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Nagel and The Absurd

06/20/2009 15 comments

“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?” — Thomas Nagel

Thomas Nagel has a very novel and profound take on what Camus and others have called the absurd. In philosophical circles, the absurd is usually a reference to the failed attempt by humans to find a cosmic meaning to life. Life becomes absurd when we come to the realization that our lives have no supra-human significance. According to Nagel, many people often falsely diagnose the origin of our sense of life’s absurdity. The absurd does not result from the fact that we are very small creatures in a vast and potentially endless universe. Neither does it result from the fact that our lives, on a cosmological or geological timescale, are utterly short. If we were larger or the universe smaller, how would that make life any less absurd? Or, if the duration of our lives was longer, in what way would that help decrease the absurdity of our lives? An immortal would arguably have the most absurd life of all.

For Nagel, the absurd—along with most traditional philosophical problems—results from the fact that we are creatures that have the ability to transcend ourselves in thought. While bound to a particular subjective perspective, we also have the ability to view the world and ourselves from an outsider’s perspective. That is to say, we are subjects capable of objective thought.

More specifically, according to Nagel, the absurd results from the fact that we take ourselves, our activities, and our endeavors very seriously while at the same time having the ability to look at ourselves, our activities, and our endeavors  from an impersonal, objective, abstract perspective: a perspective in which our personal lives and all that is contained within them appear embarrassingly arbitrary, utterly contingent, and open to doubt.

Nagel thinks that we take ourselves seriously whether we lead serious lives or not. Whether we’re concerned with fame, pleasure, virtues, triumph, beauty, justice, knowledge, salvation, or mere survival, we take ourselves and others seriously. “We cannot live human lives without energy and attention, nor without making choices which show that we take some things more seriously than others…Human life is full of effort, plans, calculation, success and failure.” Yet we continually have a sort of double vision—the subjective and the objective view—both of which are inescapable. “We always have available a point of view outside the particular form of our lives, from which the seriousness appears gratuitous. These two inescapable viewpoints collide in us, and that is what makes life absurd. It is absurd because we ignore the doubts that we know cannot be settled, continuing to live with nearly undiminished seriousness in spite of them.”

Think of all the little activities we do and worry about. Think of how we sweat over our appearance, our sex lives, our social utility, our relationships with friends and family, our vocational and educational goals, and so on. As Nagel states, “Leading a human life is a full-time occupation, to which everyone devotes decades of intense concern.” It is from this seriousness that absurdity results. Nagel is not making the rather modest and obvious claim that there is a sense in which some of our cultural practices are silly, comical, contingent, and arbitrary. Rather, he is making the more radical claim that purports to say that there is a sense–or a perspective we can look from–in which all of our practices, actions, and endeavors appear silly, comical, contingent, and arbitrary.

Humans have the special capacity to step back and survey themselves, and the lives to which they are committed, with that detached amazement which comes from watching an ant struggle up a heap of sand…We step back to find that the whole system of justification and criticism, which controls our choices and supports our claims to rationality, rests on responses and habits that we never question, that we should not know how to defend without circularity, and to which we shall continue to adhere even after they are called in to question…We see ourselves from outside, and all the contingency and specificity of our aims and pursuits become clear. Yet when we take this view and recognize what we do as arbitrary, it does not disengage us from life, and there lies our absurdity: not in the fact that such an external view can be taken of us, but in the fact that we ourselves can take it, without ceasing to be the persons whose ultimate concerns are so coolly regarded.

Nagel goes on to make an enlightening comparison between the problem of the absurd and the problem of epistemological skepticism. Skepticism can quite easily—through a very simple reasoning process—lead us to question and doubt our most fundamental beliefs. Yet at the end of the day, such strong arguments are not able to sway us away from those beliefs. We may abandon them for a moment, a minute, an hour, but nature eventually takes over and our beliefs return to us unchanged. I was delighted to find that Nagel quotes Hume (one of my all-time favorite philsophical quotes) when he famously concluded:

“Most fortunately it happens, that since reason is incapable of dispelling these clouds [the clouds of skepticism], nature herself suffices to that purpose, and cures me of this philosophical melancholy and delirium, either by relaxing this bent of mind, or by some avocation, and lively impression of my senses, which obliterate all these chimeras. I dine, I play a game of backgammon, I converse, and am merry with my friends; and when after three or four hours’ amusement, I wou’d return to these speculations, they appear so cold, and strain’d, and ridiculous, that I cannot find in my heart to enter into them any farther.”

In other words, our natural faculties do not allow us to permanently buy into skepticism. The moment we stop thinking about skeptical issues and the reasons for why we should adopt skepticism is the moment we become unconvinced by them and is the moment our ordinary beliefs come flooding back. But while such beliefs come back unchanged, we have a new awareness now that allows us to look at them differently. We now hold our beliefs with irony: we hold our beliefs with the awareness that such beliefs are contingently held. We have no unshakeable justificatory foundation on which such beliefs rest. We now accept the fact that our beliefs could all be entirely false, that we could never prove that they aren’t, and that most, perhaps all, of our beliefs are sustained by non-rational elements that are beyond scrutiny. And yet we believe. That is epistemological irony.

The same is true in the case of the seriousness in which we take our lives. After having viewed our lives from the external lens in which all our endeavors appear silly, contingent, and meaningless, we are forced back into our own shoes, back into our own lives, and once again the seriousness returns. The moment we return to our ordinary lives is the moment we stop buying into the way our lives appear from the external view. But again, we return to our lives with a new awareness. As with our beliefs, we now live life with irony. For the external view never leaves us. While we get wrapped up in the busyness of our lives and forget or ignore the external view for a time, it creeps up upon us unexpectedly: not just in moments of solitude but in moments of social chaos. We find ourselves sitting and looking at all the people moving here and there, partaking in human life, taking their lives with utmost seriousness. And there comes a moment where we can do nothing but view such endeavors as silly, as ridiculous, as absurd.

For Nagel, the response to the absurd need not be one of despair, as some suggest. And we need not, as Camus suggests, live our lives in defiance against a universe that doesn’t care for us. “Such dramatics,” Nagel proclaims, “even if carried on in private, betray a failure to appreciate the cosmic unimportance of the situation. If sub specie aeternitatis [i.e. from the cosmic or objective perspective] there is no reason to believe that anything matters, then that does not matter either, and we can approach our lives with irony instead of heroism or despair.”

Or as I like to say, we can approach our lives with laughter.

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Categories: Philosophy Tags: , , ,

QotD: Biggest Obstacle in the Last 24 Hours

06/16/2009 14 comments

What’s the biggest obstacle you’ve had to overcome within the last 24 hours?
Submitted by ILoveYouMr.Dragon.

Keepin her off my mind.

That’s been the answer to this question for a long damn time.

Here’s a lovely, sexy song just for the hell of it. Played in seven part-time (hence its name). Wtf?

Mama told me boy someday that girl will steal your mind and then you’ll know
I never knew but I do now
I never knew but I do now

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Categories: Music Tags: ,

The Genetic Lottery and Sport

06/15/2009 5 comments

Koios and I have been recently discussing issues related to determinism (doxastic/belief-related determinism, agent/action determinism, biological determinism) and some of the implications of holding this position in its various forms. Here I would like to briefly discuss the implications that such a view has on a very non-philosophical topic: sports.

Much of the excitement that results from watching professional sports is due to the extra-ordinary skills that professional athletes have and the extra-ordinary feats that they are able to accomplish. We like to watch these games, at least in part, because they contain individuals who are the best in the world at what they do and hence a representation of what humans are capable of. But we do not simply stand back in awe of the greatness of an abstract humanity. We stand in awe of particular individuals. We praise these individuals. We hold them up on a pedestal. We make value judgments of the sort that seem to imply that such athletes are not merely superior to most other individuals in their respective sport but superior to most other individuals, period. Who do we have more admiration for? Michael Jordan (insert famous athlete here) or the local 40-year-old McDonald’s clerk, the school nurse, the fireman, the accountant, etc? We think very highly of professional athletes and again, I would argue, not because we are amazed by what humanity is capable of but amazed by what these individuals are capable of.

But there is a very real sense in which what we are praising is individuals who were lucky enough to win the genetic lottery. We are praising individuals who were biologically lucky. No professional athlete is what we might consider biologically normal. Very often it is their physical prowess (height and muscle build) that is abnormal, which plays an especially large role in basketball and football but also plays a role in hockey and baseball and other sports as well. Then of course there is the lesser-defined yet biologically-related areas that allow baseball players to hit (and throw) 95 mph fastballs, quarterbacks to throw 50 yard touchdown passes, and so on.

The argument that I am making is obvious: our genetic inheritance (including athletic talent) is a matter of luck. We don’t tell God or his naturalistic counterpart what sort of biological nature that we want. We don’t have a choice. We have what we have. That person A could not make the NBA because, although a very talented shooter, he was too short, is not his fault. Or that person B could not make the MLB because, although tall and muscular, his brain could not process a moving ball traveling faster than 85 mph, is not his fault. It is not something we can blame them for. They were just unlucky. But it would also seem to work the other way around. Just because someone is tall enough to make the NBA or just because someone’s brain can register pitches over 85 mph does not seem to merit any more praise than the others merited blame. I cannot blame someone for not having the natural talent to be a professional athlete. Why, therefore, should I praise someone for having such talent? Because the genetic pool worked in their favor? Because they were lucky?

There is a very common response to this argument. It goes like this: doesn’t practice play a significant role in how great an athlete becomes? Can’t we praise these professional athletes for working so hard? They didn’t become great by sitting around watching television all day. They worked their asses off over a long period of time. Without such practice they would never have become great.

The problem with this argument is that there are thousands and thousands of athletes who work their asses off day in and day out and yet still fail to become high-level athletes. This should be obvious. Not just anyone can work hard and expect to become a professional athlete. You have to have been lucky in the genetic lottery first. Only then will hard work lead you to achieve extra-ordinary results.

The argument of luck goes further. To become a professional athlete you must also have a great deal of environmental luck. You have to be born in the right time period, in the right geographical location, have available certain activities to flourish in, and so on. A poor African boy could have been the next Hank Aaron or Lebron James. But will he get a chance to harness his natural talents? Or the school janitor may have the natural talents to flourish in a sport that will not be invented for one hundred years. He could have been a professional athlete. Just not in this time and place. He was unlucky.

A whole slew of contingent factors have to be in place to create an extra-ordinary athlete. And the majority of those factors are beyond anyone’s control. In what sense then can we praise these athletes for their extra-ordinary talents?

(This same argument can be applied more broadly beyond athletic talents to natural talents in general. E,g.: artistic and intellectual talents.)

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Dancin’ atop the Moon

Sitting here drunk alone
Your smile, your kiss
And all this bitter loneliness
Drunk and high all at the same
Damn time
With you I lose myself
Without you I'm depressed

For you I could sing a song
I could smile
I confess
I don't know who I am
Only with you
I want to float so high
With a bowl I could rise
Above the clouds
Baby I'm a mess

Stay here a while
While we sing, dance, and smile
Atop the moon oh we go
Fuck the world
As they watch from their windows

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Categories: Miscellaneous

Light Me Up Baby

Baby
When I think about you
All I wanna do
Is be by your side
Take a little ride

Baby
Oh you know I'm all about you
And all I wanna do
Is take a little ride
Maybe get inside
Maybe get a little high

Woman please I am your possession
And you are my obsession
Wanna drink it, drink it
Let me go, let me go
Down, down, down

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Categories: Miscellaneous

Funny short clip

Categories: Comedy Tags: