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.

 

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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…