Many philosophers have believed for centuries that there’s no intrinsic meaning in the universe. Here I’ll summarize three of the major responses to this belief.
- Existentialism is the belief that through a combination of awareness, free will, and personal responsibility, one can construct their own meaning within a world that intrinsically has none of its own.
- Nihilism is the belief that not only is there no intrinsic meaning in the universe, but that it’s pointless to try to construct our own as a substitute.
- Absurdism is the belief that a search for meaning is inherently in conflict with the actual lack of meaning, but that one should both accept this and simultaneously rebel against it by embracing what life has to offer.
Those are the philosophical structures for those beliefs, but practically there are three ways people deal with the situation:
- Embracing or creating a meaning framework, such as a religion or a spirituality framework
- Acceptance of the lack of meaning, and living on with—and in spite of—this knowledge
- Suicide due to life being ultimately meaningless and therefore either too boring or too painful
I view Camus’ Absurdism as the most satisfactory response, as it remains practical without abandoning intellectual integrity. It teaches simultaneous acceptance and rebellion.
Adopting a religion or some sort of nebulous “spirituality”—as someone who has accepted the truth of intrinsic meaninglessness—amounts to either intellectual laziness, emotional weakness, or some combination thereof. It is to say that the truth is too difficult to consume and accept, and that you’ve chosen to believe something untrue because it is easier.
To commit suicide is to turn one’s back on the beauty that life has to offer, which I feel should only be explored in extreme cases.
Resigning to truly believe something you know isn’t true is a weak position, but it often looks identical to Absurdism, which is not.
Absurdism has us either adopt or construct a belief structure that provides a day-to-day reprieve from the crushing impossibility of true meaning. It gives us a structure that we can use to trick our evolution-soaked brains into extracting meaning from the universe, while never forgetting that the system itself is a trick.
This awareness is the difference between rebellion and surrender.
So a person who has surrendered will say that they believe in their thing completely, and that it provides true meaning in the universe, while someone who has not surrendered may say they’ve adopted a scaffolding for practical reasons, but they know that it’s artificial.
The barrier is delicate between embracing a belief structure because not doing so is too empty or painful, and only doing so for practical purposes while still knowing it’s false. Many start as one or the other and then migrate, or exist day to day as one and become the other when pressed.
Knowing where one stands among—or perhaps outside—these options is a crucial part of self-understanding.
- I’m quite aware that one can, and people have, written entire books on each of these definitions. The goal of this exercise is not to dive deeply into each, but instead to summarize as cleanly as possible how they respond to a lack of intrinsic meaning.
- The choice to rebel is specifically Camus’ response to the situation, but since he’s associated with the term I include it in the definition here.
- The pretend use of a false scaffold is my interpretation of Absurdism, as I’m not sure if using a knowingly false system in this way would be endorsed by Sarte or Camus. To me it still represents rebellion because we’re still getting the joys from life (and having a structure is part of that), while never surrendering our intellect that knows it to be false.