WHAT if the universe is completely indifferent to us and to all life on earth? There is no God or gods and no guiding rationale. It’s an idea that runs counter to the age-old search for meaning – the succour that is supposedly offered by a supreme being. But what if a truly meaningless universe is actually liberating? That’s the position taken by Albert Camus.
And in his fascinating book The Meaning of Life and Death, Michael Hauskeller it is, fittingly, Camus’s position that he examines at the end. He points out that it was after the devastation of the two world wars that people began to wonder whether there was something wrong with a world that permitted such horrors, let alone an all good, omniscient God. In his novel The Plague Camus reflects this when he writes: “Cold fathomless depths of sky glimmered overhead, and near the hilltop stars show hard as flints.” It’s a cold, heartless world that Camus paints – no pity, no compassion. But this the ground whence Camus starts.
For him the absurdity of of our existence emerges when our yearning for meaning bumps up against the utter meaninglessness of the universe. According to the second law of thermodynamics the universe is inexorably moving from a state of relative order to ever more disorder, possibly infinitely. And all we can do is hold up this process for a few years before merging into the disorder.
Even if there is some meaning, it will be for ever beyond the limits of our knowledge. In the Myth of Sisyphus Camus writes: “I don’t know whether this world has a meaning that transcends it. But I know that I do not know that meaning and that it is impossible for me to know it.” For Camus, then, meaning does not lie in some transcendent realm beyond our understanding, but as a function of our understanding, which, therefore, is accessible to us.
In this situation, according to Camus, the most important philosophical problem is suicide – as Hamlet put it ‘to be, or not to be’. Is a world in which there is no meaning is there any point in existing? Well, Camus believes there is because this very meaninglessness is liberating and the very foundation of human freedom.
His first move is to claim that the universe is not malign in its indifference but, rather, in its indifference it is actually benign.
And in this benign world we are set free from the shackles of meaning external to existence to live the lives we want to live and to determine how we ought to live. Camus writes: “If the absurd cancels all my chances of external freedom, it restores and magnifies, on the other hand, my freedom of action. That privation of hope and future means an increase in man’s availability.” It might be argued that describing the indifferent universe as ‘benign’ is ascribing it human qualities that are not justified. The universe simply is and it’s up to us to make the best of it. Certainly this doesn’t detract from Camus’s argument, however – indeed, in a way, it might be enhanced by such a view.
But there remains the problem of what we do with our freedom. We may be free if, ultimately, nothing matters. But as Hauskeller points out ‘if the universe does not make any distinction between good and bad, permissible and impermissible, then it is difficult to see why we should not kill people if it suits us’. For Camus, however, this kind of nihilism misses the point of the absurd. “The mark of nihilism is indifference to life, but the absurd is born out of the clash between the indifference that we encounter in the structure of the world and our own desperate desire to live, and to live well.”, writes Hauskeller. “The point is that we are not indifferent to life, certainly not to our own.” If all our ethical life comes from God or the gods or from some rational structure in the universe, then we are entirely dependent on some thing outside of us. But if if there is no guiding principle and no promise of a life after death, only then do we realise how precious life is in the here and now.
Furthermore, humans have the capacity to fight back against the indifference of the universe, to shake its fist at it and demand justice for us and for others by negating its nothingness. As Camus writes in The Rebel: “The moment we recognise the the impossibility of absolute negation…the very first thing that cannot be denied is the right of others to live.”
And, furthermore, while there is no meaning in the universe it is us humans who have the courage to fight back. Camus writes: “I continue to believe that this world has no ultimate meaning. But I know that something in it has meaning and that is man, because he is the only creature to insist in having one.” And, we might add, this also applies to women!
Camus’s idea that humanity finds its own meaning through rebellion against the abyss and the siren call of nihilism while maintaining solidarity with all other humans who are in the same boat is attractive. As Camus says, real rebellion ‘lures the individual from his solitude. Rebellion is the common ground on which every every man bases his first values. I rebel – therefore we exist’. Rebel and live!