Sunday, May 15, 2011

On the Romantic Impulse

Original Posting

There is an impulse that drives us to want to be seen by another person. To have another person look at us and have a definition of us in their minds. We want to exist in their eyes, we want to have our presence acknowledged. More so, we wish to be significant, we want to find someone who will regard us as a significant part of the universe. Why do we want this? I suspect that it has something to do with what I talked about in my last Sunday Bullshit: all value is created by people. True, we can value ourselves, but we also want to be valued by another. We want someone outside of ourselves to say that we are important.

We want another person to step in and say, “yes, I value you. Yes, you are important. Yes, you are significant.”

“Yes, I love you.”

This impulse, the impulse to find someone who will value you, is one of the single most powerful motivators for the human character. This is often expressed sexually, but even apart from all sexuality I think that the impulse can exist. It is related to, but distinct from, the desire for sex.

How do we make sense of the world except through value? We, each of us, creates his or her own subjective world by taking our perception of the world as is, and then coloring it with our preferences and values. If our subjective world contains nothing that we find worth pursuing, nothing that we enriching, we find ourselves in a state of boredom and ennui. We, therefore have a desire to find something that we can pour ourselves into. Something that we can value, something that can occupy our mind, and drag us out of our complacency. This is the desire to love. The desire to value.

By and large it is quite difficult to find oneself valued meaningfully. This seems to be because we fall into one or two conditions: we either value very few people in such a way or we value many people in such a way. To be valued by one who is capable of valuing many, it does not seem a great matter to be loved by them. This is often the case with a group of friends, where it is difficult to feel any friendship to be particularly weighty if one is surrounded by many friendships. In the case of people who value very few people, it is difficult for most people to find a way to occupy such an elite position. This is usually the case when we talk about exclusive, romantic love: it is a matter of occupying a very elite spot in someone's life, of being valued in a very unique way.

Once in this state, we become full of jealousy and insecurity, because we dread the thought of losing such a position in a person's life, or worse, having our position reversed and becoming an object of loathing for them.

In order to get through life, it is necessary to hold only one-dimensional summary perspectives of most people in our minds; imagine if you had to view everyone you meet as a full and complete human being, it would be far too taxing. We have a limited number of people that can become real to us, a limited number of people that we can perceive as being complex, multi-layered characters. If you view someone in this deeper way, you have already begun to value them; likewise if you are viewed by someone in the way, you have already begun to be valued by them ('value' in this case being distinct from love).

There comes a point at which we wish to know a person more deeply. Not just their positive traits, either, no we want real flesh here. We want to know flaws as well as qualities. We flesh them out, we develop a perspective of them, and we allow a version of them to exist, writ large, in our subjective world. We begin putting stock in their opinion, because only by saying that their opinion is an important matter can we say that their opinion of us is likewise an important matter. We put stock in them. We build them up. We make them important.

And all we can hope is that, upon making them so important, they will turn and regard us as important as well. That we will be able to enter into a state of mutual valuing. The state of love.

It becomes tempting to lie at this point. We grow fearful that, upon being seen, we will be discarded as unsuitable. There is no satisfaction to be found if we give into this impulse, however, as it will invalidate whatever perspective they have of us, as we would know that it is an artificial creation rather than our genuine character. The only way to experience the full satisfaction of having another person value you so deeply is by allowing yourself to be exposed before them. This, in turn, leads to a certain dread and anxiety, as one is offering oneself to the other for judgment and fearing that one will not be adequate. Taking a shortcut and using falsehood, though, will make it impossible to achieve the full experience.

Upon entering the state of love, the state of mutual significance, one gets a feeling of rightness. A feeling of flourishing. One feels that their life, their subjective world, has been blessed, been made richer. This is why romance is often held to be intoxicating, one's outlook on the world is altered. The Other becomes a reference point for evaluating the world. And once the Other becomes so large to you, it becomes terrifying to even imagine leaving that state of love.

This is why some will go to such drastic lengths to remain in that state, and why it is difficult to exit the state and simply move onto another. In order to experience the richness and satisfaction of such a state, one must spend some time building up the Other's importance and significance. Simply leaving and moving onto another makes our own value judgments appear cheap. For this reason, for the sake of preserving the legitimacy of our own will and values, we will often go to extreme lengths to be with the one we have already built up in our subjective world.

So, there we have it, for week two, my account of how people come to value each other and forge a strong connection. That is my account of romantic love: a matter of people coming to make each other important in their own subjective world, of coming to regard another person as being worthy of being a reference point in our own evaluations of the world and life.

No doubt, the blog itself surely failed to be romantic.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

In Response to the Absurd

Original Posting

Nagel's Account of the Absurd

[The sense of absurdity] is supplied, I shall argue, by the collision between the seriousness with which we take our lives and the perpetual possibility of regarding everything about which we are serious as arbitrary, or open to doubt.

All human beings put effort toward living their lives. This is inescapable. As a living human being, all you can do all day long for the entirety of your life is live your life. However you choose to live it, the fact remains that that is where your efforts are devoted. At the same time, as a human being, you are capable of looking at your life from another point of view; you are capable of allowing your perspective to step back to survey your own life from an outside view. Upon doing so, you find that all the motivations driving you and all of the justifications for your actions can seem arbitrary, you can see that all of the things that you consider good for their own sake could just as well be seen as not good or as unimportant. Upon seeing your life from this perspective, however, nothing really changes, you are still living the same life you were living before you stepped back.

This, according to Nagel, is where the absurd comes from. The fact that we can see how much of our lives is arbitrary, but that we continue to live that life just as seriously as we did before we saw ourselves that way, causes us to feel that our life is in some way absurd. In some way a pretension. That the seriousness and difficulty of our life is not congruent with the fact that we suspect all of our goods are arbitrary or at least open to doubt.

He proceeds to argue that there is no good and no cause that we cannot doubt, and consequently, it is not that the world has failed to supply us with meaning, but that we ourselves are capable of doubting anything we might find meaningful. The absurd comes not from the world, for there is no possible world in which we might not doubt, but rather comes from ourselves.

Upon taking this step back, to look at our lives from the outside, we still must continue with our seriousness, despite knowing that our seriousness can be doubted and without having satisfied these doubts. This leads us to regarding our lives and our seriousness with a certain irony. We are sustained by our very natures to continue living our lives, even as reason and justification are called into doubt.

A Need for Facts; a Confirmation of Doubt

Our sense of the absurd is, for Nagel, bound up in our awareness of how arbitrary, specific, and idiosyncratic all of our goals and desires are. It's our awareness that what we are pursuing could be different. It is the fact that we can doubt our our goals, and really any goal, that causes us to feel the absurd.

This, it seems to me, is related to our need to believe in facts, especially among philosophical types. What I mean by the need to believe in facts is our need to believe that the propositions we hold as true are true or false independent of our perception of them. We have a need to believe that we are merely conforming to the facts of the universe, because admitting that some statement is true only because we have agreed to believe it is true lends that statement a certain invalidity.

This invalidity, I believe, comes from the fact that facts are facts no matter what humanity (whose mind is in constant flux) believes about them. If some statement is held as a belief, but is not also a fact, it appears invalid in comparison to beliefs which are held and are also facts. Anything that is dependent upon humanity is also dependent upon our fatigue, our hunger, our shifting moods, our shifting circumstances, our changing minds, etc., in comparison to unchanging fact, we find these to be invalid.

More deeply, though, is the simpler problem that any statement dependent upon humanity can also be rejected by humanity. Facts can be rejected by a human, as well, but in that case we say that the human is not living in reality. In other words, we tend to side with facts over human whim. In a situation without facts, however, all we have is human whim. All humans being equal at least insofar as they are all equally human, our most deeply cherished value or goal can be written off as insignificant by another person, and we would be utterly incapable of proving them wrong.

Nagel's “stepping back” involves the doubting of all of our goals and all of those things that we live for. What does this mean, other than simply seeing that we have no good reason for believing that our values are factually valuable? When we doubt our values, isn't that just us acknowledging that we haven't got facts to prove how valuable our values are?

And when we notice how arbitrary, specific, and idiosyncratic our values are, isn't that just us realizing that all of our value judgments taste like the beliefs that spring forth from our biases? In other words, realizing that we want what we want because of our natures rather than because of their natures?

A Restating of the Absurd

It would seem that the sense of the absurd comes not merely from knowing that our values can be doubted and then still striving to pursue them, but rather from coming to the conclusion that our doubts are correct. The sense of the absurd comes from knowing that nothing that we pursue is factually worth pursuing, and then pursuing it all the same.

When talking about the absurd, we frequently associate it with death, or with the extinction of our species, or with our insignificance in the universe (the “bad arguments” that Nagel starts his essay with). These are all situations where the importance of anything human is called into question. Then we mention these scenarios because that is how we are expressing the question: “why does anything human matter?”

For, that is what we are really coming to face, that upon finding no factual basis for our values, we have only a human basis for our values. All of our ends of justification, all of our good-for-their-own-sakes are only good because we will them. It is all very human.

Is something human worth pursuing?

Must We Continue Pursuing?

Until we die, we must continue pursuing something. There is simply no way not to. If we continue living our lives, then we are continuing to pursue all the guiding values and principles that govern that life. If we decide that suicide is the best course of action, then we must still pursue the principle that an absurd life or a human life is not worth living (another value judgment). If we try to transcend all pursuits, that in itself is pursuing. One may try to avoid all pursuits by merely sitting in a chair and doing nothing, in essence imitating the dead while sustaining his biological processes, but as soon as he shifts to get comfortable or eats to stave off hunger or even resolves not to shift or eat, he will again be pursuing.

It is inevitable, we must continue pursuing so long as we exist.

If we stop here, we are in a deeply absurd position. The question is anything human worth pursuing remains unanswered, all we know is that we have to pursue human values. In other words, life may not be worth living, but we still have to live it. How absurd it would feel to pour yourself into your life's pursuits without knowing why, only knowing that you must. This seems to be the prime flaw in Nagel's essay, he is content to let the issue stop here and simply recommend taking this absurdity as something that adds a little irony to life.

I would like to hope that we can do a little better than that.

Escaping the Absurd: Accepting an Absence of Facts

There is a way to escape the absurdity of life, and it consists of two steps. The first is to work through our need for facts and accept that value is not rooted in fact.

There is no factual basis for ending a chain of justification at any point, as that would mean that something is factually valuable for its own sake, and if that were true we would have no sense of the absurd.

Why then do we stop at that point? It is because of our nature, as Nagel says, citing Hume. I would like to state it a bit differently, though. All chains of justification come to an end because we come to something that we will for itself. And, it could not be different. No value exists in the universe, things are only valuable to someone or something.

Upon understanding that all value only exists to someone or something, we see that doubting a value is senseless. One only doubts statements that have a truth value, any statement that cannot be true or false cannot be meaningfully doubted. So, when one takes the step back and sees how arbitrary all of ones goals are, one can simply remember that they are valuable because he wants them.

The facts are not there. It is up to you to decide if you can still love something without it being factually valuable. Of course, if you say that something can only be valuable if it is factually valuable, you are in that very statement making a non-factual value judgment. Clinging to the need for a factual value means clinging to an absurd existence.

As an aside, it seems to me that we as a species have largely accepted the propositions necessary for this step (we largely have given up trying to find value outside of ourselves). Whether or not we have come to be okay with that, I am not sure.

Escaping the Absurd: It's All Human

However, working through our need for facts and recognizing that all value is human is not enough to stave off the absurd? After all, in all the despairing “bad arguments” that Nagel gives as examples, the person arguing seems acutely aware that all values are human. Isn't that why he binds the absurd up with human insignificance?

Nagel argues that there is no world in which we would not find the absurd, because it is our ability to doubt that brings it about. That is not really true, though, is it? If it were possible for a thing to be factually intrinsically valuable, well, where would the absurd have gotten to? Where would our doubt be if we could grasp that there was some good that was truly valuable apart from human will?

And so, breaking away from our need for facts only makes up half of the escape from the absurd. It causes us to stop requiring what is not there. The second half of the escape comes from accepting that human reasons are good enough. That wanting something is a good enough reason for calling it good.

“Good enough reason” is another human judgment, another matter of human will, for we are the ones who decide whether or not a reason is good enough. It is not a fact that human will is sufficient. Perhaps, you say, human will is simply too insignificant to care about. You may, of course, say that. However, it is your human will that is declaring human will insignificant. Since reality is void of value, human will is all that we have to create value, but you can commit yourself to nihilism by devaluing value itself.

You will inevitably lead a life that contradicts that nihilism until you die, however.

This calls for a value judgment. I am not one who believes that one must have the corresponding emotions to make a value judgment, it is simply an act of the will. So if you say “human value is enough,” then it is enough. If you say “human value is not enough,” then it will not be enough. To escape the feeling of the absurd, though, your emotions must eventually come to correspond with your value judgment. The first step toward that state, however, is making the initial value judgment.

Why Escape the Absurd?

There is really only one reason to escape the absurd, and that is because you want to. If you do not want to, do not find it to be a bother, or perhaps even find it delightful, then leave it be. Both steps of escaping the absurd are changes you make to yourself, one consists of making peace with facts, the other consists of making a value judgment. You are under no obligation to do either of these things.

All I can hope to have shown here is that one can escape the absurd without denying any facts or retreating into fantasy. That one can accept facts as facts and still escape the absurd. If I have shown that, then this blog was a success.


We need not live as Nagel suggests, doubting our goals, pursuing them all the same, and then living with a sense of irony about our lives. Nor do we need to resort to tragic heroics like Camus suggests, trying to defy the universe (I am here using Nagel's account of Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus is still on my reading list). Instead, we can simply recognize that doubting the value of a thing is senseless, and that the only judge of a thing's value is how much we want it. Any sense of the absurd is unnecessary, and we need not retreat from reality to attain an escape from the absurd.

After this escape from the absurd, there are two things that change for us, which I believe will have a practical and spiritual benefit for us.

First, any sense of the absurd that remains becomes a clue for us. When we start to feel a sense of the absurd in our lives, it may indicate that we are pursuing something that we do not really want. For those of us with a fickle will, we may be acutely aware of a certain absurdity throughout our entire lives, even after performing the escape and taking this perspective, due to constantly finding ourselves pursuing objects even when we are not actively wanting them. For those of us with a steady will, I imagine a sense of the absurd would make only very rare appearances in their lives upon adopting this perspective. This has the practical benefit of letting us use any feelings of absurdity as a call for introspection.

Most importantly, however, is that with this understanding of values, we understand that there is no need to pursue what one does not will. Upon understanding that we are responsible for all value in our lives, we are free to create our own values, looking at what we love and pursuing only for the sake of love instead of pursuing due to a perceived fact of the universe. Once we accept that all value is human, and we decide that human value is enough, we are free to create our own system of values.