Existential Absurdity

by Max Andrews

Absurdity is an understanding or a concept in which the individual is superfluous.  This superfluity of being is due to having no allotted place in any necessary scheme of things. Some people invent teleologies in an attempt to lend things a place in overarching schemes but it is an illusion.[1]  According to Albert Camus, man has a longing for reason.  In this world people have understood that there is “irrationality” to reality thus a “despair of true knowledge.”  There still remains a longing for reason despite the recognition of absurdity.  From this, absurdity is born.[2] Camus recognized that man needs to understand this despair and come to terms with it.  His teleology was simply to live life together with others and love one another.

Absurdity is the denial of teleology.  It is a result of alienation.  If there is a connection or intimacy within the self, a lack of angst, it is difficult for absurdity to follow.  The same is true for an alienation between others and God.  Teleology is the only savior to absurdity.  The problem at hand is identifying what can provide such teleology, and if that provision is made, does it actually work?  Is it a binding teleology?

Every man lives his life as if he really matters.  The every day circumstances he finds himself in gives himself an epistemic awareness that what he does in those circumstances has meaning.  The situations he is presented with allows him to set goals.  In setting goals he produces an incentive to that purposeful goal, he lives and functions knowing that the means and the ends are just as important.  Man will live as though he genuinely values certain attributes like justice, love, and brotherhood.  Absurdity ought to be understood in a dichotomous concept:  subjective and objective absurdity.

Subjective absurdity is when something appears to be absurd or pointless when it is in some way irrational or incongruous.  The basic cases of absurdity are activities and attitudes, and that the absurdity of a life is built up out of the absurdity of the various activities and attitudes of the individual whose life it is.[3]  This is often an epistemic problem rather than a metaphysical problem.  The epistemic problem is how one obtains the knowledge of the teleology and how one responds in accordance to that knowledge obtained.  A metaphysical problem with absurdism will manifest itself as an objective absurdity.

In a state of life-affirming becoming (will be discussed later) those things, which are acted out, as a result of man’s alienation, are absurdly trivial activities.  Even as an aggregate of activities the agent cannot reduce the disproportion of their means.  They are inherently burdensome activities with no vindicating purpose.  They are absurdly futile activities when it would be plainly evident to an [outside] observer that they are hopelessly inefficacious.[4]

Objective absurdity would apply to the metanarrative of the individual.  This would be applicable to the overall orchestration of every state of affairs.  Not only does this encompass subjective absurdity but it obtains in every state of affairs regardless of whether or not it is epistemically warranted.

When one attempts to construct his own teleology to relieve himself of this alienation from others he tends to do so by relying on others.  He will attempt to create a goal or value from other people’s goals or values.  The attempt to follow suit with this teleology is not necessarily bad since there can be good that follows from this.  This reach for teleology usually looks like good actions or deeds.  This would include giving one’s time or resources to another person, volunteering, providing for a family, and succeeding in a career.

Since man is free, according to Sartre, it depends on what he makes of himself.  The existence of any objective values, if there were any, would have to be chosen by the individual to adhere to.  Sartre would see no way to get around this.  A man of action is a man who participates in the world and this participation is contingent upon the individual’s decision

Is there any serious warrant to the secularist’s teleological construct?  Can a world without God still provide meaning, value, and purpose?  Kai Nielsen claims that questions of value cannot be constituted by their being commanded or ordained by God.  Certain [teleological] values would remain just as intact in a godless world as in a world with God.[5]

The question is, must teleology ontologically depend of God?  If objective teleology can obtain in a possible world in which God does not exist it would have to be true that a sense of meaning, value, and purpose, according to Nielsen, is a necessary truth (it is necessary that teleology is intuitively sensed).  These two necessary truths (God exists and teleology obtains) can obtain independent of each other in as long as they are both necessary.  The same would be true if God were contingent since teleology is still necessary; thus, relinquishing a foundation for teleology because of its independent necessary existence.  For the proposition, “If God does not exist, then teleology obtains” (~Eg ⊃ Ot) the consequent is necessarily true, by supposition, which, according to the standard semantic of counterfactuals, has the same effect as a necessarily false antecedent, namely, that the conditional is trivially true.[6]  However, consider the proposition “If an Anselmian God does not exist, then teleological facts obtain” (~Ea ⊃ Ot).  If the use of standard semantics apply, and the consequent is necessarily true, then to render ~Ea as true would be highly problematic.  The Anselmian notion of God bases all reality in his existence.  To affirm ~Ea, or simply but, to affirm the nonexistence of all reality, and to consequently affirm that teleological facts obtain would be metaphysically incoherent or even a contradiction.  Metaphysically and logically, the only things that cannot obtain are contradictions.  Thus, ~Ea ⊃ Ot is nontrivially false.  For the secularist to suggest Ot obtains would be equivocation (of any other necessary truth) and misunderstanding the metaphysical and ontological connection between an Anselmian God and necessary truths (like that of teleological truths). A world in which ~Ea ⊃ Ot is true would be a nonsensical world.  Thus, Nielsen’s attempt to suggest that values (teleology) can obtain in a world in which [an Anselmian] God does not exist is incoherent.

The one who attempts to be the architect of his own teleology is merely adhering to an illusion of meaning, value, and purpose in his life.  For this agent, he ultimately cares about his career, family, friends, and others because it enables him to have a certain quality of life, which thereby ensures that he can spend quality time with these people (or at least he seems to ultimately care).  It seems that this response to alienation from others is only instrumentally valued by the agent to derive some type of meaning.[7]

This agent may believe that he is valuing brotherhood with his friends, charity in giving of his time and goods, and love with his family, but he cannot construct the meaning behind these concepts nor can he apply meaning to an aggregate of other alienated persons.  He may think that he has incentive or motivation to act on these values, but its meaning, value, and purpose is self-referential.  When he attempts to apply meaning, value, and purpose to anything he applies only as he has arbitrarily defined it as being.  It would not matter whether the aggregate of alienated persons thought the same or whether he was the only individual who thought of meaning, value and purpose as such, it would still be arbitrary.

Man seeks a concrete underpinning of the most fundamental values that make up life.  If these values are indeed just arbitrary, and hence not really valuable at all, then one’s life is rendered devoid of the meaning that is ascribed to it in virtue of it exhibiting such [apparently genuine] values.[8]  If this is the case it follows that no value exists and absurdity renders true.

I would also like to recommend Clifford Williams’ new book Existential Reasons for Belief in God.  I’m currently reading through this work and Williams approaches continental philosophy with an analytic approach in attempting to balance reason with emotional/existential need in faith.  Please listen to Brian Auten (Apologetics315) interview Williams on the book.


            [1] As understood and advocated by Jean Paul Sartre, Nausea, trans. Robert Baldick (New York:  Penguin, 1986), 184.

            [2] Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus, trans. Justin O’Brien (New York:  Penguin, 1986), 22.

            [3] See Joel Feinberg, Freedom and Fulfillment:  Philosophical Essays (Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 1992), 299-315.

            [4] Ibid., 304-305.

            [5] Kai Nielsen, “On the Choice Between Secular Morality and Religious Morality.” University of Toronto Quarterly 53: 128.

            [6] For more on the use of nonstandard semantics see David Baggett and Jerry L. Walls, Good God: The Theistic Foundations of Morality (New York:  Oxford University Press, 2011).

            [7] Contra. Duncan Pritchard, “Absurdity, Angst, and the Meaning of Life,” Monist 93 (January 2010):  8.

            [8] Ibid.,  7.

One Comment to “Existential Absurdity”

  1. I think most people just live their lives without much thought to the meaning – they simply trust that there is meaning

    but there cannot be meaning without the person making meaning – being authentic, examined, purposeful

    the danger is of course when one person decides what’s meaningful for others – and we end up in the situation as in Norway – one person imposing their sense of purpose and meaning and sacrificing others to their cause

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