Saturday, April 27, 2013

Revisiting Nagel on the Absurdity of Life (Part One)

Is life absurd? Should we bother with it? Does it matter either way? Rightly or wrongly, Thomas Nagel’s 1971 article, “The Absurd”, is one of the most celebrated and widely-cited contributions to the literature on these questions. I certainly am struck by how frequently people refer to it in conversations I have with them about this topic. It seems like anyone with even a dim awareness of the literature will have heard of Nagel’s piece.

Even more striking is the fact that although people often aver to the opening passages, in which Nagel dismisses common arguments for the absurdity of life, they also tend to ignore or downplay the rest of the article, in which Nagel defends the absurdist view. This omission is sometimes found among non-believers, who like using the opening passages to critique theistic conceptions of meaning (e.g. William Lane Craig’s). Indeed, this is something I did in one of my old podcasts, though I believe I did discuss Nagel’s defence of absurdism in the end.

Anyway, I’m mentioning all of this because one of my current projects looks at the intersection between transhumanism and the philosophical debate over the meaning of life. As part of that project, I thought it would be worth revisiting Nagel’s famous article, and taking a closer look at its key arguments. So that’s what the next two blog posts will be about.

In this post, I’ll look at the critical phase of the article, in which Nagel dismisses commonplace arguments for absurdity. In the next post, I’ll look at his own argument for the absurdity of life.

1. A Comment on Methods and an Introduction to the Arguments
As is my wont on this blog, I want to carefully unpack and formally reconstruct Nagel’s critique of the commonplace arguments for absurdity. This turns out to be a difficult task. The oft-cited critical phase of Nagel’s article is exceptionally brief. By my estimate, it occupies slightly less than two pages of the text. What’s more, the argumentation in these pages is dense, with four separate arguments being introduced and dismissed in short order.* This means the logic is often compressed and epigrammatic; decompressing it requires a good deal of interpolation and patience.

It’s actually worth commenting on why this is since it allows me to make a meta-point, one that I think will be useful to anyone interested in analysing and evaluating arguments in a rigorous manner. The main problem is that Nagel’s presentation and critique of the four arguments is enthymematic in nature. An “enthymeme” is a compressed form of argument, common in everyday conversation and political rhetoric. As you probably know, a classical syllogism is a three-part argument consisting of a major premise (usually a statement of some abstract principle), a minor premise (some statement of fact), and a conclusion (which shows how the fact relates to the general principle). An enthymeme is a two-part argument, in which one of premises from the syllogism is left unstated. In my experience, it is the general principle that is most often left out. Thus, an enthymeme typically consists of a statement of fact and a conclusion. “It’s raining. Therefore, the traffic will be bad” is an enthymeme of this type.

You might think, given this characterisation, that enthymemes would be transparently bad arguments. After all, how can you reach a conclusion without one of the logically required elements of an argument? But in most aspects of our lives we share a good number of assumptions and principles. It’s what makes communication possible. Hence, when listening to people make enthymematic arguments, we often do them the courtesy of implying or filling in the assumptions needed to make their argument logically sound. In fact, this is such a natural courtesy, that we sometimes grant people the assumptions when we really shouldn’t — i.e. when they are actually making bad arguments.

I often tell my students that when they are assessing philosophical arguments, or when they are presenting their own, they should avoid the use of enthymemes. As much as possible, they should render every argument in its complete logical form. This way they’ll start spotting flawed principles in arguments made by others, and start defending the questionable principles in their own arguments. In many ways, cultivating this habit of mind is what philosophy is all about.

Now, in a sense, this is exactly what Nagel does in the opening passages of his article. Because he is dealing with commonplace arguments for the absurdity of life, and because these commonplace arguments tend to be enthymematic in form, one of his initial tasks is to expose the flawed principles and assumptions underlying those arguments. But what is so frustrating about these passages is how, in presenting his own criticisms, Nagel never bothers to render the commonplace arguments in their proper logical form, isolate the problematic premises, and subject them to a perspicuous evaluation. Instead, he states them in their enthymematic form, and responds in a circuitous and correspondingly enthymematic form himself.

I appreciate this might be because Nagel isn’t too concerned with the commonplace arguments in his article. His main goal is not to critique the absurdist position, but to offer a novel (in 1971!) and more persuasive defence of it. That’s perfectly legitimate. But I have more time and space to play around with, and I want to do a more thorough job on the commonplace arguments. So that’s what I’ll do in the remainder of the post. As I do so, I think you’ll begin share my view that Nagel’s objections to these arguments aren’t as good as they might first appear to be. Not that the arguments are all that great either.

2. The “Temporally Distant Mattering” Argument
The first argument Nagel deals with — for want of a better name — is the “Temporally Distant Mattering” Argument (TDMA for short). According to this argument, our lives are absurd because nothing we do now will matter at some temporally distant point, say one million years hence. Here’s what Nagel says about it:

It is often remarked that nothing we do now will matter in a million years. But if that is true, then by the same token, nothing that will be the case in a million years matters now. In particular, it does not matter now that in a million years nothing we do now will matter…Whether what we do now will matter in a million years could make the crucial difference only if its mattering in a million years depended on its mattering, period. 
(Nagel, 1971, p. 716)

Let’s try to unpack what Nagel is saying here by spelling out the logic of the TDMA:

  • (1) In order for our lives to have meaning (i.e. to not be absurd), what we do now must matter at some temporally distant point, e.g. one million years hence.
  • (2) Nothing we do now will matter one million years hence.
  • (3) Therefore, our lives are absurd.

The first premise states a condition for a meaningful life. It may be a necessary or a sufficient condition, but that doesn’t “matter” too much “right now”. It will in a moment. The second premise makes a factual claim and is the basis of the original enthymeme. I think it is of dubious merit. The problem is that this notion of “mattering” is incredibly vague. If it just means “will have some effect” on the state of the universe one million years from now, then I suspect it is false. Everything we do now may well have some causal effect on the future, however minimal that may be. Maybe it won’t have a “large effect” or an “effect of the right type”, but if that’s the concern that needs to be made much clearer.

In any event, Nagel eschews this kind of factual criticism. Instead he points to a supposed implication of premise (2), which has a knock-on effect on the plausibility of the premise (1). If I could reconstruct the argument from the quoted passage, I would put it thusly:

  • (4) If it is true than nothing we do now will matter one million years hence, then it is also true that nothing that happens one million years hence matters now.
  • (5) But if (4) is true then (1) is false.
  • (6) (4) is true (because (2) is true).
  • (7) Therefore, (1) is false.

In other words, Nagel is saying that the fact that nothing that happens in a million years matters now gives us some reason to doubt the unstated principle guiding the original objection.

I have some worries about this. While I suspect the conclusion is true, I think the argument is questionable. For one thing, it all depends on the precise meaning we give to this concept of “mattering” in premise (4). If we interpret it to mean “has some causal effect”, then it’s probably true. But if it means “has some significance for how we live our lives now”, then it’s probably false. The possible future does have some significance for our behaviour. I make decisions all the time based on what I think my possible future might be like. Granting this, why couldn’t it be true that the possible state of the universe one million years from now has an effect on how I live my life now? The claim that (4) follows from (2) doesn’t seem right to me.

There is also the nagging suspicion that Nagel’s critique really just begs the question against the original objection. Surely one of the things that is at dispute here is whether what happens one million years hence matters for us now. To claim that nothing that happens one million years hence matters now is to assume the conclusion that needs to established. Nagel may say he has established this by derivation from premise (2) but I don't think that's correct for the reasons I have just stated: the future state of the universe could make a difference to how you live your life now.

More charitably, Nagel is simply making the point that the original premise doesn’t plausibly state a sufficient condition for meaning. This much is suggested by some of his other comments:

[E]ven if what we did now were going to matter in a million years, how could that keep our present concerns from being absurd? If their mattering now is not enough to accomplish that, how would it help if they mattered a million years from now? 
(Nagel, 1971, p. 716)

I am quite sympathetic to this line of reasoning. Although I suggested it was possible a moment ago, it does seem odd to say that what happens one million years hence could provide the “magic ingredient” needed to avoid absurdity. The only problem here is that while premise (1) may not state a sufficient condition for meaning — and hence it seems like an odd claim — it may state a necessary condition for meaning. In other words, it may be true that mattering one million years hence plus some other factor is sufficient for meaning, even if mattering one million years hence on its own is not. This problem crops up elsewhere in Nagel’s critique.

Finally, there is a sense in which Nagel’s argument gestures toward the following sentiment:

Nothing Matters Principle: If it is true that nothing matters, then it also true that it doesn’t matter that nothing matters.

This is right, and indeed it seems like Nagel ultimately endorses it through his defence of absurdism. But it is distinct from the concerns articulated by the TDMA and does not follow from Nagel’s critique of that argument.

3. The “Smallness and Shortness” Arguments
The second and third commonplace arguments claim that the shortness and smallness of our lives render them absurd. Nagel describes them like this:

What we say to convey the absurdity of our lives often has to do with space or time: we are tiny specks in the infinite vastness of the universe; our lives are mere instants on a geological time scale, let alone a cosmic one; we will all be dead any minute. But of course none of these evident facts can be what makes life absurd, if it is absurd. For suppose we lived forever; would not a life that is absurd if it lasts seventy years be infinitely absurd if it lasted through eternity? And if our lives are absurd given our present size, why would they be any less absurd if we filled the universe (either because we were larger or because the universe was smaller)? 
(Nagel, 1971, p. 717)

I think Nagel is right to condemn both arguments, and I think his reasoning here is slightly stronger than it was in the first case, but we still need to be careful. Let’s unpack the logic behind both objections and clarify Nagel’s responses.

The size objection will be dealt with first. Nagel seems to interpret it thusly:

  • (8) In order for our lives to have meaning (i.e. not be absurd), we must not occupy too small a physical space within the universe. (Corollary: to avoid absurdity we must occupy a sufficiently large space within the universe).
  • (9) We occupy too small a physical space within the universe (we are mere tiny specks in the infinite vastness).
  • (10) Therefore, our lives are absurd.

Nagel rejects this argument on the grounds that premise (8) states neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for meaning. And I think he’s right to do so. There is no reason to think that increased physical size would make our lives less absurd. Indeed, it might make it even more absurd. Imagine a simple box universe in which your body takes up almost the entire physical space within the box. With nothing else in the box, all you can do is sit around all day until (hopefully) the box collapses back in on itself. Surely that would be an absurd existence?

Still, I wonder whether this is an incredibly uncharitable interpretation of the commonplace argument. It could be that the premise underlying the “we are mere specks of dust”-claim is not about physical size per se, but rather about the size, extent and duration of one’s causal influence on the universe. That sounds more plausible to me since it maps onto to concerns many people have about their lives on earth, e.g. how can one person make a difference give the causal and social complexity of modern life?. This argument would raise concerns similar to those raised by the TDMA, albeit in a more precise manner.

That brings us to the shortness argument, which Nagel seems to interpret as a kind of immortality argument:

  • (11) In order for our lives to have meaning (i.e. not be absurd), they must go on forever.
  • (12) Our lives do not go on forever; they are quite short.
  • (13) Therefore, our lives are absurd.

This, of course, is a very common line of argument, one that features heavily in religious accounts of the meaning of life. Nagel refutes it with an equally common line of argument, which I state as follows:

  • (14) If a current human life with a duration of approximately 70 years (L70) is absurd, then the same kind of life with an infinite duration (L) will also be absurd.

In other words, to reiterate something I said previously, indefinitely extending a lifespan does not add the magic ingredients needed for a meaningful life.

There are a couple of problems here. First, the crucial assumption of Nagel’s critique is that L will be qualitatively similar to our absurd lives. But this might be wrong. Knowing that one will live forever might have significant qualitative changes on one’s life. This links to the second problem, which is that although immortality may not be sufficient for meaning, it might be necessary.

4. The “Chain of Justification” Argument
The fourth and final commonplace argument is concerned with the effect of death on the chains of justification in our lives. Nagel puts it like this:

Another inadequate argument is that because we are going to die, all chains of justification must leave off in mid-air; one studies and works to earn money to pay for clothing, housing, entertainment, food, to sustain oneself from year to year, perhaps to support a family and pursue a career — but to what final end? All of it is an elaborate journey leading nowhere. 
(Nagel, 1971, p. 717)

This is actually quite a complex argument, partly due to its opacity. It raises issues analogous to those raised in debates over the cosmological argument in the philosophy of religion. Specifically, issues relating to the principle of sufficient reason and the explanation of causal chains. I’m going to blur some of that complexity in my formal restatement, which is:

  • (14) A life consists in a finite chain of events, from Ebirth…Edeath.
  • (15) In order for our lives to have meaning (i.e. to not be absurd), every event that takes place within them (En) must be justified in terms of one or more proceeding events (En+1).
  • (16) Because life consists in a finite chain of events, at least one event within life cannot be justified in terms of some subsequent event.
  • (17) Therefore our lives are absurd.

Nagel rejects premise (15), which is the unstated principle guiding the original objection. There are two problems with it. First, it ignores the possibility that events within life could have intrinsic justification or meaning. In other words, their meaning or significance may not depend on any subsequent events. Thus, think of any activity or project that you pursue for its own sake, not for its subsequent benefits. For example, I play my guitar for the sake of that activity alone, not because it makes me a better person or because I want to be a successful musician. Second, the argument makes an unreasonable demand by suggesting that justifications are needed for everything in terms of something else. But this leads to an infinite regress of justification that could never be satisfied:

Since justifications must come to an end somewhere, nothing is gained by denying that they end where they appear to, within life — or by trying to subsume the multiple, often trivial ordinary justifications of action under a single controlling life scheme. We can be satisfied more easily than that. In fact, through its misrepresentation of the process of justification, the argument makes a vacuous demand. It insists that the reasons available within life are incomplete, but suggests thereby that all reasons that come to an end are incomplete. This makes it impossible to supply any reasons at all. 
(Nagel, 1971, p. 718)

I have little enough to say about this, except that I think it is right. I think chains of justification do have stopping points and that this could impact upon arguments for the meaning of life. Still, I find it somewhat odd that Nagel thinks this a devastating objection to the commonplace argument. Why? Well, because when he gets around to making his own argument in favour of absurdity he relies on a very similar, infinite regress-style, principle. I’ll take this up in part two.

* There is possibly a fifth argument, depending on whether you think Nagel’s remark about the fact that ‘we will all be dead any minute’ picks out an argument that is distinct from the argument about the length our lives. It is possible a point is being made here about the fragility of our lives, not their temporal duration. However, Nagel doesn’t make much of this remark subsequently so I’ve ignored that possibility. Fortunately, I wrote about this objection once before in my series on Di Muzio’s article “Theism and the Meaning of Life”.


  1. Life isn't either or, and a person's accomplishments and achievements do not exist in a vacuum. I think that the value in a life is the ability to influence or change someone else's. If you had asked me when I was 25, I would've told you I think the greatest value in my life would be to be a librarian. Recommending books, being able to be a guide for many formative demographics and just being a help to people who need it. Now I would say that the greatest good is being a mother to a 3 year old who tests my patience and my willingness to compromise and all of the things I never thought I could do: raise a independent, intelligent, capable human.

    1. I note these things because at 25 being a librarian would have made me happy, and now at the age that I am, being a mother brings me happiness in unexpected ways.