The Absurd by Thomas Nagel


When Professor Belinda Piercy told her class of 400 that life had no meaning, I waited for the sky to fall. After several seconds of waiting for the roof to cave in, I let several more go by just in case there would be a delayed reaction. Concluding that either God had steadied his hand or the events prophesized in Chicken Little would be saved for a later date, I felt overjoyed, but oddly disappointed too.

The text we were discussing is Thomas Nagel’s The Absurd, and Piercy  had spoken from Nagel’s perspective. Although humans search for inherent meaning in life, Nagel reasons, they will find none because reality will not match their aspirations. This discord is caused by doubt in our own actions—doubt that arises when we cannot explain even our most natural instincts.

For example, I am writing an article on The Absurd. One may ask why I am doing this. “I love to write,” I will answer. My interrogator will then inquire, “Why do you love to write?” and so this line of questioning will continue until I am forced to admit, “I have no idea. No point in life, I suppose.” This chain of justification, as philosophers call it, is the basis of Nagel’s argument.

In the following class, the students in Intro to Philosophy congregate into IB 120. Without a preamble, Piercy asks, “Is life meaningless?”

Eighty percent of the class agreed: life is meaningless.

Life is absurd.

When did humankind decide that purposelessness is synonymous with “awareness” and that “hope” and “wishful thinking” are interchangeable? Emotions are reduced to connections in the brain, imagination is a by-product of cerebral juice, and dreams are the objects of contempt by the intellectuals among us.

Society has formed a religion around cynicism. Its sacred text is a collection of those hardships that humanity has yet to forgive or forget. Its gods are hopelessness and what is now considered “logical thinking”.

What Nagel probably didn’t know was that a year before The Journal of Philosophy published his article, a baby girl had been born in Saint James Parish, Jamaica to Baptist parents. At 10, she saw God as her contemporaries did—a bloke too strange for one to feel comfortable with. And then, at 16, that bloke became a friend. At 18, He was a brother and now, He is a father.

I am not an evangelist. I do not mean to argue the belief that somewhere in God one may find self-actualization. What I am trying to encourage through the above parable is this: at the basis of all knowledge, there is faith. For my mother, that faith lies in God’s existence; for Steve Jobs, it had been entrepreneurship; and for Martin Luther King Jr., it was liberty. At the root, the rationale for all of our beliefs is that they are true, just, or yes or no simply because we believe them to be so.

I love to write. I have faith that this love is just. My reasoning ends there and that is fine.

I do not mean that we cannot speculate for as long as we wish—the chain of justification is actually entertaining if used in a safe context; however, do we have to—as Nagel seems to believe—allow it to instill absurdity into our lives?

After Piercy finished her lecture, and the young philosophers meandered out of the hall, I remained at the front of the class. Strangely enough—or perhaps appropriately enough—the lecture reminded me of a precious line from Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator. The Jewish barber, who was mistaken as the dictator of Tomainia, pleads with his people. The faces that stare back at him are impersonal and yes, inhuman.

It is to these faces that this pretend-dictator declares: “You are not machines.”

No, we are not.

  • disqus_pMjFoimPDr

    Nice. Cynicism and, as David Foster Wallace would call it, irony are not good guiding principles.