The Mood of the Age
Albert Camus (1913-1960) wrote that suicide is the only serious philosophical problem.
Deciding whether or not life is worth living is to answer the fundamental question in philosophy. All other questions follow from that.
Camus, Myth of Sisyphus. Camus held that it was absurd to seek meaning in life when there is none. He regarded this consciousness of absurdity as the mood of the times, and asked whether the absurd dictates that we choose death. He then went about attempting to find ways to think about life as being worth living, despite its meaninglessness.
The way, he believed, was illustrated in the myth of Sisyphus. The gods condemned Sisyphus to the task of rolling a stone up the hill, only to watch it roll back down, repeatedly, for eternity. In this myth, Camus sought to illustrate how we might choose to live, though we seek meaning and know we will not find it. Sisyphus, Camus argues, is superior to his fate. He is superior because he is conscious of the tragedy. His tragic consciousness of absurdity makes him able to live fully aware of the bitterness of his being.
This is a form of existentialism; indeed, the essence of existentialism, though Camus himself eschewed the word. It is ultimately unsatisfying. The bitterness of life resulting from its meaninglessness is not somehow canceled simply by our awareness of its meaningless. There is no form of victory, as Camus imagined it, because he also imagined there is no god over whom to have the victory. It is the tragic sense of self, only, that is thought to make life worth living despite the unquenched and (in Camus’ imagining) unquenchable thirst for meaning for that life.
Camus’ existentialism is not an attempt to find meaning. Meaninglessness is given, there being no God. His philosophy was instead an attempt to find a reason to live, despite there being no meaning. Camus was not right about the existence of God, but he was right about there being no meaning to life if there is no God. He was right about the essential absurdity of life, given that presupposition. And, he was right about that awareness of absurdity being the mood of the age.
Obscure the Question
The existentialist directedness to mood is not merely a criticism that it is irrational. It is an element of, or a consequence of, existentialist thought, acknowledged as such by other existentialists as well, including Heidegger and Jean-Paul Sartre. That mood might be described as angst. In Sartre’s vision, for example, it is angst at the supreme responsibility we take on in our actions, in the exercise of pure free will.
The more prevalent existentialist influence on our culture, however, is a mood of angst from a different source altogether: a party-all-night evasion of meaninglessness. This mood surrounds a form of bootstrapping meaning where it doesn’t exist. If there is no God, then there is no meaning. Camus attempted to accept that meaningless and find purpose for living anyway. The effort failed. We’re back to denying the meaninglessness. Other strands of existentialism attempt it, but ultimately it is by a mood, much like Camus’ mood of tragic consciousness, but this time in service to denying meaninglessness. That mood only serves to obscure the significance to us of our essential meaninglessness, making it less stark.
Other forms of avoiding the stark reality of meaninglessness without God include the dive into transient hedonism. Perhaps as a sort of defiant but confused philosophical statement, or perhaps as an unexamined avoidance of the stark reality of meaninglessness (assuming no God). This doesn’t deal with meaninglessness. It amounts to putting our hands over our ears, closing our eyes, and screaming “la-la-la-la-la,” like a small child.
Wonder as Substitute
Alternatively, one might look to the wonders of the cosmos, or to other wonders of material reality, substituting that wonder for meaning. Study of science-revealed truths about material reality generates a sense of wonder at its complexity and scope, and that sense of wonder can be merged, in our minds, with a sense of meaningfulness.
But they’re not the same. The effects of black holes on space and time, for example, are indeed wondrous, but as wonderful as they are, they are but brute facts of material existence. They do not tell us why we exist, or even why black holes exist. Chasing after knowledge of the complex features of physical existence is worthwhile, but it is a distinct inquiry from the question of meaning. It can become another means of avoiding the hard reality of meaninglessness, for those who presuppose there is no God.
Meaning Still Demanded
In the back of our minds, we know that none of these efforts at avoiding the question will work. We know that the absence of meaning for our lives (if there is no God) lies just below the surface. Camus’ brand of existentialism does not successfully shift the question away from meaning. Other forms of philosophy, such as Sartre’s existentialism, and most of postmodernist thinking, do not successfully shift the question away from the need for meaning. Hedonism doesn’t. And neither does “science,” by which people generally mean the wonders revealed by scientific inquiry, which are mistakenly thought to stand in for meaning.
We’re left with Camus’ unanswered question. Is life worth living?
For now, let’s just deal with the question, not its answer, and see how the question itself affects our tendency to agnosticism, in Evasion.