Archives for posts with tag: Existentialism

Some people think that a meaningless universe is inherently depressing. That a world without value or purpose is a void, is empty, and that emptiness seeps into all aspects of our being and tarnishes it black with despair. Nihilism is alleged to be the only reasonable belief system within an empty universe, and this frightens people. We all feel that there is meaning, and if that meaning is based on nothing, then it becomes invalid.

But let us look at a purposed universe. If the universe has to start at point Alpha, and must end at point Omega, then all the events between those two points necessarily must be predetermined because everything must culminate at this final position. If we are driving towards a particular end, then we would have no choice but to head towards it. We would be interchangeable cogs; our own value would be nothing, and the only possible meaning would lie in the path, not those who follow it.

If we are free, however, and we can either choose to follow the purposed path or ignore it, then that would be like “choosing” what 2 + 2 might equal. The answer could only ever be 4, and we end up not actually choosing at all.

If we are free to choose to the point where the Omega becomes fluid, then this universal purpose becomes invalid. Think of a screwdriver. If a screwdriver is only ever used to, I dunno, stab people in the eyeballs or something, and is never actually used to screw things, can we genuinely say its purpose to screw is imbued within it? Is it a screwdriver, or is it a stabby tool? By every single perspective, it would be a stabby tool, because that is the purpose that we have prescribed to it. Its created purpose would be irrelevant.

Any universe, if it has a beginning with a predetermined set of events that would lead a causal chain towards an inevitable end, saps any meaning from the individual and places it onto that chain. I know I was using Biblical terms to show the issues with God’s Plan, but this works with material determinism as well. At least with God there’s a semblance of hope and goodness in it. The common consensus is that entropy is the Omega of the material universe, and if our purpose lies solely in our path, then our purpose as material beings can only be death.

If there is no inherent meaning, however, then we are free. Some might argue that birth and death would be our Alpha and our Omega, and that freedom within these two illustrates that freedom can be possible within a purposed universe. However, death is not our ultimate Omega. Jean-Paul Sartre says, “It has often been said that we are in the situation of a condemned man among other condemned men who is ignorant of the day of his execution but who sees each day that his fellow prisoners are being executed. This is not wholly exact. We ought rather to compare ourselves to a man condemned to death who is bravely preparing himself for the ultimate penalty, who is doing everything possible to make a good showing on the scaffold, and who meanwhile is carried off by a flu epidemic.” Death, though inevitable, is unpredictable and just as contingent as everything else, thus making it impossible to be our purpose.

Because we are free, we choose our meaning every moment of every day. We constantly assign value, and our purpose comes from our decisions in the face of the contingencies of the purposeless universe. We are not an infinitesimal part of some “great plan”, we are the greatness. I would argue that the purposed universe is the empty one, because we as individuals become insignificant. In a meaningless one, we have the only significance.

The reason we fear the purposeless universe isn’t because we believe it leads to nihilism. It’s because it means we are responsible. In a universe with meaning, we are without obligation, without fear, because we know that what we do must be a part of what necessarily must happen. If we are free, then everything we do we are responsible for. Responsibility holds the greatest weight. One choice removes all other possible choices forever, and we can’t not choose.

It is, of course, impossible to prove or disprove fatalism. The jury is also still out on whether or not quantum theory has fully disproved material determinism. Just because a meaningless universe sounds better, doesn’t make it the truth.

I’m going to give two examples that personally make me lean more towards meaninglessness over meaning. I volunteer at a recovery house for drug addicts, and some guys get better, but most don’t. Sometimes the guys in the house get along, and sometimes they don’t. To me, if someone is trying to make a better life for themself, and they get placed in a house with someone else who they just can’t fundamentally get along with, and are forced to live next to this person 24/7, the likelihood of that person relapsing shoots up to almost 100%. Well, both of them, really. That something so trivial as the timing one is placed into a home for healing can make or break someone’s life, quite literally, is absurd. But it happens.

The other example is love. That there is someone out there that is perfectly compatible with you actually is quite likely. The law of averages says that someone within the entirety of the human race would have to have optimum compatibility with you. And that person would even necessarily have to be culturally compatible with you to the point of at least putting your location and timelines pretty close together. But pretty close together is relatively speaking compared to the entirety of the human race. Living on the west coast of Canada, my optimized ideal match could very well be in England, or Australia, or could just be being born right now. The likelihood of us ever meeting is almost non-existent. But let’s add the stipulation that this is a person that I will actually come across. There must be, throughout my life, the most optimized match for me. It won’t be as strong a match, but it will be stronger than anyone else I meet. But how many people do I actually engage with that I meet? Maybe I just see her on the bus, and we’re both wearing headphones. Or we just pass in the street. Now let’s add the further stipulation that of all the people that I engage with at least to the point where a relationship might become possible, there has to be an optimum match of those. But what if she’s just getting out of a relationship and is unable to commit? Or the opportunity passes because it is not recognized? Or I’m in a relationship and it’s fine enough that I am disinclined to leave it? We’ve already added so many stipulations that we’ve eliminated most of our optimal matches, and even when we’ve made it the easiest it can be to spend all of our days with this watered down “love of our life”, there are still many factors contributing to even that not coming to pass. Let’s be nice and say that you do meet this person and fall in love and spend the rest of your days together. What if you meet this person in the hospital bed next to you as you lay dying in your final days?

Dostoevsky has similar views on a universe with purpose. He looks at the suffering of children, and goes through many examples of horrific events involving the death and massacre of innocents. An army general letting loose his hunting dogs on a child; a child being locked in a Russian outhouse overnight, etc. He suggests that if the purpose of a universe is an ultimate harmony and bliss, why must it be paid for by the suffering of children? “If the sufferings of children go to swell the sum of sufferings which was necessary to pay for truth, then I would protest that the truth is not worth such a price.” Dostoevsky looks at the world, and rejects any purpose that necessarily requires the atrocity that he sees. That the universe might work in mysterious ways is another position Dostoevsky rejects: “I must have retribution, or I will destroy myself. And not retribution in some remote infinite time and space, but here on earth, and that I could see myself.” What value has justice if it’s obscured and postponed to the point of irrelevancy?

Yes, it is possible that this this world of seemingly pointless horror does have a point to it. A point that removes freedom and responsibility from those who participate in it. It is equally possible that there isn’t, and to me that seems the more sensible, and uplifting option. Unless all the meaning you’ve created for yourself disappears through contingencies outside of your control, and there is no permanent meaning outside yourself that you can cling to, that will always be there waiting for you, THEN I guess it could be a little depressing. But more meaning can always be created, and despair is not an excuse to not search for more. Just as misery can be pointless, so too can joy. Ever find ten bucks laying on the sidewalk?

I have already written a post about the meaning of life, and I stand by my assertion that meaning is derived from our passionate emotions, but I have a read a bit more about it, and wish to delve deeper into the subject.

Victor Frankl is a Jewish man who survived the Nazi concentration camps. As a psychologist, he was able to use his time in various camps to make observations about the people he was surrounded by. His most important discovery was that those prisoners who had hope, who found meaning even among the horror that inundated them, were able to survive longer than those who gave in to despair. Frankl’s meaning came from the love of his wife, and that love nourished his spirit to overcome the crushing emptiness that threatened to engulf him at any moment.

One of the quotations from his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, reads that  “meaning is available in spite of – nay even through- suffering, provided … that the suffering is unavoidable. If it is avoidable, the meaningful thing to do is to remove its cause, for unnecessary suffering is masochistic rather than heroic. If, on the other hand, one cannot change a situation that causes his suffering, he can still choose his attitude.”

Frankl discusses a conversation he had with a journalist who tells him the story of a Jew who raised armed rebellion against his Nazi captors, calling him a hero, and Frankl tells the journalist that to pick up and shoot a weapon is no big act of courage, but that to hold one’s head high with dignity as one is marched into the gas chambers, that is heroic.

After having survived arguably one of the worst tortures that humanity has inflicted upon itself, Frankl came home to discover that his wife had not survived her own captivity. Many Jews were destroyed not just by the holocaust, but from escaping it only to realize that the hope they had clung to was only a fool’s hope, and the meaninglessness of their suffering came down upon them in full force.

Frankl endured this holocaust aftershock, though many didn’t, and went on to create something called Logotherapy: a method of therapy where an individual is helped find meaning in their life in order to alleviate even physical symptoms that nihilism can inflict on a human being. He theorizes that there are three sources of meaning: in work (doing something significant), in love (caring for another person) or in courage during difficult times.

This theory lines up almost perfectly with my own. The significance of the work must of course be significant to the individual, as someone might be able to find meaning just as much in delivering the newspaper as in organizing the events that would be written about in one. This would be derived from the passion they feel for their work. Not just love, as the activist would be driven by righteous indignation or the athlete by competitive determination, but by any emotion strong enough to make the work worthwhile.

Albert Camus’ Sisyphus conquers his trial by realizing that the meaninglessness of his endeavour can be overcome by owning it through powerful emotion, and continuing on. It is his spite for the gods that enables him to find meaning in his trivial task. In his essay The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus states, “There is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn.”

Why is it important to find meaning in suffering? Well, because life is full of it.

Arthur Schopenhauer suggests that all of life is built upon striving. We are continually moving towards something, and if we are not, we become bored. Because striving is based upon a lack, there is an inherently negative aspect of life that we must constantly deal with. Even happiness, Schopenhauer suggests, is based upon a lack being fulfilled (not a positive, but merely the nullification of a negative) and we experience a brief euphoria before inevitably returning to our natural state of striving for something new, or risk falling into boredom.

Or in Buddhism, it is suggested that all life is suffering because we are attached to ephemeral things, and so life is a series of losses of those things that we cling to.

Is meaning only available during those brief moments of happiness when our attachments are still with us, or we’ve achieved the thing that we were striving for? Is life going from one stepping stone to the next, the spaces in between being devoid of any value? Or do we give up our attachments, give up our goals, and become shells of human beings; serene, but empty?

Whether you agree that all of life is built upon suffering or not, it is undeniable that suffering plays a major role in human existence. Meaning in suffering is imperative because that is when we need it most. Meaning can be derived in the form of works; using the passionate emotion of suffering to construct or create, letting it drive us. Or using another of our passions to sustain us, to endure the hardship. Or simply to hold our heads high, and face our suffering with dignity.

There was once a man named Abraham Lincoln. Now, Lincoln is known for a few things, like abolishing slavery, owning dapper hats, and a posthumous distaste for the theatre, but one story that is slightly less known is that one day Abe and a buddy were riding in a carriage discussing altruism. Lincoln was saying that there is no such thing as a truly selfless act, and his buddy was saying, yeah bro, there is. All of a sudden the carriage came upon an adorable little pig stuck in some mud. Abraham Lincoln demanded the carriage driver stop, leaped out of the carriage with his coattails all a-flutter, rolled up his sleeves, and rescued the pig. Dusting himself off, Abe climbed back into the carriage. His buddy, triumphant, declared, “Saving that pig did not affect you in the slightest! That was a truly selfless act!” and Abraham Lincoln, being the wise-cracking mother fucker that he is, smirked and replied, “If I hadn’t saved that swine, it would have bothered me all day.”

Do I agree with good ol’ Honest Abe? That there is no such thing as a truly selfless act? No, I don’t. I’m using this story to illustrate the fact that people who do nice things for themselves are smug assholes.

Too often do I hear people say to do nice things, and nice things will happen to you. Or to do nice things because it’ll make you feel good. Or do nice things and people will finally respect you. These are the reasons that Abe Lincoln claimed that a truly selfless act is impossible. Doing nice things for personal gain or self-image doesn’t make you nice. It makes you a dink. You’re like those people who are always so God damned cheerful, but everybody knows that it’s just a ruse and they’re really a creep. Just because your actions might be considered nice or beneficial to others, it doesn’t make you a saint if your justifications are self-serving.

A Batman once said that it’s not who you are underneath, but what you do that defines you. That may be how others will judge you, but it is not who you are. Your essence as a person is not based on the opinions of others, but on your consciousness alone. If the quality of that consciousness is based on self-serving motives, then regardless of how many pigs you save, you’re still kind of a twat.

The obvious alternative is to do nice things for other people. That is also stupid. There is no way to predict the outcome of a “nice” act, and so to rely on the reactions of other people to dictate the merit of an act will constantly vary. Did you ever give a gift you felt sure would make somebody happy, and have it rejected or met with apathy? It’s the thought that counts, right? The thought to do something nice for someone else? What good is a thought if everybody loses? An act cannot be judged based on its outcome because the outcome will never be known prior to the act itself.

So if the consequences of an act don’t define it, nor does its intent, the only thing left is the act itself.

But Dan, don’t actions lack any inherent value?

That is an excellent point, italicized text. We as subjects create the value for every single act, but that does not exclude the possibility of projecting that value outside of ourselves when it comes to morality. Therefore when we act, we do it not for ourselves or for others, but for the deed itself. This allows us to abstain from self-righteousness, as well as foregoing the risk of a moral quandary due to unanticipated consequences.

This does not mean that we are obligated to hold others to account under our morality, for it is still our own and will always be unique to us. Just because we project it outside of ourselves does not mean that we must forget its original source. Neither does this mean that absolutism is the answer, and projected morality does not have to be rigid, but can be just as fluid as the situation merits.

Hold on, so we’re just supposed to pretend that something that comes from within us is actually outside of us? How can a form of ethics be based on make believe? 

All forms of ethics are based on make believe. Ethics is impossible to nail down; hence why it’s one of my favourite things. This is just a theory of mine to prevent people from being terrible, and also to help them realize that deeds are not necessarily the only method of defining somebody’s character.