Aug 14, 2018
“There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.”
In this episode of Made You Think, Neil and Nat discuss The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus. In this book we learn about the Legend of Sisyphus and his never-ending toil. How to find meaning in the struggle and hope for the future.
“The workman of today works every day in his life at the same tasks and this fate is no less absurd but it is tragic only at the rare moments when it becomes conscious.”
We cover a wide range of topics, including:
And much more. Please enjoy, and be sure to grab a copy of The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus
If you enjoyed this episode, be sure to check out our episode on The Elephant in the Brain for more on taboo subjects of the mind or our episode on The Book of Five Rings for ideas on philosophy and a retrospective look over life.
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01:28 – This week’s episode is Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus. It is a philosophical book exploring the meaning of life, questioning if suicide is ever the rational choice. Themes include, humans questioning their cosmic significance and when life is a struggle, is it still worth living?
06:19 – The book is an essay in 4 sections, Absurd Reasoning, Absurd Man, Absurd Creation & Myth of Sisyphus. Camus was insecure about his work, similarly to Kafka who didn’t wish for his uncompleted works to be published after his death.
Camus’ other work, The Stranger, was good, entertaining but it’s easy to hate the main character. Having read more by Camus it’s easier to understand his other works better.
10:03 – Taboo topic of suicide, often discussed as a wholly bad thing and something we should prevent at all costs. This book is a personal exploration of whether or not it makes sense. There are plenty of statistics to suggest that talking about suicide and reporting on suicides causes an increase. We have a natural aversion to talking about it. This essay is an argument against it as none of the reasons presented for it are considered convincing.
12:40 – For those in unbearable pain, what is the compassionate thing to do? This directly competes with the human with the human instinct for not ending a life. If someone is in pain, should it be illegal to let them go? Is it cruel and selfish to extend someone’s life artificially? The practice of assisted suicide still exists even though illegal but just via more illicit means.
14:38 – Insurance has no incentive to keep people alive as they stop paying out for care but hospitals stop getting paid when people die. Waiting for people to pass naturally is often a long drawn out process. Hospitals have to be vigilant in these situations before death to avoid malpractice lawsuits. Their desire is to minimize liability when someone does die. It is often a morally difficult decision for families. Legality of negative actions (not giving an intervention) vs positive action (assisting or speeding up the process of dying).
19:31 – Laws around alcohol and cannabis. Texas is very polarized compared to other states like Pennsylvania.
22:37 – “Living naturally is never easy, you continue making the gestures commanded by existence for many reasons. the first of which is habit. Dying voluntarily implies that you've recognized even instinctively the ridiculous character of that habit. The absence of any profound reason for living, the insane character of that daily agitation and the uselessness of suffering”
24:00 – The brain as an illusion. Consciousness doesn’t have much control, just along for the ride. Can often result in a feeling of chaos or overwhelm. Hard to explain this concept to others not familiar with these subjects. Internal vs external experience of “I”, sub personalities and the internal chatter of the mind. It’s hard to consider that everyone experiences that about themselves. Considering everyone has their own unique experiences, it’s easier to think that it’s just me and the world and you’re all part of the simulation. Perhaps everyone else's consciousness is a figment of our imagination.
29:16 – Determinism vs Free Will & Evolution vs God. You can also think there is third option between non free-will and non determinism, where your brain is still deciding things, there is free will but it’s not yours. Very philosophical episode so far, contemplating the randomness in the universe.
32:07 – Man’s attachment to life. We get into the habit of living (surviving) before we acquire the habit of thinking. Animalian Drive, social bonds and the coexistence behaviors of other animals like chimps & dogs. Human’s drive to co-operate overrides our other urges. However scarcity causes confrontation.
35:52 – Violent crime can be thought of as failure of the cognitive mind. Crime levels show that we co-exist together relatively peacefully. Especially considering density of population, e.g on the island of Manhattan, most of which haven’t killed someone while living there. Getting through lengthy books, taking notes and needing character maps to follow plot.
40:27 – “Rising, streetcar, four hours in the office or the factory, meal, streetcar, four hours of work, meal, sleep. And Monday Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday according to the same rhythm. This path is easily followed most of the time but one day the ‘why’ arises and everything begins in that weariness tinged with amazement begins. This is important weariness comes at the end of the acts of a mechanical life, but at the same time it inaugurates the impulse of consciousness.”
Meaningless of the routine. Moment of clarity after extended periods of working hard. The movie Click and fast forwarding through the autonomous parts of life. How often are you in the driver's seat? How often is life on autopilot? Autopilot can used as a function to get out of your own way. You couldn’t function if you were aware of the absurdity of life for your whole day at your factory job. That would cause more suffering. You have to be satisfied with your life so that when the consciousness comes in you don’t feel weary of how absurd it is.
45:38 – “He feels within him his longing for happiness and for reason. The absurd is born of this confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world”
Changing notions of religion, no longer an unhesitant belief - without religion people are now ‘woke’. Science answers the how and what but doesn’t answer the why. Science and religion should be separate. If religion and nationalism are fading away, what are we a part of then? Jordan Peterson is an example of figureheads that people are looking up to in place of religion. Externalize the meaning of our lives onto these people - like an over obsessive mother who won’t let their child grow up, or obsession in romantic relationships.
49:13 – There is no objective meaning of life however we have an innate longing and desire for meaning - how do you reconcile those two things?
“The mind's first step is to distinguish what is true from what is false. However, as soon as the thought reflects on itself what it first discovers is a contradiction. Of whom and what indeed can I say I know that? This heart within me I can feel and I judge that it exists. This world I can touch and I likewise judge that it exists. There ends all my knowledge and the rest is construction for if I tried to seize this self of which I feel sure. If I try to define a to summarize it it is nothing but water slipping through my fingers.”
50:06 – What does the mind do that the brain doesn’t do? We are always stuck within that contradiction. Lots of overlapping themes with GEB episode.
“If through science I can seize phenomena and enumerate them I cannot for all that apprehend the world. Were I to trace its entire relief with my finger I should not know anymore”
Simply having the data from science isn’t the same as understanding and knowing. The mind is like water dripping through fingers, we can’t hold on to the concept.
“What is absurd is the confrontation of the irrational and the wild longing for clarity whose call echoes in the human heart. The absurd depends as much on man as on the world. At this point of his effort, man stands face to face the irrational, he feels within him his longing for happiness and for reason. The absurd is born of this confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world.”
We want to be happy and we want reasons for existing but the world has nothing to offer us we can never find an external explanation for being and so we either have to create one ourselves or just accept that we will never have one. It’s a hard concept to be comfortable with.
52:51 – Chapter 2. Examples of the absurd life. Revolt, Freedom, Passion. It's the actor who recognizes that everything is ephemeral. Life ends at the end of the role. Mini universes are created within plays. The actor - in those 3 hours he travels the whole course of the dead-end path that the men in the audience take a lifetime to cover. You can sit and observe an actor but you can never do that with your own life.
54:40 – The Conqueror. Fighting and taking action, demands respect. Not sitting thinking. But they are not contemplating their life. Comparison of the conqueror to business. Choosing action over contemplation.
56:47 – Who is the "I". Discussing this topic makes you very self aware. These observations are not reasons not to pursue things in life. Stoicism and Minimalism are great philosophies for people who don’t want to feel bad about giving up on their goals. However some people interpret Stoicism as saying to go for your goals. There is fun in accomplishment. Your mindset is often reflected in what you’re reading. Our differing mindset applies different meanings to the same books. Our minds don’t hold on to thoughts we disagree with. We extract what is valuable. Our struggles and wealth can play a part on our viewpoint. Epictetus in poverty vs Seneca with wealth.
01:00:00 – Tangent. Modern wealth, Jeff Bezos and the escalating new heights of wealth. Which tech companies would you be least surprised to not exist in 10 years? Amazon, IPO’s, Tesla and stock prices.
01:06:05 – Humans long for happiness and reason but absurdity is born from our need and the silence of the world. It’s a philosophical contradiction. Nietzsche said we had killed God in becoming God ourselves. That we are taking power and trying to be the arbiters of our faith. We decide what is meaningful. The goal is to not wait for heaven in the afterlife but to create that eternal meaningful life here.
01:07:42 – The Myth of Sisyphus. He defied the Gods and put Death in chains so that no human needed to die. When Death was liberated and it became time for Sisyphus to die, he tried to escape. The Gods decided to punish him for all of eternity. He would push a rock up a mountain and upon reaching the top, the rock would roll down again leaving Sisyphus to start over.
Is Camus saying that we are all Sisyphus now? Trying to defy death? Stuck in the absurd meaningless tasks of life. Despite being the Absurd Man, Sisyphus has accepted his fate and continues doing it.
“He is as much through his passions as through his torture. His scorn of the Gods, his hatred of death and his passion for life won him that unspeakable penalty in which the whole being is exerted toward accomplishing nothing. This is the price that must be paid for the passions of this Earth.”
Trying to live eternal life here on Earth means we have condemned ourselves to the meaningless repetition. We are doing this senseless toil and we are occasionally conscious of it and trying to find meaning. To live a meaningful life you stay in the routine and stay “unwoke”. Once you’re conscious of the absurdity of life and try to do something about it you are trying to become like God.
01:11:59 – However there is meaning in the task itself, there’s a happy ending to this story. Camus was saying there’s not a God but there doesn’t have to be for your life to have meaning. There is hope in the returning steps of Sisyphus.
“A face that toils so close to stones is already stone itself. I see that man going back down with a heavy yet measured step, toward the torment of which he will never know the end. That hour, like a breathing space which returns as surely as his suffering, that is the hour of consciousness. At each of those moments when he leaves the heights and gradually sinks toward the layers of the Gods, he is superior to his fate. He is stronger than his rock.”
In those moments, walking back down after the rock, he still has some control and he is conscious of it.
01:14:24 – “I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain, one always finds one's burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks, he too concludes that all is well. The universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futiile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night filled mountain in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
01:15:03 – “All of Sisyphus' silent joy is contained therein. His fate belongs to him. His rock is his thing.”
A struggle can make your life meaningful. Tackling a goal can be uplifting. Finite and infinite games and horizon thinking idea. Goals as directional, metrics to shoot for. Being obsessed with a goal you ignore other opportunities and miss out on serendipitous discoveries. Tangent on goal setting, and adapting and changing the goal as you progress. Reaching the goal is not what makes you happy. You have to enjoy the struggle.
01:22:29 – The appeal of a nomadic life. However living the easy, happy life isn’t possible all of the time. Only by losing, does winning mean anything. Sisyphus can choose how he feels about the struggle.
01:23:22 – It’s very easy to keep reading books you already agree with, to avoid struggling with difficult feelings. When you read things that challenge your belief, feeling and challenging that discomfort is something necessary to do. Discriminating some races feels wrong while others not.
01:32:30 – “For the rest of men he knows himself to be the master of his days. At that subtle moment when man glances backward over his life. Sisyphus returning toward his rock in that slight pivoting he contemplates that series of unrelated actions, which become his fate, created by him combined under his memories eye and soon sealed by his death. Thus convinced of the holy human origin of all that is human, a blind man eager to see, who knows that the night has no end, he is still on the go, the rock is still rolling.”
The book ends on a hopeful note, answers the question of suicide. Even though life may seem absurd, you can find meaning in the absurdity and the struggle. You can find your rock.
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