Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Theistic Absurdity and Living Without Appeal

As there has been some question of the necessity of atheism in existentialism, one should point out that the atheist considers a godless universe and grapples with absurdity, issues of objective meaning, differently than the religious explaining their faith or constructing a specific notion of God. However, a strict atheism is not necessary to find absurdity in life, though it propels the question with a greater force in the absence of absolutes. In a lecture by Robert Solomon (somewhere on the internet, I cannot remember), the problem of evil is discussed as an example of absurdity within the belief in a benevolent God. Thus, a godless universe is not necessary to recognize absurdity, but the problem does not take on the specific dimensions of an atheistic perspective on objective meaning. Shortly, the problem of evil does not question the existence of God but rather the nature of his "plan," as evil exists in the world.

As for the question of freedom in the face of a divine "plan," such predetermination is not the same as being born into a certain facticity. One's facticity influences the choices one makes and allows for freedom only to the point that the specific facts of existence are not designed, that one's transcendence allows a person to choose to engage in a difficult, unusual action, something with a high coefficient of adversity, without corresponding to a preordained purpose for that person's actions. The problem is that our self-creation, our desire for freedom is cheapened, lessened, etc. when the specter of an omnipotent God enters the picture, when all our actions merely fill in the walls set for us by God. The idea of human freedom, in the robust atheistic sense provided by Sartre, Camus, etc., derives its power from the lack of a given nature in humans, the lack of a prepackaged self, the lack of a merely given freedom. As for Camus, the absence of the absolute allows humans a certain "increased availability" of action, able to live without appeal to divine purpose. The sole justification of human action comes from humanity, and self-creation thus takes on a greater importance in freedom for the atheist conception, an increased power and authenticity to oneself and others if that decision is not part of some divine plan but freely arrived at in a transitory body. Of course, this all arises from the human want for a seemingly boundless field of action: one cannot fail at scaling a mountain without freely choosing to attempt the action. In the presence of a plan, the outcome is already decided and known. "Degrees of freedom" are not what Sartre and Camus want: they give human freedom its proper power by attempting to live without appeal. Humans thus justify their own actions without recognizing a conscious giver and guarantor of freedom.


  1. The idea of an omnipotent God still makes it hard to argue that the world is absurd. Even if God allows for strange things to happen, the fact that it is part of a "plan", by definition, inconsistent with the idea of an absurd universe.

  2. Kevin, I think an extension of the problem you raise with respect to the omnipotent God and its relationship with existential ideas in the second paragraph could be the problem with God as a creator in general. First, in order to create something, the creator must have an idea of what it is to create. In other words, the inventor, in creating something by his own hand, first has a definition of that object in mind, i.e. an essence. So, if we view God as a creator, omnipotent and omniscient or not, we presuppose an essence for the human being, which obviously runs contrary to Sartre's main thought of existence preceding essence, and poses huge problems for existentialism, especially with regard to freedom in general. Moving forward, then, if even we were to suppose that there was a God, or that we believe in him, whatever that means, can we do either without granting to him some power that does not violate major themes of the existential movement?

  3. Hey Eric,
    Reading your comment reminded me of a point Manali brought up in class a while ago about what if God was itself an absurd being (i hope i understood your point correctly Manali, but sorry if this is not what you were thinking). If that was the case, it seems like the creation of the universe could be an absurdity as well, and would not necessarily have an essence, or at least the kind of essence usually applied to a creator God. For example, God might have created the universe by randomly throwing whatever was at hand into a mix. The result wouldn't be anything necessarily intended to happen, and wouldn't have been pre-thought out in a way to give each created thing a particular essence. As a result, it seems possible to grant a belief in God without necessarily granting that God has any idea what shape creation will take or what will happen to it, which might leave some room for the existential themes we've covered. I guess in this case, couldn't an absurdly created thing still be free within the limits of what it is composed of?

    If a problem for existentialism, though, arises from beliefs that humans are limited if they are created by something that conceives of them before creation as essence, a purely scientific approach to understanding human origins and behaviors seems like it would be just as dangerous to some of the themes of existentialism as does a belief in a predetermining God. In both cases, the existential freedom seems like it would be undermined by a preordained structural plan of what a person will be.

  4. Now that you mention it Brendan, I remember that comment by Manali, and it was a good one. I guess, then, we would need to carefully examine what we think of when we say the word "God," because for many I think that the idea of God implies a certain perfection that is purely logical and reason-based. However, if God is an all powerful being, couldn't this all powerful being created operate within an entirely different scheme of ideas, like what is logical, reasonable, etc?


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