This post is a sequel to The Absurd: Nagel, Camus, Lupu. See it for bibliographical details and for background.
In his essay "The Absurd," Thomas Nagel maintains that "the philosophical sense of absurdity" arises from "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." (13) But then, on the next page, Nagel shifts from the sense of the absurd to the absurd itself, telling us that "what makes life absurd" is the collision of "the two inescapable viewpoints," namely, the situated POV from which we live straighforwardly, immersed in our projects and taking them in deadly earnest, and the transcendental POV from which we coolly comtemplate our lives and everything else sub specie aeternitatis.
Nagel's question concerns the 'absurdity-maker.' What is it that makes our lives absurd if they are absurd? He begins his essay by dismissing three or so objective grounds of absurdity, among them, life's brevity and the 'size' argument: we are so tiny, the universe so vast. (I discuss a particularly mephitic variant of this latter argument by Lawrence Krauss here.) Nagel seeks and finds a purely subjective source of our absurdity: the collision within us of two points of view each of which is essential to our being the embodied consciousnesses we are.
Suppose we grant that our lives must appear absurd when we reflect upon them from on high, 'under the aspect of eternity.' Does it follow that they are absurd? What appears to be the case, and what cannot fail to appear to be the case for beings of our (present)constitution, might still not be the case.
It seems we can go two ways. We can say: the sense of the absurd just is the absurd. (I noted that Nagel shifts from the first to the second between pp. 13-14.) Or we can say that the sense of the absurd reveals the absurd. If the latter, then my life is absurd whether or not I reflect on it sub specie aeternitatis. If the former, my life is absurd only when I so reflect. It seems we ought to distinguish between a weak and a strong thesis:
Weak Absurdity Thesis: The essential structure of embodied consciousness as we find it in our own case entails that our lives, when we reflect on them, must appear absurd, hence without objective meaning/purpose, whether or not in reality they are bereft of objective meaning/purpose.
Strong Absurdity Thesis: The necessary appearance of absurdity (when and so long as we reflect) just is the absurdity of human existence. (Analogy: the percipi of felt pain = its esse.) The sense of the absurd constitutes the absurd. It does not reveal it. We generate our absurdity simply by being what we must be and exercising the powers that we have. Absurdity is essential to our embodied consciousness. Our lives are objectively absurd, even though this absurdity is grounded in the nature of our subjectivity.
If the Weak Thesis is correct, then the problem of the absurd can be solved by refusing to take long views. On the Weak Thesis, it is up to us whether life is absurd since the absurd just is the sense of the absurd and the sense of the absurd can be avoided by freely abstaining from occupying the transcendental standpoint. It would then seem reasonable to take the following line:
For all we know, life has an objective meaning. Let's leave that to God or the nature of things. We shall live as if it is true while avoiding the sometimes paralyzing doubts that accrue from taking long views. We shall focus on foreground concerns, live our lives with zest and committment, taking seriously what does appear serious from our situated perspectives, and view the ultimate solution to the cosmic riddles as above our paygrade.
We might call this stance 'ostrich anti-absurdism.' I am pretty sure that this is not what Nagel is advocating. I read him as pushing the Strong Thesis.
The Weak Thesis, however, is much more plausible. How does Nagel know that the sense of absurdity is veridical? How does he exclude the possibility that, while our lives must appear absurd when we reflect, they are not in reality absurd?
Maybe your mother was right when she said, "You think too much. Put down those books and go outside and play."