Sunday, February 11, 2018

Cosmic theater of the absurd

I'm going to comment on some statements by Thomas Nagel, in. E. Klemke & S. Cahn, eds. The Meaning of Life: A Reader (Oxford, 3rd. ed., 2008), chap. 13. 

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.

What we say to convey the absurdity of our lives often has to do with space or time…Our lives are mere instants even on a geological time scale, let alone a cosmic one; we will all be dead any minute. But of course none of these evident facts can be what makes life absurd, if it is absurd. For suppose we lived forever; would not a life that is absurd if it lasts seventy years be infinitely absurd if it lasted through eternity?

i) It isn't clear to me if Nagel thinks these are different reasons or variations on the same basic reason. 

It's true that a life that's intrinsically absurd if it lasts seventy years will still be absurd if it lasted through eternity. This, however, doesn't mean that how, whether, or when something ends is irrelevant to its absurd or meaningful status. For instance, some movies and TV dramas have a plot that's initially and deliberately puzzling. The point is to stimulate the viewer's curiosity. The plot intentionally raises more questions than it answers. At that stage of the plot, multiple interpretations are possible. If the plot is well-crafted, it will eventually tie up the loose ends, in logical, yet unexpected ways, with clever, surprising plot twists. 

If, however, the series is canceled before the director has time to develop the various plotlines and bring them to culmination, then the series would be absurd. The abortive ending didn't allow the plot to achieve its telos. 

Or take a composer who dies in the middle of a composition. The musical fragment is tantalizing, but absurd because we don't know where it's going. 

By the same token, the future is not irrelevant to whether a human life has significance in the present. Any cutoff may be arbitrary. Any termination may frustrate its telos. 

ii) This also goes to the distinction between temporal ends and teleological ends. If the pattern lies in the whole rather than the parts, then a teleological end may be temporally unending. Take a flower garden as it passes through the four seasons. Because that's a cyclical process, there's no logical starting-point or end-point. You can break into the cycle at any point in the cycle. You can visit the garden at any time of year. Spring and fall may be the prettiest. Sometimes summer is just as pretty. Winter is more austere, but a necessary preparation for spring. 

If, by the same token, the significance of a human life lies in the whole, in the overall pattern, then oblivion may nullify its value. But this also goes to the difference between secular and Christian anthropology. From a secular standpoint, human life doesn't exist for a reason. It just so happens that life is cyclical. Life evolved in such a way that once you reach sexual maturity, create and raise offspring, you've outlived your usefulness. You created your replacements. You dwindle and die. It's just repetition for repetition's sake–the byproduct of a mindless, mechanical process. 

From a Christian standpoint, by contrast, the lifecycle is somewhat artificial. We're created for eternity. Although that generally includes a family life, that doesn't exhaust human destiny. God is a storyteller with infinite imagination. He never runs out of good ideas. The plot continues to unfold…forever. 

Since justifications must come to an end somewhere, nothing is gained by denying that they end where they appear to, within life…

That simply begs the question. In fairness, this was an early essay (1971). He wrote it in his mid-30s. In his mid-70s, he expressed dissatisfaction with atheism (Mind & Cosmos).

It would be different if we could not step back and reflect on the process, but were merely led from impulse to impulse without self-consciousness. But human beings do not act solely on impulse…Each of us lives his own life–lives within himself twenty-four hours a day. What else is he supposed to do–live someone else's life? Yet humans have the special capacity to step back and survey themselves, and the lives to which they are committed…they can view it sub specie aeternitatis…We see ourselves from the outside.

That's the conundrum for atheists. According to naturalistic evolution, we're the only animals smart enough to realize the absurdity of human existence. We lack the blissful ignorance of other animals in that regard. Our intellect is our curse, because we're just smart enough to be conscious of our utter irrelevance. Like a cruel hoax which the universe played on us. That's our great discovery. 

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