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PHIL 1100
Henry Jackman

PHILOSOPHY 1100: THE MEANING OF LIFE Lectures Notes: Thomas Nagel: "The Absurd" 4162751146 1. Bad Reasons for taking life to be absurd: According to Thomas Nagel (1932-), "In ordinary life a situation is absurd when it includes a conspicuous discrepancy between pretension or aspiration and reality" (p.1). Typically the sort of 'local' absurdity we deal with in everyday life can be repaired by closing the gap between aspiration and reality by changing either our aspirations or reality. It may be absurd for a 60 year old man to dress is a way appropriate for a teenager, but this absurdity can be remedied by the man changing the way he dresses. However, the philosophical problem of absurdity relates to the worry that life itself is absurd, not just some avoidable choices we make within it. So why should we think that life is absurd in this way? Nagel first considers three unsuccessful arguments for the absurdity of life. 1.1 The Regress of Justification The first of these relates to the fact that we can never seem to be able to fully justify any of our actions. We may explain wanting to do one thing in virtue or wanting another, but our justification for wanting that other thing can be challenged as well. I can explain why I go to a club in terms of wanting to meet a friend, and then explain why I want to meet the friend in term so of my having promised to do so, and my wanting to keep my promises in terms of a general desire to keep to my word, and so on, but it will always be possible to challenge any justification I give with a request for further justification. The idea that we typically justify one thing in terms of another thing, so I can justify going to the store cause I have to buy food, justify buying food because I have to make dinner and justify making dinner beacuase I am hugry though being hungry might not have any justification, you will eventually get to that root where there is no justification and recognizing that this foundation cannot be justified can cuase a kind of vertigo. Even if someone wished to supply a further justification for pursuing all the things in life that are commonly regarded as self- justifying, that justification would have to end somewhere too. If nothing can justify unless it is justified in terms of something outside itself, which is also justified, then an infinite regress results, and no chain of justification can be complete. Moreover, if a finite chain of reasons cannot justify anything, what could be accomplished by an infinite chain, each link of which must be justified by something outside itself? (p.1) However, the best response to this fact about the open ended character of requests for justification may be not that nothing is justified, but rather that things can be justified even if we, at some point, don't go on with the processes of justifying it. As it is commonly put, justification must eventually come to an end. If this is the case, there is no reason to think that it may come to an end at a point that leaves our everyday projects justified. In short, "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" (p.1). its not some special feature of our life that will eventually rekind intrying to justify something, the fact about justification not about life, that anytime you give justification for something you can always legitimately ask what justifies that justifying, the fact about the game of reasons, any given reason can be challenged. The fact that justification for our own projects comes to an end is not a special criticism of our own projects, doesnt make them absurd just shows something about justification not our life.1.2. Nothing matters in the long run Another argument for life's absurdity that Nagel does not accept relates to the fact that, in a million years, it won't matter whether I get a job, get married, have kids, write a novel, or anything at all. Nobody will remember me in 1,002,006 C.E., and there is a good chance that humanity will have died out completely by then. The long, long, long, term future will be pretty much the same no matter what I do, so it can seem as if nothing I do 'really' matters. However, this sort of argument presupposes that for something to 'really' matter, it needs to matter a million years from now, but it is far from clear that that should be the case. As Nagel puts 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 matt
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