Saturday, 18 March 2017

Guy Kahane on why and when it matters to believe that nothing matters



Guy Kahane recently (2016) published a paper called “If Nothing Matters”,[1] which attempts to settle the question whether it matters whether or not anything matters. Kahane’s answer: it doesn’t matter if there is anything that matters, but what does matter is whether or not we believe that something matters.

The paper starts with a brief description of Richard Hare’s argument in “’Nothing Matters’”, which I have discussed in a previous post. To recall, Hare argued that things only matter if they matter to someone, so that as long as something matters to you, you cannot truthfully say that nothing matters. To do so would be a contradiction. Since for most of us most of the time something matters, it is generally not true that nothing matters. Though I’m not usually a fan of Hare’s, I find this argument rather elegant and quite persuasive in its simplicity. Kahane, however, rejects it offhand - curiously without making any serious attempt to actually refute it. Apparently he thinks that Hare’s argument is so obviously misguided that it doesn’t really need a rebuttal. Hare got it wrong, he simply declares, because “there really are things, like suffering, that objectively matter”. (p. 2) This is, then, what people mean when they say that nothing matters: that nothing matters objectively. Things may still matter subjectively (i.e., we find something worth doing) but if they don’t matter objectively (i.e., it really is worth doing), then they don’t really matter at all. That nothing matters objectively Kahane takes to mean that the universe is “devoid of value” and that, accordingly, even the grandest achievements are actually worthless (p. 1). The view that nothing matters can therefore be understood as a form of evaluative nihilism (i.e., the view that nothing is worth anything).

Kahane contends that this nihilist view is quite common among today’s metaethicists (which supposedly was not the case in the 1950s when Hare wrote his paper). Unlike Hare’s Swiss student who clearly believed that whether or not things matter is a matter of great consequence, today’s nihilist metaethicists do not seem to care very much one way or another. They conclude that nothing matters, but are quite happy to carry on as before and to expect everyone else to do the same. They appear to think that it doesn’t matter whether or not things matter. The lack of objective value in the universe does not seem to bother them, let alone plunge them into despair (as it seems to have happened with Hare’s student). That is because they do not see any reason for it. Now, given their commitment to evaluative nihilism, this actually seems quite consistent. After all, if nothing matters, then this – the fact that nothing matters - doesn’t matter either. Or in other words: it cannot possibly be bad that nothing is really good or bad. Kahane agrees with this: if we “take evaluative nihilism seriously enough, then anxiety about it makes little sense.” (p. 5). Generally speaking, then, nothing follows from evaluative nihilism. What matters to us will continue to matter to us, whether or not it objectively matters. Perhaps, if nihilism is true, we have no good reason to pursue whatever it is that we are pursuing in life, but the point is that we have no good reason not to pursue it either. Things are just the same as ever. Nihilism has, as Kahane says, “no normative implications. It cannot make the world bad or worse, or give anyone reasons to do or feel anything – or, for that matter, not to do or feel something. (…) The truth of nihilism, the total absence of all value, makes no normative difference.” (8)

However, what might make a difference, according to Kahane, is whether or not we believe in nihilism. This is not because believing in nihilism would logically commit us to stop valuing things. As we have seen, it does no such thing. It may, however, still have some causal impact on our attitudes. “What matters is how a person’s psychology would respond to a belief in nihilism.” (p. 9-10) So how would it respond? Kahane thinks it is very likely that belief in the truth of nihilism will result in the loss of our substantive evaluative beliefs. In other words, if I truly believe that nothing really matters, then I will also believe that this (whatever ‘this’ is) does not really matter. To hold that even though nothing matters such and such does in fact matter is as inconsistent as not believing in witches and at the same time insisting that so-and-so is a witch. Consequently, if we believe that nothing matters, we will most likely also believe that, for instance, suffering does not matter, i.e. that it is not really bad (even though it may continue to appear bad to me). But usually our subjective concerns are not independent of our evaluative beliefs. If I think that such and such is really bad, then I am likely to be concerned about it. Conversely, if I don’t think that such and such is really bad, then I am much less likely to be concerned about it. Accordingly, if I don’t think that suffering is really bad (that it matters whether or not people suffer), then I am less likely to be concerned about people’s suffering. We will stop caring, or not care that much anymore. (Note that this effect would ensue even if nihilism was false. This is very important for Kahane’s argument: it is the belief in nihilism that causes our subjective concerns to change and diminish.) Admittedly, some basic animal drives and motivations (like our aversion to pain, hunger, or cold) might survive the nihilist onslaught, but everything else including our “moral principles and ideals, and even (…) our long-term prudential goals” (17) would most likely not.

Assuming that we have followed Kahane so far and are willing to accept his claim that belief in the truth of nihilism is likely to undermine our subjective concerns, we might be inclined to think that such an outcome is not exactly desirable. People should care, and if believing in nihilism makes people care less about things (including justice and fairness, and our interests in general), then surely we have every reason to dissuade people from such a belief. It would be bad for them, and most likely bad for us, too. Kahane, however, disagrees, on the grounds that if nihilism is in fact true, then nothing matters, and if nothing matters, it doesn’t matter whether or not nihilism affects subjective concerns and what those concerns are. If evaluative nihilism is true, then whatever the actual effects of a belief in nihilism may be, it is all the same because none of it matters.

And now Kahane’s argument is getting really interesting. It takes the form of a variation of Pascal’s famous wager. After denying that the likely psychological effects of correctly believing in nihilism would give us any reason to avoid and discourage such a belief, Kahane goes on to argue that those effects would, however, matter if nihilism were false, i.e, if things actually did matter. Because then we would “no longer recognize the values and reasons out there” (p. 19), and this would be very bad indeed. Such an outcome would be “very harmful”, “disastrous” in fact, because it would lead to “many bad consequences, both prudential and moral, and might be bad in itself”. That is why, while we have no reason to fear nihilism, we have plenty of reason to fear “mistaken belief in nihilism” (p. 19).

To sum up: if nihilism is true, then we have nothing to worry about whether or not we believe that it is true, and if nihilism is not true, then we still have nothing to worry about as long as we don’t believe it’s true. But if we believe nihilism is true while in fact it is not true, then we are in big trouble. Since not believing in nihilism will not harm us either way, it follows that we have good “pragmatic reasons to believe (or to try to make ourselves believe) that nihilism is false” (p. 19) and indeed to avoid and suppress “anything that might lead us to believe in nihilism” (p. 21) Let us call this Kahane’s Wager.


COMMENTARY:

Kahane’s argument is intriguing, but it seems to me that it suffers from a fatal flaw. Right from the start, it is simply assumed that it makes good sense to say that something matters objectively. But what exactly are we saying here? I find this far from clear. Kahane mentions suffering as an example of something that (quite obviously) matters objectively. Let us see whether we can figure out what that means. Clearly, my suffering matters to me. Whether or not I suffer and how much I suffer makes a huge difference to me. I cannot be (or at any rate, I am not) indifferent to my own suffering. Other people presumably feel the same about their suffering. In addition, most people are also concerned about other people’s suffering, though in varying degrees and generally not in the same degree that they are concerned about their own. But it often does matter to them. People, as a rule, are not entirely indifferent to the suffering of other people (or, for that matter, animals). So (my and possibly your) suffering matters to me, and (your and possibly my) suffering matters to you. But that would still only be subjective mattering, wouldn’t it? There is, after all, someone to whom it matters. If it matters to someone, it matters subjectively. Admittedly, it might also matter objectively, but in that case it cannot simply matter objectively because and insofar as it matters to someone, because then what matters objectively would be indistinguishable from what matters subjectively. If there is a difference between subjective and objective mattering, then there must be some way to distinguish the two. It must be, in other words, (at least theoretically) possible for there to be objective mattering without subjective mattering. So what we seem to be saying when we insist that suffering matters objectively is something like this: that my suffering would still matter even if it did not matter to me or to you, or to anyone at all. Suffering would still matter even if there were nobody to whom it mattered. But once again, what does that mean? Perhaps we are tempted to say that it means that even if it does not matter to anyone, it should matter to us. But that does not really get us anywhere. If someone asks us why suffering should matter to us if it does not already do so, all we could say is that it should matter to us because it does matter, namely objectively. We should attach importance to it because it is important (though for and to no one in particular). A prescriptive interpretation of supposedly objective values thus merely begs the question. We have just deflected from the problem instead of solving it. So, one more time, what does it mean that suffering matters objectively? Frankly, I don’t have the slightest idea, and what is more, I doubt that anyone really understands this claim, not even Kahane himself.

Let us now turn to the argument itself or that crucial portion of it that I have called Kahane’s Wager, which relies heavily on the notion of objective mattering (that is, things being objectively valuable). More precisely, the argument relies on a distinction between two levels of reality: the subjective and the objective. These two levels of reality are thought to be ontologically independent of each other. It is possible that things matter to me subjectively even though they do not matter objectively. It is also possible that things do not matter to me subjectively while they do matter objectively. It is even possible that they matter both subjectively and objectively, but that I am completely mistaken about how they matter. I may for instance think that suffering is bad, while in fact (objectively) suffering is good. (Kahane explicitly allows for this possibility, but thinks – for, as far as I can see, no compelling reason - that such a value reversal is rather unlikely.) This separation explains why, as Kahane puts it, “the truth of nihilism makes no normative difference.” Whatever matters or does not matter objectively, it has no effect whatsoever on what matters subjectively.

Now, Kahane’s Wager is modeled on Pascal’s wager. Pascal’s wager works because it is assumed that it may make a huge difference whether or not we believe in God. There is a lot at stake here, a lot to be gained and lost. Eternal rewards and eternal punishments are both possible. If I believe in God and there is no God, I don’t lose much, but if there is, then the rewards are immense. If I don’t believe in God and there is no God, then I don’t really gain anything, but if there is, I may have to face eternal damnation. So I’d better play it safe, do the rational thing, and believe. For Kahane’s Wager to work, we likewise need to assume that the consequences of believing in nihilism are potentially disastrous, while we don’t really stand to lose anything if we do not believe in it: if it is not true, then our subjective concerns are justified, and there is nothing bad about that, and if it is, then nothing matters anyway, so that wouldn’t be bad either. But if we do believe in nihilism even though it is not true (which would be the equivalent of not believing in God even though God exists), then this would result in great harm.

The problem with this argument is that it is hard to see in what way exactly mistaken belief in nihilism would be harmful. Remember that nihilism itself is supposed to be not only not harmful: it does not make the slightest difference for how we experience the world. If things did matter objectively and suddenly stopped mattering objectively, or did not matter and then suddenly started to matter, in neither case would we be able to tell the difference. The world as we know it would remain unchanged. (This alone should be sufficient to reject the notion of objective value: following William James’s excellent pragmatist principle that there can be no difference anywhere that doesn’t make a difference elsewhere,[2] the claim that certain things matter objectively is simply meaningless.)

Now, believing that nihilism is true may certainly have consequences: people may get depressed and commit suicide, they may start hurting other people, and do all kinds of other things that we may feel are bad. Obviously, however, if belief in nihilism really does have such consequences, it has them whether or not nihilism is true. Yet Kahane argues that those consequences would only matter (i.e., be bad) if nihilism were not true. Exactly the same consequences would not matter at all if nihilism were true. Therefore, belief in nihilism cannot be thought to be harmful because it has those consequences. It must be harmful for other reasons. But the only difference between correctly believing in nihilism and falsely believing in nihilism seems to be that in the first case our subjective concerns would correspond to objective values (“the value around us”), while in the second case they would not. Everything else would be exactly the same. But then again, a lack of correspondence between subjective concerns and objective value cannot be what makes things bad either, because if nihilism were true and we believed it wasn’t, there would also be a lack of correspondence between subjective concerns and objective value, but that, according to Kahane, would not be bad. So then the only possible reason for thinking that it would be bad if we falsely believed in nihilism, but not bad if we correctly believed in it, is that in the first case the consequences of believing in nihilism would be really (i.e., objectively) bad whereas in the second case they would not be really bad, but only appear to be so. That is, they would only be subjectively bad. But if I mistakenly believe in nihilism, then of course those consequences would not be subjectively bad at all. Since I now believe that nothing matters, whatever results from my belief does not matter to me either, and if we all believed in it, then it would matter to no one. It follows that the consequences of our mistakenly believing in nihilism would be only objectively bad, which leads us right back to our original problem: to understand what we can possibly mean when we say that something matters objectively or does not matter objectively.


[1] Published in Nous (2016), online first: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/nous.12146/pdf
[2] William James, Pragmatism. A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking, New York/ Bombay/ Calcutta: Longmans, Green, and Co 1907, p. 50.

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Richard M. Hare on what it means to say that something matters



What exactly do we mean when we say that “nothing matters”? Richard Hare attempts to answer this question in an early (1957) essay.[1] The way he answers it is intended to convince us that the view that “nothing matters” (or in other words existential nihilism) is an untenable, for most of us even nonsensical position, and quite obviously so.

Hare starts his essay by relating the story of a young Swiss student staying with the Hares, who after reading Camus’ L’Etranger suddenly became convinced that “nothing matters”. Hare then proceeded to talk him out of it in Socratic fashion. Here is how: when we say that something matters what we do is express concern about that something. Concern, however, is always somebody’s concern. Therefore, when I say that something matters I express my concern for it. I am saying that it matters to me. Accordingly, when you say the same, then you express your concern for that thing. You are saying that it matters to you. Neither of us is then really saying anything about the thing in question. We are only saying something about ourselves.

Now most of us are in fact concerned about many things. And so, apparently, was Hare’s Swiss student, which means that things did matter to him, which means that they did matter, period. For the statement “nothing matters” to be true it would have to be true that the one who makes the statement is not concerned about anything at all. So if I am the one who says that nothing matters, then this is true if and only if nothing matters to me, and if you are the one who says it, then it is true if and only if nothing matters to you. Yet if it were true that nothing mattered to me, why would I then bother to make that statement in the first place? It seems I would at least have to care enough about something to find it worth pointing out to the world that nothing matters, in which case I would have immediately contradicted myself.

The reason we may not be immediately aware of this contradiction is that we tend to misunderstand the function of the word “matters”. Its function is to express (somebody’s) concern. It does not tell us anything about the nature of things. Contrary to what we seem to think when we declare that nothing matters (or seriously wonder whether it might be true that nothing matters), mattering is not something that things do. My wife may both chatter and matter, but while the chattering is something that my wife actually does,[2] the mattering is not. In that sense it is quite true that (strictly speaking) no thing matters, from which we can easily, but mistakenly, derive the conclusion that nothing matters: we take a deep and hard look at things, fail to observe any mattering activity in them, and then conclude that nothing matters. However, we have looked in the wrong place. We should have looked at ourselves. If we had done that we would most likely have found that some things do matter, namely to us and therefore in the only way something can matter.

This is not to say that there are no people out there who are not very much concerned about anything. But they are an exception, and even if nothing or nothing much matters to them, this has absolutely no bearing on the question what matters, or should matter, to us. Instead of wondering whether things matter, Hare suggests in conclusion, we’d better ask ourselves what matters to us, what matters most to us, and what should matter to us and how much it should matter. These are all important life questions. Whether things matter is not.

COMMENTARY:
The obvious question to ask here is of course whether Hare is right to say that what we mean (and all we can mean) when we say that something matters is that it matters to us. Is the function of saying “it matters” really the expression of one’s own personal concern, and nothing else? Is there really no difference between “this is important” and “I find this important”? Personally, I am inclined to agree with Hare, mostly because I don’t see how things can matter if they don’t matter to someone, and how they can matter other than by mattering to someone. On the other hand, it seems to me that when we say something like “nothing matters” we do not really mean to say that nothing matters to us. That is why we would, when we say this, not feel contradicted if somebody pointed out to us that some things do in fact matter to us. We already knew that, and never meant to deny it. So it seems it is something else that we wished to express by saying that ‘nothing matters’. But the question is, what do we mean if we don’t mean that nothing matters to us? I find this question very difficult to answer. Consider the following fictional dialogue between A and B:

A: Nothing matters!
B: What do you mean, nothing matters?
A: What I said.
B: So what you mean is that nothing matters to you, right?
A: No, I don’t mean that at all. In fact, it matters very much to me that nothing matters. I’m extremely concerned about it!
B: But if you are concerned about it, if it matters to you that nothing matters, then there clearly is something that matters.
A: Yes, but only to me. The point is that it doesn’t really matter what matters to me or if there is anything that matters to me. It doesn’t matter whether or not things matter to people, me included.
B: Okay, but what do you mean when you say it doesn’t matter? If they matter to you, and they matter to me, if there is somebody to whom they matter, how can they still not matter?
A: They do not matter in the sense that it makes no difference whether or not they matter to me, or, for that matter, if they exist or not exist.
B: No difference to you, you mean?
A: No, not to me. To me it does make a difference.
B: To whom then?
A: To nobody in particular. It simply makes no difference.
B: But it does make a difference. After all, if those things didn’t exist or if they were different, other things would be different, too, wouldn’t they?
A: Yes, but not in the long run. A time will come when the world will be exactly as it would have been if things had been different. Say in 5 billion years when the sun will swell up and swallow Earth. None of the things that we do now will then have made any difference. So I guess what I mean when I say nothing matters is that nothing matters ultimately or in the long run.
B: Okay, fine, perhaps what happens now and what we do and whether we live or die makes no difference for the long-term future. But all of this certainly makes a difference now. Why should we want it to make a difference for all eternity?
A: Well, I guess you are right. Although when that future comes, there will also be nobody left to whom anything matters that matters to us now. So then nothing will matter anymore, right?
B: Yes, correct, but why should we worry about that? Perhaps it is true that there will come a time when nothing matters any more, but that time is not here yet. That nothing will matter does in no way show that nothing matters, namely now. So what is your problem?
A: I don’t know. You are confusing me. Let’s go and have a drink. It doesn’t really matter anyway.

Still, it remains difficult to consistently think about ‘importance’ or ‘mattering’ the way that Hare suggests we do. Hare himself seems to forget what he has just told us when, in the last paragraph of his essay, he advises us to “learn to prize those things whose true value is apparent only to those who have fought hard to reach it.” (46) This is clearly something that matters to Hare. However, in suggesting that this matters he is also clearly not merely expressing his own concerns. He is, rather, expressing the belief that we, too, should be concerned about it. So ‘this matters’, at least in this particular instance, means, in addition to “this matters to me (= Hare)”, “this should matter to you (= the reader)”. Why should it, though? The reason seems to have something to do with some things being truly valuable and others not, yet in light of Hare’s own analysis it makes little sense to assert that things have a “true value” that is not always apparent to us. In accordance with Hare’s analysis of the meaning of ‘X matters’, it seems that what we mean (and all we can mean) when we say that “something has true value” is that it has true value for us. But in that case it would make no sense to say that the “true value” may not be apparent to us. If having such a value means having such a value for us, then it needs to be apparent to us. Yet the very term “true value” is designed to suggest that we may be mistaken about a thing’s true value (just as, perhaps, we can be mistaken about what truly matters, or that things matter at all). “True value” implies the possibility of “false value”, but it would be very odd to say that certain things have a false value for me. They either have value or they don’t. That their value is false can only mean that even though they appear to be valuable to me, they are in fact not valuable at all. Accordingly, to say that something is truly valuable can only mean that it has value even if I am unable to see it (so that it has no value for me). If nothing matters unless, and to the extent that, it matters to someone, then nothing has value either, unless, and to the extent that, it has value for someone.


[1] “’Nothing Matters’” was written in 1957 when Hare was 38. It was originally published in French as “Rien n’a d’importance” in La Philosophie Analytique, Paris: Les Éditions de Minuit 1959, and later reprinted in English in Hare’s Applications of Moral Philosophy, London: Macmillan 1972, 32–47. I am using another reprint, namely the one in Life, Death and Meaning, ed. David Benatar, Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield 2004, 41-47.
[2] Note to my wife: this is Hare’s example, not mine.

Saturday, 11 March 2017

Thomas Nagel on the Absurd



It is often said that life is absurd. However, it is not always clear what exactly we mean by that. What, if anything, makes it absurd, and why do we think, as we seem to do, that life’s being absurd is something we should rightly worry about? Perhaps life is absurd and that is actually a good thing. This is what Thomas Nagel argues in a paper on the topic, published in 1971.[1]

Nagel begins his investigation by ruling out the usual suspects. What makes life absurd is not the fact that what matters to us now will most likely not matter anymore at some time in the future (say, in a million years), because we have no good reason to think that the things that matter to us now would matter more or would only really matter if they also mattered in the future. Also, if what happens now does not matter in the future, then surely what happens in the future does not matter now. Consequently, it does not matter now whether what matters now will also matter in the future.

Neither is what makes life absurd the fact that we will die, or the fact that we are very small and insignificant when compared to the enormous size of the universe. If our life is absurd (i.e. meaningless) now, then it would also be absurd if we lived considerably longer or forever, or if we were actually big enough to fill the universe. Nor is life absurd because it will be cut off at some point and in that sense does not lead anywhere. What we do in life does in fact lead to many things in life. Why should it have to lead to something that is no longer part of our life? The chain of justifications (‘I do this in order to achieve that’) needs to come to an end somewhere, and there is no reason why it should not come to an end within our given life span.

From this it does, of course, not follow that life is not absurd. What follows is merely that if life is absurd, it must be something else that makes it so. Nagel suggests that we normally call a situation absurd if there is a “conspicuous discrepancy between pretension or aspiration and reality” (31). You are being knighted and your pants fall down, that kind of thing. Accordingly, life as a whole would be absurd (for each one of us) if there were an inevitable clash between our pretensions as human beings and reality (or what we know about it). Now there is indeed such a clash, namely between our inability to take our life other than seriously and our inability, as thinking beings, not to understand the ultimate arbitrariness of everything we do. Among the animals, only humans have the ability to look at their own lives from, as it were, the outside, as mere spectators, or sub specie aeternitatis. If we adopt this “view from nowhere” (as Nagel shall later call it), then we realize that everything that is important to us is only important because we happen to be the kind of creature that we are. If we were different, then different things would matter to us. Nothing matters in itself. It is all contingent, and in that sense arbitrary. When we look at our lives from that perspective it seems rather ludicrous how seriously we take it all. And yet, seriously we do take it. We have to carry on with our lives and to continue to treat things as important that from an impartial spectator’s point of view are anything but. (I know it does not really matter whether I get that promotion or not, but knowing this does not change the fact that it still matters to me.) This inevitable conflict of perspectives is where absurdity lies: that we can be deeply involved in our lives and, at the same time and without undermining or diminishing our involvement in any way, realize that if we had been “put together” (35) differently we could just as well be involved in something else, or in nothing at all. In this respect, our sense of the absurd resembles epistemological scepticism: despite understanding perfectly well that I have no grounds to be certain about anything (for instance the existence of an external world or other minds), I cannot help continuing to act as if I was certain. Or rather, I am certain, although I know that, rationally speaking, I shouldn’t. Similarly, I take my life seriously, although I know that I have no rational grounds to do so.

However, something changes when we cultivate (rather than suppress) the external view on our lives: our seriousness is not gone (which would in fact be disastrous), but it is now “laced with irony”. (37) Should we regret this? For Nagel, the absurdity of (our) life is actually a good thing and not something we should bemoan or try to escape from. It is most definitely no reason to despair. Remember, it is only because we can look at our lives from the outside that life can appear absurd to us. We don’t really discover it to be absurd. If Nagel is right, then our lives are not absurd prior to our realizing this. The absurdity consists in the conflicting viewpoints. That is why the life of an animal is never absurd, precisely because it cannot be absurd for it. For an animal, say a mouse, life is never absurd because he lacks that crucial impartial perspective. He lacks the “self-consciousness and self-transcendence that would enable him to see that he is only a mouse.” (38) Yet is he better off because his life is not absurd? No. The animal’s life is not absurd, says Nagel, but it is not meaningful either. In fact, at the end of his paper Nagel comes very close to suggesting that it is actually the very fact that we have a sense of the absurdity of our lives that makes our lives meaningful. “I would argue”, he writes, “that absurdity is one of the most human things about us: a manifestation of our most advanced and interesting characteristics.” Our sense of the absurd is in fact “a way of perceiving our true situation” and a result of our “capacity to transcend ourselves in thought” (39). So nothing to worry about. (And anyway, Nagel rather glibly concludes, if nothing matters, then it does not, or should not, matter that nothing matters either.)


COMMENTARY:

I am wondering whether Nagel’s analysis of our sense that life is absurd does not rely rather too heavily on a redefinition of the absurd. Nagel’s absurd does not seem to be the absurd that people tend to be concerned about. When he begins his analysis he occasionally uses the term ‘meaningless’ synonymously with ‘absurd’, but when he reaches his conclusion, the absurd has mutated into something else that can no longer be equated with meaninglessness. No wonder then that Nagel does not find the absurd particularly bothersome. All it does is invite us to adopt a slightly ironical, moderately detached attitude towards life. We still take life seriously, but perhaps not that seriously anymore. We have distanced ourselves slightly from our individual persona, have gained a little freedom from ourselves and can now meet the world with a little more equanimity. That is all very useful and liberating, I’m sure. However, it does not really address the existential concerns that people sometimes have, about whether, when all is said and done, life is really worth all the trouble. Why bother if in the end it will all be for nothing? The worry that nothing might really matter is an existential worry, or, in Kierkegaard’s sense, an ethical worry. In contrast, Nagel’s absurd is purely aesthetic, more pleasurable than horrifying. It is indeed the product of the view from nowhere, the absurd of a pure spectator. Never mind that I am that spectator and what I am looking at is my own life, which I cannot help taking seriously. It is still from the spectator’s perspective that it appears absurd to me. It is the place where I can laugh about my struggles, where death is simply the end of a story that has been told before and will be told again, many, many times. But the absurd that bothers and alienates us, which might even drive us into despair, is something that is perceived not from the viewpoint of the spectator, but from the viewpoint of the one who actually lives that life. And who lives it here and now and only this once. Nagel’s absurd is harmless, even edifying, because it is perceived from the outside. It invites us to see the comical side of things. Yet there is also an absurd that is perceived from the inside, and that is a very different thing, something that does not liberate us from our natural obsession with ourselves, our inborn parochialism, but that instead rips a hole into our world and threatens to rob us of our sanity. Here be lions and dragons, here be cold and dark and emptiness. It is a different, far less congenial kind of absurd, one that is more akin to the absurd of Lovecraft and Ligotti than to that of Nagel.

One more thing: the notion of the absurd is very much associated with the French philosopher Albert Camus. Nagel mentions him, but only briefly and rather disparagingly at the end of his paper, only to accuse him of being a bit too “romantic and slightly self-pitying” (39). Instead of happily embracing the ironic detachment that the absurd can and should give rise to, Camus asked us to respond to the absurd with defiance, by “shaking a fist at the world”. This, however, is at best only partly true and a bit of a caricature. The absurd, for Camus, also rests on a discrepancy, but not between an internal and an external view, but between human hopes and desires on the one hand, and the unresponsiveness and indifference of the universe on the other. But what Camus thinks of as the appropriate response to this discrepancy amounts to more than just shaking one’s fist at the world. It is, rather, a determination not to accept the indifference with which the universe looks back at us, and to resist this indifference by not adding to it. We defy the absurd by insisting that it matters what we do, by making them matter, by caring about what happens and what is being done to other people, and by acting accordingly. We thus create, little by little, a different universe, one that does care, at least in part, because we do. In short, Camus’ absurd prompts us to care more, whereas Nagel’s absurd prompts us to care less.  


[1] Thomas Nagel, “The Absurd”. Originally published in the Journal of Philosophy 68/20 (1971): 716-727. Reprinted in Life, Death and Meaning. Key Philosophical Readings on the Big Questions, ed. David Benatar, Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield 2004, 29-40 (which is the version I have been using).