An Interview with Philosopher and Author Bryan Frances
An incomplete list of absurd things:
Bryan Frances is a former professor of philosophy at the University of Leeds in England and Fordham University. He is the author of three books: Scepticism Comes Alive, Disagreement, and Gratuitous Suffering and the Problem of Evil. Frances has also written dozens of essays on topics ranging from the rationality of religious belief, to how and why people disagree, to “radical skepticism,” the belief that nothing is truly knowable. In his writing, Frances is measured and objective. He seems to revel in dealing with opinions that oppose his own, treating them with as much respect as he gives himself. As he writes in Disagreement, “Unless you are delusional, you are aware that a great many of the people who disagree with you are just as smart and thoughtful as you are—in fact, you know that often they are smarter and more informed.”
Frances has spent much of his career writing about issues that can be connected to the philosophy of absurdism. As expounded by French writer Albert Camus in his landmark essay, The Myth of Sisyphus, absurdism rests on three truths. One: we want life to have meaning. Two: life has no meaning as far as we can tell. Three: those truths in conflict make life absurd. People deal with that conflict, according to Camus, in one of two ways. Some commit suicide, negating the absurdity of life by ending it. Others commit “philosophical suicide,” by turning to religion, negating absurdity by giving life meaning no one can prove it has. Camus offers a third way to deal with absurdity—acceptance. His answer to the absurd conflict is to acknowledge it, reject all hope, and revolt by living a full life in spite of it.
I met Frances at Blue Ribbon Downing Street bar in the West Village, Manhattan, where we discussed absurdism as it pertains to three current issues: suicide bombing, Donald Trump, and global warming.
I. I TRY NOT TO BE A DICK TO PEOPLE; I TRY NOT TO KILL PEOPLE.
THE BELIEVER: I’m interested in Camus’ idea of the ways people deal with absurdity—suicide and philosophical suicide—in the context of suicide bombings. By Camus’ understanding of the terms, it seems like both at the same time.
BRYAN FRANCES: Let me talk about absurdity. There’s moral absurdity, and that has a couple of components, which I’ll talk about in a second. There’s intellectual absurdity. There’s political absurdity. When it comes to moral absurdity, it has two components. One is, if you’re even semi-reflective and you’re not an asshole, you feel this pull that you should be doing all sorts of shit for people that you’re not doing. You could totally invite some single mom in with three kids into your house. You could make her life a million times better, but I’m not doing it, and you’re not doing it. No one’s doing it. That makes me feel absurd in the sense that I feel I should be doing it and I’m not even coming close. Another component of moral absurdity is that this pull, this feeling that I should be doing all this stuff, it’s totally not based in any fact. We actually don’t have any moral requirements whatsoever. That’s just a fiction. And that makes me feel absurd too, because on the one hand, I really do live my life according to some semi-reasonable moral principles. I try not to be a dick to people; I try not to kill people. But on the other hand, I feel that there’s no real basis for these rules other than that they make society run a little smoother. And I don’t want to go to prison. That’s about it. And when it comes to terrorism, maybe there’s a third component to moral absurdity. Doesn’t that somehow show that morality is a sham when there are so many people out there who completely go against all morality?
BLVR: But they believe they are being moral.
BF: They do. So there’s moral absurdity. Then there’s intellectual absurdity, and Camus was big on this. On the one hand, we’re just intellectual sheep. We just go along with what we’re told. Look, we know lots of stuff. [Pointing to his glass.] I know this is red wine. There’s lots of trivial shit that we know, and there’s lots of cool stuff we know based on reliable methods. I know the planet Jupiter has dozens of moons. Why do I know that? Because astronomers say so, and they have their shit together. But when it comes to religion, economics, politics, I have no idea. I have no knowledge of that stuff myself, and I have no idea who to trust. You know, I read the New York Times, I read Paul Krugman, he’s got a Nobel Prize in economics but why the hell should I believe him? He doesn’t have a track record like a physicist has a track record.
BLVR: He might be making educated guesses, but they’re just guesses.
BF: I just have no idea, so all my interesting opinions are based on shit really. So my intellectual life is absurd. There’s this kind of meaninglessness to life, and you can feel that on an individual level and you can feel it on the level of all humanity. I think Camus was talking about both. There’s the obvious idea that nothing you do in life is going to have any real meaning. You have no impact on the world, and then you’re going to be dead, and that’s it. All your work is like water that’s absorbed by the sand and it’s gone. Then there’s the idea that all of humanity, it’s the same thing. But on the individual scale, even if you tell yourself there’s no meaning to your life, you can also try to tell yourself, “Look, I raised some children, and I did a halfway decent job.” That’s meaning. You write your stuff and that has some positive impact. It gives people some joy; it gives them some insight. These are just trivial things, but they count. But there’s still a part of you that longs for some meaning that is eternal and is untainted. Because no matter how great you are as a parent, sometimes your kids are assholes. No matter how great your writing is, there are always bad parts to it. Everything is always tainted and everything is always temporary, and you have this longing for something so much better than that.
BLVR: As Camus notes with the concept of philosophical suicide, religion offers an escape from that meaninglessness. So does physical suicide. But I don’t think he saw that a person would do both at the same time. Kill themselves because of religion.
BF: Do you want to say something like the suicide bombers have some sort of existentialist thinking going on that life is hopeless and this is their last chance at meaning?
BLVR: I wonder. It’s hard to believe every one of them is a purely evil person who only wants destruction and death. Surely some are, but they can’t all be.
BF: I’m with you. After the Paris attacks, there were a lot of interesting articles written about people who become suicide bombers, about the psychology of these people. These are young men who have shit lives. The only politics they become aware of is that, “My country has been shit on for many decades, and the rest of the world is doing great, and there’s no future for me, my friends, my community, nothing. We just live our lives, we have no impact on the world, we die, and most of us spend most of our lives suffering.” Then, something like ISIS or al Qaeda or the Taliban comes by and says, “We can give your life meaning.” They’re dying of thirst, this is the only drink in town, so they grab it. Many of them know next to nothing. They haven’t read the Koran, they haven’t read the Hadiths. Some of these guys had recently bought the book Islam for Dummies like the month beforehand because they are just grasping at a straw and they know next to nothing about the straw. So it’s physical suicide, but Camus would say it’s philosophical suicide because it’s offering hope where there’s no reason to hope. Whereas for Camus, you’re supposed to embrace that. There’s no hope for any kind of ultimate meaning, but that’s okay. You can still live a full life.
II. “THE ABSURD IS SIN WITHOUT GOD.” —CAMUS
BLVR: The second aspect of absurdity I wanted to discuss relates to Donald Trump and fascism. Even though Camus wrote Sisyphus in Nazi-occupied France, he didn’t see fascism as a form of philosophical suicide. My feeling is that fascism is a secular religion. Just like religion offers Heaven as a sort of return to the Garden of Eden, the fascist leader promises a perfect future where we return to some glorious past. I think people are drawn to Trump because they’re confronting absurdity—they’ve been sold out by the American Dream, the curtain has been pulled back on the meaninglessness of it all—and he’s promising them the fascist version of Heaven.
BF: I’m just an amateur here, but I suspect if you asked a Trump supporter what his qualifications are, they’re going to say something. They’re not going to be stupid. They’ll say things like, “He’s managed all these businesses well, and that’s relevant.” It’s like if you ask someone who’s a religious believer—say you ask a Catholic why they believe Catholicism is true. They’re going to say something. But it doesn’t really count, because evidence doesn’t really count.
BLVR: Is there a better way out of the absurd conflict than turning to suicide, or fascism, or religion? I don’t like Camus’ answer, that we just have to accept the absurdity and revolt against it. I still want meaning.
BF: Well, let me say this. Part of me is kind of religious, but I can’t believe anything. I can’t believe God exists. I can’t believe Jesus rose from the dead. I can’t believe the prophet Muhammad actually spoke to an angel. No fucking way. So one thing I’ve been interested in is, can you be a member of a religion even if you’re totally agnostic on everything? Can you be committed to a religion without any of the beliefs?
BLVR: It seems the person in the religion would say you can’t.
BF: My best friend, she’s a Muslim, and she says, “I don’t think so.” And then another guy I know who’s very worldly—he’s actually a Catholic but he knows a lot about different religions—he thinks you can. You can’t really trust a lot of religious figures. You go to a Catholic priest, he might say no. You go to another one who’s a little more liberal, he might say yes. That’s the intellectual absurdity again. You can’t get answers to important questions. The best you can do is muddle through and hope for the best. But what does that hope for the best mean? You want a real hope; Camus says, “No, forget it. It’s not going to happen. The best really sucks, man. The best is going up the hill and back again [like Sisyphus].” The thing that gets me about Camus, though, is that Sisyphus, the thing that makes him this honorable person who has meaning in some sense is that he’s totally aware of his situation. So really, when it comes down to it, Camus is saying you have to have knowledge. You have to have consciousness of your situation.
III. “SEEKING WHAT IS TRUE IS NOT SEEKING WHAT IS DESIRABLE.” —CAMUS
BLVR: That leads to the third aspect of absurdity I wanted to talk about. We seem to be living in an age where knowledge has no meaning anymore. Expert opinion is discounted. Science is ignored.
BF: I’ve been thinking about this a lot.
BLVR: So the question is, if there’s no meaning to life and no way of truly knowing anything, how do you go forward? Take global warming. Doesn’t the idea that nothing is truly knowable—which you’ve written about as “radical skepticism”—hurt the case of people who believe the science?
BF: Well, take Barack Obama and Dick Cheney. Two completely different people. Democrats are going to say, “Look, I disagree with Cheney, but he knew how to get shit done.” Republicans are going to say that of Obama. Part of being able to get things done when you have such enormous power is you need to be able to consult experts and figure out what to do with their advice. And that’s why Donald Trump is a disaster, because he doesn’t know how to do that.
BLVR: He said one of his advisors would be himself.
BF: I know. I know. In order to be president, you don’t have to be an expert yourself, but you have to know who is an expert and how to balance their different opinions. Even Camus—I’m going out on a limb here because he’s dead and I can’t ask him—he’d say when it comes to action, even if you can’t know anything big or important, when deciding what to do, your best bet is consulting experts. Knowing how to deal with the information they give you and the disinformation they give you. There’s this midway where we can’t know the right thing to do, but we can do better than going with our gut.
BLVR: While Camus doesn’t agree with religion, he also doesn’t agree with putting too much faith in human logic and reason. I wonder if today’s total discounting of expert opinion is the end of the Enlightenment ideals—the primacy of logic and reason—and an embracing of absurdism.
BF: Existentialists—and even though Camus said he wasn’t really an existentialist, we throw him in that category anyway—you could say that they, plus Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche, and Heidegger and all those people, they’re saying, “Reason is not nearly as good as you thought it was going to be.” I’m not a basketball person, but I went to an NBA game, and I was shocked at how many shots they missed. They suck. They’re missing constantly. But that’s the best there is. The same thing with reason. You do your best and it’s still not nearly good enough. The people at the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton—for the 20th century, it was like the United States’ Oxford—you go to the best people there and ask them the big questions, and they say, “I don’t know.” Whereas you go to Fordham University, where I taught, you’ll get a bunch of people who will say, “Oh, let me tell you the answer.” But you ask the greatest minds and they don’t know because reason’s actually not that powerful.
BF: There are all sorts of things that reason is great for. Like this [picks up iPhone]. This is a fucking miracle. But when it comes to lots of things we really care about, reason doesn’t seem so great. The Japanese in World War II, they had this tool. It was a screwdriver, it was a weapon, it was a shovel, it did all these amazing things. It really was this fantastic thing, but there’s tons of stuff that it just couldn’t do at all. Reason’s kind of like that. Reason is fantastic for certain things and we think that it’s going to be good for figuring out what to do in politics, what to do in relationships. Reason just doesn’t really help much. It has much more severe limits than the Enlightenment thought, and the existentialists really did us a favor in helping point that out.
BLVR: It always comes back to the same problem. What do we do? How do we choose? I saw a man in the subway the other day hunched over and talking to himself. He was clearly…
BLVR: Insane. And I believe it’s important to help people going through that. They deserve to be taken care of. But say we get to a point where there aren’t enough resources, where the survival of the species is at stake. Doesn’t the morality flip? Isn’t the moral choice to not help them if it hurts our overall chances at survival? And if that’s true, what do I actually believe?
BF: This has happened. Think of Native American tribes, they’re in Montana, it’s winter, someone gives birth to a child that is severely disabled. You have to let it die.
BLVR: So is morality situational?
BF: In philosophy, everyone is going to say that it’s situational. Whether or not it’s morally permissible to do a certain thing totally depends on your circumstances. It’s morally permissible for me to kill you right now if you have a bazooka or something and you’re trying to kill everyone in here. But in another situation, of course, it’s not morally permissible. That’s a crazy case. But there are normal cases.
BLVR: Where it gets tough is, who gets to make the call? To take it back to terrorism, if I believe that someone is invading my country, threatening my way of life, exploiting my resources, killing my people with drone strikes …
BF: What am I allowed to do to strike back?
BLVR: Is it permissible to be a suicide bomber?
BF: I think a lot of people in these countries would normally have nothing against Americans, but they feel we’ve destroyed their country, we’ve bombed them and killed so many people. Given that situation, they might think, “It’s morally permissible for me to strike back in these incredibly violent ways because nothing else is going to work. There’s nothing left for us to do.”
BLVR: One of the problems with dealing with this issue is that even talking about it like this is forbidden.
BF: Right. In a lot of circles it’s totally forbidden in this country.
BLVR: It’s seen as sympathizing rather than just trying to understand the root of the issue. And it is terribly complex, which makes it especially confusing to know who gets to decide what is right and wrong.
BF: Having the power to make those decisions is a curse, really. I had a colleague at the University of Leeds in England who said, “Having free will sucks.” You have all this power to make these big decisions, and if you have any reflection at all, you realize that you really don’t have the requisite skill to make the decision. But you have to do it.
BLVR: I can see why people pick philosophical suicide.
BF: Questioning everything is a curse.
Travis Atria is the co-author of Traveling Soul, a biography of Curtis Mayfield, out October 1 from Chicago Review Press. His album, “Boa Noite,” is out on October 14 from Gold Robot Records.