Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Say "mu" to Camus on meaninglessness

Albert Camus famously or infamously said in "The Myth of Sisyphus" (summary and Wikipedia) that there is one ultimate issue in philosophy:
There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide.
Of course, that relates to, and cornerstones, issues in his absurdist philosophy, and in the related existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre and others.

Theists, especially Christian apologists, have used this as a cudgel, whacking secular existentialists over the head with the idea that they, or we, claim that life is "meaningless" and that there is therefore no recourse at end but suicide.

Well, a new essay at Massimo Pigliucci's Scientia Salon, by John G. Messerly, deals with this issue in part. And, it's stimulated me to yet further thought, reflected in part, and starting with, my second comment on the essay.

That said, let's unpack this issue a bit further. I'll then get to the second half of that second comment and go from there.

Camus, of course, said suicide was not the answer — revolt was. Which might be true. Revolt while accepting the modern absurdity of life.

Modern humanistic psychologists of a secularist mindset say that meaning is what we bring to the table.

But, beyond that, what if "meaningless(ness)" as traditionally defined in philosophy and psychology isn't exactly the issue?

And now, to that comment.
I think Camus was asking the wrong question. 
 Life is neither meaningful nor meaningless, if we take “meaningless” to be the opposite of “meaningful.” 
 If we instead, talk about “without meaning” or “meaning-less” (sic) we can hopefully understand this not as an opposition to “meaningful” but simply that the issue of “meaning” is, if not a category mistake, one of those issues about which we should be silent, or even more, per logical positivism, a question that is itself … without meaning!
 It’s true that, as part of our attempts to control our surroundings, we probably have “meaning seekers” as well as “pattern detectors” and “agency imputers” halfway hardwired into our brains.
 But, per Hume’s is ≠ ought, that doesn’t mean that we have to follow them in falsely looking for agency — or falsely imputing meaning where it doesn’t exist, or falsely looking for it when it’s not part of the issue.
Let's go a bit further.

"Meaning" and "meaninglessness" also seems to be one of those polarities, like "free will" vs. "determinism," that's wrong in other ways.

First, it's presuming that a polarity should exist.

Second, it assumes that one should, in some degree at least, "reduce" to the other, rather than both be "unified" in a larger theory, just like general relativity and quantum theory will surely "unify" rather than having one reduce to the other.

Third, like the free will half of that first duality, a desire for meaning — or, a desire to frame ordering one's life around meaning, and trying to justify how to frame it without meaning — seems based in part on religion. I've said that this seems true to some degree of many secular defenders of classical free will, on religion and guilt connecting to free will.

Indeed, the Sparknotes summary, on the first link, puts this in is vs. ought terms, as far as how Camus treats Sisyphus:
As his starting point, Camus takes up the question of whether, on the one hand, we are free agents with souls and values, or if, on the other hand, we are just matter that moves about with mindless regularity.
 Camus is interested in finding a third alternative. Can we acknowledge that life is meaningless without committing suicide? Do we have to at least hope that life has a meaning in order to live? Can we have values if we acknowledge that values are meaningless? Essentially, Camus is asking if the second of the two worldviews sketched above is livable.
But, just as I have repeatedly, most  notably here and in my own essay for Pigliucci, said that we should say “mu” to the traditional “free will versus determinism” polarity, I think we need to similarly “unask” Camus here.  (And Monty Python.)

So, per my pull quote from my comment at Massimo's, if life should not be viewed though a "meaning versus meaningless" filter, what should we then do?

Well, the reference to Farmville, Candy Crush and other Facebook games aside, in this issue of Existentialist Comics, keeping an intelligent Sisyphus happy is probably harder than this. That's especially true for those like Camus and other professional and amateur philosophers who wrestle with these questions. We are "cursed" with intelligence, and speculative intelligence in general.

That said, where do we go from here, to find a better, more authentic contentment than Sisyphus?

To me, the original existentialism, or the Zen of the east from which I get my "mu" to Camus' question, is our starting point.

Recognizing that life simply "is," not in the scientific sense, but in a philosophical and a psychological sense, is the lodestar.

From there, finding contentment comes next. Contentment, to me, is both "deeper" psychologically and less ephemeral than "happiness."

And,, it's not necessarily based on old ideas of how we "have to" find meaning, or create meaning, to be happy.

Second, per the essay that I linked that sparked these comments, as one other commenter noted, "progress" is usually defined in teleological terms. People often define meaning in the same way, which of course is another problem, and one recognized in part by existentialist and absurdist philosophers.

If your meaning is defined from achieving a goal, then you are doomed to frustration in never achieving it, or, like Sisyphus, having your "achievement clock" reset, or new layers added to it, or whatever.

And, what if you do achieve a goal of teleologically-based progress? What then? In the modern West, often, "emptiness," followed by chasing after some new goal.

"Revolt" might be one way of achieving this. But, I think it needs to be somewhat more comprehensive, maybe even somewhat more Cynical, as I discuss in calling for a neo-Cynicism, than Camus realized. The revolt has to include a revolt against teleology.

Even "authenticity" must be put under our Cynical microscope. Too often, "authenticity" is seen in a quasi-Platonic sense, as in "There's some ideal Me out there, and that's what I want to be."

Well, no there's not.

Each one of us is the result of massive contingency in a materialist universe. There's no way any ideal Me or You exists.

So, authenticity means rejecting the strictures of society that don't agree with deeper layers of our selves — before they become part of those deeper layers.

At the same time (heads up, Black Bloc!) it means questioning the idea of "revolt for revolt's sake" (sorry, any hyper-Camuseans) or any other "X for X's sake."

I'm not a process theologian, or anything close.

But, I will call myself a sort of "process psychologist."

As such, meaning is created, not found. And, it's created on an ongoing, not a static basis. It's part of a dialogue between a changing self, a current moment, and a current moment that is part of a larger stream of time.

And thus, meaning changes throughout life. Why wouldn't it?

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