Should we live?
“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…”
To answer what, according to Camus, is the most pressing of all philosophical questions, my answer would be the former. This, like all other thoughts, is to an extent emotionally motivated. But that doesn’t challenge the logical supremacy of the answer. To see how living must be affirmed, we must define what value is and what, if anything, has value.
Note : I shall keep editing this essay and answering the arising questions as time progresses so as to keep you abreast of the latest developments. This is a dynamic post.
Before answering that, it would be worthwhile to discuss what is meant by value in the broader biological and societal point-of-view. Beings such as those found on Earth have some kind of inbuilt method which assigns value to those entities and processes which aid in their and their community’s survival. This notion of survival being the primary reason for survival, though being helpful in the case of insentient beings and biological automata, has an effect of reducing humans to mere machines which do nothing but live, reproduce, and die. A distinction must then be made which separates human beings from other animals. Self-awareness and self-consciousness are the primary qualities which humans possess which differentiate them animals and in some sense from the universe itself. We could be thought of as nodes where the universe becomes conscious of itself. Here is the first hint of the value which humans intrinsically possess.
We also have a tendency to assign value to abstract ideas and entities which do not exist in the physical realm. This, due to some reason, has an enormous effect on an individual and it only explodes when entire societies and civilizations start valuing abstractions. We know that it is well within our power to give value to things. But I ask — in what capacity could we do that? I am not looking for the reasons such valuations occur, but the justifications for the existence of this power of valuation.
The following questions immediately follow :
- Who (or what) gives us this power?
- Do we require anyone (or anything) to give us this power?
- Is it inherent in us?
- Does valuing something really increase its value?
- What is the difference between intrinsic value and value assigned by humans?
- Is this process of valuation only a manifestation of the will to power within us?
These are the kind of questions this essay will endeavour to answer.
Value, or meaning, or significance has real ramifications even though it might be thought of as an abstract concept. We shall start with nothing (literally nothing) to prove whether value exists or not. Consider a Universe(1) with no activity — by activity I mean anything which is of interest and is not trivial. Such a Universe would be inert, mute, unable, and most importantly unaware of itself such that it doesn’t even know that it is inert, mute, and unable in the highest degree. Such a Universe is the most uninteresting thing one could imagine. To imagine what it would be like is easy and difficult at the same time. We must be able to imagine ‘nothing’. This nothingness results in absolutely no ‘sense-data’ because of the inexistence of any physical objects (borrowed from ‘The Problems of Philosophy’ by Russell Bertrand). The nothingness is all-encompassing and thus no value exists in such a universe. Firstly because there is nothing to value and secondly because there is no one who can value. A universe completely devoid of everything including some of the most primitive concepts like space and time is what we will pit our current universe against.
Our current universe indubitably has a lot of activity. Now whether this activity is of any value or is even interesting is what we shall try to find out. We will assume an atheistic standpoint, not because of any truck with the Gods, but because of its logical soundness(2). Notice how we have only talked about the value which humans assign. Then the question naturally arises — does value exist independent of us or are we necessary for its existence. From our assumed atheism, if value at all exists, humans must be an essential part of the valuation process. For any interesting activity to be meaning, it must impact at least one individual. Let us assume that one such individual is nihilistic — he does not assign any value to anything including himself We then introduce this individual to our most uninteresting universe and tell him about all its properties (or rather non-properties). His nihilistic streak must feel at home with such a thought. Then, we posit the following question — ‘If you had to assign survival — he does not assign any value to anything including himself. He does not think his life has any meaning and is perplexed by Camus’ problem of suicide. He is perplexed because what he thinks is orthogonal to conventional human thinking — the same thinking which helps in survival of the species through survival of the individual. We then introduce this individual to our most uninteresting universe and tell him about all its properties (or rather non-properties). His nihilistic streak must feel at home with such a thought. Then, we posit the following question — ‘If you had to assign value to something, or accept that something had any intrinsic value, what (or who) would it be?’
I wouldn’t know what he would think, but I know what I thought when I was in his place.
If I had to assign meaning to one thing, the most general thing, with a sufficiently good reason, it would be my own life.
This holds even if the entire universe is absurd and insignificant. My life is the only thing which is not subjective with respect to myself — my conception of it doesn’t change with varying perspectives or opinions, even when I know with near certainty that I am mortal. The reason is that all my power of valuation is lost when I am not alive. There is simply no concept of meaning for me when I am not. Since there is something instead of nothing, that something inherently has value. Note that I am not proving the existence of value for all somethings but only for myself. At a first glance it does seem as though I could use this power to assign real significance to entities other than myself. But to choose these entities is a difficult task — one which culture helps us do. If any other individual uses the above reasoning, he shall also discover his value in existence. Thus, for themselves, everyone has value. This is what we shall call ‘absolute value’ (3)— the intrinsic value each possessed independent of other’s values or opinions or beliefs. We also come to know that it cannot be expressed either qualitatively or quantitatively. My value is defined by my existence and both correspondingly either are or aren’t. As to the value each individual assigns to another — this kind of value is different. It is relative and depends on the kind of relationship one had, has, or will have with another, combined with the overarching cultural environment both individuals participate in. Now we come across some other questions -
- Does my having value give me the authority or power to assign value to other beings?
- And if so, to what extent could I assign value?
- Could I assign value to everything?
- Do I have value when I am not self-conscious/aware (e.g. when sleeping)?
- Do I have value after I die or before I am conceived?
The last two are easily resolved when we understand that there are two kinds of value — absolute and relative. When in non-conscious states of being or in a state of non-being, absolute value ceases to be but relative value persists (as it doesn’t depend on one’s existence but the wider social consequences of one’s life).
There is a need to distinguish the terms ‘life’ and ‘being’ here. ‘Life’ means the totality of your being including any and all experiences from your past or future. It contains all the thoughts I will ever think and all the emotions you will ever feel. On the other hand, being is simply my existence. Self-aware and self-conscious being (as in humans) is equivalent to life, but being itself is devoid of many characteristics which life possesses. A stone exists, but to find whether it has inherent value is a bit more difficult.
A previous statement — “We could be thought of as nodes where the universe becomes conscious of itself” — is a representation worth exploring. This essay tries to find out any specialities we possess when compared to other entities in our universe. Well, there is one, and it’s huge. By the virtue of being sentient, we become those points in the universe where it experiences itself. Without us (or other possible sentient beings), no entity would be privy to the universe’s existence, including the universe itself (keeping in mind our atheistic stance). This very difference also gives us value, and it does so for all sentient beings. Being sentient is a very interesting activity; the converse also holds.
I shall now lay out the reasoning once again in a succinct manner. When considering the hypothetical universe which is devoid of any and all beings, we see that it could possibly have no value. Our real universe contains beings — both sentient and non-sentient. Sentient beings have inherent value because they exist. In a Universe without sentience of any kind, no value is realised since there is no one who can value.It does not matter whether one gives value to oneself or doesn’t — the absolute value which results from one’s existence does in fact exist. This is valid for each individual — each has value which is tied up with his existence.
There is no necessity for this value as it exists whether one needs it or not. But, the knowledge of this value might come in handy to individuals at certain points in life. Those suffering could, in my humble opinion, if they don’t rely on any external divine power, could draw the will to live which is necessitated by their existence. Self-worth is then easy to imbibe, as we are relying on the most basic of basic premises — that one lives.
Thus, the answer to Camus’ problem becomes apparent. One must live because one’s life has value. This value is given to it by the virtue of existence. To kill oneself — the ultimate self-negation — is then an act of both philosophical and biological contradiction.
(1) Yes, the hypothetical Universe is still a thing, but it is in the mind. To physically exist outside space and time and to not possess those properties is not possible. Its essence is in its nonexistence.
(2) There must exist arguments for how systems which include a God are much simpler and logically sound. Here, though, it is better if we omit such a superbeing when talking about beings because the question of the source of value won’t even arise. It is trivial and, I might add, uninteresting.
(3) To get a clearer picture of ‘absolute value’ — something that cannot be quantised or judged qualitatively — we could assign the value infinity to it. From a personal point-of-view, one could say as to possess infinite value. This view helps in answering those questions which ask about the total value of the universe due to sentient beings and other similar questions. First of all, the whether the Universe has value due to us is a hypothesis which needs more exploration. Currently, there is no mechanism through which we transfer value to the entirety of everything. Also, the value of two human beings is also infinity — this states that this theory is strictly personal and individualistic.