Faith Without a Point

Keeping faith amidst pointlessness.

The ultimate loop is life as mere existence.

At the level of the species, it’s the idea that the purpose of living is reproduction. An individual exists, produces another individual who continues the cycle, ad infinitum.

At the level of the individual, the loop is living to exist. Living is acquiring the resources necessary to sustain life. And existing is doing that all for nothing other than to continue being able to do it.

“Vague and objectless anxiety in the present, and in the future a continual sacrifice leading to nothing—that was all that lay before him. What had he to live for? What had he to look forward to? Why should he strive? To live in order to exist? Why, he had been ready a thousand times before to give up existence for the sake of an idea, for a hope, even for a fancy. Mere existence had always been too little for him; he had always wanted more. “

Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoevsky

A person who justifies killing an old woman with an axe is maybe not someone you’d like to identify with, but Raskolnikov from Crime and Punishment is probably very easy to relate to. That he could create such characters, and in such remarkable depth, is one reason for Dostoevsky’s reputation as a writer.

Raskolnikov personifies the loop. A life you spend in making just enough to continue making just enough to continue making just enough to continue…* ad nauseam. In other words, ‘to live in order to exist’. The end result of living being to just exist and continue the loop. That Raskolnikov wanted more than that made him think of doing what he did; that he believed he was one of those who could do more made him do what he did.

What had he to live for? What had he to look forward to? Why should he strive? Nothing to strive for – in today’s lingo, perhaps ‘no meaning’ – makes living seem pointless. Nothing to look forward to – no pleasure – makes existing seem valueless. With something to strive for, or with something to look forward to – either living or existing becomes an end, breaking the loop.

It’s not much surprise then, that on the occasions when he isn’t preoccupied with thinking about killing an old woman, Raskolnikov is pondering ending his own existence.

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. All the rest — whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories — comes afterwards. These are games; one must first answer.

Albert Camus

I didn’t want to go here because it feels stale to bring up such an age-old question. And because you can’t so much as raise it without somebody wondering if you’re alright.

Camus has a point though. You can’t answer the rest till you respond to this (and brushing aside is also responding). And I admire his audacity in trying to answer it – and answer it authentically.

Nor is he alone. Tolstoy came up with what I think is a very consistent analysis, difficult to improve upon.

I found that for people of my circle there were four ways out of the terrible position in which we are all placed. The first was that of ignorance. It consists in not knowing, not understanding, that life is an evil and an absurdity. From [people of this sort] I had nothing to learn — one cannot cease to know what one does know.

The second way out is epicureanism. It consists, while knowing the hopelessness of life, in making use meanwhile of the advantages one has, disregarding the dragon and the mice, and licking the honey in the best way, especially if there is much of it within reach… That is the way in which the majority of people of our circle make life possible for themselves…

The third escape is that of strength and energy. It consists in destroying life, when one has understood that it is an evil and an absurdity. A few exceptionally strong and consistent people act so. Having understood the stupidity of the joke that has been played on them, and having understood that it is better to be dead than to be alive, and that it is best of all not to exist, they act accordingly and promptly end this stupid joke…

The fourth way out is that of weakness. It consists in seeing the truth of the situation and yet clinging to life, knowing in advance that nothing can come of it…The fourth way was to live like Solomon and Schopenhauer — knowing that life is a stupid joke played upon us, and still to go on living, washing oneself, dressing, dining, talking, and even writing books. This was to me repulsive and tormenting, but I remained in that position.

Leo Tolstoy

Four possibilities – ignorance (but you can’t ‘un-know’ what you know), pleasure (something to look forward to), death and pointless existence (nothing to strive for). They seem to cover the gamut of possibilities at the first glance – and yet, most humanity apparently lives peacefully enough, untroubled. Are they really all ignorant, and just a few chosen ones wise enough to wake up to this? The balance of probabilities is surely that it’s likelier one person is mistaken than that many billions are ignorant.

And it struck me: “But what if there is something I do not yet know? Ignorance behaves just in that way. Ignorance always says just what I am saying. When it does not know something, it says that what it does not know is stupid. Indeed, it appears that there is a whole humanity that lived and lives as if it understood the meaning of its life, for without understanding it could not live; but I say that all this life is senseless and that I cannot live...

 I saw that, with rare exceptions, all those milliards who have lived and are living do not fit into my divisions, and that I could not class them as not understanding the question, for they themselves state it and reply to it with extraordinary clearness. Nor could I consider them epicureans, for their life consists more of privations and sufferings than of enjoyments. Still less could I consider them as irrationally dragging on a meaningless existence, for every act of their life, as well as death itself, is explained by them. To kill themselves they consider the greatest evil. It appeared that all mankind had a knowledge, unacknowledged and despised by me, of the meaning of life. It appeared that reasonable knowledge does not give the meaning of life, but excludes life: while the meaning attributed to life by milliards of people, by all humanity, rests on some despised pseudo-knowledge.

So you have these billions who are not ignorant – it’s not that they have never pondered about the point of it all. They’re not hedonists – their lives are far more deprived than most of us. They do not destroy themselves, nor do they, in their eyes (which is, after all, what matters), drag on a pointless existence.

I asked: “What is the meaning of my life, beyond time, cause, and space?” And I replied to quite another question: “What is the meaning of my life within time, cause, and space?” With the result that, after long efforts of thought, the answer I reached was: “None.”

Tolstoy concludes, perhaps rightly so, that there could be no rational answer to the question. But that doesn’t mean there could be no answer; just that rationality couldn’t provide one. And that that is the most reasonable thing when you think of it. The question is not a rational one, not bounded by time and space and causality; you can’t expect the answer (if any) to be. That one concludes there is no answer at all is like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole and concluding that there is no peg that will fit the hole. There might well be one – it’s just not going to be square. Which is a problem for those of us who know nothing but square pegs, as Tolstoy acknowledges…

My position was terrible. I knew I could find nothing along the path of reasonable knowledge except a denial of life; and there — in faith — was nothing but a denial of reason, which was yet more impossible for me than a denial of life. From rational knowledge it appeared that life is an evil, people know this and it is in their power to end life; yet they lived and still live, and I myself live, though I have long known that life is senseless and an evil. By faith it appears that in order to understand the meaning of life I must renounce my reason, the very thing for which alone a meaning is required…

The paradoxical irony wasn’t lost on him. Reason was what led him to ask for a meaning. Renouncing reason could perhaps yield a meaning, but it wouldn’t matter in that case, because there wouldn’t be a need for one anymore.

Faith still remained to me as irrational as it was before, but I could not but admit that it alone gives mankind a reply to the questions of life, and that consequently it makes life possible.

What I find admirable in Tolstoy is his approaching faith not sentimentally rushing towards it and preaching it loudly to others, but reluctantly, almost rationally, only after reaching the limit up to which reason took him and finding that insufficient.

And what is faith? Faith is not necessarily (though it can be) God or acceptance of authority.

Faith is a knowledge of the meaning of human life in consequence of which man does not destroy himself but lives.

Faith is the strength of life. If a man lives he believes in something. If he did not believe that one must live for something, he would not live.

It’s a tautological definition, circularly reasoned. The meaning of life rests in faith. And so faith is a knowledge of the meaning of life.

It’s a belief in something, or someone, even if yourself; perhaps, for the purpose of existing, it doesn’t actually matter what.

I wanted to end here but it wouldn’t be complete.

The fourth way out is that of weakness. It consists in seeing the truth of the situation and yet clinging to life, knowing in advance that nothing can come of it…The fourth way was to live like Solomon and Schopenhauer — knowing that life is a stupid joke played upon us, and still to go on living, washing oneself, dressing, dining, talking, and even writing books.

You could dispute this – and Camus does. If you know that life is pointless – does it follow that you can’t go on living? Not really – pointlessness doesn’t by itself lead a person towards self-destruction, even if it doesn’t direct them towards self-preservation.

Hitherto, and it has not been wasted effort, people have played on words and pretended to believe that refusing to grant a meaning to life necessarily leads to declaring that it is not worth living. In truth, there is no necessary common measure between these two judgments.

The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays, Albert Camus

Pointlessness doesn’t direct you to anything; it couldn’t, because it’s pointless – it literally doesn’t ‘point’ anywhere.

It is always easy to be logical. It is almost impossible to be logical to the bitter end. Men who die by their own hand consequently follow to its conclusion their emotional inclination. Reflection on suicide gives me an opportunity to raise the only problem to interest me: is there a logic to the point of death? I cannot know unless I pursue, without reckless passion, in the sole light of evidence, the reasoning of which I am here suggesting the source. This is what I call an absurd reasoning. Many have begun it. I do not yet know whether or not they kept to it.

The divergence lies in what Kierkegaard called the ‘leap of faith’. For Kierkegaard it was some form of God. For Tolstoy, his recourse to faith – his conclusion that, with the square peg not fitting the hole, there exists a round peg that does fit perfectly. They start logically enough, but for Camus, they don’t keep to the path.

This world in itself is not reasonable, that is all that can be said. But what is absurd is the confrontation of this irrational and wild longing for clarity whose call echoes in the human heart. The absurd depends as much on man as on the world. For the moment it is all that links them together.

This abandonment of logic, the recourse to a myth, whether God or Faith, is Camus’ ‘philosophical suicide’. It is a symptom of the absurd – the contradiction between a person’s desire to find meaning, and the world’s lack of any. Unable, or unwilling, to accept the world as it is, he takes recourse to myths to make the meaningless world more palatable.

I hadn’t thought of it in this light before, but many of Franz Kafka’s works seem to reflect this longing for understanding and closure in a senseless (or Kafkaesque) world. Josef K. consuming himself in his quest to acquit himself from his unknown crime in The Trial even as those who judge him take no apparent interest in his matter. K., the land surveyor from The Castle resolutely attempting to gain recognition from the authorities he claims have appointed him, despite their indifference to his existence. And the parable Before the Law from The Trial – of a man struggling his entire life to access the law (a search for meaning), yet never getting closer to it.

Seeking what is true is not seeking what is desirable. If in order to elude the anxious question: “What would life be?” one must, like the donkey, feed on the roses of illusion, then the absurd mind, rather than resigning itself to falsehood, prefers, to adopt fearlessly Kierkegaard’s reply: “despair.” Everything considered, a determined soul will always manage.

Forcing meaning to life – whether it be a God you take from others or a meaning you try to create for yourself – is a fallacy. A delusion, if not a downright lie, to hide from yourself the reality of a meaningless world. An attempt to seek what you’d like, what is desirable, rather than what exists, what is true. And a chain that directs you a particular way, whatever way your meaning demands of you.

Let me repeat. None of all this has any real meaning. On the way to that liberty, there is still a progress to be made. The final effort for these related minds, creator or conqueror, is to manage to free themselves also from their undertakings: succeed in granting that the very work, whether it be conquest, love, or creation, may well not be; consummate thus the utter futility of any individual life. Indeed, that gives them more freedom in the realization of that work, just as becoming aware of the absurdity of life authorized them to plunge into it with every excess.

It is in fact the futility and pointlessness of any thing, any work, of life itself, that frees a person from them, that enables him to plunge into them rather than be tied down to them by any gods or meanings.

‘Revolt … is a constant confrontation between man and his own obscurity … [It] is certainty of a crushing fate, without the resignation which out to accompany it’.

‘It may be thought that suicide follows revolt – but wrongly. … Revolt gives value to life. … To a man devoid of blinders, there is no finer sight than that of the intelligence at grips with a reality that transcends it’

Far from self-destruction, accepting the reality of absurdity is liberation and life-affirmation. A revolt – acknowledging the absurdity of life, yet not simply resigning oneself to one’s fate, but living and surmounting fate.

‘The gods had condemned Sisyphus to ceaselessly rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, whence the stone would fall back of its own weight. They had thought with some reason that there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labor’.

…(The workman of today works every day in his life at the same tasks, and this fate is no less absurd.)

Who personifies the revolt? Sisyphus, the one condemned by the gods to what would appear to be the most pointless of tasks, pushing a boulder up a hill only to have it roll down, ad infinitum. Who rolled on, perhaps not unhappily, transcending the gods and his fate.

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. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. 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.

It reads impressively. I wonder though, whether it really works that way. I couldn’t imagine it, although it might simply be that I don’t measure up to Camus’ absurd hero. My idea of hell would be a world where one is engulfed in fruitless tasks – the tasks to which you have no good answer when you ask why. It’s hard to think of something more dystopian in that line than Sisyphus’ universe. And I can’t but speculate whether only someone who’s never known what it is to be a cog in a wheel could have written that.

For all his claims of how others abandoned logic towards the end as they ‘leapt’ to their conclusions, I wonder whether Camus doesn’t do so too. One ‘must’ imagine Sisyphus happy. Why ‘must’ one? ‘Must’ is a strong word, stronger even than ‘should’, all the more so from a man who ‘knows the value of words’.

I agree with Hume that no ‘ought’ (should) follows an ‘is’ , let alone a ‘must’ following one. The world is absurd. One must revolt. Between the two is a logically unbridgeable gulf. You can get past it, if you make a leap. But if you are to leap, you could just as well make Kierkegaard’s or Tolstoy’s leap.

The claim that revolt gives value to life is just that – a claim – no different from Tolstoy’s faith or Kierkegaard’s God. To say that one claim is ‘right’ – or even just ‘more right’ than another – is as valid as saying that one colour is more correct than another. Put simply, such a claim – or no claim – is a leap of faith – a choice rather than an answer.