitful, vision of the universe that doesn’t produce absurdity. By the time the Life is Meaningless principle is reached, it is left empty and unsupported. These problems, ultimately, have an adverse affect on Camus’ ethics at which point I will try and offer an alternative.
GOD IS DEAD
Camus’ first principle needs little introduction. The God is Dead principle is used by many philosophers, particularly atheistic existentialists. Using this principle as the basis for the rest, Camus establishes that values can no longer be thought of as objectively and extrinsically handed down to the human race. This, effectively, smashes all ethical statements. Where before, the statement “Murder is wrong” was ethically viable, now the statement means nothing. Why is murder wrong? Because God told us so? Well, if God, being imaginary and created by humans, told us, then really us humans must have told ourselves that murder is wrong. But this essentially means that all human statements are ethical statements. Suddenly the word ethical loses all former meaning.
There is a curious uncertainty to notice here. Camus’ first principle smashes all objective and extrinsic values. The question that seems to be begging to be asked is why other humans are not extrinsic? Are they not outside the existential self? Existentialism, as a whole, seems to be aware of its almost solipsistic conclusions about existence. The universal Other seems to completely boggle Jean-Paul Sartre’s mind and reminds one of his statement that “Hell is other people.” Other philosopher’s, within existentialism and without, have built their ethical systems on the basis of other people. Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarianism, and, to a certain extent, Simone de Beauvoir’s Ethics of Ambiguity come to mind.
The important connection to make between utilitarianism and de Beauvoir’s ethics is that they are both teleological. They both have a goal, an end: happiness and freedom, respectively. Both of these ethical theories are based not on God or some immortal principle, but other people. An ethical theory that is based on God or an immortal principle can be called deontological. A deontological ethics simply means that there are rules by which you need to follow and as long as you follow the rules you will be ethically and morally justified. When you split up ethical theories into teleological (the end justifies the means) and deontological (the means justify the end) you can see that the God is Dead principle destroys deontological ethics, but leaves the teleological ethics intact. The reason is that teleological ethics do not need an outside arbitrator determining what’s right and wrong. The end or goal determines right and wrong.
This is critical. Camus sweeps all ethical theories into a pile and banishes them all with a simple gesture of his hand and an intonation of the God is Dead principle. But the death of God does not cover all the theories. This apparent fault line in Camus’ ethics will become wider as we develop his second principle, Life is Absurd.
LIFE IS ABSURD
Camus develops this principle by giving examples of the absurdity of life. He comments on the absurdity of the day-to-day activity of the average person:
In this way Camus seems to be merely pointing out the absurdity of some peoples lives. I can think of several people in my life that don’t fit into this simplistic mold. My sister, for example, prefers to live her life as something of a free spirit. She works when she needs money, sleeps rarely, and parties a lot. This isn’t quite Camus’ point, however. Camus would certainly argue that my sister is indeed in a pattern that could easily be questioned. Why party all the time? Why not work instead? Why anything at all? This last question is what Camus is driving at.
Ultimately, Camus begins pointing out the absurdity of our place in the universe. He begins by saying that,
By examining the passage it certainly, by itself, seems absurd that the world should be in fine working order until we exercise our mind. But what, specifically, is the absurd part? Camus enlightens us in another passage:
Ah, now the absurdity jumps out. The absurdity isn’t the universe or man. It’s their combination together that produces the absurd. If anything has been made abundantly clear in the 20th century, it is that the universe is irrational i.e. it doesn’t follow any rules. Reason and rationality are built on the premise of following rules—the rules of logic. The universe does no such thing. The universe does what it wants, when it wants. Science, the application of reason upon nature, has been exposed in this century as, not an all-pervading truth, but as a game of prediction. On the surface, contemporary scientific theory can predict what the universe will do to such an extent that science seems like the truth. But make no mistake. Quantum theory in this past century has shown that the universe does some very unpredictable things when in very small quantities and at very high speeds. This is a very important point and one that I don’t deny. The use of reason on the universe is absurd.
The interesting thing to see here is that the universe becomes absurd when rules are applied to it. Rules. That word has been used before in describing the fault line in the God is Dead principle. Before it was used in describing whether ethics were deontological (rule bound) or teleological (end bound). Now we can see another similarity, this time in metaphysics. Aristotle, in creating his metaphysics, argued that all things in existence had some telos, some end. In this way he explained why objects fell to the ground (they wanted to be there) and why objects eventually stopped moving (objects want to be in a state of stasis). This teleological explanation of nature eventually gave way to mechanistic explanations (the reduction of nature to a set of rules i.e. the rock fell and stopped moving because of gravity). Here we can see that teleological and mechanistic explanations form another dichotomy in the same way that teleological and deontological did, with deontological being matched up with mechanistic. And the match seems to fit. Both are based on rules rather than ends. The destruction of the deontological side also continues. In this case the universe doesn’t need God to tell it what to do (unlike man in ethics), but in contemporary science the field of quantum mechanics is almost an oxymoron. Trying to explain, mechanistically, why bundles of subatomic particles are discontinuous in time seems to defy all logic. Hence, why attempting to explain nature logically with rules has begun to break down in this past century.
Camus understands that it is reason applied to the universe that produces the absurdity. He says,
What doesn’t make sense to me is why Camus accepts his fate of never truly understanding the world, of living in absurdity. To me, the answer to the absurdity seems simple: get rid of reason. Or maybe not get rid of it, but rather don’t use it to understand the universe. That’s the first simple answer that comes to mind. Actually looking at the answer and attempting to understand what not using reason means is quite another task.
Camus would certainly object to getting rid of reason. Camus would say that man and reason are intrinsically connected. And this certainly would seem to be the reason why Camus doesn’t even consider getting rid of reason. On the other hand, I agree that you can’t get rid of reason. However, you don’t always use reason. I would expect Camus, as an existentialist, would certainly agree that there are other options other than reason. Emotions for instance. To this Camus might say that “If you’re not being rational, then you’re being irrational and you won’t be able to understand anything, including the universe.” He has a good case for this. One doesn’t understand their emotions when they’re having them. It’s when you reflect on your emotions that you begin to understand them. Jean-Paul Sartre made this point abundantly clear with his pre-reflected cogito.
The fact that humans are not pure reason is important. It is also important to note that humans are the only beings known to use reason to such a great extent. If we delve back into science proper, the current understanding of where humans have come from is that they have evolved from another species. One could raise the objection to moving into science because science itself, in the way of formal reason, seems to be on the questioning block. It seems prudent to remind one that science itself may be open to questioning, but the side of science that has been called into question because of the God is Dead principle is the deontological side. The side with rules. The side that staved off the attack was the teleological side, the side that moves towards an end. It should be noted here that a theory of evolution seems to fit the teleological explanation of science snugger than the deontological side. The reason is that evolution calls for the moving forward of a species to survive better. This isn’t a mere mechanism. It could more aptly be called a goal. The goal to survive. Our investigation into evolution is, really, the continuation of our exploration of Camus’ fault line. But now we are going to go really deep.
Many theories of evolution have humans evolving from inorganic matter. It is here that a further investigation should take place. If humans didn’t always have reason and were, in theory, much more easily identifiable to the rest of the universe (solitary carbon atoms for instance) then it is possible that we had a different understanding of the universe at that time. By using our now intrinsically attached reason we may be able to gain a better understanding of how we, as a species, might view the universe so as to dissolve the absurdities.
Ayn Rand does an excellent job of nicely setting the stage for this investigation. In an extended passage, originally found in Atlas Shrugged, but here quoted from a lecture given to Yale University, Rand gives us four examples of existence:
This passage shows four distinct categories: Inorganic (the inanimate matter), Biological (plants and other simple organisms, like amoebas), Social (non-solipsistic organisms), and Intellectual (the use of reason). These categories were originally developed by Robert M. Pirsig.  They may not jump out at you, but with a little clarification they all make sense.
The first two seem fairly obvious. The difference is, as Rand said, the issue of Life. Biological has it, Inorganic doesn’t. The last two are not so obvious. If we look closely at what separates animals from other forms of life, we can see that these other forms of life live solipsistically. A solipsism typically means that you cannot verify the existence of other minds. The way in which it is being used here is not to mean minds, but simply other beings of similar existence. Plants, for example, live in a world in which they are the only thing that matters. For instance, a tree knows that “stuff” exists around it, some grass, certainly a lot of dirt, maybe another tree, but it doesn’t take into account this “other stuff’s” existence. The tree probably doesn’t even know what the “other stuff” is. For a tree there’s only “me stuff” and “other stuff”. But what is missing between “me stuff” and “other stuff” is summed up in one word: care. The existence of the Other does not matter to the tree. A person may cut down the tree, but the tree will not care about the person or even know that a person exists. The tree only knows and cares about losing its own life.
With animals we see something different. Animals do care about things other then themselves: their offspring. In this way animals show more awareness of their surroundings. This care and awareness for the Other shows itself as Social patterns. That’s really what is produced when care is added to the simple existence of biological life. Care produces patterns of behavior that a species continues by passing it on to each successive generation. You aren’t born with these patterns of behavior. You learn them. With the classification of Social for animals I’m extending past what Rand originally meant, but without it one could make a case that plants have instincts, too. It’s just that plants aren’t mobile and so it doesn’t look like they are following an “automatic code of action.” It seems the real difference between plants and animals is the awareness of others.
Humans are animals and so we also have social behavior. Humans, however, have moved beyond simple instincts and “automatic codes of action.” They use reason. Following the paradigm of evolution, it seems apparent that humans once had instincts. For instance, psychologists have found that babies are born with certain instincts that they eventually grow out of. The babies grow out of these instincts because they are taught social behavior and intellectual behavior. They are taught to reason.
These four categories (Inorganic, Biological, Social, and Intellectual) also double as an evolutionary model. Each category is increased in complexity from Inorganic to Biological to Social to Intellectual. Much like standard evolution. An organism becomes more complex as it moves along its evolutionary course. In this case, the complexity doesn’t stop at biological complexity. With this addition to our evolution concept, many doors of understanding open up. These four categories work separately, and by different rules, but they are connected in a way that allows the possibility of each successive level. Pirsig gives an analogy that wouldn’t be done justice if it were simply summed up in this paper. Therefore, I will give another extended passage, this time from Pirsig in the voice of his protagonist, Phaedrus:
The parallel between the analogy and what was said about the relationship between reason and the universe slaps you in the face. “Everything was seen from a pure and symbolic world of logical relationships that had no resemblance at all to the ‘real’ world he had worked in.” That was it! This was the connection between humans and nature. Pirsig has more to say about this connection in humans:
Here was the other perspective. Here was the “better understanding of how we, as a species, might view the universe so as to dissolve the absurdities.”
LIFE IS ABSURD REVISITED
This may seem like a long vacation that we’ve just taken from Camus. It may seem like Camus was just one stop on the way to this better understanding of the universe. But this wasn’t a vacation. Think of it as a field trip. The difficulty with looking closer at the problems Camus raises, or any philosopher for that matter, is that when you look for an alternative view in hopes of finding a better explanation, many times you have to dig and dig and then explain and explain. These explanations aren’t just sitting around on the surface. Otherwise everyone would already understand everything.
Our long side trip has been fruitful thankfully. The absurdity that Camus describes shows up when we apply Intellectual patterns (rules) upon Biological patterns. We have found that this doesn’t always work and that many discrepancies—absurdities—show up when we do. To ground this in Camus we can take a passage where he describes the absurdity of time:
This absurdity occurs because the Intellectual patterns in humans desire to live for the future. Biological patterns, on the other hand, don’t live for the future. They live in the present. Both live with the past. Biological patterns live in the present and the past because their only desire is to live. They apply the past onto the present to adjust to new obstacles to living. But they do not project. Projection into the future is purely an Intellectual hobby. Through the use of reason and past experiences, humans are able to predict and project into the future desires and expectations. The absurdity lies in the fact that humans seem to fixate on these future plans as if they want to reach them, even though their own Biological patterns tell them that all life will end in the future. The absurdity shows up when we try to make these two patterns compatible. It is one thing to condemn Intellectual comprehension of the universe to absurdity, but it is quite another to condemn all existence to absurdity.
It is certainly interesting to see that Camus reaches almost the same conclusions about the future. He agrees that the two patterns are indeed incompatible, hence, the absurdity. However, instead of attempting to understand the absurdity, and dissolve the problem, he moves on with it and prescribes that we get rid of hope because hope gives us the illusion of eternity. He says that we should live in absurd freedom, revolting from our absurd position, but constantly reaffirming the absurd. I disagree about the place of hope, insofar as that there is nothing wrong with hope as long as you don’t get it mixed up with eternity. And why should we as long as we recognize the fact that we will all die? It’s as simple as that. The disagreement of the place of hope in a human’s life cannot be solved by a dialectical argument. Both statements are bald assertions that can both be applied to life without any of the evidence of people’s lives changing. The difference between the two is that I dissolved the absurdity, leaving hope to be a viable and healthy option, and Camus lives with the absurdity, making hope seem dangerous. My position is summed up by Kai Nielsen when he says,
LIFE IS MEANINGLESS
What does all of this hoopla about fault lines and dissolved absurdities have to do with Camus’ final principle? L. Nathan Oaklander clearly interprets Camus’ revolt into absurd freedom by saying, “The position of revolt does not solve the problems that lead to life’s meaninglessness,….”  This clearly pits the meaninglessness of life after the absurdity of life. But with a closer examination of Camus’ first two principles we see that the absurdity is no longer there. Not only that, but we were given an alternative outlet in the fault line of the God is Dead principle. The fault line allows for a teleological ethics.
At this point the fault line looks very angry when it shows up in the third principle. Meaning implies an end, a goal. When we ask for a meaning to life, we are looking for a purpose. The fault line began to show up when we disregarded all ethical telos after the application of the God is Dead principle. Now it shows up when Camus defiantly contradicts teleology. Add to this the fact that the other reason for accepting the Life is Meaningless principle was the Life is Absurd principle, which was dissolved when an evolutionary model (that fit teleology) was considered, and you have quite an active fault line.
So, what we are left with is a third, and last, principle that cannot stand on its own two feet. Its foundations have been knocked out to the point that, to disagree, would be to disagree with the cold, hard facts that life does have some sort of meaning: to survive. To ask the question whether or not a person has any reason not to kill themselves is to ignore the fact that their body spent many, many long years without this question. And it spent those years getting to the place it is now in. Without that body there would be no question. Why a person should ignore these cold, hard facts and kill themselves, on the basis that life is meaningless, is absurd.
What this does to Camus’ ethics is clearly devastating. With two out of three principles disabled, his ethics seem to take an unrecoverable hit. Sort of. It is clear that Camus cannot work from his former principles, but a simple ethics can be enacted to cover Camus’ “one truly serious philosophical problem … suicide.”  It’s simply that Life has Meaning: to live. It may be a Biological meaning, but to deny that side of being human is to deny being human. This is a rather simple ethics, but it also leaves the door open for any addition. A further developed teleological ethics has been left open for speculation.
In closing, I would offer another extended passage from Ayn Rand, originally found in Atlas Shrugged, but once again quoted from a lecture given to Yale University, that presents an ethics that could well fit the void:
 Oaklander, L. Nathan, ed. Existentialist Philosophy: An Introduction. 2nd ed. (New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1996), p. 340
 Ibid., p. 342
 Albert Camus. “The Myth of Sisyphus.” Trans. Justin O’Brien. Existentialist Philosophy: An Introduction. 2nd ed. Ed. L. Nathan Oaklander. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1996., p. 358
 Ibid., p. 361
 Ibid., p. 362
 Ibid., p. 362
 Rand, Ayn. Philosophy: Who Needs It. New York: Penguin Books, 1982., p. 73-74
 Pirsig, Robert M. Lila. New York: Bantam, 1991., p. 172
 Ibid., p. 173
 Ibid., p. 229-230
 Albert Camus. “The Myth of Sisyphus.” Trans. Justin O’Brien. Existentialist Philosophy: An Introduction. 2nd ed. Ed. L. Nathan Oaklander. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1996., p. 359
 Nielsen, Kai. Ethics Without God. Rev. ed. Amhearst: Prometheus Books, 1990., p. 186
 Oaklander, L. Nathan, ed. Existentialist Philosophy: An Introduction. 2nd ed. (New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1996), p. 341
 Albert Camus. “The Myth of Sisyphus.” Trans. Justin O’Brien. Existentialist Philosophy: An Introduction. 2nd ed. Ed. L. Nathan Oaklander. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1996., p. 357