Is life absurd? Sometimes it seems to be.
I ponder how large the universe is (a hundred billion or so galaxies, each with a hundred billion or so stars) and how old it is (about 13.7 billion years), and compare this with my puny earthly existence.
How insignificant I am compared to the cosmos! How absurd it is that I consider my life to mean anything in light of my miniscule'ness!
If you want to know how a philosopher persuasively addresses that and yet, give Thomas Nagel's "The Absurd" a read.
I did so yesterday, finding it pleasingly thought-provoking. Here's one reading option, albeit with an annoyingly large line length. Or you can read the original piece in The Journal of Philosophy as a PDF file.
I don't claim to have digested all of the meaty/tofuy philosophical subtleties in Nagel's piece. But these are some general impressions gained from my first perusal of "The Absurd."
We find life absurd when there seems to be a disconnect between something vast or transcendent, and our little human life. We envision the grandness of the entire universe, comparing it to ourselves. Or we imagine the greatness of God, reaching a similar absurdist conclusion.
So absurdity basically involves asking "compared to what?" Nagel says that mice don't worry about their lives being absurd. Only humans have the capacity for self-awareness and self-reflection that allows for a feeling of this is absurd.
Religion is one way people cope with that feeling.
Relgious believers enlarge their absurdly small selves by identifying with the creator of the cosmos. In a similar fashion, other people cast their lot with a political party, social cause, or some other entity that gives them a sense of "this is bigger than myself."
Yet in the end, there is no end. Meaning, we can never know where a chain of causes and effects leads. I can devote my life to a noble cause, but when I die (and even while I live) I can't completely understand what meaning this has for the world.
Heck, I could be screwing things up more than I'm helping to improve a situation.
Nagel says that humanity might come to realize that we are being raised by aliens as a food source. In that case, being a tasty meal would be the meaning of my life. However, I then have to ask: Are these aliens good? Is keeping them alive positive or negative?
One way of dealing with absurdity is to not be drawn into the sort of comparison mentioned above. We simply live life, not caring much (or at all) whether we're doing something important or significant. This is difficult, though, because we humans have an innate drive to ponder our position in life beyond a simple "this is it."
Here's some quotes from "The Absurd" to whet your appetite for reading more. I'll start with my favorite quote -- how Nagel ends his piece.
If a sense of the absurd is a way of perceiving our true situation (even though the situation is not absurd until the perception arises), then what reason can we have to resent or escape it? Like the capacity for epistemological skepticism, it 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 specie aeternitatis [eternally true] there is no reason to believe that anything matters, then that doesn't matter either, and we can approach our absurd lives with irony instead of heroism or despair.
And here's Nagel's opening thoughts.
Most people feel on occasion that life is absurd, and some feel it vividly and continually. Yet the reasons usually offered in defense of this conviction are patently inadequate: they could not really explain why life is absurd. Why then do they provide a natural expression for the sense that it is?
Consider some examples.
It is often remarked that nothing we do now will matter in a million years. But if that is true, then by the same token, nothing that will be the case in a million years matters now. In particular, it does not matter now that in a million years nothing we do now will matter. Moreover, even if what we did now were going to matter in a million years, how could that keep our present concerns from being absurd ? If their mattering now is not enough to accomplish that, how would it help if they mattered a million years from now?
Whether what we do now will matter in a million years could make the crucial difference only if its mattering in a million years depended on its mattering, period. But then to deny that whatever happens now will matter in a million years is to beg the question against its mattering, period; for in that sense one cannot know that it will not matter in a million years whether (for example) someone now is happy or miserable, without knowing that it does not matter, period.
Lastly, here's the alien hypothesis, mixed in with some godly ponderings.
One may try to escape the position by seeking broader ultimate concerns, from which it is impossible to step back—the idea being that absurdity results because what we take seriously is something small and insignificant and individual. Those seeking to supply their lives with meaning usually envision a role or function in something larger than themselves.
They therefore seek fulfillment in service to society, the state, the revolution, the progress of history, the advance of science, or religion and the glory of God. But a role in some larger enterprise cannot confer significance unless that enterprise is itself significant. And its significance must come back to what we can understand, or it will not even appear to give us what we are seeking.
If we learned that we were being raised to provide food for other creatures fond of human flesh, who planned to turn us into cutlets before we got too stringy—even if we learned that the human race had been developed by animal breeders precisely for this purpose—that would still not give our lives meaning, for two reasons.
First, we would still be in the dark as to the significance of the lives of those other beings; second, although we might acknowledge that this culinary role would make our lives meaningful to them, it is not clear how it would make them meaningful to us.
Admittedly, the usual form of service to a higher being is different from this. One is supposed to behold and partake of the glory of God, for example, in a way in which chickens do not share in the glory of coq au vin. The same is true of service to a state, a movement, or a revolution. People can come to feel, when they are part of something bigger, that it is part of them too. They worry less about what is peculiar to themselves, but identify enough with the larger enterprise to find their role in it fulfilling.
However, any such larger purpose can be put in doubt in the same way that the aims of an individual life can be, and for the same reasons. It is as legitimate to find ultimate justification there as to find it earlier, among the details of individual life.
But this does not alter the fact that justifications come to an end when we are content to have them end—when we do not find it necessary to look any further. If we can step back from the purposes of individual life and doubt their point, we can step back also from the progress of human history, or of science, or the success of a society, or the kingdom, power, and glory of God, and put all these things into question in the same way.
What seems to us to confer meaning, justification, significance, does so in virtue of the fact that we need no more reasons after a certain point.