Thursday, September 26, 2013

Camus and Monod Wrestled With "The Problem of Meaning"

"Everybody's looking 4 for the ladder...everybody wants to know how the story started and how it will end."--Prince, "The Ladder"

"The principle of art is to pause, not bypass. The principle of true art is not to portray, but to evoke. This requires a moment of pause--a contract with yourself through the object you look at or the page you read. In that moment of pause, I think life expands. And really the purpose of art--for me, of fiction--is to alert, to indicate to stop, to say: Make certain that when you rush through you will not miss the moment which you might have had, or might still have. That is the moment of finding something which you have not known about yourself, or your environment, about others, and about life."--Jerzy Kosinski, 1977 interview by Lisa Grunwald

Sean Carroll's new book Brave Genius: A Scientist, a Philosopher, and Their Daring Adventures from the French Resistance to the Nobel Prize tells the intertwined life stories of Jacques Monod (who won the 1965 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine) and Albert Camus (who won the 1957 Nobel Prize for Literature). Many so-called French intellectuals collaborated with France's Nazi occupiers during World War II but Camus and Monod participated in the Resistance Movement, though they did not meet each other face to face until 1948.

Steven Shapin's September 21-22, 2013 Wall Street Journal review of Carroll's book (titled "A Collaboration Across Two Cultures") explains that both men sought "the secrets of life":

For Camus, the secrets were about the conditions of finding meaning and value in an absurd, meaningless world; for Monod, modern science was the practice that eroded traditional notions of meaning and value and that searched for the objective mechanisms used by life to reproduce itself and to perform all its functions, including the functions associated with thought and feeling. At a fundamental level, all the phenomena of life were coded by DNA and expressed in proteins, but molecules have no meaning.

In his book Chance and Necessity, Monod declared that even though science can provide many answers and solutions, "we now realize...that the problem of meaning is the one to which no scientific answer ever could be provided." Monod's outlook greatly influenced the thinking and writing of novelist Jerzy Kosinski; Kosinski, a skilled photographer, visited the terminally ill Monod shortly before the scientist's death and--with Monod's approval--produced pictures of the Nobel laureate's final hours. Kosinski also wrote an essay for Esquire about Monod's ideas, his life and his death.

Chance and Necessity concluded with these stark words: "The ancient covenant is in pieces; man knows at last that he is alone in the universe's unfeeling immensity, out of which he emerged only by chance. His destiny is nowhere spelled out, nor is his duty. The kingdom above or the darkness below: it is for him to choose." If you are a religious believer then you reject Monod's statement because you believe that the universe exists not because of chance but because of God's will. However, regardless of your religious and/or philosophical outlook, it is quite humbling, awe inspiring and even frightening to consider the reality that Earth is just a tiny, pale blue dot (to borrow Carl Sagan's phrase) in an incomprehensibly vast and mysterious universe; any power or energy that humanity generates on Earth is minuscule compared to the vast powers and energies pulsating through the cosmos.

Chance and Necessity has two epigraphs; one is a brief Democritus quote ("Everything existing in the Universe is the fruit of chance and of necessity"), while the other consists of two paragraphs from Camus' book The Myth of Sisyphus. Shapin's final sentences summarize Monod's larger message:

Face the facts; have courage; accept that the only meaning available is the meaning you produce for yourself. Life is the struggle to make the meaning that nature no longer has. The scientist created nature-without-meaning; the philosopher pronounced on how to live in it.

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