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I'm a fan of Nagel's most recent book, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False. which has created a shit-storm in the world of evolutionary biology, with damnation also coming from philosophers Alex Rosenberg and Daniel Dennett and evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker. Other than that book, the only other work from Nagel I have read (aside from his frequent book reviews) was “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” (1974).
In this two-part post, Danaher looks at Nagel's work around life's absurdity (a topic I once enjoyed when reading some of the existentialists, such as Camus). This topic in Nagel's work is new to me, so I found it interesting.
Posted by John Danaher
Saturday, April 27, 2013
Is life absurd? Should we bother with it? Does it matter either way? Rightly or wrongly, Thomas Nagel’s 1971 article, “The Absurd”, is one of the most celebrated and widely-cited contributions to the literature on these questions. I certainly am struck by how frequently people refer to it in conversations I have with them about this topic. It seems like anyone with even a dim awareness of literature will have heard of Nagel’s piece.
Even more striking is the fact that although people often aver to the opening passages, in which Nagel dismisses common arguments for the absurdity of life, they also tend to ignore or downplay the rest of the article, in which Nagel defends the absurdist view. This omission is sometimes found among non-believers, who like using the opening passages to critique theistic conceptions of meaning (e.g. William Lane Craig’s). Indeed, this is something I did in one of my old podcasts, though I believe I did discuss Nagel’s defence of absurdism in the end.
Anyway, I’m mentioning all of this because one of my current projects looks at the intersection between transhumanism and the philosophical debate over the meaning of life. As part of that project, I thought it would be worth revisiting Nagel’s famous article, and taking a closer look at its key arguments. So that’s what the next two blog posts will be about.
In this post, I’ll look at the critical phase of the article, in which Nagel dismisses commonplace arguments for absurdity. In the next post, I’ll look at his own argument for the absurdity of life.
1. A Comment on Methods and an Introduction to the Arguments
As is my wont on this blog, I want to carefully unpack and formally reconstruct Nagel’s critique of the commonplace arguments for absurdity. This turns out to be a difficult task. The oft-cited critical phase of Nagel’s article is exceptionally brief. By my estimate, it occupies slightly less than two pages of the text. What’s more, the argumentation in these pages is dense, with four separate arguments being introduced and dismissed in short order.* This means the logic is often compressed and epigrammatic; decompressing it requires a good deal of interpolation and patience.
It’s actually worth commenting on why this is since it allows me to make a meta-point, one that I think will be useful to anyone interested in analysing and evaluating arguments in a rigorous manner. The main problem is that Nagel’s presentation and critique of the four arguments is enthymematic in nature. An “enthymeme” is a compressed form of argument, common in everyday conversation and political rhetoric. As you probably know, a classical syllogism is a three-part argument consisting of a major premise (usually a statement of some abstract principle), a minor premise (some statement of fact), and a conclusion (which shows how the fact relates to the general principle). An enthymeme is a two-part argument, in which one of premises from the syllogism is left unstated. In my experience, it is the general principle that is most often left out. Thus, an enthymeme typically consists of a statement of fact and a conclusion. “It’s raining. Therefore, the traffic will be bad” is an enthymeme of this type.
You might think, given this characterisation, that enthymemes would be transparently bad arguments. After all, how can you reach a conclusion without one of the logically required elements of an argument? But in most aspects of our lives we share a good number of assumptions and principles. It’s what makes communication possible. Hence, when listening to people make enthymematic arguments, we often do them the courtesy of implying or filling in the assumptions needed to make their argument logically sound. In fact, this is such a natural courtesy, that we sometimes grant people the assumptions when we really shouldn’t — i.e. when they are actually making bad arguments.
I often tell my students that when they are assessing philosophical arguments, or when they are presenting their own, they should avoid the use of enthymemes. As much as possible, they should render every argument in its complete logical form. This way they’ll start spotting flawed principles in arguments made by others, and start defending the questionable principles in their own arguments. In many ways, cultivating this habit of mind is what philosophy is all about.
Now, in a sense, this is exactly what Nagel does in the opening passages of his article. Because he is dealing with commonplace arguments for the absurdity of life, and because these commonplace arguments tend to be enthymematic in form, one of his initial tasks is to expose the flawed principles and assumptions underlying those arguments. But what is so frustrating about these passages is how, in presenting his own criticisms, Nagel never bothers to render the commonplace arguments in their proper logical form, isolate the problematic premises, and subject them to a perspicuous evaluation. Instead, he states them in their enthymematic form, and responds in a circuitous and correspondingly enthymematic form himself.
I appreciate this might be because Nagel isn’t too concerned with the commonplace arguments in his article. His main goal is not to critique the absurdist position, but to offer a novel (in 1971!) and more persuasive defence of it. That’s perfectly legitimate. But I have more time and space to play around with, and I want to do a more thorough job on the commonplace arguments. So that’s what I’ll do in the remainder of the post. As I do so, I think you’ll begin share my view that Nagel’s objections to these arguments aren’t as good as they might first appear to be. Not that the arguments are all that great either.
2. The “Temporally Distant Mattering” Argument
The first argument Nagel deals with — for want of a better name — is the “Temporally Distant Mattering” Argument (TDMA for short). According to this argument, our lives are absurd because nothing we do now will matter at some temporally distant point, say one million years hence. Here’s what Nagel says about it:
It is often remarked that nothing we do now will matter in a million years. But if that is true, then by the same token, nothing that will be the case in a million years matters now. In particular, it does not matter now that in a million years nothing we do now will matter…Whether what we do now will matter in a million years could make the crucial difference only if its mattering in a million years depended on its mattering, period. (Nagel, 1971, p. 716)Let’s try to unpack what Nagel is saying here by spelling out the logic of the TDMA:
(1) In order for our lives to have meaning (i.e. to not be absurd), what we do now must matter at some temporally distant point, e.g. one million years hence.The first premise states a condition for a meaningful life. It may be a necessary or a sufficient condition, but that doesn’t “matter” too much “right now”. It will in a moment. The second premise makes a factual claim and is the basis of the original enthymeme. I think it is of dubious merit. The problem is that this notion of “mattering” is incredibly vague. If it just means “will have some effect” on the state of the universe one million years from now, then I suspect it is false. Everything we do now may well have some causal effect on the future, however minimal that may be. Maybe it won’t have a “large effect” or an “effect of the right type”, but if that’s the concern that needs to be made much clearer.
(2) Nothing we do now will matter one million years hence.
(3) Therefore, our lives are absurd.
In any event, Nagel eschews this kind of factual criticism. Instead he points to a supposed implication of premise (2), which has a knock-on effect on the plausibility of the premise (1). If I could reconstruct the argument from the quoted passage, I would put it thusly:
(4) If it is true than nothing we do now will matter one million years hence, then it is also true that nothing that happens one million years hence matters now.In other words, Nagel is saying that the fact that nothing that happens in a million years matters now gives us some reason to doubt the unstated principle guiding the original objection.
(5) But if (4) is true then (1) is false.
(6) (4) is true (because (2) is true).
(7) Therefore, (1) is false.
I have some worries about this. While I suspect the conclusion is true, I think the argument is questionable. For one thing, it all depends on the precise meaning we give to this concept of “mattering” in premise (4). If we interpret it to mean “has some causal effect”, then it’s probably true. But if it means “has some significance for how we live our lives now”, then it’s probably false. The possible future does have some significance for our behaviour. I make decisions all the time based on what I think my possible future might be like. Granting this, why couldn’t it be true that the possible state of the universe one million years from now has an effect on how I live my life now? The claim that (4) follows from (2) doesn’t seem right to me.
There is also the nagging suspicion that Nagel’s critique really just begs the question against the original objection. Surely one of the things that is at dispute here is whether what happens one million years hence matters for us now. To claim that nothing that happens one million years hence matters now is to assume the conclusion that needs to established. Nagel may say he has established this by derivation from premise (2) but I don't think that's correct for the reasons I have just stated: the future state of the universe could make a difference to how you live your life now.
More charitably, Nagel is simply making the point that the original premise doesn’t plausibly state a sufficient condition for meaning. This much is suggested by some of his other comments:
[E]ven if what we did now were going to matter in a million years, how could that keep our present concerns from being absurd? If their mattering now is not enough to accomplish that, how would it help if they mattered a million years from now? (Nagel, 1971, p. 716)I am quite sympathetic to this line of reasoning. Although I suggested it was possible a moment ago, it does seem odd to say that what happens one million years hence could provide the “magic ingredient” needed to avoid absurdity. The only problem here is that while premise (1) may not state a sufficient condition for meaning — and hence it seems like an odd claim — it may state a necessary condition for meaning. In other words, it may be true that mattering one million years hence plus some other factor is sufficient for meaning, even if mattering one million years hence on its own is not. This problem crops up elsewhere in Nagel’s critique.
Finally, there is a sense in which Nagel’s argument gestures toward the following sentiment:
Nothing Matters Principle: If it is true that nothing matters, then it also true that it doesn’t matter that nothing matters.This is right, and indeed it seems like Nagel ultimately endorses it through his defence of absurdism. But it is distinct from the concerns articulated by the TDMA and does not follow from Nagel’s critique of that argument.
3. The “Smallness and Shortness” Arguments
The second and third commonplace arguments claim that the shortness and smallness of our lives render them absurd. Nagel describes them like this:
What we say to convey the absurdity of our lives often has to do with space or time: we are tiny specks in the infinite vastness of the universe; our lives are mere instants on a geological time scale, let alone a cosmic one; we will all be dead any minute. But of course none of these evident facts can be what makes life absurd, if it is absurd. For suppose we lived forever; would not a life that is absurd if it lasts seventy years be infinitely absurd if it lasted through eternity? And if our lives are absurd given our present size, why would they be any less absurd if we filled the universe (either because we were larger or because the universe was smaller)? (Nagel, 1971, p. 717)I think Nagel is right to condemn both arguments, and I think his reasoning here is slightly stronger than it was in the first case, but we still need to be careful. Let’s unpack the logic behind both objections and clarify Nagel’s responses.
The size objection will be dealt with first. Nagel seems to interpret it thusly:
(8) In order for our lives to have meaning (i.e. not be absurd), we must not occupy too small a physical space within the universe. (Corollary: to avoid absurdity we must occupy a sufficiently large space within the universe).Nagel rejects this argument on the grounds that premise (8) states neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for meaning. And I think he’s right to do so. There is no reason to think that increased physical size would make our lives less absurd. Indeed, it might make it even more absurd. Imagine a simple box universe in which your body takes up almost the entire physical space within the box. With nothing else in the box, all you can do is sit around all day until (hopefully) the box collapses back in on itself. Surely that would be an absurd existence?
(9) We occupy too small a physical space within the universe (we are mere tiny specks in the infinite vastness).
(10) Therefore, our lives are absurd.
Still, I wonder whether this is an incredibly uncharitable interpretation of the commonplace argument. It could be that the premise underlying the “we are mere specks of dust”-claim is not about physical size per se, but rather about the size, extent and duration of one’s causal influence on the universe. That sounds more plausible to me since it maps onto to concerns many people have about their lives on earth, e.g. how can one person make a difference give the causal and social complexity of modern life?. This argument would raise concerns similar to those raised by the TDMA, albeit in a more precise manner.
That brings us to the shortness argument, which Nagel seems to interpret as a kind of immortality argument:
(11) In order for our lives to have meaning (i.e. not be absurd), they must go on forever.This, of course, is a very common line of argument, one that features heavily in religious accounts of the meaning of life. Nagel refutes it with an equally common line of argument, which I state as follows:
(12) Our lives do not go on forever; they are quite short.
(13) Therefore, our lives are absurd.
(14) If a current human life with a duration of approximately 70 years (L70) is absurd, then the same kind of life with an infinite duration (L∞) will also be absurd.In other words, to reiterate something I said previously, indefinitely extending a lifespan does not add the magic ingredients needed for a meaningful life.
There are a couple of problems here. First, the crucial assumption of Nagel’s critique is that L∞ will be qualitatively similar to our absurd lives. But this might be wrong. Knowing that one will live forever might have significant qualitative changes on one’s life. This links to the second problem, which is that although immortality may not be sufficient for meaning, it might be necessary.
4. The “Chain of Justification” Argument
The fourth and final commonplace argument is concerned with the affect of death on the chains of justification in our lives. Nagel puts it like this:
Another inadequate argument is that because we are going to die, all chains of justification must leave off in mid-air; one studies and works to earn money to pay for clothing, housing, entertainment, food, to sustain oneself from year to year, perhaps to support a family and pursue a career — but to what final end? All of it is an elaborate journey leading nowhere. (Nagel, 1971, p. 717)This is actually quite a complex argument, partly due to its opacity. It raises issues analogous to those raised in debates over the cosmological argument in the philosophy of religion. Specifically, issues relating to the principle of sufficient reason and the explanation of causal chains. I’m going to blur some of that complexity in my formal restatement, which is:
(14) A life consists in a finite chain of events, from E.birth . . . E.death.Nagel rejects premise (15), which is the unstated principle guiding the original objection. There are two problems with it. First, it ignores the possibility that events within life could have intrinsic justification or meaning. In other words, their meaning or significance may not depend on any subsequent events. Thus, think of any activity or project that you pursue for its own sake, not for its subsequent benefits. For example, I play my guitar for the sake of that activity alone, not because it makes me a better person or because I want to be a successful musician. Second, the argument makes an unreasonable demand by suggesting that justifications are needed for everything in terms of something else. But this leads to an infinite regress of justification that could never be satisfied:
(15) In order for our lives to have meaning (i.e. to not be absurd), every event that takes place within them (En) must be justified in terms of one or more proceeding events (En+1).
(16) Because life consists in a finite chain of events, at least one event within life cannot be justified in terms of some subsequent event.
(17) Therefore our lives are absurd.
Since justifications must come to an end somewhere, nothing is gained by denying that they end where they appear to, within life — or by trying to subsume the multiple, often trivial ordinary justifications of action under a single controlling life scheme. We can be satisfied more easily than that. In fact, through its misrepresentation of the process of justification, the argument makes a vacuous demand. It insists that the reasons available within life are incomplete, but suggests thereby that all reasons that come to an end are incomplete. This makes it impossible to supply any reasons at all. (Nagel, 1971, p. 718)I have little enough to say about this, except that I think it is right. I think chains of justification do have stopping points and that this could impact upon arguments for the meaning of life. Still, I find it somewhat odd that Nagel thinks this a devastating objection to the commonplace argument. Why? Well, because when he gets around to making his own argument in favour of absurdity he relies on a very similar, infinite regress-style, principle. I’ll take this up in part two.
* There is possibly a fifth argument, depending on whether you think Nagel’s remark about the fact that ‘we will all be dead any minute’ picks out an argument that is distinct from the argument about the length our lives. It is possible a point is being made here about the fragility of our lives, not their temporal duration. However, Nagel doesn’t make much of this remark subsequently so I’ve ignored that possibility. Fortunately, I wrote about this objection once before in my series on Di Muzio’s article “Theism and the Meaning of Life”.
* * * * * * *
Posted by John Danaher
Sunday, April 28, 2013
As an undergraduate student (in law), many many years ago,* I read Albert Camus’s book The Myth of Sisyphus. The work introduced me to absurdism, which is a philosophical position holding that life is devoid of all meaning and significance. It was a seminal moment for me, and an important stepping stone in my intellectual life.
But Camus’s book wasn’t particularly persuasive or perspicuous, so when I expressed my interest in absurdism to one of my friends (who actually did study philosophy), he recommended that I read Thomas Nagel’s famous article “The Absurd”, which he said presented a more rigorous and satisfying defence of absurdism. Does it?
Well, that’s what I’m trying to find out, several years after originally reading it. In the previous post, I looked at Nagel’s critique of the commonplace arguments for absurdity. I think I made it reasonably clear that I don’t find Nagel’s criticisms entirely convincing, largely because of a lack of clarity, but I think I also made it clear that — to be fair to the guy — critiquing those arguments wasn’t his primary aim. His aim was to present a better argument for absurdism, and the analysis of that argument is the goal of this post.
For those of you who made it through part one, rest assured that I won’t be nearly as dry or painstaking in my discussion here. That’s because, unlike the critical part of the article which lasted a mere two pages, Nagel’s positive case for absurdism runs for nearly ten pages. Subjecting each and every paragraph from those ten pages to a careful analysis and formal reconstruction would really be pushing it.
So I’ll be brief. First, I’ll set out my reconstruction of Nagel’s argument. Then, I’ll consider how he defends the key premises of that argument.
1. Nagel’s Argument for Absurdity
Nagel starts with an observation about absurdity in everyday life. He says:
In ordinary life a situation is absurd when it includes a conspicuous discrepancy between pretension or aspiration and reality: someone gives a complicated speech in support of a motion that has already been passed; a notorious criminal is made president of a major philanthropic foundation; you declare your love over the telephone to a recorded announcement; as you are being knighted your pants fall down. (Nagel, 1971, p. 718)I don’t know about you, but I find these examples a little odd. Some of them sound more like irony or misfortune than absurdity, but then again I’m not sure absurdity is a concept we are competent in using prior to any philosophical analysis. So I’m willing to go with the basic idea: that it is absurd when there is this mismatch between aspiration and reality.
But the paragraph quoted only talks about absurdity within someone’s life. It does not speak to the absurdity of life as a whole. What is needed for that? Nagel suggests, rather straightforwardly, that absurdity in life as whole simply requires the extension of his analysis to every event in life. In other words, life as a whole is absurd if there is a persistent and inescapable discrepancy between what we hope or desire for our lives and what reality grants us.
So what do we hope for our lives and what does reality grant us? The answer, according to Nagel, is that we treat our lives as matters of utmost seriousness (and hence seriousness is what we aspire to), but we are constantly thwarted by the fact that we can also view our life plans and goals as arbitrary and open to doubt. This gives us the basis for his argument, which runs as follows:
(1) Our lives are absurd if there is a persistent and inescapable discrepancy between our aspirations and what we can actually achieve.In the remainder of the post, I’ll look at how Nagel defends premises (3) and (4). They form the real backbone to his argument. The other two premises require less comment but some few words are in order. As for the first premise, which supplies the motivating principle, I noted above how the examples Nagel uses to derive this principle are odd. Still, as I also noted, I’m willing to run with it, if only because I don’t know of any other good candidate analysis of absurdity. The second premise is sort of a stipulation made by Nagel in the article, but I think it becomes more plausible if we look at how Nagel cashes out the notion of “treating one’s life with seriousness” and the “unavoidability of doubt”. I will say though — and this becomes more significant toward the end — the premise leaves open the possibility that not treating one’s life as a matter of serious concern might make it less absurd (or, rather, more livable). Nagel ends his article by endorsing this shift in attitude.
(2) If we treat our lives as matters of serious concern, but they are unavoidably open to doubt and questioning, then there is a discrepancy between what we can achieve and what we desire.
(3) We treat our lives as matters of serious concern.
(4) But our life plans are always open to doubt and questioning.
(5) Therefore, our lives are absurd.
2. Defending the Premises
Let’s start with the defence of premise (3). As I said already, this premise is a little puzzling since, at the end of the article, Nagel advocates treating one’s life with irony. This suggests that even he thinks it is possible to avoid treating one’s life seriously and so to avoid the pitfalls of absurdity. But then again he also says “we take our selves seriously whether we lead serious lives or not” (p. 719).
So what exactly is Nagel driving at when he says we always treat our lives as matters of serious concern? Charitably, I think he’s saying one of two things: (i) we all easily fall into the trap of treating our lives as matters of serious concern; and/or (ii) we explicitly or implicitly desire that our lives be matters of serious concern, i.e. that they are “worth it” in some way. Consider:
[People] spend enormous quantities of energy, risk and calculation on the details [of their lives]. Think of how an ordinary individual sweats over his appearance, his health, his sex life, his emotional honesty, his social utility, his self-knowledge, the quality of his ties with family, colleagues, and friends, how well he does his job, whether he understands the world and what is going on in it. Leading a human life is a full-time occupation, to which everyone devotes decades of intense concern. (Nagel, 1971, pp 719-720)I think there’s a lot of truth in what Nagel says here, and I see a lot of myself in this description. Although I like to think of myself as a pretty ironical individual, with a healthy appreciation for the absurd, the reality is that I devote myself to my pursuits. I think it important to write blog posts, to read academic articles, to write research papers, to talk to my family, to cultivate my friendships, to develop and sustain a meaningful relationship with my partner, and so on. What’s more, I want my efforts in each of these domains to be taken seriously by others, to be appreciated for there successes and chastised for their failures. Heck, I even devote myself with utmost conviction to cultivating my ironical and absurdist attitudes.
So I can see what Nagel is getting at, and I can see the appeal of premise (3).
But on its own premise (3) is harmless. Devoting ourselves to our projects with utmost concern would be fine if those projects were proper objects of concern. It’s at this point that premise (4) arrives on the scene to spoil the party. Premise (4) claims that we can always view our life plans and goals as arbitrary and open to doubt. Thus, I can question whether I should be writing this blog post, whether I should be pursuing a career in academia, whether I should cultivate friendships and relationships and so on. There are many options out there, many other things I could have been doing, and there is no really reason to think my chosen path in life is better or more worthwhile than those.
There’s more to premise (4) than that though. Indeed, as I’ve just described it, it doesn’t seem all that different from the bad “Chain of Justification” argument that was discussed in part one. Nagel acknowledges this and tries to differentiate the argument he is making from that bad one. He is not simply saying that we have the power to question or challenge the reasons for our actions. No; he is saying we have the power to question the entire scheme of justification that sustains our lives in the first place. In other words, that we have the power to step back from the serious business of living, to view our lives sub specie aeternitatis (under the aspect of eternity):
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 into question. (Nagel, 1971, p. 720)A commonly proposed escape route from this sceptical and cynical view is the “higher scheme” escape route. According to proponents of this view, our lives can regain significance and meaning if they have some role or function to play in a higher scheme, something that is bigger than ourselves. Thus, rebels fighting a revolutionary war might see their individual lives as having a significance within the revolutionary cause, or a Christian might see their lives as having significance in God’s plan for salvation. But Nagel argues that even these higher schemes can be called into question by taking the view sub specie aeternitatis. We can always question the validity and worthwhileness of the revolutionary cause or the divine plan, and this leads to an infinite regress. The solid ground we are looking for will never be found. It’s turtles all the way down.
What’s more, and this crucial, even after we take the sceptical view, we get sucked back into the business of living, and continue to take our lives seriously. Thus, although I have found myself questioning what it is all for — what value is there to my life, to the lives of my friends and family, to the existence of the human race, to the universe as whole, to the divine plan for the universe (if there is one), and so on — I still get on with the business of living, and I still take it pretty seriously. It is this juxtaposition of attitudes that lends human life its absurd and tragic aspect.
3. Concluding Thoughts
Or so, at least, Nagel argues. For him the effect of this argumentation is much like the effect of the arguments for epistemological scepticism. Once you’ve spent the requisite amount of time arguing about Descartes’ demon and wondering whether you might be a brain-in-a-vat, you will know that it’s very difficult to justify, conclusively, one’s core beliefs, such as belief in an external world. You have to just accept an arbitrary grounding and get on with it. Embracing absurdism is a little bit like that. The only antidote, according to Nagel, is to approach life with a sense of irony. That way we at least acknowledge the absurdity and avoid being overly serious. For if it is true that nothing really matters, then it is also true that it doesn’t matter that nothing matters.
I think there is much to Nagel’s argument, and certain aspects of it speak to my own experiences with doubt and philosophical questioning. But I’m still not convinced that it is correct. Premise (4) looks questionable to me. Implicitly, it relies on the belief that no life plan or pursuit is free from doubt or questioning. But as many others have argued, there may be activities and states of affairs that are intrinsically and necessarily good. These kinds of activities and states of affairs would not be open to the kinds of doubts that Nagel’s argument requires. If so, the discrepancy between aspiration and reality may not arise.
Now, I’m sure Nagel would object and tell me that even putative intrinsic goods are open to questioning, just as his argument is open to questioning, and just as everything in philosophy is open to questioning. Still, I think if we are to avoid absurdity — and I’m not saying this is something we should avoid — the “intrinsic good”-solution is likely to be the best available one. With any luck, I’ll get the chance to look at some defences of this solution in future posts.
Anyway, I’ll leave you with some Louis C.K. talking about all the benefits you get from a “basic life” (definitely NSFW!).
* 2006 to be precise. Not sure if that fits with your definition of “many many years ago”, but it seems like it from my perspective.