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Absurdity, God and the sad chimps we are

James DuBois wonders whether meaning can be found in the face of the apparent absurdity of life.

After speaking with our obstetrician, I left my pregnant wife and flew across the country to be with my mother when she died. I arrived about two hours too late. When I saw her body later that day, I was shocked that I felt no more toward the body than I did toward the table it lay on. It was like a seashell abandoned by its occupant, only not beautiful. It was decisively not her. In one sense, it did not even resemble her. While it was good to participate in the funeral, my intention had been to see her again and to say goodbye. In this I failed. My oldest son was born the night I returned from my mother’s funeral. My mother had undergone months of intensive chemotherapy, not in any earnest belief that she would be cured, but in order to see him born.

Life, literature and logic are full of absurdities of various kinds. Some people discuss square circles and circular squares. These are indeed absurdities, yet they are conceptual absurdities – the sorts of things that cannot exist. I am more interested in what might be called moral absurdities – things, events and states of affairs that should not exist but do. These are the sorts of absurdities which deeply concerned French existentialists like Camus and Sartre, and also their Russian literary predecessors, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. Consider some examples from life and literature.

Beethoven went deaf. He never heard the applause to his 9th Symphony. He only ever heard the Symphony in his imagination.

At the age of 58, after living the dedicated bachelor life of an Oxford Don, C.S. Lewis married an American woman in a civil court, simply to obtain a visa for her. By all accounts, they fell madly in love. But she died shortly thereafter, and in A Grief Observed, he questioned whether he truly believed what he had written earlier on God and human suffering.

While defending a Christian view of sexuality, Lewis noted that sexual desire, which is so intimately tied to love and to the generation of life, often takes on qualitative and quantitative characteristics that are not only inexplicable in terms of those purposes, but are actually contrary to them. On the quantitative side, Lewis observed, “if a healthy young man indulged his sexual appetite whenever he felt inclined… in ten years he might easily populate a small village.” Needless to say, no young man could adequately care for so many offspring, not to mention the many mothers of his children. On the qualitative side, Lewis, reminded his readers of the popularity of strip clubs before presenting an analogy:

“Now suppose you came to a country where you could fill a theatre by simply bringing a covered plate on to the stage and then slowly lifting the cover so as to let every one see, just before the lights went out, that it contained a mutton chop… would you not think that in that country something had gone wrong with the appetite for food?”

Viktor Frankl, a Viennese Jew, prayed in the Catholic cathedral in Vienna for guidance in deciding whether to leave his parents and take his new bride to the US to escape the Nazis. His prayer was answered when his father presented him with a piece of the Decalogue taken from the synagogue he had helped to dismantle earlier that day in order to avoid its desecration. It read: ‘Honor your mother and father’. Frankl accordingly chose to stay in Vienna in the hope of protecting his parents. He was a physician, and physicians were often shown more consideration than the average citizen. His wife and both parents were gassed soon after. Frankl nevertheless believed God spoke to him on that fateful day, and that he followed an individual duty – a real duty, although it could not be generalized to others.

Dostoyevsky’s character Ivan in The Brothers Karamazov maintained a collection of newspaper clippings reporting instances of human cruelty. He described a group who “burn, kill, violate women and children, nail their prisoners’ ears to fences and leave them like that till next morning when they hang them, and so on – it’s impossible to imagine it all.” He continues:

“And, indeed, people sometimes speak of man’s ‘bestial’ cruelty, but this is very unfair and insulting to the beasts: a beast can never be so cruel as a man, so ingeniously, so artistically cruel. A tiger merely gnaws and tears to pieces, that’s all he knows. It would never occur to him to nail men’s ears to a fence and leave them like that overnight, even if he were able to do it.”

We probably notice moral absurdities more readily when the thing that should not exist is bad, but there are cases when the thing is good. Helen Keller – a human being who could not see, hear or speak – managed to communicate effectively. But it is absurd that what she eventually communicated was not bitterness or resentment about her situation, but a deeply moving message for humanity.

Good children have been conceived by rape. In one real moral sense, they should not exist. Many more good children have been conceived under the influence of intoxicants; they could easily have not existed. All of us could easily have not existed, and we all could stop existing at any moment. There is an absurdity about this. We will return to this theme of radical contingency.

Being of French descent, it may be somewhat natural for me to be obsessed with sex, death, absurdity and brandy. But my fascination with absurdity goes beyond what is natural, even in a Frenchman. It takes on new depths and complexity as it interacts with my deep-seated convictions that God exists and that life is ultimately meaningful. A growing number of psychologists say that such convictions are healthy. A sense of coherence and a sense of purpose may contribute to hardiness and well-being. But is this sense not also pathological, perhaps even absurd, in the face of the absurdities of this world?

Absurdity, Contingency, and Meaning

As one meaning of the word ‘contingency’ the Oxford American Dictionary offers: “the fact of being so without having to be so.” The theme of contingency lies at the heart of existentialist literature. For instance, In The Stranger, Camus’ character Meursault reflects on his death sentence as he sits in his cell:

“For really, when one came to think of it, there was a disproportion between the judgment on which it was based and the unalterable sequence of events starting from the moment when that judgment was delivered. The fact that the verdict was read out at eight P.M. rather than at five, the fact that it might have been quite different, that it was given by men who change their underclothes, and was credited to so vague an entity as the ‘French people’ – for that matter, why not to the Chinese or the German people? – all these facts seemed to deprive the court’s decision of much of its gravity. Yet I could but recognize that, from the moment the verdict was given, its effects became as cogent, as tangible, as, for example, this wall against which I was lying, pressing my back to it.”

Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilych in The Death of Ivan Ilych was tortured by the same shocking contingency of death. “A caecum! A kidney!” he exclaimed to himself. “It’s not a question of a caecum or a kidney, but of life and… death.” After falling and hitting his side while hanging draperies, Ivan Ilych found himself dying from the failure of an organ he could not even distinctly imagine. After receiving his diagnosis, he reenters the drawing room that he furnished. “Can it be true that here, on this drapery, as at the storming of a bastion, I lost my life? How awful and how stupid! It just can’t be! It can’t be, yet it is.”

All contingency seems odd when tied to events and things that are momentous. We may say of every instance of human life, death, or love – the weightiest things in this world, things that may mean absolutely everything to the people involved – that they could easily not have happened. They appear inappropriately dependent on chance. We may call some employees ‘indispensable’, yet human experience teaches us that everyone is in fact dispensable, and will be dispensed with.

Repeatedly in life and literature we find incongruities between the value of a being and the kind of existence it possesses. A love ought to last forever. A human life should not depend on a glass of wine, or the choice between boxers and briefs. Every death is absurd, as is every human love, conception, and birth.

The Problem of Moral Absurdity for Theism

Perceiving absurdity presupposes that we grasp the meaning of (at least) two ideas, and a contradiction between them. The absurdity requires the contradiction. This contradiction may be logical (p=~p), ontological (eg, a square circle), psychological (eg, when one experiences ‘cognitive dissonance’), or moral. But absurdity requires more than a contradiction: it requires a contradiction in the absence of an adequate explanation. Absurdities are not merely Gestalt drawings in which incongruous perceptions are easily reconciled once one investigates a bit. In absurdity the incongruities endure.

Free will can explain many divergences between what ought to be and what is. It is so often the explanation that theists offer for evil in the world. Certainly true love, authenticity and responsibility cannot exist without freedom. Yet freedom brings with it the power to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and the power to nail men’s ears to a fence. But still, several problems remain for theists.

First, we so often find that one is not morally blameworthy for life’s misfortunes. Volcanoes erupt; small children accidentally fall from windows; people are born with genetic variations that hamper development and cause early death. Camus died in a car accident at the age of 46, with an unused train ticket in his coat pocket. His publisher had convinced him to travel with him in his new car instead. Surely no morally blameworthy choice immediately lies behind such events (though some do say the Fall disordered nature, manifesting evil through nature).

Second, the very existence of evil is an absurdity within a theistic system. This point is most frequently made with the argument from evil, made famous by Hume: if God is all-good and all-powerful, and the Creator of all that is, then evil should not exist. However, evil does exist. Hence God must not.

Dostoevsky’s literary formulation is even more compelling, as it gives moral force to the logic of the argument:

“Answer me: Imagine that it is you yourself who are erecting the edifice of human destiny with the aim of making men happy in the end, of giving them peace and contentment at last, but that to do that it is absolutely necessary, and indeed quite inevitable, to torture to death only one tiny creature, the little girl who beat her breast with her little fist, and to found the edifice on her unavenged tears – would you consent to be the architect on those conditions? Tell me and do not lie!” Brothers Karamazov)

Surely God is not a utilitarian, a bedfellow with Peter Singer? Surely to God the end cannot justify the means? All major religions recognize at least a few moral absolutes. But God’s universe seems to recognize none.

Lest readers think I wish to blaspheme, I will fall back on the safety of the Biblical story of Job. After being informed that all of his children had been killed, and that he had lost all of his livestock, Job tore his clothes and declared, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart. The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away; may the name of the LORD be praised.” (Job 1:20.) Job chose not to question God’s ways – chose not to assume he could intuit a comforting reason behind events – but he did not flinch from describing events as he saw them. In the ninth chapter he states, “It is all the same; that is why I say, ‘He destroys both the blameless and the wicked.’” (Job 9:22.) He blessed God – but he did not assume that God is just in any human, understandable sense of justice.

Religious appeals to some underlying explanation of evil in the world, either as a consequence of the Fall (Genesis 3) or as part of a mysterious process of creation of some good we cannot yet understand, may provide a faith-dependent explanation of why the world is absurd, but this cannot remove the fact of absurdity, the incongruity that exists in individual instances of evil. These appear gratuitous when we know others who have been spared this particular tragedy or when the tragedy appears so happenstance.

Third, the problem of absurdity is not just one form of the problem of evil, one variation on a popular argument for atheism which might be countered by arguments for God’s existence. Absurdity actually presents one of the strongest critiques of the so-called ‘ontological proof’ for God’s existence posited by St Anselm (c1033 – 1109 AD). Anselm offered the following argument: We can conceive of “a being than which none greater can be conceived.” This being can be called ‘God’. Now, whatever is conceived exists in the understanding (including God). But to exist in reality is greater than to exist merely in the understanding. Thus, God, the being greater than which none may be conceived, must exist in reality also.

Anselm’s argument, however, does not depend simply on logic and various modalities of existence; it is a value-laden argument with the concept of ‘greater than’ at its core. Yet we have already seen that the world does not always conform to our value judgments. Sometimes, things that should exist do not, and things that should not exist do.

God as the Perceptual Background to Absurdity

Absurdity is not the same as nonsense. Husserl, the German phenomenologist, observed that there is a significant difference between a meaningless heap of words such as ‘but round or’ (nonsense) and phrases like ‘a round square’ (absurdity). Nonsense does not presuppose meaning, while absurdity does. But just as conceptual absurdity requires verbal meaning or ‘semantic sense’, so moral absurdity requires a background of existential meaning: the values of life must ‘make sense’ for moral absurdity to occur. This is why Meursault’s world in The Stranger was precisely not an absurd world. Meursault does not mourn the death of his mother. When his girlfriend Marie proposes, he consents, although he confesses he does not love her. When she protests that marriage is a serious matter, he simply denies that it is. He denies being disgusted by an abusive man’s behavior. He kills a man and feels no remorse. Toward the conclusion of the book, as Meursault sits in his cell awaiting his execution, we see the conviction that underlies Meursault’s worldview: “I laid my heart open to the benign indifference of the universe. To feel it so like myself, indeed, so brotherly, made me realize that I’d been happy, and that I was happy still.”

Meursault does indeed appear as ‘the stranger’, as one who lives outside our world, as one unfamiliar to us. His world cannot be absurd because he denies the very values that give rise to our perception of absurdity. But why does he deny them? Precisely as an alternative to embracing our deeply unsettling, absurd world of values – especially the values of life and love:

“What difference could they make to me, the deaths of others, or a mother’s love, or his God; or the way a man decides to live, the fate he thinks he chooses, since one and the same fate was bound to ‘choose’ not only me but thousands of millions of privileged people…?”

This ‘sour grapes’ phenomenon is precisely what German phenomenologist Max Scheler referred to when he asserted that resentment leads to a falsification of values. Camus’ Meursault resolves the tension between the traits that life and love should possess (necessity and eternity) and what they do possess (contingency and finitude) by denying that there is anything special about life or love. Once the events of life are no longer set against the scenery of this contrasting background, the perception of absurdity disappears.

Seen in this light, either the apparent values of life and love are merely illusory, or else God is the only being that is not absurd. Only God’s existence and love are necessary and eternal.

Perhaps these reflections therefore provide us with a definition of God. God is the background against which we perceive absurdity: God is the absolute meaning that makes absurdity possible. Just as we could not perceive a figure except against a contrasting background, so too we cannot grasp the absurdity of contingency and finality except through contrast with the eternal divine. Thus absurdity at once poses the greatest challenge to belief in God, while at the same time we cannot perceive absurdity except through contrast with a concept of God.

What are we left with? Is belief in God and the ultimate meaningfulness of life and love actually pathological or irrational? After recounting his experiences in the Nazi concentration camps in Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl asks whether a chimpanzee that was being injected repeatedly in an effort to develop a vaccine would be able to grasp the meaning of its suffering. Similarly, he asks whether it is possible that there is another dimension, a world beyond our current understanding in which human suffering might find an ultimate explanation. In a later book, Man’s Search for Ultimate Meaning, Frankl acknowledges that “it is not possible to find out intellectually whether everything is ultimately meaningless or whether there is ultimate meaning behind everything… where knowledge gives up, the torch is passed on to faith.” Frankl clearly chose to believe both in an ultimate being and in an ultimate meaning to life, despite having more reasons to doubt than you or I could imagine.

We humans dislike dissonance. We are made uncomfortable by conflicts among our beliefs and perceptions. As the cognitive psychologist Leon Festinger observed, we often unconsciously tend to restore harmony even when it requires us to go to great lengths, telling ourselves elaborate stories if necessary [see also Kierkegaard article – Ed]. Surely no intellectual can be satisfied with unjustified faith when its only role is to restore harmony among our beliefs and perceptions. However, if forced to choose between the sour grapes approach embraced by Meursault, which dishonestly denies the value of life and love, or the leap of faith Frankl made with his eyes wide open (even in the face of the Holocaust), I too will leap.

© Prof. James M. DuBois 2008

James DuBois is the Hubert Mäder Professor of Health Care Ethics at Saint Louis University in St. Louis, Missouri.

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