Existential Absurdity and the Meaning of Life

July 12, 2006 at 12:26 am 9 comments

Life seems to be meaningless in the face of certain death:

“All the evidence goes to show that what we regard as our mental life is bound up with brain structure and organized bodily energy. Therefore, it is rational to suppose that mental life cease when bodily life ceases. The argument is only on of probability, but it is as strong as those upon which most scientific conclusions are based.” (Bertrand Russell, What I Believe).

This paints a very bleak picture of the way things are. It is a view that, if pushed far enough, leads to nihilism. To make the point more clearly, suppose I said that you were going to die in a few minutes. Perhaps you were going to be the victim of a mob-style execution. How much would your life, the remaining few minutes, mean to you? Of course I could be accused of committing the fallacy of composition; it does not follow from the fact that because a small part of my life becomes meaningless before my death that a whole life made up of such ‘parts’ is meaningless. But does this follow. It is not necessarily fallacious.

Suppose your life consisted of small segments each ending (you believed permanently) with a mob-style execution. You always find yourself about fifteen minutes from being executed by mobsters. After you are shot, you find yourself fifteen minutes from being executed. Over and over again. You do not remember being executed previously. Each time seems to be the first. Would such a life, eighty years of this cycle, be a meaningful life? Why not?

Suppose we think about it another way. Suppose you have thirty minutes to live before being executed? Would those thirty minutes be meaningful? What about an hour? A day? A month? A year? The point is this, at what point does your life become meaningful in spite of your certain death?!!

“There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest–whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine to twelve categories–come afterward. These are games; one must first answer. And if it is true, as Nietzsche claims, that a philosopher, to deserve our respect, must preach by example, you can appreciate the importance of that reply, for it will precede the definitive act. These are the facts the heart can feel; yet they call for careful study before they can become clear to the intellect.” (Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus).

But then on the other hand, how would prolonging a meaningless life make it meaningful. Would continuing the cycle of mob-style executions every fifteen minutes for eternity make that life meaningful? No. The length of one’s life is not a sufficient condition for a meaningful life; it must to be a necessary condition.

“A finite universe is unimaginable, inconceivable. An infinite universe is unimaginable, inconceivable. Doubtless the universe is neither finite nor infinite, since the finite and infinite are only man’s ways of thinking about it; in any case, that finiteness and infinitness should only be ways of thinking and speaking is also something inconceivable, unimaginable. We cannot take a single step beyond our own inpotence; outside those walls I feel sick and giddy. If the wall is no longer there, the gulf opens at my feet and I am seized with dizziness.” (Eugene Ionesco, Human Purpose in a Meaningless World).

This brings us to an argument for God based on religion experience. (Sometimes offered as a solution to life’s meaningless, unfortunately).

The argument in its naive form, usually goes something life this: I have an experience, that is apparently an experience of God. This experience is sensual in much the same as perceiving that someone is standing behind me when I cannot see the directly, or perhaps (put more strongly) I sense God directly analogously to see a tree outside.

The problem with such an argument is that is can be paralleled by an unbeliever. Jean-Paul Sartre says something similar about his atheism:

“So there you are. It’s pretty thin. God existed, but I didn’t concern myself with him at all. And then one day at La Rochelle, while waiting for the Machado girls who used to keep me company every morning on my way to lycee, I grew impatient at their lateness and, to while away the time, decided to think about God. ‘Well’ I said ‘he doesn’t exist.’ It was something authentically self-evident, although I have no idea any more what it was based on. And then it was over and done with. I never thought about it again; I was no more concerned with that dead God than I had been bothered about the living God. I imagine it would be hard to find a less religious nature than mine. I settled the question once and for all at the age of twelve. Much later I studied religious proofs and atheist arguments. I appraised the fortunes of their disputes. I was fond of saying that Kant’s objection did not affect Descartes’ ontological proof. But all that struck me as hardly any more alive than the Quarrel of Ancients and Moderns. I think I ought to say all this because, as I have said, I am affected by moralism, and because moralism often has its source in religion. But with me it was nothing of the kind. Besides, the truth is I was brought up and educated by relatives and teachers most of whom were champions of secular morality and everywhere sought to replace religious morality by it.” (Jean-Paul Sartre, The War Diaries).

The theist might argue something like:

1) If I have a direct experience of God, then I have good reason to believe in God.
2) I have a direct experience of God.
3) So, I have good reason to believe in God.

Modeling a counter-argument after Sartre’s experience, we can formulate an argument for atheism that is very similar the the naive argument for God’s existence from religious experience:

1′) If I have a direct experience of the absense of God (given God’s nature), then I have good reason for being an atheist.
2′) I have a direct experience of the absense of God.
3′) So, I have good reason for being an atheist.

Of course an obvious objection to my naive argument for God’s nonexistence is that one cannot prove a negative. (Which is itself a negative). This is false. Negatives are similar to positives in that we can provide both deductive and inductive arguments for a negative claim, e.g. A circle is not round. A logically false negative claim. Inductively, there is likely no intelligent alien life, given evidence x. If x is inductively strong, then we have a strong inductive argument for a negative claim.

Given the nature of God and the type of experience both the theist and atheist arguments are working with the objection fails. They are both, given inductive strength, good arguments. Which is why the issue is an inductive one and not one of a negative claim not being provable.

Additionally, perceiving something does not necessarily prove that it exists. After all, I could be dreaming or be in a matrix-like world. I could simply be mistaken. Or, as it relates to an experience of God, I may simply be fooled, given that there are alternative explanations in terms of brain chemistry for religious experience. The point being that apparrently percieving God is not sufficient for an inductively strong argument.

One cannot appeal solely to how many people believe in God or not. It must be in their reasons for believing which leads us back to the inductive strength of each argument–and perhaps a cumulative case for each side. The population of the earth could believe that it was flat and this would not make the earth flat (and yes, I am assuming a version of realism, I know).


Having become recently single, I have had much time to contemplate loneliness (and love). Both as it relates to our human relationships and as it relates to the world. I think (a number of) this distinction is important. Take loneliness as it relates to human relationships, particularly love relationships. What is the nature of this loneliness? Is it longing for a historical situation, which might be recreated and yet does not satisfy?

I often think about getting back into the relationship that recently ended. Would that satisfy me? Would my loneliness go away? My loneliness for a particular individual (my former partner) might, but this is not certain. It also may be the case that I return to this relationship and yet still long for what was. In other words, the problem is a historical one, something from the past. And not something which any current state can fix. Nothing in the present can fix this state of individual loneliness. Were I to travel back in time and replace my past self, or simply watch from the sideline, I would not solve my problem of loneliness. It is historical, something which is not even solved by time travel.

But what has this to do with cosmic loneliness? It seems that the meaninglessness of life, cosmic loneliness and the religious experience of atheism are all closely linked; yet still independent.

So what is cosmic loneliness? It is the feeling that we (humans), and I (personally) are alone in a cold and indifferent universe. I have noticed with the passing of my recent relationship that my individual loneliness has gone up, along with my cosmic loneliness. That cosmic loneliness is more obvious with the loss of someone close.

Do I need medication? Perhaps. And perhaps this medication would make me feel happy and rid me of my loneliness, both individual and cosmic. But does it follow from that there is no reason for cosmic loneliness, or that cosmic loneliness is reducible to a brain state(s)? The answer is no. It could still be the case the cosmic loneliness is justified and that this feeling is more than simply a brain state. The point being that this reductionism is not a scientific fact, but rather a philosophical assumption. An existential would say that medication masks the cosmic loneliness, but that it is still justified and that cosmic loneliness is still there.


Entry filed under: philosophy of religion.

Ontology of Love and God Nominalism and Laws of Nature

9 Comments Add your own

  • 1. bill huston  |  September 11, 2006 at 8:36 pm

    o rly?

  • 2. Hoopal  |  February 11, 2008 at 10:46 am

    Hi all. Cool site Google

  • 3. Mark Anthony  |  January 12, 2010 at 6:11 pm

    so basically you need moar god? so the plan is.

    1.Kill god.
    2. Get high.
    3. ????
    4. PROFIT!!!!’


  • 4. adrian  |  May 16, 2010 at 3:19 pm

    If I may say so, I think you are making matters much too confusing for yourself which may contribute to a feeling of depression.

    The Meaning of Life.

    In its simplest form, I see there are a few ways of thinking about this:-

    I. There is no meaning to life.

    Accept this and make the most of what life brings.

    2. There is meaning to life.

    Assume this to be true and embark on a journey that is unlikely to yield a satisfactory answer. If the great philosophers never came to a difinitive conclusion, it is highly unlikely you will.

    3. Create your own meaning of life.

    Most people require a purpose to life and without the intellectual wherewithal to attempt point 2 above, create their own meaning of life; start a family, help the poor, make money, etc., etc.,

    4. Think ‘outside the box’.

    This does not directly answer the question with respect to the meaning of life but by exploring recent developments in quantum mechanics and what some scientists are describing as a ‘multi-dimentional world’, new ideas can challenge conventional world views.

    If it’s any consolation, I’ll assume i’m a little further down the rabbit hole than you are and in my case at least, feeling a whole lot better.

    Make of this what you will.

    Best regards, A

    • 5. joe bell  |  May 31, 2012 at 4:26 pm

      Why not just say you’ve been there and things will get better? Reason rarely resolves essentially emotional conditions which must take their due course. Reason is generally the slave of emotions. Meaning is an emotional state.

  • 6. Zach  |  June 7, 2010 at 3:21 am

    Read 1 Corinthians 15 … pretty interesting

  • 7. aamirak  |  June 19, 2012 at 2:31 am

    Good Read! Hmmm, it seems that the whole notion of existentialist absurdity points out nothing more than there is no real explanation to anything. This of course, is after all an explanation; and yes as a concept this is absurd. It’s the same as the principle of intentionality; i.e. there is no such thing as nothing. If one cannot answer the question in a finite matter, it does not mean that there is NO answer. Quite simply, absurdity is not a philosophical problem as philosophy is contingent upon thought and consciousness at the very least. If consciousness and/or thought cannot explain something finitely it does not mean that something does not exist. The real fallacy in all of this kind of discussion is the assumption that an explanation must be concrete and explainable in a consciousness context.

    • 8. ajoy khumancha  |  March 26, 2014 at 2:15 am

      can any1 tell me the exact definition of cosmic loneliness?Pliz!

  • 9. kid  |  July 16, 2015 at 6:10 am

    This is the most relatable thing I have ever read thank you


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