The Most Important Question in Philosophy - Part 1 of ?

"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."(1) So begins "The Myth of Sisyphus" by Albert Camus. I think that there may be a better question.


We must first decide how we are to judge questions, what makes one superior to another. Camus has a view on this as well, "If I ask myself how to judge that this question is more urgent than that, I reply that one judges by the actions it entails."(2)

Albert Camus is the founder of Absurdism, the idea that humans seek meaning and that meaning cannot be found inherently, or even at all, in life. Camus even approaches the defining of the absurd in unusual ways, for instance: "What, in fact, is the absurd man? He who, without negating it, does nothing for the eternal."(3) And, "This divorce between man and his life, the actor and his setting, is properly the feeling of absurdity."(4)

All of Camus's philosophy is very absurd and full of contradictions which allows for interesting perspectives. And, indeed, those contradictions are the core of Absurdism. Camus does answer the question, which is the whole point of the book. He says that life is worth living, and it is given its worth by rebellion against the acceptance of the absurdity of human life and meaning. He states this explicitly, "That revolt gives life its value."(5) And, "For on the one hand the absurd teaches that all experiences are unimportant, and on the other it urges toward the greatest quantity of experiences."(6)

I find that when the quality of the question is improved, the quality of the answer will improve as well. Let's start with his question. Camus asks, "Is life worth living?" This question gives us two options, a dichotomy, a binary set. Yet, is this a true dichotomy, or a false dichotomy? Let's examine the dichotomy that we have created with our question.

If we answer yes, then life is worth living under all circumstances. If we answer no, then life is not worth living under any circumstance. If we use the criteria of Camus and ask what actions these lead to I believe we may be rather taken aback.

If life is worth living under any circumstance then any sacrifice of anything or anyone else to preserve even a small amount of time would be worth it, for life is worth living under all circumstances. Let's say that you decided to take your mother, or daughter, or father, or son on a cruise. Maybe to a majestic place where you will be able to see wonderful sights and hear wonderful sounds, the Caribbean, or the Mediterranean, or Alaska, or Asia. It is unlikely, but not impossible, or even unheard of for something to go amiss. Cruise ships hit icebergs, get attacked by pirates, and run aground. Do you leave your mother or daughter behind to give you a greater chance of survival? Do you use them as a shield? Do you sacrifice them for you? Some do. But, others do not.

(Loss is another subject that I may get to later on in this essay.)

If life is worth living under all circumstances have we not made mere survival the highest good, the greatest value? Camus attempts to devalue values, and yet, here, we find a value.

If life is not worth living under any circumstances, then, well, we would stop living it.

This dichotomy has left us with two options. To sacrifice the world on the altar of our survival, or death. But, I wonder, may not one of the greatest errors of thought be hidden within this question? Are we not missing something? I say we are, for there is another option - "Maybe".

"Is life worth living?"
"Maybe."

It seems rather anti-climatic at first, but it is not the climax. It is only the beginning of a story, the beginning of an answer. Context dropping may be a great error, but applying context is a great art. Where do we go from here? It seems that we may need another question.

"Is life worth living?"
"Maybe."
"What?" "What does maybe even mean?"

Google defines maybe with the synonym possibly. So, life is possibly worth living. There is uncertainty. Under some circumstances yes, under others no. What constitutes these circumstances? Well, now we are getting somewhere. Maybe we can even build upon our previous dichotomy, for each question can only be answered within the moment.

"Is life worth living?"
"Yes."
"What makes life worth living?"

"Is life worth living?"
"No."
"What could make life worth living?"

What actions would these questions lead to? In both cases we are now seeking answers that do not fall within a dichotomy, and they are not simple. Each answer will be unique to the person and situation that they find themselves in. Each answer will be unique to the context.

In the first case we are clarifying and delineating the values that we currently have. These can change over time, and yet the question can remain our guide. When we find our value within this moment there is now an action that is paired with that realization. We must seek more of this value, to enhance this value, until our values change. Some values may be more stable than others, guiding our actions over years or decades, while some values will come and go as quickly as a changing wind.

This applies to the second case as well. If life is not worth living it is because we have determined, and felt, that the values in our life and in this moment are not worth the necessary pain and misery of continuing the struggle to live. We are now urged to seek out, within ourselves and within our lives those values that may exist or may yet be attained.

I had intended to write this all as one piece, but alas, it is a longer and more difficult problem than I had originally thought. This is a little less than half of the required amount, and I'm not sure how long it will be when completed. Here are the notes for some of the things that I may include in part 2.

viktor frankl values and meaning
ben franklin dissertation
loss and grief imaginary future expectation probability as measure of uncertainty chaos determinism

I believe this part of the essay has been fruitful, and that the next part will be as well. You are welcome to see what comes next at JeffreyAlexanderMartin.com

1 - The Myth of Sisyphus and other essays by Albert Camus, 1955, page 3.
2 - Ibid, page 3.
3 - Ibid, page 66.
4 - Ibid, page 6.
5 - Ibid, page 55.
6 - Ibid, page 62.

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