Albert Camus came up with some ideas about the absurdity of life. He drew the comparison of our lives to the punishment of Sisyphus, who was forced to roll a boulder up a hill everyday, only to have the boulder fall back down that night. To Camus, this is the plot of all our lives; ultimately, what we do is no more meaningful than rolling a boulder up a hill every day.
Thomas Nagel responded to this by asking why our lives are absurd. There are a few instinctive ideas on why many people think life is absurd: what we do now won’t matter in a million years, our lives are finite, and we’re relatively small compared to the rest of the universe.
Nagel tears down each idea. First, being small doesn’t really seem to matter. If what we do now at our current size doesn’t matter, how would us being bigger or the universe being smaller make any difference? Also, our lives being finite doesn’t seem to matter too much. If the meaning in our lives is zero over the span of eighty years, multiplying the length of time lived wouldn’t increase meaning whatsoever. This also applies to the idea that we won’t be around forever, so we won’t be able to enjoy or reflect on the good in our lives. If we are unable to do so to any extent at all in our eighty years, then infinitely multiplying zero would still result in nothing.
The last one is that no matter what you do now, it will not matter in a million years. To respond to this, Nagel asks: does what happens in a million years matter now? The answer is pretty straightforward: no it doesn’t. So Nagel then concludes: if what matters in a million years doesn’t matter now, then us mattering in a million years does not matter now.
Nagel does not, however, try to then conclude that life has meaning. He agrees that their is something to the absurdity of life that is instinctive, and he does not have an answer as to how we can have meaning. This is where I dissent from Nagel. It’s hard to define the meaning of life, so I’m simply going to argue that it exists, regardless of what it is.
First off, meaning is a hard word to define. So I’m going to define a life that has meaning as a life that has X. A common theme in Nagel’s objections is this: if we can’t have meaning in our current state, what would it take for us to have meaning at all? (I don’t want to bring religion into this, not only because of my personal beliefs but because I’m not specifically defining what meaning is). Now, it is obvious that X is either possible, or it isn’t possible. If X is impossible, then it is impossible for life, in any state, to have meaning. This would mean that, even if we could live forever, expand life around the universe, and so on, life would not have meaning. I want to argue against this. If X is conceivably impossible, then I believe X has been given the wrong definition.
Now, if X is conceivably possible, then there must be a way to achieve X. In order to achieve X, I’m going to assume that there must be some value, or good, that defines X. I’ll call this good Y. So basically, in order to have a life that has X, you must promote some good Y. A quick response to this is that, regardless of what Y is, we won’t be around forever to enjoy Y. When we die, any Y that we did or experienced will no longer matter. However, my objection to this lies similar to Nagel’s objection: if Y is conceivably possible, it must be able to exist in a moment in time. This means that Y’s value cannot rest on it being infinite, because if it does, then it never has any value at any point in time. Therefore, there has to be at least certain moments, or periods of time, where Y can be valued regardless of it’s future existence. If Y can be valued at points in time, then you do not have to live forever in order to experience or promote Y in your lifetime. Therefore, if you can promote or experience Y in your life, then you can have X.
This argument is pretty straightforward hopefully (variables help some people out but confuse others, so let me know if it doesn’t make sense). Also, I was careful not to define Y or X because I don’t have answers to those questions (though I’ll try to argue for some ideas in the future). However, if my argument works, then the conclusion is that life can have meaning, and even if some never experience it, those who find it can avoid the absurd.
An ongoing debate in philosophy revolves around the definition of knowledge. Plato’s idea of ”justified, true belief” used to be the accepted definition. However, a few decades ago Edmund Gettier wrote an essay largely disproving this definition by using a few counterexamples. An example is:
Jeff thinks he is going to be promoted, since he thinks he overheard his boss saying that he would be. He also has ten coins in his pocket. He then infers that “the guy who is going to be promoted has ten coins in his pocket”. Later, Jeff finds out that it is actually Tom who is going to be promoted. However, through a strange coincidence, Tom also has ten coins in his pocket.
So Jeff’s original conclusion that “the guy who is going to be promoted has ten coins in his pocket” is true. It is also justified, since Jeff thought he was going to be promoted. But was it knowledge? Instinctively, most people would say no.
Now, this counterexample is a bit strange and seems like an odd situation. But it does work, according to the definition Jeff had knowledge of the promotion, but it seems that he, in fact, did not.
I want to describe knowledge a bit differently however. Basically, knowledge is a belief that would be affirmed true by an omniscient third person (like a god).
To start with, imagine all hypothetical scenarios where people think they have knowledge but don’t. In each scenario, the way we either prove or disprove the claim of knowledge is through our omniscient point of view. By this I mean since each situation is hypothetical, we create all the facts on our own, making ourselves omniscient in the scenario.
The definition, however, is difficult to use in actual life. If someone believes they have knowledge, they cannot affirmatively say whether or not an omniscient being would affirm their knowledge. No one actually can, so it would appear that true knowledge is not possible. However, consider all the scenarios I brought up in my last post (such as the possibility that we are a brain in a vat, experiencing “life” through signals sent to us from a machine). Can we truly know that this possibility is not reality?
This level of doubt is brought up in Descartes’ Meditations. He struggled with the idea that he could be constantly deceived by an evil demon, and that none of the physical world actually existed. Since it is conceivably possible, can any one of us say that we truly know of the existence of the physical world?
I want to argue that, yes, we can. A common mistake people make is the need for a 100% guarantee of truth. In Descartes’ Meditations, the only thing that he could truly guarantee was that he was a thinking being, since he could not logically be made to think that he was thinking without, in fact, thinking (Descartes would go on to “know” a lot more, but he used faulty logic for it). But that can’t be the only thing we can truly know. Consider the actual possibility of an evil demon existing, and having the motive of deceiving you for your entire life. Now consider the much more likely possibility that reality does in fact exist. The chance of the evil demon is so low that it can be ruled out as a logical possibility. Using this method, we can come to have true knowledge without a 100% guarantee.
For example, imagine that Lily claims to have knowledge that there is a tree in her backyard. She has seen it there before, and she has no reason to believe that the tree is gone. It is conceivably possible that the tree has been randomly cut down since the last time she saw it, and it is also conceivably possible that she is being deceived by an evil demon to believe that there is a tree there. However, both possibilities have a low enough chance that Lily is justified in assuming that the tree exists. Her claim is that an omniscient third party would affirm her belief as knowledge, and she can do so without a 100% guarantee of it.
To sum up my point, each time a person claims knowledge that person is claiming that they are not currently being deceived about that knowledge. The only way that we could guarantee knowledge is if we were omniscient. However, knowledge is still possible because of the necessity of ruling out tiny possibilities, such as the idea that we are being constantly deceived.
- I’m not sure how many people are interested in the theories of knowledge, but I wanted to get my opinion out there. I’ll be writing about the meaning of life and Camus’ theory of the Absurd in my next post.
I want to put up a small list of things that most people assume, even though we can’t rule them out as logical possibilities:
1. We aren’t being deceived by an evil demon about our entire existence (Descartes’ Meditations).
2. We aren’t a brain in a vat experiencing signals that we interpret as life.
3. There isn’t an invisible rhino traveling at light speed that will cast us into eternal limbo if it hits us (thunderf00t)
4. There isn’t a place of eternal torture that we are going to if we don’t choose the right religion.
5. The laws of physics won’t change from one moment to the next (challenged by Hume).
6. There are other minds that exist in other people.
I’m going to refer to these in my next post, so I wanted to bring them up now. The next post will be up within a few days.
In my post on cultural relativism I mentioned how there are certain “rules” we can judge all moral actions by, regardless of the society. A blanket statement like “killing is wrong” is false, as evident by such cases as self-defense. However, a statement like “killing is wrong when it isn’t done for a greater purpose” might be possible.
To start with, I want to state that there absolutely has to be a system, or “formula” to determine what actions are moral. For moral truths, there are two options: either we can know moral truths, or we can’t know moral truths. This is the dilemma between moral skepticism and moral knowledge proponents. My argument for moral truth is this: if we can know moral knowledge, there has to be a way that we can determine moral knowledge.
Consider two hypothetical cases of a moral dilemma, A and B. Suppose that the current “moral formula” says that Option 1 for dilemma A is correct, and Option 1 for dilemma B is correct. Let’s say that, upon further reflection, it appears that Option 1 is correct for A, but Option 2 is in fact the correct option for B. These cases are typically brought up to counter a well known moral formula (such as the case of the utility monster against utilitarianism). However,what basis is there to say that Option 2 is correct for B? In order to argue for 2, you would have to use some sort of formula to determine that Option 2 is better than Option 1. Meaning that, you can’t say that “2 is better than 1″, you would have to say that “2 is better than 1 because of _____”. This would only prove that the formula is incorrect. My opinion is that, there has to be some sort of formula that does not have any objections or inaccuracies. If there are successful counterexamples, then the logic used to determine the correct counterexample would be the better formula. However, this has to end somewhere, which in my opinion would be the universal formula for morality. If this formula is impossible to find, then I would argue that moral skepticism is correct.
My personal theory is value utilitarianism (which I’ve written about in my previous posts). Basically, it’s a consequentionalist theory that defines the value of consequences as human rights, group bonds, and happiness. To prove my point about the need for a universal formula, if anyone can think of a counterexample to value utilitarianism please post it in the comments.
Cultural Relativism is the view that morality is based upon the standards of the culture. Meaning that our moral beliefs, such as the belief that stealing is morally wrong, only reflect our own cultural beliefs.
A common case cited is the old eskimo tradition of killing off their elderly and babies. They would leave their elderly in the snow and kill a large amount of their babies. They did this because, in their culture, doing so was necessary to maintain the survival of the entire tribe.
Cultural relativists use this example to show that even our standards of murder is culturally based. However, this example does not work. Consider the motive the eskimos had for killing the elderly and infants. If they had not done so, the entire community could have died from starvation. This shows an obvious cultural difference; we do not need to kill our elderly or infants in order to survive. However it does not show an obvious cultural moral difference. It is still not morally acceptable in eskimo culture to kill for any reason. The only reason that they do accept killing is to avoid a greater evil.
To further my case, consider a hypothetical tribe that has an absolute ruler. The ruler decreed that every firstborn child be tortured and killed in front of him for his amusement. This ritual has been practiced long enough that it is now a cultural norm and the society accepts it. However, does this make the actions morally right for the children who are tortured and killed? Of course not, even if the culture accepts the practice, it is clear that the torture is still immoral. Even if this is a drastic case, it still provides evidence that at the very least, not all moral rules are culturally relative.
The debate about free will revolves around the question of whether or not we all have destinies, or a fate. A strict determinist would claim that all of our lives are pre-determined and that we only have an illusion of free will. Basically, our lives are already set and there is nothing we can do to change them.
I have some issues with determinism. First, there is absolutely no way to prove its validity. If destiny did exist, there would be no way for us to find out. Similarly, if there are no destinies, there would still be no way to prove it. For the sake of debate, I want to bring up a certain scenario to consider.
Imagine that you can see the future. A man walks in asking you if he will get promoted at his job in the next month. You look into the future and realize that if you tell the man that he will get the promotion, he will slack off and he won’t end up getting promoted. If you tell him that he won’t get promoted, then he will work harder and end up being promoted.
So, even if you can see the way that the events will turn out, does the man still have free will? You know the way he will act after your prediction, but there is no possible way for you to tell him his future accurately. Would this show evidence of the impact of our decision on our destinies? An explanation could be that you are destined to choose a certain way, and that therefore the man is destined either way as well. However, it seems to me at least that it doesn’t work this way. If destiny was clear, you would be able to accurately predict the future regardless of human decisions. The fact that the man’s actions would change based on what you say make it seem, at least to me, that free will exists and has an impact on what happens to us.
A random quote I like on the topic: “My first act of free will shall be to believe in free will” – William James