Sunday, March 6, 2011

Does Naturalism Lead to Absurdism?

Absurdism is a school of thought that deals with the purported contradiction between humanity's tendency to search for an inherent meaning in life and our inability to find one. It's the idea that there is no inherent purpose in life, that life is ultimately objectively meaningless, and that any claim to life having an inherent meaning is absurd. 

The most accessible outline of an absurdist worldview that I can think of is Kurt Vonnegut's classic novel Slaughterhouse-Five, in which the main character Billy Pilgrim is "unstuck in time," experiencing his outlandish life out of chronological order. With the help of an alien race known as thTralfamadorians that experience time in much the same way we experience space, he notices that specific events happen simply because things are structured in such a way that they must happen that way. Free will, therefore, is entirely illusory in this fatalistic view. The basic premise of the entire book can be summed up in Vonnegut's response to every single death in the book: "So it goes." I think Vonnegut's point is that death follows from a natural course of events that are inalterable and out of our control. This is how I think he has come to terms with what he saw during the bombing of Dresden in World War II. This, at least to me, provides a sense of stoical comfort to existence. The absurdist would say that things happen because they must, and it's more rational to accept that and find solace and happiness where we can instead of hiding in an illusion of inherent meaningfulness. I don't know if that's true, though.

I don't think this question can be answered with any degree of certainty, at least currently. I completely admit that we may live in a truly absurd world, void of inherent meaning and completely devoid of free will. I can come to terms with that. However, I have something that Billy Pilgrim and the Tralfamadorians do not have: uncertainty. That makes the difference, really. It's strange, but it's actually uncertainty in what's to come that allows us to feel fulfilled and content in our existence. Billy Pilgrim and his abductors could never feel a sense of awe or wonder. They could never be mystified because nothing seems mystical. Everything can be predicted; there are no surprises. For the rest of us, being able to do so makes all the difference between a meaninglessness and purpose. And, as long as we have uncertainty, this question is entirely academic.

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