The Search for Meaning in Meaninglessness

If life has no inherent meaning, why are humans so attached to finding meaning?

A common cognitive phenomenon humans exhibit is apophenia. From Jesus in toast to constellations in stars to dragons in clouds and faces on Mars, we see imagine we see things that aren’t there. We perceive signal where there is only noise. We create gods where they don’t exist.

On one hand, this may be some vestigial artefact that was necessary—or at least evident—for survival along our evolutionary journey. On the other hand, it may just have been inculcated through social indoctrination, and so is just a social construct, a byproduct of language and the ability to reason.

In The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus captured the concept well in his quip,

« I don’ t know whether this world has a meaning that transcends it. But I know that I do not know that meaning and that it is impossible for me just now to know it. »

Camus claimed that life has no meaning and is in fact Absurd. He proposed that you had three courses of action.

  1. Physical suicide
  2. Psychological suicide
  3. Acceptance — embracing the Absurd

Regarding physical suicide, I believe that Camus was being melodramatic. This essay was a product of its day, and in 1942 people were even more steeped in the need for meaning.

Societies exist due to the perception of meaning, so they are obligated to enforce this belief. Societies need to promulgate order, and so much effort is expended to battle concepts that counter this. They envisage anarchists, not only as antithetical to order but as active chaos, black-masked, jack-booted hooligans, smashing windows and looting shops. So, too, do they vilify nihilists and atheists of whatever stripe.

Societies are organisms, and they require meaning to justify their own existence. Nihilism is a cancer, a virus, destroying the very core of their being.

 

All equalities are not equal

I have long been interested in notions of social justice and equality, but somehow it all felt a bit loosey-goosey and amorphic. To be honest, I feel this way about the entire composition of government, politics, and jurisprudence, and other power structures, but those are topics for some other days. Also, I won’t endeavour to speak to the artificial income-market construct, so for the purposes of this post, I’ll take this as given, as anachronistic and quaint as it might otherwise be. Nor will I discuss whether the system itself, apart from the equality question, is optimal or even makes any sense from a broader vantage, or whether competition has a role in an otherwise coöperative society.

Along with empty virtue notions as freedom, liberty, and justice, (topics for another day) equality is a post-Enlightenment Age catchphrase. As with its counterparts, it sounds nice; it has a nice ring to it, but it is just as specious. These are words invoked to raise emotions, but as with a pointillist’s painting, if you attempt to scrutinise them too closely, they become unintelligible.

hb_51.112.6[1]
A Sunday on La Grande Jatte, Georges Seurat
Aside from maths, equality is an issue for sociology as well as political philosophy. In maths, the concept is tautological.

“In sociology, the study of the causes and consequences of inequality in its various forms – class, race, gender, power, status, knowledge, wealth, income – is one of the most pervasive themes of the discipline. In philosophy, theories of justice and rights are centrally concerned with the problem of justifying and criticising different kinds of inequality.” [1]

Sociologist, Bryan Turner, identified four flavours of equality:

  1. Ontological Equality

  2. Equality of Condition

  3. Equality of Opportunity

  4. Equality of Outcome

Political Philosophy is more concerned with accepting the sociological definition as given and discussing it in the negative sense of inequality.

Tautological Equality

In maths, we have likely been made accustomed with equalities since grade school. In fact, that’s what makes the other notions so compelling. It all appears to be so tidy and scientific.

1 = 1

2 = 2

1 + 1 = 2

Amazing, right? Two values balanced on either side of an equals sign. The problem is that these equations—these equalities—are logical tautologies. They are equal because this is in fact how they are defined, defined in the same manner as we define a red lorry as red. Equal in this context is not useful for us, save as a familiar reference.

Ontological Equality

The Declaration of Independence of the United States of America employs ontological equality, where ontological is defined as “relating to the branch of metaphysics dealing with the nature of being”.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Aside from an unsubstantiable claim that these so-called “truths” are somehow “self-evident”, this weakest form of equality is a claim “that all men (read: people) are created equal” at birth because “their Creator” (read: God, an obvious metaphysical nod) “endowed” them with this  aspect.

Translating this into common parlance, this states that we are all equal in the eyes of God [sic]. In essence, to commence a racing metaphor, this means that we all get to participate in the race, and that sounds good, right?

The problem with ontological equality is that it outright ignores existing inequalities, so whilst you may be equal in God’s eyes, that’s where it ends. Essentially, you get an empty promise. If you’ve got something to say about, say a prayer; God’s got operators standing by. At least you get to play the game.

Man U
Manchester United football club players

Equality of Condition

Where ontological equality leaves off, equality of condition steps up. Beyond the metaphysical promise, it claims that all people get to start at the same position, that we each get to start at the same starting line. That sounds fair, right?

The problem with equality of condition is that whilst you may get a place at the starting line, you still face any systematic or structural adversity in play, whether that be discrimination, wealth disparities, access to quality education or other public services, and so on, at least you get to play the start at the same place.

Starting Line
High school girls at a starting line

Equality of Opportunity

My Libertarian associates seem to love this one. In fact, in their world, the only conversation is about equality of opportunity (also known as formal equality of opportunity) versus opportunity of outcome. It’s a cage match to the death, and opportunity is their champion.

Cage Match
Cage Match Fight

This flavour of equality doesn’t claim that a person has the right to start in the same place—only that the rules will be the same.

The problem with equality of opportunity is that it makes a specious claim. Besides ignoring the condition and situation and any past infractions—letting bygones be bygones (especially when they have given you the advantage that you wish to retain).

A parallel would be to allow a steroid-pumping athlete to compete by rationalising that, well, the race has started, so let’s just keep playing. Afterall, we’re playing by the same rules, so that makes it fair. Forgive and forget, right?.

The privileged live in better neighbourhoods, have access to better schools, can afford tutors and summer programmes. Many live in more stable family environments growing up, and they have access to networking benefits. This is further reinforced in university, and, like compound interest, the earlier one starts, the greater the effects of compounding.

Future-value-of-a-present-value-or-principal-using-compound-interest-(given-nominal-annual-interest-rate)-234[1]

 

Again, equality of opportunity might sound good on the surface, but, yet again, it disintegrates on scrutiny. Its main purpose is a feel-good head fake to keep one’s eyes off the prize.

Substantive Equality of Opportunity

A subset of equality of opportunity is substantive equality or fair equality of opportunity. Under this model, additional remediation is asserted to the disadvantaged person. This might be a familiar concept to golfers, who have handicaps. The goal is to—whilst also enforcing a similar rule set—accomodate those with some head start advantage. In the everyday context, it could be providing additional funding or resources to underprivileged children.

The problem with substantive equality of opportunity is that the deficiencies are multifaceted, the system itself is too complex to account for all material dimensions and measures, and most assessments are normative in nature.

Equality of Outcome

Equality of outcome is particularly pernicious. It claims that in the end, everybody wins, and everyone gets the same prizes.

Image of Alice taking with a dodo bird
‘At last the Dodo said, everybody has won, and all must have prizes.’

This is a potential result of Communism, that is if the definition is taken to the absurd. This is a common criticism by some when every participant receives a participation prize—a manifestation of the notion that everybody is special.

The problem with equality of outcome is that, among other things, not everybody wants the same thing, so this logic basically boils down to I want what I want if what you have is what I want as long as everyone else who also wants what I want has it, too. Of course, we could reduce this down from actual equality—apples for apples and oranges for oranges—into value equality, where everyone has access to some comparably equivalent value (whatever that might mean, especially insomuch as different people assign different values to the same goods and services).

Kurt Vonnegut depicted this in his short story, Harrison Bergeron (PDF), where, not being able to raise certain persons, people were instead reduced to the lowest common denominator, so rather than elevate the cognitive ability of low IQ people, the solution was to diminish the capacity of higher IQ people, so as to produce the same—albeit lower—results.

Dancers
Dancers represented in Harrison Bergeron

Closure

In the end, ontological equality is nothing more than vapour; equality of condition fails to account for material differences among people and their situations; equality of opportunity also fails to account for disparities of condition; and equality of outcome is an unrealistic pipe dream that would be too complicated and complex to implement.

In order to further communication, if that is indeed even the purpose (rather than obfuscation, which I feel may be the prime motive), we need to use different concepts, to find new terminology.

End Notes

[1] Equality: Sociological & Philosophical Perspectives, Brighouse & Wright, 2009 (https://www.ssc.wisc.edu/~wright/Sociology%20915%20&%20Philosophy%20955%202009%20syllabus.pdf, retrieved 5-9-2017)

Also note, that I reserve the right to make inline edits to this post in an attempt to extend, clarify, and otherwise elucidate this topic on equality.

Absurdism: Myth of Sisyphus

I am re-reading Albert CamusThe Myth of Sisyphus, but it’s not as I remember all those years ago. My first comment is that it is a product of its time. Even though some people still believe that without some inherent ‘higher’ meaning, chaos would ensue—the same who believe that atheists will behave this way and that anarchists will smash windows and resort to hedonism.

I think that Camus chose suicide because people at that time would have a ‘natural’ propensity to feel that a life without meaning would necessarily result in suicide. It’s especially humorous given that ostensibly there is no meaning. Of course, the larger question is why people appear to be hard-wired to search for meaning. Secondarily, even if there were some higher meaning, as Camus suggests, there would be no objective way to confirm it.

 

« If the only significant history of human thought were to be written, it would have to be the history of its successive regrets and its impotences. »


Back to reading… (less typing and more reading)


« The absurd depends as much on man as on the world. For the moment it is all that links them together. »


 


« I don’ t know whether this world has a meaning that transcends it. But I know that I do not know that meaning and that it is impossible for me just now to know it. »


When Camus cites Nietzsche,

It clearly seems that the chief thing in heaven and on earth is to obey at length and in a single direction: in the long run there results something for which it is worth the trouble of living on this earth as, for example, virtue, art, music, the dance, reason, the mind—something that transfigures, something delicate, mad, or divine“,

he also nods to the reader his accord with Nietzsche’s adherence to virtue ethics praising how he ‘elucidates the rule of a really distinguished code of ethics‘, and therein lies the rub. Why should any of these be any better than any other thing?

Nietzsche and Camus were both products of their age, and as Descartes was before them, as brilliant as they each were in their own rights, they were blinded by their age: Descartes by God, and Nietzsche and Camus by virtue.

The Myth of Sisyphus is an interesting exposition, but, try as it may, it falls short.

On Camus and Sartre

The post,  How Camus and Sartre split up over the question of how to be free, got me wondering.

Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre had a falling out over the philosophical implications of Camus’ The Rebel, but the question I have is how can two Nihilists come to loggerheads when each understood the lack of inherent meaning and purpose in the universe. Camus felt one needed to embrace the Absurd, but not resort to violence except as a last resort, but Sartre felt Communism—even if formed through violent means—was the right way forward. On what objective moral basis could either of these positions be defended?

Oh, and here’s a vid…

Image

So What?

Morality is a human construct. More specifically, it is a normative construct of language. It is used as a tool to maintain power and promote normalcy, but so what?

People are indoctrinated with this normative perspective, but accept it as some self-evident truth. But there is no absolute truth. This, too, is a contextual function of language.

Since the dawn of civilisation—and perhaps longer—, humans have been constructing moral codes of behaviour. From attributing moral origins to supernatural gods, they’ve attempted to move to a secular humanist vantage, ascribing these powers attributed to nature, but this is little more than a metaphysical euphemism in order to appear to be more scientific as a result of Enlightenment.

Clinging to absolute morality is like clinging to religion and gods.

As Marx said, ‘religion is the opiate of the masses.’ Clinging to a sense of absolute morality is not much different to clinging onto religion and gods. There’s a sense of security. It’s comforting and weaved into the fabric of most societies.

Still, so what? As long as the masses prefer to believe that morals somehow exist in the wild, and people, being story-lovers, are exploited by persuasive storytellers, we are resigned to this situation.

Neoclassical Morality

Episode 8 of The Moral Foundations of Politics with Ian Shapiro was another difficult lesson to watch—rather to listen to—the student responses. Evident is the degree of indoctrination or brainwashing these students have been through. I want to document some pieces I feel are relevant to my position.

  1. The fact that morality is perniciously imposed and infused on the unsuspecting
  2. The fact that property rights change over time
  3. The fact that legal interpretation changes over time

The responses were primarily knee-jerk responses anchored on institutional indoctrination. Whilst it makes sense to indoctrinate a group, I am opposed to imposing an obvious relative morality but passing it off as absolute.

Asking how prostitution could be illegal when sex and commerce are both legal, the responses—to be fair, only a couple people responded—were about how it might somehow ‘harms’ women or society as a sort of negative externality, be violent, have been coercive or a form of slavery, have involved a married or otherwise committed spouse, or have involved an under-aged person. These were poor man’s strawman arguments at best, each potentially with merit, but each a separate issue from the question.

In fact, we can likely find evidence of each of these in a ‘typical’ employment situation: coercion, under-age, a threat of violence, implied or expressed; the spousal issue doesn’t fit these situations, but even if we want to legislate keeping people safe from their own actions, it is as illegal for unmarried persons, so the rationale is insufficient.

The point I hold is that prostitution in and of itself is no more exploitative than any other source of employment, a source income. Given that Western society imposes income as the primary means to support one’s self, the wrong here is that artificial barrier. Were income not a veritable necessity, prostitution to earn money (or use as a barter) would also be unnecessary. This is not to say that the other aforementioned objections would be resolved; this because, as I mentioned, they are different issues.

Next, we are told that marital rape originally not considered a crime because a woman was considered to be chattel property transferred patriarchally from her father to her husband. As I’ve written previously, I do not subscribe to the notion of property in the first place, but taken that as given, it is obvious that property is determined through whimsy. Property rights change over time, whether receding as just noted or expanding to include intellectual property and the expanse of patentable ideas. It’s disconcerting that application of the law can be so arbitrary and, though perhaps not capricious, frivolous. And given it is all open to interpretation, the pendulum can swing in the other direction, as the women of Iran and other fundamentalist theocracies has experienced.

Apparently, I’m done ranting. Basic income has been mentioned as a solution to some prostitution, as some women participate out of desperation. Though I feel that this might kerb some prostitution, some women would still seek to supplement this base income, if only to advance their personal standard of living.

Completed Anarchy

I finished the first section of Nozick‘s book—the Anarchy section—, and I am not in a better position than my past two posts. Nozick and Libertarians are obsessed with a normative, teleological world, where there is some objective, absolute truth and reality. I can’t argue whether there is some absolute truth, but I feel I can argue, like the God argument,  there is no reason to believe that we can know what that truth is, absolutely.

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Classical Utilitarianism and Distributive Justice

I watched this vid in the excellent video series, Moral Foundations of Politics.

Professor Shapiro seems to misunderstand or misstate (I’ll go with misstate) the concept of diminishing marginal utility when he describes the utility of beer and aspirin, as he misses the point that under the theory of diminishing marginal utility, the marginal utility will decrease to zero and continue into negative space. The scenario to get more beer to sell doesn’t make sense.

Image: Jeremy Bentham