LEWIS: Into the abyss

I’ve been having an existential crisis this week. I’d almost rather not call it such, using what’s become a hackneyed code for the depression or stress that often comes with winter darkness and finals week, but this time it’s exactly right: I’m looking for meaning in existing, and so far I’m at a loss.

Awkward, right? Not many questions are so pretentious and depressing. Surely, if this were still worth talking about despite that, we would. Hell, I’m a science major. This is so not my thing.

And yet I find myself still wrapped up in my head, earnestly asking this: Why are we here? “We” being anyone, “here” being anywhere, and this being a question Wikipedia tells me long tortured Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Sartre and Camus, to name but a few. I hadn’t really understood what that Nietzsche quote about the abyss meant until now, when I find myself standing on its brink, captivated by its depth, yet ignorant of its history.

I desperately want to fill this abyss, to top it up with the common-sense utilitarianism that has driven me for so long, but what use is utility if you don’t assume that anyone should want it? How do you test any particular notion of the Good when without it the world as we know it still makes perfect sense — or, at least, seems no more or less absurd?

A scientific answer is damning. With no reason to believe anything but that life, the universe and everything merely is, we exist without meaning, like so much navel fluff. Camus, I’ve gleaned, believed this, but argued that we ought to fight back against the universe and its indifference. We, like Sisyphus, though condemned to futile work, can reframe our perseverance as a triumph of the human will. “The struggle itself toward the summit,” he wrote, “is enough to fill a man’s heart.”

It’s an inspiring manifesto, but not enough. If you’re reading the wiki on Camus, you can quickly end up on that for existentialism, then free will, and 20 or so tabs later learn that the neurologists Ammon and Gandevia discovered, way back in 1990, that they could trick their human subjects into “making choices” as they liked by varying the strength of magnetic fields passing through a subject’s head. As certain as each of their subjects was that his forced will was free, I am now that mine is not. And though I might be more of a monist than most, I’ve yet to meet a classmate who rejects much of pop neuroscience, and the upshot is the same. We talk curiously about how a person’s self changes with his body; how a drug, a clot, a tumor can make a sane man crazy, or a crazed man sane; and so have all reattributed some measure of our own agency to outside causes. What triumph, then, can we attribute to the human will? This reductionism, so convenient in physics, leaves me grasping for some way to imagine Camus’ Sisyphus as any nobler than Newton’s apple.

This weirds me out. Not because I imagine some fallout happening if impersonal meaning and free will turn out to be fictions; we’ve gotten along, with or without them, for an awfully long time now. But here and now, in this thinking-est of places in these thinking-est of days, trudging on without these answers feels like some bad joke, like when Wile E. Coyote would run out over a canyon, before gravity kicked in. I blame myself, but also our school. We’re all guaranteed to learn particular things, like a second language through L3 and how to use a condom, but not whether our wills are free? And these topics aren’t just elective, they’re elusive. Sure, they’re too dry to be good dinner conversation. But when hundreds of us made time last week to hear a panel of professors convened on “Fear and Leading the Meaningful Life,” didn’t we expect more than a plea to “do something that is meaningful”? If you’ve made a leap of faith, if you’ve surrendered to your instincts, if you’re still grasping for some proof, I just want to know how. I’ve got some Nietzsche and psych books on request at the library, but I’m afraid that I’ll finally stop procrastinating and start studying for finals before I can pick them up.

 

Aaron Lewis is a junior in Branford College. Contact him at aaron.lewis@yale.edu .

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