theendlessknot

putting thoughts into words regarding the entangled state of mind which is my existence


Leave a comment

Innate Ideas

locke

Okay, so I haven’t posted anything exactly philosophy-related in several weeks. So in order not to disappoint and stay true to the bio of the guy who set up this blog, I thought it would be fun to revisit some John Locke! He is most known for, in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, his treatment of innate ideas. This concept of innate ideas was especially important to those who took up the position that there are foundational truths in our network of knowledge, which are essentially given to us at birth, which we use to further reason out and understand all of the things which we perceive in the world. It doesn’t take any sort of previous experience with the associated concepts or phenomena to come to a knowledge of these truths. Locke wants to reject these kinds of claims outright for many different reasons, but I will take a closer look at one of his more interesting objections in what follows.

To be as clear possible, it’s always a good idea to start with definitions. Here is Locke’s for innate ideas: “some primary notions, koinai ennoiai, characters, as it were stamped upon the mind of man; which the soul receives in its very first being, and brings into the world with it.” As one of the central figures in empiricism – or the idea that sensory experience is to be the main source of human knowledge – Locke is concerned with how we can explain the acquisition of knowledge in terms of impressions or imprints which we receive from perceiving objects in the world. Innate ideas are one of the first challenges which Locke seeks to overcome in developing his philosophy in the Essay. They are problematic in that it would seem that the foundational truths which we are given are outside of our capacity to know through perception, in virtue of us already being given them.

 

Locke finds cause for concern in all of this talk and goes on the defensive in arguing against innate ideas. He puts an emphasis on the faculty of reason, saying that it is this which is first required in order to recognize and assent to any truth that one can conceive of. His examples are a couple of the logical absolutes: an object, a, is what it is (a=a) and the same object cannot be both what it is and not what it is (a =/= b & ~b). He argues that there is no denying, upon discovery via reasoning, the truth of both of these two claims. But this is exactly the point – that it requires one to first reflect, and in so doing it is posing a threat to the notion of innate ideas. Locke more or less argues that something which is innately imprinted on the understanding need not be discovered, because it should be a truth which the subject is already actively conscious of, if it is to be considered innate. It needs to meet this condition if the truth is considered to be an impression naturally (innately) made on the understanding. Otherwise, the impression is without any substance and cannot be said to have made any real imprint. Locke draws a further distinction, stating that if we are restricting our focus to just the capacity for having knowledge – as it is fleshed out through the application/discovery of reasoning – this would still be insufficient for an innate idea, because, then, “all the truths a man ever comes to know will, by this account, be every one of them innate.” He thinks the actual innate ideas, if they exist, are the ones which deserve proper philosophical inquiry and this former line of reasoning only amounts to an “improper way of speaking.” It distracts us from the main question at hand.

 

He justifies all of this further by making counterexamples, which are a child and an idiot. Both of these subjects have rationality, to some degree, even in its developmental or affected stages, and so each can use one’s mind to make inferences, deduce further pieces of information from a set of given facts. But there will always be a subset in any given population, he argues, that will not be conscious and/or assent to the truth of either of the two claims above. There are two points here: One, of there not being universal assent, and two, a reliance upon others to help them along in learning the relevant pieces of information (names, concepts) in order for them to understand the truths for themselves. As far as the former point, Locke believes that an innate idea must be universally imprinted on man’s understanding for it to be truly innate. But, as I’ve said before, there are always outliers, people who simply don’t readily know or understand what seem to everyone else to be elementary truths. Hence, the child or the idiot just doesn’t have ‘it’ in them, in this case, to know that a red light means stop when they cruise on by; that being, the innate idea. But also, there is a stumbling block lodged up within someone when they just can’t be taught something. It’s hard to think about, but we can intuitively agree in saying that some things will just never get through to someone, despite our best efforts and careful presentation of the facts. Locke would suggest that if it were really innately imprinted on their soul, then one wouldn’t need assistance to discover the truth for him/herself. All of these points are ones which he thinks stand as evidence against the claim that innate ideas exist.

 

My take on Locke’s argument is that it is cleverly constructed, and that there are several good points made, but unable to dismiss the position completely. The thought here is that there are certain dispositions which we all have which often subconsciously get expressed in our actions. To be sure, these are altogether separate from the capacities which Locke argued against, in that a disposition would be defined as a product of a thought which, while not necessarily deliberate, is drawn out from preexisting ideas and their associated desires. Even the newborn child, whose brain had not developed enough to qualify as rational, still somehow primitively knows that s/he desires the love and affection of his/her mother, despite not having a concrete thought in mind which reflects this. It somehow is “wired” to react in a favorable way when it experiences the love of its mother. So I think that although it might not necessarily be termed, in the strict sense which Locke offers us, an innate idea (as something derived purely through reason), I believe that there remains a comparable concept which we can use to describe our observable behavior. There is a psychological component to the question which is clearly pertinent, and it is always a learning experience if a question such as this is analyzed through the perspectives of various schools of thought.

 

I’m in agreement with Locke’s claim that we don’t always universally assent to intuitively true maxims. The problem here in not assenting, which would make us doubt the notion of an idea’s innateness, is appropriate to the question. What I mean is that we need to necessarily assent, or positively affirm, some idea – so as to make it our belief – for it to be actually present in our understanding, because part of what it means for such an idea to be understood, is that it needs to be a part of us; it needs to be positively taken up within our mind anytime it is recalled in our memory. In short, the idea must be believed. And beliefs, by traditional standards, necessarily are more than passive tendencies to agree or disagree with a claim if asked about it. They need to be unfettered in all of our daily dealings, being sparks of our own initiative. So with Locke’s suggestion, I can’t see any way around the point that innate ideas must be assented to, in order for them to be innate. The issue interestingly transitions into being one of personal identity more than anything, and I think that this is the foundation for the epistemology which Locke depends upon. It is an important question in any case, but here we cannot go any further in assessing the concept of innate ideas from Locke’s perspective, as a mind which takes in phenomena through impressions and sensations, because of the pattern by which our personal beliefs are formulated. I must say, his argument is surely sound in this regard.

 

So after all of this, I think that we’ve brought the subject of Locke’s Essay into the fray, thrown him into the crosshairs of the debate on innate ideas. I would argue in the end that while he may have certain dispositions based on our human nature, we should side with Locke insofar as to say that these are not innate to us until we have done some of the work and reasoned out the impressions which we receive to fashion a set of beliefs for ourselves. This is a bit of a tangent to the question of whether humans, from the outset, are imprinted with certain innate ideas. General speaking on the latter point, I believe that Locke was incorrect, and that we do have, in a very abstract sense, some very broad ideas about love, justice, beauty, etc. – because this is what it means to be human. Whether or not these principles are innate in us, or if it is societally/culturally inherited is what we may disagree on, but even so, there is value in having the discussion. I personally find it gratifying, and I hope to someday chip away at that tabula rasa enough to see the core of my beliefs etched in the model of truth as it really is, as it actually exists.

Advertisements


Leave a comment

Le Bruit

J’écoute le bruit de la forêt

Qu’est-ce qui se passe?

Je vois le soleil qui saigne
Tout avait l’air du silence
Les arbres avaient été dormir
Dessous le choc collectif des animaux
Qui craignent du bruit mystérieux
Il crisse comme un cauchemar
Quand l’histoire se termine
Et personne ne comprend

Qu’est-ce qui se passe?

Parce-qu’on se réveille trop tôt

Ainsi, je cours à la maison
La maison de la peur
Où il m’attend encore
Je sais que mon destin ne bougera pas
Mais je le frappe avec la force
D’un soldat qui battre lui-même
Après la guerre
Ou un sans-abris
Qui reconnaît qu’il n’a nulle part où aller

Alors le bruit qui tombe
Autour de la forêt
Il n’arrête jamais
C’est le cri de la raison
Qui personne ne peut pas éteindre
“Depuis le jour qu’il tout dévale”
Et qui se rend nos existences déraisonnables
L’air est venu sale avec le désordre
Nous avions été essayer nous protéger
Mais cela n’aide pas

“Protège-moi…“

——————————

If anyone is wondering, my poems are often inspired by song lyrics that I read from my favorite artists. I like to draw up visual images from the concepts which are spoken of. I think this poem captures the feeling of the song, but

I’d love some feedback/corrections if anyone has them!

Here are some of the lyrics in the song, “Protège-moi,“ by Placebo:

“C’est le malaise du moment
L’épidémie qui s’étend
La fête est finie on descend
Les pensées qui glacent la raison
Paupières baissées, visage gris
Surgissent les fantômes de notre lit
On ouvre le loquet de la grille
Du taudis qu’on appelle maison”

“Sommes nous les jouets du destin
Souviens toi des moments divins
Planants, éclatés au matin
Et maintenant nous sommes tout seuls
Perdus les rêves de s’aimer
Le temps où on avait rien fait
Il nous reste toute une vie pour pleurer
Et maintenant nous sommes tout seuls”

You can listen to it here.


Leave a comment

“To expect the unexpected shows a thoroughly modern intellect.”
-Oscar Wilde

I’ve been thinking a lot about this idea: How can we develop our spiritual faculties (i.e. faith) when it’s something that we’ve never really felt, but always wanted to feel? I recently had a long conversation with someone about philosophy and faith and the difficulty in ‘understanding’ faith. It was fairly productive and I learned a lot, but I still went away with a hint of disappointment. After all, it’s not something which you can expect to understand in an evening’s time.

But the intersection between philosophy and theology has lately been on my mind. My skepticism has long had its way with me, and I’ve been eager to go another route. I appreciate the good that it can do, in that it teaches the mind how to think, where to look for fallacy, how to remain self-consistent, etc. But it can only take you so far down the road before proclaiming that it has reached the end of the line, having exerted all of its energies too soon. You intuitively want to continue, but it’s unknown to you at this point if you’re walking alone or being guided by your God as you leave reason behind and venture into the cave of the supernatural.

My question, now, is how does one go about having faith? If it is beyond our words and attempts at making explanations of our experience, then it would seem like I can’t – physically or mentally – go anywhere to try and find it. I can’t expect it to be somewhere where it might be found. But then all I can really do is to live, knowing that my experience might take me somewhere I hadn’t even thought of, in such a way that I become naturally drawn to it. The problem is that I can relate to this idea on an intellectual level just fine, but isn’t there more to faith? Isn’t it about realizing a truth of some sort which can’t be reasoned out or put into words?

I think this quote above is the paradox that I see in faith. It’s a wonderful paradox, though, since I can see the value in what Wilde is saying, although I can’t rationally comprehend it. Maybe this is another feature of faith, just to enjoy even the mundane things or to find simplicity in all of our life’s sudden changes. I feel like there isn’t really any point to actively try to have faith, but rather to let your faith come to you. Reason gets in the way when I think too much, I realize, but I also believe that reason helps support faith along the way. It’s because if we somehow stumble upon our faith one day through some sort of empowering and life-changing experience, then this must necessarily be put into perspective, an experience which needs to be readily integrated into one’s own self. I’m not sure of how this all comes together, but as far as I can tell, being a fitting receptacle for faith is all that I’m asked to do. The rest is up to the Unknown.


Leave a comment

Can we act for reasons we don’t have?

In recent developments in action theory, there have been two major philosophers who have disagreed over the specific questions of the nature of reasons that one has to act, and whether these reasons are traceable to an individual’s motives. On the one hand, Bernard Williams suggests that all reasons one has for acting are reasons given that they derive themselves from elements from the individual’s inner motivations – or subjective motivational set (S) (which includes her: desires, wants, values, commitments, etc.) This is the internalist approach to reasons. On the other hand, John McDowell argues against Williams with the opposite interpretation. He believes that there are reasons that are untraceable, or outside of, one’s existing motivations, which yet and still act as reasons for the agent’s action. This is the externalist position. These views are clearly mutually exclusive because of the fact that an individual is relying on his S to produce reasons in one case and not in the other. While this may be so, I will show that McDowell’s contention with Williams over the possibility of external reasons is a good one, and furthermore makes the notion of an external reason more plausible. I will also increase the conceivability of one’s having an external reason by demonstrating how that these allow for one to perform certain kinds of actions that wouldn’t be otherwise possible under an internalist approach – thus giving a more holistic picture of action.

The contention alluded to above between Williams and McDowell is based, in large part, on the idea of how an individual can be moved to form the belief that she has an external reason. Williams holds that any reason one has for potentially being motivated to act in a certain way must arise through rational means, which he calls deliberation. As Williams point out in his paper entitled Internal and External Reasons, deliberation is of the “rational processes, [that] can give rise to new motivations,” (Williams, 108). What he means here is that, by reflecting on one’s S in a way that advances some of its aspects while at the same time pushes back others, the agent redefines her motives by producing new beliefs as to what is a proper reason for her to be guided by in action, in light of this deliberation.

Applying this notion of deliberation to external reasoning, then, Williams would go on to say that if an individual was to be moved to form a belief regarding an external reason, deliberation would have to be the necessary pathway for the belief to be thought of as rational. But the trouble presents itself when one attempts to conduct this deliberation since, at the time of deliberation, the individual cannot consult her current S in acquiring such a belief. Again, this is because an external reason is brought about independently of any reference to an agent’s S, and therefore precludes any deliberative route to forming the belief.

McDowell enters the argument by writing a written response piece to Williams called Might There Be External Reasons? McDowell, essentially charged with irrationality for favoring an externalist position, responds to Williams by suggesting that deliberation need not be the sole means by which one can have an external reason for acting. McDowell emphasizes that it is the end result of having the belief in an external reason that matters; not necessarily the pathway or means to getting to this conclusion. Using William’s terminology, McDowell would argue that the matter can still be “considered aright” (Williams, 109) regardless of how the belief concerning an external reason is formed, since the conclusion that was arrived at (the belief) was a true conclusion (McDowell, 72-73). In other words, an individual who has “considered the matter aright” is one who has established reasons-beliefs from which one is motivated to always act in the right way; similarly to if she had rationally deliberated. These reasons are in line with serving a motivation that, by its expression through action, fulfills their goal in any given situation.

Instead of resorting to an agent’s deliberative route for forming the foundation of the beliefs for an external reason, McDowell proposes a few alternatives that he thinks serve just as well in bringing about this belief. A couple notable examples he uses are: a religious conversion and/or inspiration from rhetoric. Albeit that all of these examples are irrational (McDowell, 74), they still, in his view, make it so that an individual can arrive at the belief pertaining to the external reason. Specifically, the individual, through any one of these kinds of experiences, transitions from a state of not being motivated by an external reason to being motivated by it (McDowell, 74), because each of these provide a means for her to gloss over her existing S in the process of forming the belief relevant to the external reason. In the wake of undergoing such a radically self-altering experience, the individual becomes enamored by a new belief that would ordinarily not be said to have belonged to her prior to her conversion. This belief, again, isn’t rationally explicable, yet it works in her favor if it leads her to see, whether knowingly or unknowingly, the “matter aright” and furthermore enables her to become motivated by the external reason.

My take on McDowell’s objection to Williams is that it succeeds in distinguishing between what one has reason to do, in virtue of whom one is, and what one has reason to do, in virtue of what is ultimately reasonable. By reasonable, I am entertaining the idea that there are reasons that are simply right reasons for acting, despite one’s desire to be motivated by them or not. For example, if an anti-patriotic, cowardly man was faced with the choice of either staying with his family during wartime by means of performing illegal activities or enlist in the draft that mandates him to serve, the man would plausibly have no inherent motivations that would be satisfied by his act of going to war. Let’s presume here that he knows that his entering into the army will result in certain, immediate death on the front-line. Nothing in him would suggest that he cares to die for his country or wants to be instantaneously killed (hence, his anti-patriotism and cowardliness), so his S doesn’t contain any elements that would serve as precursors to his forming a reason to be motivated to go to war. Yet this is what he does because of the fact that it serves a universal purpose that is reasonable beyond himself and even his country. In other words, despite not personally having any motivations that would be furthered by his development of such a reason, the man, in a profound sense, still reasons to go to war – being motivated by a reason that could be said to be external to him.

What this example and McDowell’s interpretation of external reasons are obviously assuming to be true is a normative, objective standard concerning reasons (McDowell, 76). That is to say that the external reasons that an individual is led to believe as being her reason (through a conversion or what have you) is a reason that is prescribed to be authoritative and telling of a right or wrong reason for action. This is its normative component. An external reason is seen to be objective since it derives itself outside of an individual’s S – it takes something above and beyond the subjectivity of the individual’s psychology to form the reason. I will now briefly illustrate how these assumptions in the externalist position are vital in overcoming a few limitations that I see under the internalist description of reasons.

McDowell’s defense of external reasons is ultimately successful in rebutting William’s objection that external reasons cannot be deliberated upon – and hence, are irrationally formed – not because he defends his view from this claim (because he does not), but rather because McDowell shows that, in a more significant sense, rationality becomes incumbent on an individual only in the course of her being brought to have an external reason. Williams could argue that his theory also allows for internal reasons to contain an element of rationality in virtue of their being followed, by the consistent traceability of the reasons from aspects of the individual’s S. But what makes this story incomplete are these cases, such as the example of the drafted soldier above, where with no matter how much time the individual spends deliberating, her S still cannot encompass certain reasons for being motivated to act in selfless, universal ways that owe themselves to an external standard. This is of course supposing that the particular individual does not already have generosity, in any way, subsumed within her S. An agent, following from William’s argument, cannot come to be motivated by reasons that serve an absolute good that is beyond what she takes good to be.

It is plain to me here that, although McDowell does assume controversial standards of objectivity and normativity in his belief of what characterizes external reasons, the resulting view of external reasons does a better job of explaining the facts, since it is able to explain the reasons behind more observable kinds of action that one can take. This is opposed to the internalist interpretation which, by making reasons out to be contingent upon one’s own psychology, consequently severely reduces one’s ability to understand why an agent acts a certain way when he is observed to act out of character. Surely one has had the experience of witnessing such an instance. It would seem that, in these scenarios then, the internalist could not supply any good reason whatsoever for the agent’s being motivated as he was. His “action” may have to be rendered a mere happening or occurrence for this reason. This type of situation is a strike against the internalist, in that it demonstrates incoherence in his theory of explaining the reasons for action. In consideration of this stumbling block, plus the quantitative advantage of explaining cases of universal acts, the externalist view should be granted as more plausible.  The deciding point that I am trying to make here is that, in addition to internal reasons, external reasons portray a more comprehensive, holistic picture of action. It is in the light of having this quality that actually bolsters the plausibility of there being external reasons.

In conclusion, I have first examined the philosophical rift between McDowell and Williams over the nature of reasons in order to provide a foundation for my argument of the plausibility of the existence of external reasons. It has been seen that Williams contention of a reason’s formation being irrational if it lies outside of deliberation is irrelevant for McDowell, because the latter has responded in a way that elucidated a sense of rationality that is above which Williams could muster from within the internalist position. However it be that McDowell’s species of rationality stems from his assumption regarding the objective/normative standards inherent in external reasons, this assumption manifests a quantitative explanatory advantage that cannot be dismissed; it rationalizes the observable facts of action better than the internalist can from his account. From this argument, I have developed an account of external reasons which should push the internalist to concede to their increased conceivability.

The Paradox of Reasonably Choosing

Lately, I’ve been wondering about the question of choice. Is it always rational, or informed by sound reasoning? It seems that, usually, yes, when taken seriously. We know that making choices is what life’s all about, and there is therefore a demand put on our shoulders to carefully consider each one, weighing out the consequences and reasons for all of our potential actions. But what happens when you find yourself in a situation where one possible choice you could make is exactly as good as another? How do you decide on what’s right?

This question has famously been presented by a philosopher named John Buridan, who formulated the thought experiment known as Buridan’s Ass. In it, we have a hungry donkey put between two equally portioned heaps of hay. The donkey never chooses to eat from either heap, since there is no clear-cut reason which it can think of to eat from one over the other. They’re exactly the same, so the poor donkey never actually even makes a move and eventually starves. This can be put into the following paradox: The donkey is rational in choosing to stand its ground, although it is seemingly unable to make a rational choice.

Now Michael Hauskeller, in his article in Philosophy Now (linked in the title above), wants to first abstract this talk away from donkeys. We’re obviously not worried about whether or not we’d see the bizarre spectacle of a donkey torn over what it should eat. It will just eat. This is because it doesn’t deliberate, or take reasons for its action into consideration and critically evaluate these before acting. But we do. At least most of the time. Hauskeller furthermore thinks there are two explanations for our eventual behavior when confronted with a Buridan’s Ass scenario:

a) we act for a reason, but this reason is not apparent to us at the time

b) we act for no reason, whatsoever

          

It seems that he is right on this point. If we think about it in terms of an example, we see that someone who finds herself faced with having to choose between two equally paying jobs with equally attractive locations, workloads, benefit packages and opportunities for advancement will potentially choose because of an underlying affinity toward something which struck her about her employer in her interview. However it may be that this is true, it does not factor into her deliberation. Or she might as well flip a coin, letting it decide for her, because there is nothing better or worse about working in New York rather than in LA. But whatever it is, remember that she has to choose. The real question that this is ultimately getting at is whether or not we are really acting rationally if we go with a) in understanding our decision. I will now try to defend Hauskeller’s premise of choosing for unapparent reasons from a revision of the paradox which I made earlier which seems to threaten the notion.

The issue here is regarding how far we wish to extend the definition of reason to cover the situations in which these are not apparent. Reason is brought into question because, with this new paradox, the woman with two equally good job offers is, in one sense, unreasonable for blindly following her intuition, while in another sense, reasonable for making a choice that will provide her a sustainable income. She is therefore being unreasonable for choosing to go with an unapparent reason. If we consider the favorable impression as an overriding influence on her intuition, this would then be the unapparent reason which she had. Recall that it is unapparent simply because she did not deliberate on it; it did not act as an explicit reason which impacted her making her decision. But then the question becomes whether this sort of jargon that Hauskeller brings up should even be mentioned in the same breath as reason. As I’ve said before, it seems that deliberating necessarily involves critically evaluating reasons. Since an unapparent reason cannot be evaluated, the complaint which can be made then is that it would seem that they are also outsiders in the causal picture of human agency which most of us would visualize.

But we need not go that far, because the truth is we’re just wrong. We’re wrong in thinking of the human agent as a descriptive set of his beliefs, desires, motivations, etc. We must rather think of agency as a process, in that our reasons are, interestingly enough, often understood after we have already chosen, already acted. This is a popular solution that many, including I, would advocate here. We can have unapparent reasons simply because there are instances where life suddenly forces itself on us – like a fallen oak tree falling upon the surrounding vegetation – and demands us to choose now and think why we chose later. As strange as it may seem, we are still being rational for choosing the things we do, just not in the traditional sense of the word. Our motivations are shaped by our actions, rather than our actions by our motivations. Motivation is signified as a destination which we arrive at through our choices.

This is what justifies Hauskeller’s notion of unapparent reasons and defeats the paradox. From this interpretation which I have constructed, we can see that the paradox is just a misconception born out of the traditional observation of seeing the end products of deliberation as a choice. Therefore, unbeknownst to her, the woman is reasonably choosing the right job for her, for a definite reason which only then has the appearance of being a stroke of intuition. She is being completely reasonable in choosing based on her unapparent reasons.

Regardless of how tautological the outcome of this exercise may appear to be, I think there is a degree of value which couldn’t be had unless a conscious effort was made in analyzing the problem from a different perspective. I love the intrigue of paradox, and seeing the invitation present itself here is just another interesting opportunity to deconstruct and reconstruct a dynamic puzzle. A chance to look at life in a whole new light.

So although this question is a little more than slightly absurd for the donkey, I think that it is worthwhile for those of us who are faced with real choices. Understanding this is useful in making sense of some of life’s crazy little lemmas.

Think about this the next time you have to choose whose home and company you want to share your time with for a casual family dinner. Believe me, you will understand what I mean and why I bring it up when you have made up your mind after getting to that point!


Leave a comment

Reason(?) in the Absurd

Image

Albert Camus is a philosopher and literary author whose works are notably known for their treatment of the concept of the Absurd. He spends a lot of time in The Myth of Sisyphus, defining this conflict of our searching for meaning in an indifferent universe, but also he extends this theme into some of his other works such as The Stranger. Camus will ultimately argue for man to free himself from being bothered by the question of finding any sort of meaning in life.

Albert Camus introduces to his readers the Absurd – the central issue of much of his writings – in The Myth of Sisyphus. Camus exemplifies the issue by recounting the Greek myth of Sisyphus, a king who was eternally punished by Zeus to endlessly roll a boulder up a hill because it would always roll back down on him. Sisyphus is the absurd hero for Camus because he is engaging in a very physically demanding task which one would expect to receive pleasure or satisfaction upon completion; though Sisyphus’ work is never over. His labor serves no real purpose in that he is forced to repeat the same process of rolling the boulder back up the hill each time without any sort of reward or release from his anguish. As Camus puts it, his “whole being is exerted toward accomplishing nothing,” (E, 197). So with this example of Sisyphus, Camus wants his readers to recognize that while man likes to hope and wish for some intrinsic value or meaning to the projects he engages with out in the world, in reality, there is no such meaning. The universe is totally “silent,” as it were, when the rational man submits his inquiries and demands answers from it. All of these points denote the main problem that Camus believes characterizes human existence: The Absurd. Upon coming to a conscious awareness over the Absurd is, furthermore, something which fills man with a sense of disillusionment. At first glance, then, man is like an alien in his world, not having a single reason to justify his existence or belonging to such a strange world which he feels unwelcome living in (E, 189).

The other question which is at stake here is how man can be free if his existence is, in a way, defined by the Absurd. But in order to understand our freedom, we first need to consider the limitation on it. So Camus offers a notion of this when he says that the Absurd limits him in that he cannot pursue a qualitative means of living (since this implies value-judgments), but rather that he can only pursue quantitative living (E, 195). Man, in becoming conscious of the Absurd, is essentially putting his existence in relation to his eventual death; since Camus would argue that the Absurd depends on death (E, 196). That is to say that death is the finality of man’s existence, and the fact that everyone will go through living for no reason just to die is essentially what gives the Absurd its force in opposing the will of the man in revolt. But despite this limitation, freedom can be had by passionately living out a number and variety of experiences, all of which are part of man’s own conscious experience of living in the world. Camus is suggesting here that, furthermore, a scale of values is unnecessary when it comes to “evaluating” freedom, because merely having conscious experiences while revolting against the Absurd in the background is enough to give life for the person living it its value and freedom (E, 194). The fact that man is involved in such a brave project is great, but also man is free in that he does not need to expect anything more or less from life knowing that the Absurd and his involvement through revolt is all that there is.

I have to object here on a number of different levels, because, for one, this conception of freedom seems to be a very weak one. The idea that one can freely live out his life when the Absurd is its central theme just doesn’t make much sense, since the Absurd wouldn’t be just putting up a relative limit on action, but an absolute limit. In other words, the biggest question that must be asked is “Why should I do anything at all if nothing that I choose to do has any value or significance?” I believe here that, theoretically, any action that one performs is based off of a desire which one hopes to satisfy, which is then shaped into a reason which gets motivated in one’s action. But if one follows Camus’ view and comes to consciousness of the fact that we are living in a benign universe which offers us no objective justification, then one who operates on this “view from eternity” could not derive any reason whatsoever for acting. Also, since Camus would urge us to refrain from inventing such reasons to fill this void – though this is something which we intuitively would strive to do anyway – there is no coherent concept of reason left to draw on to understand human agency. Furthermore, one couldn’t even form any concrete desires, because this would entail that something can be implicitly valuable and worthy of being desired. In short, the prima facie consequence of Camus’ discussion of the Absurd leaves humans as entirely passionless beings, despite his emphasis on revolting with passion. The worry here is that ultimately Camus has given us a vacuous, rather than substantial notion of freedom, since, in a universe devoid of meaning or value, there is nothing positive which our supposed freedom can work toward achieving.

But there is also a significant inconsistency in Camus’ argument as well. Specifically when he states that the value of life is wrapped up in the revolt against the Absurd, this seems to be implying that everything is without value, save for a particular exception which needs to be made in order for real human action to even be possible. The exception isn’t justified, because in making the exception, Camus is placing a normative demand on us stating that the revolt is the proper reaction to have when becoming aware of the Absurd. But assuming that this is true, it seems to follow that Camus must also be deriving a reason ex nihilo for us to act in this particular way. The problem, moreover, is that he can’t make this derivation while holding on to his theory of the Absurd, because the consequence would then be that a reason can be found in something entirely unreasonable. This conjunction of “Be conscious of the Absurd and take up a reactionary effort to revolt from it” cannot be logically carried out, since, again, there is no means to becoming motivated to take such an action; given that there are no reasons which can be had to justify any possible action. Camus is asking us to do something that we may initially and intuitively agree is appropriate in such a situation, but upon further analysis it proves itself to be an act of “philosophical suicide.”

Camus could respond to my objection of him presupposing a reason to revolt by suggesting that if we are to take a step back and reflect on our lives, the fact that we are here and living is itself presupposed; there is no convincing external explanation which can be given to answer the question of how or why we arrived on the scene. It still remains, Camus might venture to say, that we do continue to live the life that we’ve been given, despite the fact that our existence doesn’t have at its core a rational explanation. So in essence what Camus is arguing is that life doesn’t need a reason for one to live it, as evidenced by the fact that we are born into the world without reason (despite our cries!). This ties in with the revolt because the revolt is just a means of extending our lives, because without it, the only other serious recourse of action when confronted with the Absurd is suicide. In short, Camus would hold that the issue is really much simpler than what I’ve made it out to be – we should revolt, not because there is a reason to but because revolting is really what is meant by living at all. Just as there’s no inherent reason that goes into living, there’s no inherent reason that goes into revolting either; it just happens to be given to us as the nature of our continued existence.


Leave a comment

The Paradox of Believing, Part 2

I’ve had some time to think, and, in my mind, the question is settled. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, scroll down a bit to catch up on reading some part 1. Anyways, I think that there is something which can clarify the matter, even though I am going to end by conceding that the way I presented it before was an insurmountable paradox.

So I hope this doesn’t scare you, but it’s true. If we assume that faith and reason are polar opposites and that they necessarily antagonize each other when one is forming one’s belief, then It’s true that we are all ontologically fragmented and irreparable selves. In my eyes, they just cannot be reconciled, because there is no playing field on which they can both simultaneously play out their respective functions of propagating one’s belief. To argue the contrary would be to use the standards of one or the other, since this argument must either presuppose the truth of inductive/deductive reasoning or appeal strictly to a kind of dogmatism. I don’t see a way out of this. I won’t claim that my claim is true because of this apparent impossibility – as that would be arguing from ignorance – but rather very likely. To be sure, though, maybe you can help me by giving an interpretation that will untangle this paradox!

But even if we’re left with a broken self, this isn’t such a bad thing. Because, actually, it makes a lot of sense. I’ll put it in the form of another paradox, just to make this exercise more interesting. We are completely incomplete selves, who on our own, will never really come to believe the truths of our world in a way that promotes true understanding. What it takes is experience; specifically, our day-to-day experiences out in the world and our relationships we have with others to do this.

So to clear this up a little bit, we are essentially unable to have the sense of epistemic robustness in our beliefs without some source of aid from other people. In this way, we are incomplete. But that is perfectly fine – it is the way it should be – because it allows us to seek out something more. To be sure, every social situation and conversation that we enter into typically leaves us with a perspective, bit of information or experience which we readily incorporate into our own selves. Whether it be good for building our web of interests or helping us get by on a difficult day, we readily implement both what people do and do not say into our own selves. The values, interests, etc. that we gain from hearing other peoples’ stories, for example, allows us to grasp something true about the world which we just couldn’t have done alone. This attitude may merely be due to the fact that humans are social animals, but I would go further to claim that it is actually because there is something more true, more real to take away in the experience one has with relating to other people.

We can’t find all of the answers on our own. We need to use our social setting to mold all of our ideas out of. We need to be pushed into the direction of finding the value, rather than the flaws, in someone’s viewpoint. We need to listen and understand each other. Because, in the end, this is what is going to get us along. It’s not to say that we should become entirely dependent on others for our beliefs, but to slow down just enough to see their worth in making our own experience a little clearer. From there is where we discriminately listen to the voice of either faith or reason to give rise to the appropriate belief which we feel puts it all together. This notion of choosing where to go – who to listen to – is tough to explain, but this ambiguity is what makes life worth living.

Think of it as a choose-your-own-adventure. You might not always get it “right,” or how you wanted it to be, but in the end your choices are essentially you and, for that, there’s little to regret. If you try to page ahead and see where you’ll end up, then you’ll often be surprised, in both good and bad ways, about the outcome of these choices. But life isn’t really a book – I know that. There’s no going back or flipping forward. You can only reread what’s been read, you can’t change the words once they’re printed. For better or worse, that’s just how it is. But we can learn a lot from recognizing this and making the most of it by putting in a conscious effort to learn from others as we approach our final chapter, our final human destiny – whatever that may be. Don’t ask me about it, I still haven’t figured it out yet.