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I am not able to completely comprehend his thoughts on science from the below excerpts from The Myth of Sisyphus. I would appreciate insights.

And here are trees and I know their gnarled surface, water and I feel its taste. These scents of grass and stars at night, certain evenings when the heart relaxes —how shall I negate this world whose power and strength I feel? Yet all the knowledge on earth will give me nothing to assure me that this world is mine. You describe it to me and you teach me to classify it. You enumerate its laws and in my thirst for knowledge I admit that they are true. You take apart its mechanism and my hope increases. At the final stage you teach me that this wondrous [20] and multicolored universe can be reduced to the atom and that the atom itself can be reduced to the electron. All this is good and I wait for you to continue. But you tell me of an invisible planetary system in which electrons gravitate around a nucleus. You explain this world to me with an image. I realize then that you have been reduced to poetry: I shall never know. Have I the time to become indignant? You have already changed theories. So that science that was to teach me everything ends up in a hypothesis, that lucidity founders in metaphor, that uncertainty is resolved in a work of art. What need had I of so many efforts? The soft lines of these hills and the hand of evening on this troubled heart teach me much more. I have returned to my beginning. I realize that if through science I can seize phenomena and enumerate them, I cannot, for all that, apprehend the world. Were I to trace its entire relief with my finger, I should not know any more. And you give me the choice between a description that is sure but that teaches me nothing and hypotheses that claim to teach me but that are not sure. A stranger to myself and to the world, armed solely with a thought that negates itself as soon as it asserts, what is this condition in which I can have peace only by refusing to know and to live, in which the appetite for conquest bumps into walls that defy its assaults? To will is to stir up paradoxes. Everything is ordered in such a way as to bring into being that poisoned peace produced by thoughtlessness, lack of heart, or fatal renunciations.

  • Camus seems to be echoing the critical sentiment about "Galilean science" expressed in Husserl's Crisis of European Sciences, and common in phenomenological/hermeneutic philosophy of science since then. As in science chasing after ever more fanciful and elusive pictures of reality, and loosing touch with the truly real experience that ultimately grounds it, and hence the meaning of its pictures. See e.g. Heelan's Why a hermeneutical philosophy of the natural sciences? for a modern introduction. – Conifold May 1 at 9:53
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(I don't have formal training in philosophy; I'm a physicist who really likes The Myth of Sisyphus; other commenters on this forum will no doubt give you a better placement of this sentiment in philosophical traditions. This is how I understand that passage in relation to the rest of the work.)

Camus's Myth of Sisyphus is concerned with what he calls the absurd, an experience which is basically founded in a paradox between two bedrock elements of the human experience: a desire to understand the world, that is, to perceive some order that underlies everything, and at the same time the ultimate inability of humans to do so. Key point -- the absurd isn't "things happen without meaning" it's that things happen without meaning yet we are built to seek meaning. Hence Sisyphus's absurd experience isn't that he pushes the rock up the hill only for it to fall back down, but that he does so even while also being conscious of that fact.

If this myth is tragic, that is because its hero is conscious. Where would his torture be, indeed, if at every step the hope of succeeding upheld him? The workman of today works everyday in his life at the same tasks, and his fate is no less absurd. But it is tragic only at the rare moments when it becomes conscious.

Much of the text is about resolutions to this contradiction in the human experience. Camus famously starts by framing the issue in terms of suicide, a sort of "quitting the game" response to the issue. He also examine leaps of faith, where you say that there actually is some underlying order one cannot understand, call it God, and use this to evade the absurd; finally he attempts to outline an attitude which he believes is a more honest grappling with the absurd.

All of that is to emphasize this tension, between wanting to know and not being able to know, that runs throughout the book. Camus addresses science because rational attempts to understand and parse the world are the most developed outgrowth of our impulse to understand. His question here is not whether science is useful or good or whatever -- I don't think he was any type of primitivist, for instance -- but whether science can provide a resolution by allowing us to grasp the nature of existence. So starting from a direct, sensorial experience of nature, Camus imagines someone breaking it down in scientific terms:

You describe it to me and you teach me to classify it. You enumerate its laws and in my thirst for knowledge I admit that they are true. You take apart its mechanism and my hope increases. At the final stage you teach me that this wondrous [20] and multicolored universe can be reduced to the atom and that the atom itself can be reduced to the electron. All this is good and I wait for you to continue.

When one studies physics or chemistry, one discovers many explanations for everyday phenomena -- indeed, that's pretty much why one would study physics or chemistry. As science continues, it has successfully pushed the boundary of understanding down further and further, to the atomic scale. (As a disclaimer -- I am a scientist -- this is a simplification of the actual nature of uncertainty in science, much of which today consists of how to put the pieces back together again so that the natural world can emerge from its constituent fundamentals. That's not really relevant here.)

But you tell me of an invisible planetary system in which electrons gravitate around a nucleus. You explain this world to me with an image. I realize then that you have been reduced to poetry: I shall never know. Have I the time to become indignant? You have already changed theories. So that science that was to teach me everything ends up in a hypothesis, that lucidity founders in metaphor, that uncertainty is resolved in a work of art. What need had I of so many efforts?

I don't know if you've ever studied quantum mechanics. It's a beautiful theory, but unfortunately the theoretical constructs hardly fit with our experience at all. We use terms like "the electron orbits the nucleus" as if it were a planetary system, but to actually deal with the system itself requires mathematical formalism pretty much entirely disjoint from how we experience the world. To Camus, who wants to achieve a bone-deep certainty of "this is how the world works, this is the order we all fit into" this isn't enough. He feels that science either retreats into metaphor or story, like a popular description, or it becomes a formal exercise in mathematics that is ultimately built up from presupposed axioms ("hypotheses that claim to teach me but are not sure"). There is no absolute truth here, and certainly nothing that can solve the problem of the absurd -- which is less about our ability to predict the results of scattering experiments than it is about our own human experience of wanting order in a disordered world.

I realize that if through science I can seize phenomena and enumerate them, I cannot, for all that, apprehend the world. Were I to trace its entire relief with my finger, I should not know any more.

  • Thanks. The response is aptly elucidated. Do you think it is fair to reduce Camus's assertion on Science in this passage as Science explains the "How" but we are desperately searching for is the "why". Science describes the world while we are looking for an explanation. – user3106368 May 1 at 14:13
  • @user3106368 I think that's fair, although of course compressing it down that small means you're going to lose something. In this case, Camus's objection I think is that the "how" always is explained in terms of something more and more distant from the experiences he's trying to explain to himself, and it never resolves into an ultimate "why" that he can latch onto. – zeldredge May 1 at 14:22
  • Right. Thanks. Also, I have never really pondred on the nature of uncertainty in science. Would like to understand and explored this topic better. Would you help me understand what you describe as the nature of uncertainty in science, point me to some readings/books perhaps ? – user3106368 May 1 at 14:25
  • @user3106368 There are various kinds of uncertainty in science -- for instance, our measurements are never exact; our calculations always have some margin of error; in some theories (especially quantum mechanics) "uncertainty" is a fundamental aspect of the state of the world. If you'd like some musing on how uncertainty enters into the laws of physics -- how we reason with and use mathematical tools without being able to prove that they are necessarily true -- I think Richard Feynman's "The Character of Natural Law" is a nice, accessible set of lectures where he grapples with this issue. – zeldredge May 1 at 14:29
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Ronald Aronson writes:

Camus sees this question of suicide as a natural response to an underlying premise, namely that life is absurd in a variety of ways. As we have seen, both the presence and absence of life (i.e., death) give rise to the condition: it is absurd to continually seek meaning in life when there is none, and it is absurd to hope for some form of continued existence after death given that the latter results in our extinction. But Camus also thinks it absurd to try to know, understand, or explain the world, for he sees the attempt to gain rational knowledge as futile. Here Camus pits himself against science and philosophy, dismissing the claims of all forms of rational analysis: “That universal reason, practical or ethical, that determinism, those categories that explain everything are enough to make a decent man laugh” (MS [The Myth of Sisyphus, 21).

Camus rejects suicide as a solution to the absurd situation humans find themselves in the world. Not only does he reject hope in an afterlife, but he also rejects hope in rational knowledge, science and philosophy. The only solution is acceptance of the situation in revolt which goes beyond all of these.


Aronson, Ronald, "Albert Camus", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2017/entries/camus/.

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Reading the whole of the text might help; just beffore the end you would find:

Je veux que tout me soit expliqué ou rien. Et la raison est impuissante devant ce cri du cœur. L'esprit éveillé par cette exigence cherche et ne trouve que contradictions et déraisonnements. Ce que je ne comprends pas est sans raison.

Science is research and it differs from religion in its admission of not having all the answers now. But Camus wants to have everything explained and, what is more, claims that what he does not understand is without reason. So, either he does not have everything, or else he gets it but has to take it on faith. He believes his demand is legitimate and appears to be frustrated when it becames clear that it would not be met.

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