Thomas Nagel on why life is absurd

Kim asked:

Nagel considers the prospect that life is just absurd. What does it mean to say that life is absurd? Are there good reasons to believe that life is absurd? What does Nagel think, and why?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

Last item first: I don’t know what Nagel thinks; all I know is what he wrote. What he thinks might be reconstructed circumstantially from his writings. But sometimes I wonder, and maybe you should too. Philosophers sometimes just want to rouse their readers from complacency about all the ‘facts’ we worship. Bear that in mind.

Life can be absurd in two very different meanings of the word. The first is, that life is pretty meaningless. All plants and animals exert themselves for a bit of fun for a few moments and then they die. Worse: most suffer as a result of being alive, because ‘the bit of fun’ tends on the whole to be very difficult to hang on to, especially if others want to deprive you of it. So either you live like a worm, or you live like a human. The problem with us is, that we have a mind and understand. Many of us feel that the problems of life are just so great, and insoluble, that maybe a worm’s life is better, after all.

The other sense of absurd is ‘irrational’, like an irrational number in mathematics. It doesn’t seem to make sense. The universe is so immense, and we are so small, how come we are alive when the rest of the universe is dead? Thus, life is felt to be anomaly to the norm of material existence.

I don’t remember (or care) if Nagel was aware of, or bothered to mention, the fallacy in both those arguments. And I certainly don’t have the space here to embroider the issue for you. But I’ll suggest that you think about it in another light, namely, What can be more absurd than a totally dead universe?

So many trillion and quadrillion tonnes of stuff in every planet or star that add up to nothing! What is that supposed to be all about? Does it mean anything? So at least, on this puny planet of ours, there are a few people who think and find that there is value in all this gargantuan waste: namely the little candle of life that we represent. Not perfect, but precious, despite all its defects. So yes, sometimes we need someone to remind us that we shouldn’t take it for granted – but not, of course, to put it down or wipe it away as not worth a crumb. Without us to wonder about it, the universe would not be worth a crumb. Bear that in mind!

2 thoughts on “Thomas Nagel on why life is absurd

  1. Thank you for this article.

    Although I must say from what I remember reading “The Absurd” by Nagel, he was defending the idea that “absurdity” was an absurdity — pointing out that it often stemmed from a misattribution of focus and category errors.

    I appreciated the hopeful ending brother, keep writing! :)

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