Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Absurdity, Sisyphus, Chaos and the Church

I am very grateful to a learned colleague at school (who knows much more philosophy than I do) for introducing me to the ideas contained in Camus' Le Mythe de Sisyphe. Like high level theology, I leave languages and their translations to Fr Chadwick and his peers. I am quite interested here in the ideas that Camus puts forward because it does have a bearing on how people live a life without purpose. For Camus, so I'm told, the non-existence of God and the afterlife were self-evident.

Quite how he reaches these conclusions, I know not. Personally, I find it self-evident that I have an immortal soul that will outlast this body. That is my experience of living. Likewise, I find it impossible to imagine a world where either everything is contingent or there is no such thing as causality. That rather offends my scientific sensibility as well as contradicting my awareness of the Divine Consciousness which has its origins beyond me. However, I freely admit that I have no proof that my self-evident truths are indeed true. Indeed, I am more likely to admit that they are completely unprovable.

Camus finds life pointless and absurd. For him there is no meaning of life whatsoever. One may then inquire what prevents the individual from simply committing suicide. Camus' answer is that Man is a rational being in an irrational world, and that it is this absurdity that should be the cause of Man's desire to live and embrace the contradiction of a rational life. This is the basis of his work describing the myth of Sisyphus who is doomed to roll a rock slowly, painfully and laboriously uphill only for it to roll back down again. For Camus, "The struggle itself... is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy."  For this reason, Camus regards Hope as the worst plague of the lot, trouncing all the unpleasantness that flies out of Pandora's box because it is utterly false. The rock inevitably rolls back to the bottom of the hill to be picked up and carried again. This is fulfillment for Sisyphus! As the rock rolls back, he can pour scorn on his labour. He transcends his own labour.

I'm afraid I can't quite see why suicide doesn't transcend labour, nor why it doesn't pour scorn on the whole act of toiling at life through that last ditch act of free-will. Is suicide surely not an absurd response to Camus' absurd?

For the mathematician in me, I do see something that perhaps Camus was not able to see, and that is the influence of chaos in physical systems. Life indeed may appear absurd or contradictory but this absurdity comes about not only through competing systems but with the system itself introducing feedback. Perturb the system slightly and it oscillates unpredictably from one state to another. The system may be unpredictable but it may not necessarily be irrational. Within Chaos, there is order and from Chaos some order may indeed arise.

This seems to suggest that Hope is now less of an evil but some assurance that there is some underlying order in the Cosmos. For me who sees nothing but contingent producing contingent and finds contradiction in the notion that only contingent things exist, I have enough evidence to convince me of the existence of God.

Yet I do have an appreciation for Camus' ideas here. Daily, I watch society do some remarkably ridiculous things that actually it can't help doing. Law, morality and ethics naturally clash precisely because humanity is a fallen genus and unable to deal with its own existence on a larger scale. I see a Church (or even a Church within a Church) abandon its principles in favour of attracting more members so it can teach them the religious principles that it no longer adheres to. I see those who reject the existence of moral absolutes become the first to take up arms when something appears to be unfair to them.

Many of my colleagues are tired with the uphill struggle and might be forgiven for thinking that their situation is absurd. Like Camus, I believe that Man can indeed rise above his labour, transcend beyond that Sisyphean task of trying to do the impossible. St Benedict reminds us that sometimes the Abbess may ask impossible things of the nun, yet the nun  keeps her vow of obedience and attains greater perfection by attempting the impossible. If she fails, she attributes it to her own fragility. If she succeeds, she attributes her success to God.

For many, that's "bad thinking" a post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy. The trouble is, it is indistinguishable from  if it were true, but then, the nun isn't producing an argument for the existence of God, she's finding her fulfilment in Him.

Man's transcendence is ontological, for God gives Man his worth beyond his works. If belief in God is absurd as many will say, then St Paul, Kirkegaard and Camus all say that we should embrace absurdity without flinching. Of course, Camus would accuse Kirkegaard and St Paul of flinching in their embrace of God rather than staring hopelessness in the face. But then I don't really regard hopelessness as being self-evident. Quite the opposite in fact. I am hopeful about the future. I think it's rather brighter than Sisyphus would give it credit. Our rocks may indeed roll down the hill, but there's always the opportunity to look over the hill at the other side before one trudges down to pick up the rock once more.

"I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills : from whence cometh my help. My help cometh even from the Lord : who hath made heaven and earth."

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