Life Sub Specie Aeternitatis
This essay will take ‘arbitrariness and cultural specificity of our projects’ to mean our projects be lacking final, objective value that can be justified by a community- transcendent standard. Although our projects are indeed arbitrary and culturally specific, this essay will argue that our lives are still meaningful. The problem will be presented in the context of Thomas Nagel’s argument in his essay on “The Absurd”, which claims that the arbitrary and culturally specific nature of our projects prevents us from finding objective reasons to justify our beliefs, values, and concerns so central to our lives. I will firstly present Nagel’s argument and although he does seem to present a persuasive account of the apparent ‘absurdity’ and meaningless of our lives, I will argue that the objective justification Nagel attempts to seek of the universe is not possible for an existing person of our nature. Hence, we should look elsewhere for meaning and seek something we can have, which is known to us as subjective meaning and understanding of the world around us.
Nagel maintains that our lives are ‘absurd’ and therefore meaningless because he argues that we have the ability as human beings to have both a subjective and an objective ‘view from nowhere’ perspective on life. The subjective first-person perspective that all conscious beings experience means that we order constant attention and effort to persue (from persuing) certain goals in life such as getting a degree, having a good job, money, family, and friends; hence we take a serious approach to life. If these subjective values, and what we believe to be important to us, do have some justifiable grounding as to why we take ourselves so seriously, then we are able to directly understand and comprehend the meaning of our lives. However, Nagel maintains that humans also have a special capacity to view life from the objective perspective; the disengaged view from the universe. When looking at our lives sub specie aeternitatis, we come to realise that all our values and beliefs are only meaningful to us because of our subjective conscience, which is a result of us being ‘put together’ in the way that we are. Therefore, if by chance we lived on a different planet and our biological makeup or human culture were different, then our values today would not matter and indeed, different things would matter to us. Our values and beliefs are therefore rooted in our own makeup as human beings living on planet Earth and hence are arbitrary in nature.For example, when looking at life from the outside view, it is not important and indeed irrelevant whether I get a good degree, however, it is important and valuable to me because of the values I hold as important. As a result, my studies dictate effort and ‘seriousness’, yet in the grand scheme of things this ‘seriousness’ is unwarranted. This “discrepancy between pretension or aspiration and reality” which originates in the “collision between the seriousness with which we take our lives and the perpetual possibility of regarding everything about which we are serious as arbitrary, or open to doubt”, is what renders life meaningless (Nagel, 1971, p. 718).
One may look to create meaning “in something larger than themselves… in service to society, the state, the revolution, the progress of history, the advance of science, or religion and the glory of God”, however, in order for this higher reason to have meaning, it must be meaningful in itself and hence must be justified by something outside of itself, which also has to be justified and so on (Nagel, 197, p. 720). By always being able to question the validity and worthiness of the higher reason, we are led to an infinite regress of justifications. However, as Nagel maintains, there must be a justification with an end in itself and since one must decide this, these justifications are themselves arbitrary in nature. Therefore, the ultimate goal of taking the ‘outside view’ is not one that provides the context for a universal standard but rather the ultimate goal of our outside perspective serves to show that indeed, nothing fundamentally matters and nothing has the capability of mattering. By viewing life sub specie aeternitatis, we are not only able to doubt the existence of objective value per se, but it also becomes evident that the justifications grounding one’s subjective, arbitrary and culturally specific values can also be doubted; from which the whole framework of justifications can, in turn, be doubted.Thus, Nagel’s ultimate concern is that our justifications don’t seem to be justifications after all and continual doubt about our values can arise.
In “The Absurd”, it is unclear whether Nagel believes objective meaning does not exist or whether he merely remains sceptical regarding the existence of objective meaning due to his continuous doubt. However, in his book “The View from Nowhere”, he argues for nihilism and maintains there exists no objective value in life, and thus there also exists no objective justification for engaging in the seriousness in our lives, rendering our lives meaningless. However, arguably, one of the strongest objections to Nagel’s argument questions the nature of the ‘objective view’ he has in mind. It can be argued that the detached, objective ‘view from nowhere’, which Nagel pictures, is not actually possible because human beings simply cannot exist sub specie aeternitatis (Kierkegaard. (1985) cited in Randels (2007)). Understanding whether an objective reality exists, independently of any conscious entity to observe it, is beyond our capacity as humans. This is because such an action requires one to deny one’s subjectivity, which is the basic element of our existence. One is only capable of knowing reality through experience as a conscious being because of the nature of our existence as self-aware, distinct entities. Therefore, there is no advantage in seeking objective reality as it renders our subjective existence, the most essential and fundamental property of being human, insignificant and thus meaningless. Therefore, the reason why Nagel argues there is a collision between “aspiration and reality” that leads one to the conclusion that life is meaningless and absurd is that the very nature of the objective viewpoint that this realisation requires is simply unattainable for humans, and not just doubtful as Nagel believes. Thus, it is inevitable that one who attempts to view their life sub specie aeternitatis, will always be faced with this conflict because of our inability to exist sub specie aeternitatis
We know that our projects, values, and beliefs are arbitrary and culturally specific when looking from the outside point of view, however, we cannot define what the non-arbitrary and community transcendent values would look like because of the subjective nature of our existence. Thus, we will always fail to find objective justifications and continuous doubt of our values is always possible. However, this does not mean that the community transcendent values do not exist as they could exist, but are beyond our grasp of understanding. Therefore, the only path we can take to acknowledge and recognise meaning in our lives is to accept subjective meaning and thus the question of whether our projects are arbitrary and culturally specific should no longer be a concern. The justification of our values in the subjective realm is (from are) thus grounded in ourselves, rather than defined by independent standards, that can never be understood. Hence, by acknowledging that our lives are lived subjectively, we learn to focus only on the subjective viewpoint and attempt to discover meaning that way. Indeed, given that the vast majority of humans do not commit suicide and do choose to continue to live despite not being able to find objective meaning, shows that we must appreciate subjective meaning in our lives.Thus, rather than asking “what does my life mean?” one should really ask “what does my life mean for me?” (Randels, 2007).
In conclusion, therefore, although Nagel’s subjective-objective approach in “The Absurd” does seem to embody the difficulties we face when seeking the meaning of life, the resulting conclusion that life is meaningless is somewhat unsettling for many. This is because, according to Nagel, meaning in life can only be found when the subjective seriousness of our lives can be reconciled with the objective doubt always present when we come to realise that when looking from the objective point of view, our values, beliefs, and projects are insignificant. However, it is important to recognise that human beings fundamentally lack the capacity to understand life from the objective ‘view from nowhere’ point of view and hence, life will always seem absurd and meaningless from the outside. It is impossible to reconcile the subjective-objective viewpoints because we cannot exist sub specie aeternitatis, and thus do not have the ability to understand this viewpoint in the context of our lives, which are being lived in the subjective realm. Therefore, our projects and values in life do not have to be objectively meaningful, non-arbitrary and community transcendent. In fact, our projects and values are arbitrary and culturally specific, however, this is not a problem because meaning in life only can and should be sought subjectively.