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Nathan Rothenbaum Philosophy Final Paper 6-2-11 The Black Box Human beings find themselves existing in the world often not on their own terms. We did not have a choice in being born; some even describe our birth into reality as a violent µthrowing into¶ the world. Even in engaging and accepting existence, the following question is simple: to what end and why? We find we exist, and we accept this fact, yet the nagging thought in our head asks what it is all for. This search for the µmeaning of life¶ has been approached by many philosophers from several viewpoints. Though many have come close, many more have missed that the meaning of life exists on a personal level for each individual to discover for themselves. For Nagel, there is no meaning to human existence. A lot of us take our lives seriously. When approached with the claim that our lives do not matter, or could not matter, we are quick to defend it. We make deliberate choices in our lives, ³[perusing] our lives with varying degrees of sloth and energy´ (Nagel 597). When faced at the end of our lives, we are asked what we have accomplished. Many of us would likely lament the end asking for only a bit more time. Nagel, however, claims that even if granted infinite time on the Earth our meaningless position would not change. Nagel says,
³For suppose that we lived forever; would not a life that is absurd if it lasts seventy years be infinitely more absurd if it lasted through eternity? And if our lives are absurd given our present size, why would they be any less absurd if we filled the universe (either because we were larger or because the universe was smaller)?´ (Nagel 596).
Nagel means that even if we were given infinite time on Earth, it would not change the condition of absurdity that we occupy. Consider if one was given water and water alone and one was asked to prepare a delicious drink. It doesn¶t matter in what manner one serves the water or how one cooks it or so on and so on, if one starts with the baseline of water and is given nothing else to
Though in moments we may fool ourselves that our lives have . Nagel asks us to take a step back and examine our meaning by asking the most basic question of all. but it is also a necessary and universal human condition. Eventually it becomes clear. for Nagel.Rothenbaum 2 work with. companionship. ³why?´ When asked why family is important to us. Nagel calls this µthe absurd¶. Nagel explains. or companionship or anything else. the ore is valuable but only because of the ruby that is inside of it we would say. Ultimately. no amount of time can change the absurdity of it. The question µwhy¶ can always be given. we have no answer. and a new answer can always be painstakingly extracted. There is no definite answer. we even take our lives seriously. if time cannot be used as way to determine meaning for life. is akin to being trapped in an epistemological lens that one can never break free from it. not only is it clear that we do not know what we want. When asked what gives our lives meaning some of us may be quick to answer: family. but we don¶t even know why we would want to know. within our lives that gives us meaning. we care about things in the world. then meaning (if it is to be found). but the problem is that we do not know why we want things. etc. which is a condition in which we recognize that the things we care for or chase after in life are done for no reason. we provide another element that we believe gives our lives meaning. In these moments of reflection. The absurd. or so Nagel claims. sports. Similarly. or why our lives are serious matters. Thus. Nagel¶s task is simple. all you have is water. this is impossible to reach. We want things. to have us find the one µgem¶ that provides our lives with meaning. must be found in the moment. no gem. In this manner not only is the absurd all encompassing in our lives. why we care. As Nagel asks us to break apart the ideas that give our lives meaning one can easily draw similarities to a miner breaking apart ore to find a rare gem inside. it does not matter how much time one is given. if our lives are absurd. Yes. In the end.
The box has some futuristic . what is the meaning of that hammer? I do not mean or mean to ask you what the internal µmeaning¶ of the hammer is. fitting snugly around you.Rothenbaum 3 meaning with family and friends or other things. we are ambivalent to the hammer¶s fate. so if you want to be a bank robber go right ahead. The glaring issue that Nagel misses is that our lives do have meaning. If a hammer has no meaning. Using only this information. it is more important to examine the µmeaning¶ of objects in relation to the individual. The point is. if we determine that after weighing all these characteristics that we do not care about the hammer (say it isn¶t your hammer. and even if they are indeed arbitrary they none the less change the way we interact with the hammer and our interactions with others in obtaining the hammer. really dinky quality). Several questions remain unanswered: is it your hammer. is it a good hammer. not to mention that that particular clump of dirt has no importance to your life. has it worked in the past. As a punishment fitting your heinous crimes a small box is developed underground. Before we examine the meaning of the individual. If you I handed you a clump of dirt. it is very clear you would have a rough time determining the importance of this particular hammer to you. but rather the importance or relation of the hammer to you is. I won¶t tell anyone). but this is a very special box. does it cost a lot? These are defining characteristics of the hammer. The box is roughly the size of your body. If I took away that dirt you probably would not care. would you care sincerely about the dirt? Probably not because it is both distance and detached from you. In the box you are destined to go. After all. then we find that the hammer has no meaning to us. Consider there is a hammer. Pretend you are a criminal who has committed several detestable crimes (what you did is not really important. in moments of reflection it becomes clear that there is no escaping the absurd. you have to crawl before you can walk. it is broken. Now let us suppose a thought experiment.
which would you choose? The answer to the first doesn¶t require much explanation. The problem with Nagel¶s approach to meaning is that it views questions. This is what I will call the zero-point of meaning. but you know that an existence in the box would be akin to suffering. When life has obtained. This is not always true. You box is also not only pitch black. but a sedative injected into your skin via contact with the box kills all sensations of touch. as a source of hysteria or angst. Just because we do not know the answer to a problem doesn¶t mean it has to bother us. While we can¶t necessarily answer the question. It seems then that we fall into Nagel¶s trap. logically everyone would choose to exist outside of the box than inside of it. or lost. I know about quantum mechanics. I will propose two questions to you. when a human existence has lost its meaning it reaches the point where destruction is either acceptable or preferable. The second question is more difficult to answer.Rothenbaum 4 device that not only prevents any sounds from escaping the box. the qualities that make it either unlivable or livable respectively. For good measure. we can refute his idea of the absurd. but regardless of your answer you would at least find it conceivable (if not understandable) that some people would choose death over this existence. mute. if you were not punished. The first is: how would you. Just because I do not know the intricate parts of the science. this is when human existence has lost its meaning. and I likely will never know. it does not follow that I even care . ³Why would you lose meaning in the box?´ Nagel would likely ask. deaf. blind. In the same way an object that we know an object is meaningless is when it can be disposed of. more explicitly the inability to answer some questions. The reasons aren¶t necessarily important. like to accept this existence over your current one? The second is: if you were given the option of being placed in such a box or death. let us sew your mouth shut. and without any sensation of feeling. or at least I have heard of it. There you are. but it also prevents any sounds from occurring in the box.
what senses or sensations would need to be . then a more specific approach to meaning is more likely. Nagel would find the answer absurd. why am I doing this?´ Nagel would say that if we did we would find out the flaws in our argument. When asked why family and friends are important to you. yet in a hilarious twist of fate such an absurd answer would dismiss his theory of µthe absurd¶. ³Hmmm. The question then begins: how do we determine what matters for us? Richard Taylor. A more simple refutation to Nagel¶s argument is simply: just because. or anything like that. Martin illustrates that the µreflection process¶ is not a sign of the absurd. I can easily simply accept that it does. and the fact that there is an ongoing debate over euthanasia proves the importance of this issue. but he is missing the point of why we ask in the first place. ala our µBlack Box¶ example. The reason we ask then is simply because we do not know what we want. If there is a scenario in which meaning can be lost for an individual. we do not often take a step back and say. T A more on point refutation to Nagel¶s claim comes from Martin¶s evaluation of why and when these moments of reflection and questioning occur. The reason why someone would choose death rather than live in the box is a very personal reason. and what the point of µit all¶ is. but rather a moment of an unfilled life. Inside our µBlack Box¶ we would likely ask why we would want to go on living. one could simply respond resoundingly that they just are.Rothenbaum 5 how it operates or why. Say you are one of the people in this µBlack Box¶ who prefer death over their current existence. Raymond Martin argues. it doesn¶t follow that life is anymore or less absurd than if I did. kissing a girl (or guy). or we have not achieved what we want. That to the individual there is an intrinsic value in family and friends that is neither expressible through language nor reasoning. The question reveals just because I do not have an answer to the question. ³finds meaning everywhere´ (Martin 494). When we are in a moment of subjective glory and glee ± winning a competition.
although for a different reason than he said. and he is right. Perfection is impossible to obtain. Susan believes that she doesn¶t need to answer the question. a tool like a hammer can always be slightly better. simply because the argument is not very strong. Perfection of life is something that is impossible to reach since our demands are ever changing. they refer to meaning as permanent and in doing so they are mistakenly thinking of perfection instead of meaning. others may choose companionship. An immortal life within our µBlack Box¶ may never have to face the defeat of death. No human being is entirely content with life: the house can always be one spec cleaner. Raymond Martin says that death is a symbol of defeat for meaning because it means the end of our search for meaning. to convey a lack of total satisfaction with a loss of meaning. Susan believes that meaning arises when active engagement meets with projects of worth.Rothenbaum 6 returned to you to choose life and retain a meaning to life? The answers would likely vary from person to person: some may choose vision in the box. some may choose touch. but seem to believe that there is also an objective nature to meaning. Others like Susan Wolf recognize the subjective nature of meaning. Not a lot of time is needed spent here. but going a step further we can say that there is no such thing as objective worth. Even if we lived forever it does not mean that we would inevitably have meaning. but it doesn¶t follow that meaning is attainable in this scenario. Using our previous example. and your beautiful partner could always be a tinge more lovely. When other philosophers engage the discussion of meaning. Susan would likely recognize that objective worth . cleaner finish. but that does not mean that meaning is. This variation is proof of the subjective nature of meaning: the things that allow a person to continue living their life. lighter weight. It can always have a better grip. but that does not mean to imply that it has no meaning. it is hard to say what objective worth is. First. It is a mistake however. you could always be paid more money.
had to be found in the moment. and raise them in the wilderness with no knowledge of the outside world. while others at war-time may find a warrior caste as objectively more important. What is a civilization if not groups of people with similar ways of viewing subjective worth? And what if two countries are joined together via conquest and the two countries have opposing ideas of objective worth. It is understandable that people will face crises in their lives. what project rises to the top? These objections illustrate the problem with universalizing meaning.Rothenbaum 7 can vary from culture or civilization to civilization (she does this to avoid criticisms on what is µright¶ and what is µwrong¶). The question then should be simple to see: what about one born outside of society? If I bring a child into the wilderness. or joy from what you wanted. Nagel was right when he said that meaning. these are all things that are up to you to discover and cultivate. wishing to be apart of something greater and something eternal. It simply means that you haven¶t obtained what you wanted. at least for Susan. is there a level of objective worth we can leverage on this child? Likely not because there is no standard by which we judge this being ± he or she is in a civilization of their own. translates into the opinions of society as a whole. food. While I am sympathetic to these calls. We often find ourselves lost. The things that matter for your life: friendship. not only conceptually but also in reality. there is a time to grow up. Meaning is a difficult thing to grasp for people. or even that there is no such thing as meaning. but if this is the case then objective worth. and just because everything we do won¶t matter a million years from now. it does not follow that what we do in the moment is meaningless. money. sometimes things do not go our ways. If you are unsatisfied with your life it isn¶t because you are aiming at a wrong form of meaning. family. if it was to be found. Either you are looking for . Just because there isn¶t a grand eternal µpoint¶ to the world. One civilization may find doctors as more worthwhile (perhaps for religious reasons).
. but it does not follow that all life has to be meaningless. A life without meaning is possible as we have seen with the µBlack Box¶.Rothenbaum 8 things that you truly do not subjectively care about. or what you are after is very hard to obtain.
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