Literature on reconciling cosmic indifference and one's life?
February 12, 2014 10:22 PM   Subscribe

I've lately been thinking a lot about the notion that "dust thou art, and unto dust thou shalt return," in that nothing we humans do in our relatively short lifespans makes a "dent" in the universe. Or why it would even matter if it did make said dent -- after all, why not just live in the now? Why do we continue as a people? I quite enjoy life. But as a young person, when I look at the years in front of me, I often wonder why it is that I am not a hedonist, or why as a society we do not crumble to hedonism when the cosmos will be practically indifferent to our toil on this planet. It's hard for me to even articulate, but I feel a weight upon my shoulders that comes from unanswered questions of our existence. Can anyone clarify for me what I am wondering about, and then further recommend some reading on the subject? Surely the philosophers must have analyzed these gnawing feelings for hundreds of year, but I don't know what to look for. Thank you.
posted by saperlipopette to Religion & Philosophy (15 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
The thread of philosophy you're thinking of is existentialism, a subject about which Kierkegaard wrote a fair bit.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 10:28 PM on February 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

Also existential/Kierkegaard-related is Absurdism.
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 10:42 PM on February 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

OP are you asking why we behave as if there were some ultimate moral imperative, or why we have "moral emotions" (or "moral sentiments", those are phrases I've seen, though I haven't read this stuff in years).

Existentialist writers might call some expressions of false or inauthentic morality 'bad faith'.

Evolutionary psychology would suggest moral emotions are a kind of socio-emotional hangover from legacy behaviours that have kept our species going.

Check out moral reasoning (it might be down to calculations).
posted by cotton dress sock at 11:03 PM on February 12, 2014

I quite enjoy life.

That's what sets you apart from the drearier existentialists. You'd probably enjoy Camus.

I often wonder why it is that I am not a hedonist, or why as a society we do not crumble to hedonism when the cosmos will be practically indifferent to our toil on this planet.

Sustainable hedonism turns out to require quite a lot of maintenance work.
posted by flabdablet at 11:50 PM on February 12, 2014 [5 favorites]

Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death.
posted by SyraCarol at 2:39 AM on February 13, 2014

I feel a weight upon my shoulders that comes from unanswered questions of our existence.

It has seemed to me for many, many years that the so-called "big" questions that end up feeling like weights and drags and leading to thoughts like "well if it's not all for anything then why the fuck should I keep bothering with any of it" are not big at all, merely impossible to find good answers to because they are actually just incoherent. So I was very pleased, at the age of about 25, to chance upon a copy of The Tyranny Of Words and find that Stuart Chase had come to much the same conclusion in the 1930s.

Lots of good writing came out of the 1930s.
posted by flabdablet at 3:43 AM on February 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

JP Sartre's short pamphlet-type book 'Existentialism and Humanism' is an exploration of these very ideas, as others have suggested above, but he combines it with a kind of optimism about things. These reflections on purposelessness or meaningless of existence need not entail a diet of gloomy despair: he argues that at its core there's a kind of liberation to found from recognising that we're the creators of value or significance in the world. So there's a provocative angle for you to work through right there, in so far as you and JP seem equally convinced of the irrelevance or meaninglessness of our existence in one sense, but the two of you differ about whether that means there is no source of meaning or purpose in any other sense.
posted by Joeruckus at 4:10 AM on February 13, 2014

For many years I've been paying attention to someone who speaks to the questions you raise. I have to say I've gained significant clarity and perspective over the years just from listening to this person.

You can start here, begin anywhere you wish, and see where it takes you.
posted by elf27 at 4:13 AM on February 13, 2014

The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus. (warning: yellow lined paper background)

The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen.
posted by alms at 6:24 AM on February 13, 2014

I think a lot of people are following what is, essentially, a mild hedonism - me-first economic decisions, overconsumption, disregard for long-term environmental impact, disregard for moral decisionmaking structures other than "will it make me comfortable," etc. So it's not as though it's a rare beast, just that it doesn't look like running naked through the streets drunk, at least not all the time.
posted by Miko at 6:53 AM on February 13, 2014

This will not answer any of your questions in a satisfying way, I don't think, but one of the most unflinching looks at the indifference of the universe I've ever come across is Aleksandar Hemon's The Aquarium.
posted by pretentious illiterate at 7:03 AM on February 13, 2014

Indifference assumes an attitude. Does the cosmos have an attitude?

Taoism is something worth exploring on this. Start with the Tao Te Ching.
posted by jammy at 9:47 AM on February 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

Seconding jammy in that if nothing matters, mattering doesn't matter so why are you concerned about it?

But I also believe that much of how we experience ourselves and the world is just a fraction of who we are, edited down to make us feel better (especially about ourselves). Those whose editing cuts out the caring are doing so to avoid pain, not, as they tell themselves, because it makes philosophical sense. Only in novels to people commit suicide because of logically deducing it as a sensible choice. You needn't be a Freudian to understand that there's a lot in our minds that goes on outside our consciousness. (e.g you could be a user of psychedelics.)
posted by Obscure Reference at 4:08 PM on February 13, 2014

I recommend the Bible for looking into questions & feelings such as these.
posted by cantthinkofagoodname at 12:59 PM on February 15, 2014

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