Tuesday, June 10, 2008

From existentialism to evolution

My article of 25 December 2006 entitled The meaning of life [display] was designed deliberately to be misunderstood. All I really wanted to say was a truism: The presence of life in the Cosmos is an outcome of the existence of organisms capable of reproducing themselves. And I wanted to celebrate the work of the mathematician John von Neumann, who had developed a theory of self-replicating automata. At an anecdotal level, I started out that article by saying that I used to be infatuated by the works of French existentialists, whereas I've never agreed with Albert Camus, at any moment in my life, that suicide is a "truly serious philosophical problem".

Today, I would like to correct, or at least attenuate, the false suggestion that I'm no longer impressed by the work of the French existentialists. When Natacha and Alain were driving me through Lourmarin in the Luberon, I was constantly conscious of the fact that this was the place where the Nobel laureate was buried, after his death in an automobile accident in 1960. His Myth of Sisyphus remains one of the major texts of my adolescent years in Sydney, along with English translations of books by Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir.

Camus, above all, was a non-believer (from a religious viewpoint) who nevertheless clung to humanistic values rather than falling into some kind of nihilistic and suicidal despair. "I do not believe in God," he declared, before adding: "And I am not an atheist." Today, I would say that the juxtaposition of these two statements is illogical, but I can understand that Camus did not wish to be thrown into the same ballpark as the notorious Roman emperor Caligula, subject of one of his plays, who imagined that, once God was chased off the cosmic stage, only barbarian infamy could remain.

Jumping ahead to the present day, I was thrilled by a recent appraisal of Richard Dawkins by a US psychologist, David Barash, who places the English writer firmly in the domain of the literature of the absurd, alongside Camus and Beckett... not to mention the late great writer friend of Dawkins named Douglas Adams, author of A Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. The vast verbal vortex of half a century from existentialism à la Camus to evolution as explained by Dawkins has been indeed, for me as a reader, a fabulous trip through our Earth-centered corner of the Cosmos. And the only possible name of that fascinating guided excursion, of course, is Absurdity.

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