Sisyphus – Painting by Franz von Stuck

Sisyphus, as we know, is the figure in Greek mythology who was punished by the local Gods for his deceitfulness by being forced to roll an immense boulder up a hill, only for it to roll down again at the top, forcing him to repeat this action for eternity.

In The Myth of Sisyphus published in 1942 French author and Nobel laureate Albert Camus retells the tale of Sisyphus as likening the futility of his labours to the human condition, the point being that all human endeavors are essentially meaningless in a cold and indifferent universe.

This leaves Camus to conclude  that it is absurd to continually seek meaning in life when there is none, and that it is equally absurd to try to know, understand, or explain the world when no rational knowledge can be obtained from it.  While accepting absurdity as the mood of the times, Camus appears most interested in the question of whether and how to live in the face of it.

Now I have a difficult time accepting this line of reasoning, not only because – on just logical grounds – we can’t exclude the possibility that there is in fact a meaning and purpose to the universe, and we’re just not getting it.  Also, it makes no sense to say that we cannot obtain rational knowledge of the world given the multitude of verifiable scientific successes that have occupied themselves with the material nature of the world.

And while our scientific achievements  may seem modest in the face of an incomprehensible and seemingly infinite universe, they have nevertheless attached us more firmly to the world by given us an explanation for being here, by linking our ancestry to the heart of the material universe through the process of evolution – matter’s inherent  drive towards ever greater material and organizational complexity  – the culmination of which can be found inside our heads, with the human brain being the most complex biological structure in the known universe.

This leads me to believe that the universe has a plan and within it lies the larger context for all human endeavors, as we find ourselves at the receiving end of it.  For many this larger context simply doesn’t exist or is merely taken for granted; its relevancy reduced to a backdrop in a play, e.g., the stars at night – something we would see for their mere presence as opposed to what they represent, and a context that is more decorative than substantive. Other than that, yes, the greater universe is  definitely something of interest to science but their observations and subsequent theories put it so far out of reach that for most it is difficult to see how any of it has any bearing on what it going on here on earth.

Speaking of what is going on here on earth, one might presume the daily course of life provides us with all the meaning and context for whatever situation we find ourselves preoccupied with at the moment. But that will only be the case so long as you don’t try to look beyond the immediacy of the current moment and try to place it within the larger reality of the world we are immersed in,  as this will likely result  in an existential disconnect of the kind that Kafka  referred to in his short 1908 story, The Passenger:

I am standing on the platform of the tram and I am entirely uncertain as to my place in this world, in this town, in my family. Not even approximately could I state what claims I might justifiably advance in any direction. I am quite unable to defend the fact that I am standing on this platform, holding this strap, letting myself be carried along by this tram, and that people are getting out of the tram’s way or walking along quietly or pausing in front of the shop windows. Not that anyone asks me to, but that is immaterial.

I cannot help but think we would  ignore this larger context at our peril,  as doing so  – given how we  want and act as we do at the moment – will likely doom our species  to an exercise in futility,  destined to act out the absurdity of a meaningless existence that is likely to culminate in its own extinction.  And given the state of the world today –  and in particular the damage we continue to inflict on our life-sustaining environment – I believe we have already taken the first steps in that direction, but feel free to draw your own conclusions.

 The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless. …  (Steven Weinberg from his 1977 book The First Three Minutes: A Modern View of the Origin of the Universe)