It’s the conflict itself, not either of the two sides that are conflicting.
The conflict between the human tendency to seek inherent value and meaning in life, and the human inability to find any in a purposeless, meaningless or chaotic and irrational universe.
That’s classical Absurdism, but I think the concept is so powerful that it applies to much more of life. I think this deserves its own term, which I call General Absurdism, defined as the fundamental conflict between human experience and underlying reality. But let’s start with the original version.
- The Meaning of Life: Humans seem to be wired to require (and perpetually search for) an ultimate meaning of life, but based on our current understanding of the universe, none exists. It’s Absurd because of the conflict between our need for this meaning, and the fact that it may not exist.
This is the classic version, created by Kierkegaard and Camus. And it is perhaps the deepest and most consequential instantiation of the disconnect. But many other examples are appearing as we continue to learn about the universe.
- Free Will: Humans seem to be wired to believe that we have free choice (my explanation here), but there doesn’t seem to be any evidence for justification of this belief in science. It’s Absurd because of the conflict between our intuition and our practical need for this belief, and the fact that it may not exist.
The free will debate pulls one right into a related question, which is, “Why do anything?” If free will doesn’t exist, what does it even mean to say things like, “I want to be a better person.”, or, “I need to do better next time.”
If the world is just stumbling along—randomly or not—according to laws of physics, then we can’t actually influence anything. Given this view, staying in bed and eating Crunch Berries becomes a remarkably logical way of conducting oneself. After all, it was either going to happen anyway, or it wasn’t.
So, really, why do anything? In my framing, this a deeply Absurdist question.
- Ambition and the Desire for Improvement: Humans seem to be wired to believe that we can and should try to improve ourselves and our surroundings, but in a mechanistic world (random or otherwise), it doesn’t actually matter what you do. This question is Absurd because of the conflict between self-improvement—and a desire to do good in the world—being some of the most important reasons that humans have to exist, and the issue that if free will is an illusion then we’re all just taking credit for the universe unfolding as it was going to anyway.
Right, so, the search for meaning and the reason to do anything at all. Those are big.
But so is love.
- Love: Humans seem to be wired to believe that love is an essential and beautiful part of our existence, but in a world where evolution crafted our brains to be rewarded by certain chemicals, it starts to look like the entire thing is an illusion. Squirt, squirt. And we can largely already replicate the feeling with drugs. This issue is Absurd because of the conflict between love being a fundamental value and goal of all humanity, and the fact that it appears to be a clever hack by evolution to allow us to survive, cooperate, and reproduce.
And the same goes for any pleasure, in any activity. If you look closely enough, there’s most likely an evolutionary reason that your body is rewarding you for doing that thing.
See Sam Harris’ Waking Up course for more information on removing the self through focused attention.
- The Self: Each of us feels a powerful feeling of self through which we experience everything in our lives. When something happens to us, it’s very different than it happening to someone else—or to the world in general. But if you’ve done any meditation, or studied consciousness, or thought much about free will, the notion of the self might be a lot less tangible. Meditation itself can almost instantly destroy the concept of self just by looking for it.
But we don’t walk through life meditating. And as soon as we stop being cerebral, and someone cuts us off in traffic, they’re going to get a response. They didn’t cut off humanity. They didn’t cut off local drives. No, they cut you off.
The crash and the rebirth
Ok, great, so where does that leave us?
- It doesn’t look like there’s any ultimate meaning to the universe
- We don’t actually have free will, so we’re not actually making any decisions
- It doesn’t actually matter if we try to be better than yesterday, since we either were going to or we weren’t anyway
- And love, pleasure, and the self are just evolutionary tricks embedded in our brains to make sure we try to pass on the best genes
And why the hell am I even writing this? Isn’t this all horribly depressing?
No. It’s glorious. It’s gloriously Absurd.
This is the bottom. This is accepting reality for what it is, and it’s essential if we want to be serious citizens of this universe.
Bertrand Russell had it right when he said:
The good life is one inspired by love and guided by knowledge.
Ah! But love is an illusion created by evolution!
Sure, technically true, but it doesn’t matter. Here’s the entire point of Absurdism as it applies to all these dimensions mentioned above.
- We are human
- This is the only reality we have
- Our human experience is incongruent with that reality
The universe. Physics. Biology. Evolution. Neuroscience. Quantum Physics. These all provide models of our underlying reality.
But that isn’t the same as human experience. Humans weren’t designed to understand our underlying reality. We were designed to compete and succeed in the context of survival and reproduction.
So rather than seeing quarks and particles and neurons, we see choices, emotions, and relationships. Rather than seeing forces, and masses, and valence electrons, we see love, and ambition, and sacrifice.
We’re operating at a different layer, because we were built by evolution.
And that’s ok.
The key is to simply understand how different these two things are. We’re like tastebuds stuck to the bottom of a chair leg on Mars, and we’re being asked to analyze the subtle wavelengths of light coming from a star we cannot even see, halfway across the universe.
That’s what’s Absurd about the whole thing. Our hardware and software aren’t meant to interact with reality directly. They’re meant to interact with other players in this game of Survive and Reproduce.
And now we’ve played the game so well that we’ve evolved far enough to see the other world. The real world. And we’ve started to notice the discrepancies between the two.
Does this really change anything about the human world?
Who says we can’t have both?
Is time with a dear friend any less sweet? Is Ice Cream any less wonderous? Are coffee and sex and laughter in some way diminished?
They are not.
The good life is one inspired by love and guided by knowledge.
To me Russell’s guidance applies perfectly to our situation.
We can simultaneously enjoy the beauty of our human experience and use our newfound knowledge of the truth to understand it, and to enhance it even further.
We may be unable to find universal meaning in the universe. Trying to better yourself may be an illusion running inside the mind of an advanced ape. And love may be a chemical reaction designed to control our behavior.
But the good things in this human life are not diminished by the contrived or atomic nature of their substrate. No explanation of biology or physics can remove the magic of a smile, of kindness, or of love.
These two perspectives—the human and the absolute—are colliding. And that collision produces many instances of the Absurd. But it’s ok.
Learning about the underlying truth should not make our human interface any less enjoyable.
Embrace it (love), and study it (knowledge).
- April 11, 2020 — Added the creation of a new and distinct General Absurdism vs. traditional Absurdism that came from Kierkegaard and Camus. This being the abstracted version that means “the fundamental conflict between human experience and underlying reality”.