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The meaning of life: Albert Camus on faith, suicide, and absurdity

Albert Camus was a Franco-Algerian philosopher with some great insights on the meaning of life, why you should look to this life and not the next, and why suicide is a poor choice.

Camus posing for a photograph after being told he won the Noel Prize for literature. (Getty Images)

Albert Camus was a Franco-Algerian writer who preferred not to be called a philosopher. He is often associated with the existentialist school of thought, though he preferred to be considered separately from it. His life and way of thinking are rather different from most philosophers and even the existentialists he is grouped in with.


His ideas on how to live our lives and deal with existence are bold and often less than comforting. Despite this, he can give us insights into how to cope with our existential dread and offers us some suggestions on how to live our meaningless lives.

On suicide

“There is only one really serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide,” so claims Camus in his essay The Myth of Sisyphus. By starting with the question of whether life is worth living, Camus places the problem of how we are to live our lives squarely in the center of his thought.

For many people, a life without meaning is not a life worth living. Camus understands this and tackles the problem head-on. He concludes that suicide is of little use to us, as there can be no more meaning in death than in life, and turns to questions of what makes life worth living. When it comes to what meaning we might find, however, he is of little help. 

The meaning of life

Camus makes a rather bold claim on the meaning of life: there isn’t one and we can’t make one either. He argues that it is impossible for us to find a satisfying answer to the question of the meaning of life, and any attempt to impose a meaning on the universe will end in disaster, as whatever meaning we pick will be sent up later. He further denies that science, philosophy, society, or religion could ever create a meaning of life that would be immune to the problem of absurdity.

The absurd

Camus’ entire philosophy is based on the idea of the absurd. Humans have a drive to find meaning in things and where it doesn’t exist we usually try to create it. However, as the universe is cold and indifferent to this quest for meaning we will always be faced with absurd situations where our attempts to find meaning fail. Our lives are meaningless and will remain so.

However, Camus doesn’t see this meaninglessness as bad. He explains that to understand that life is absurd is the first step to being fully alive. While the problem of living in a world devoid of meaning is a big one, it is one to be solved like any other.

What makes life worth living then?

Across his body of work, he praises sunshine, women, the beach, kissing, dancing, and good food. He loved sports and was a champion soccer player in his youth. He took great enjoyment in the little things and encourages us to do so as well. Just because life is meaningless doesn’t mean it can’t be enjoyable! Indeed, the meaninglessness is just a background fact, like gravity, that must be reckoned with.

The absurd hero

Camus has a critique of those who try to endure the meaninglessness of life by imposing meaning on it. While that can bring us comfort, those systems of meaning are, themselves, doomed to failure over the long run. The universe remains indifferent to us, random events happen, and we will again face meaninglessness.

He points out that Kierkegaard, for example, understood that life was absurd but fled towards God rather than embracing the fact. The French existentialists also did this in a secularized way which is why Camus didn’t identify with them.


Sartre and Beauvoir sitting with Che Guevara after the Cuban revolution. Camus would later fall out with his former friends over their support of Soviet and later Chinese Communism. An event with ramifications that lasted the rest of their lives.

Camus tells us that the answer is to embrace the meaninglessness. The person who can truly know that life is absurd and get through it with a smile is an Absurd Hero. Camus was a real-life example and he sighted the literary examples of Don Juan and Sisyphus for us to look to. “We must imagine Sisyphus happy,” he tells us, for the absurd hero is able to carry out a life as meaningless as eternally rolling a boulder up a hill and find enjoyment in it anyway.

He also encourages us to reject the idea of an afterlife because it is not only unlikely but also because an attempt to live in such a way as to assure you get into the next life detracts from this one. Trying to justify this life by pointing to the next one is just another way to deny the meaninglessness of life, no matter how you phrase it. 

So, what should I do today?

Camus recommends that you: get outside, enjoy the sunshine, go for a walk by the beach, play some football, have lunch at a café with a friend, refuse to give into despair, and embrace the meaninglessness of existence by choosing to carry on with what you enjoy doing despite the lack of meaning to your actions.

Can we find a meaning of life that can satisfy our need for one? Camus says no, but that this needn’t be a problem. We are still living here and now and have every ability to enjoy ourselves. Life is worth living and should be embraced as it is. While it is difficult to face meaninglessness without retreating into the loving arms of religion, science, society, or even producing meaning ourselves, Camus encourages us to bravely face the absurd with a smile on our face.

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A "very massive star" in the Kinman Dwarf galaxy caught the attention of astronomers in the early years of the 2000s: It seemed to be reaching a late-ish chapter in its life story and offered a rare chance to observe the death of a large star in a region low in metallicity. However, by the time scientists had the chance to turn the European Southern Observatory's (ESO) Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Paranal, Chile back around to it in 2019 — it's not a slow-turner, just an in-demand device — it was utterly gone without a trace. But how?

The two leading theories about what happened are that either it's still there, still erupting its way through its death throes, with less luminosity and perhaps obscured by dust, or it just up and collapsed into a black hole without going through a supernova stage. "If true, this would be the first direct detection of such a monster star ending its life in this manner," says Andrew Allan of Trinity College Dublin, Ireland, leader of the observation team whose study is published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

So, em...

Between astronomers' last look in 2011 and 2019 is a large enough interval of time for something to happen. Not that 2001 (when it was first observed) or 2019 have much meaning, since we're always watching the past out there and the Kinman Dwarf Galaxy is 75 million light years away. We often think of cosmic events as slow-moving phenomena because so often their follow-on effects are massive and unfold to us over time. But things happen just as fast big as small. The number of things that happened in the first 10 millionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang, for example, is insane.

In any event, the Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy, or PHL 293B, is far way, too far for astronomers to directly observe its stars. Their presence can be inferred from spectroscopic signatures — specifically, PHL 293B between 2001 and 2011 consistently featured strong signatures of hydrogen that indicated the presence of a massive "luminous blue variable" (LBV) star about 2.5 times more brilliant than our Sun. Astronomers suspect that some very large stars may spend their final years as LBVs.

Though LBVs are known to experience radical shifts in spectra and brightness, they reliably leave specific traces that help confirm their ongoing presence. In 2019 the hydrogen signatures, and such traces, were gone. Allan says, "It would be highly unusual for such a massive star to disappear without producing a bright supernova explosion."

The Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy, or PHL 293B, is one of the most metal-poor galaxies known. Explosive, massive, Wolf-Rayet stars are seldom seen in such environments — NASA refers to such stars as those that "live fast, die hard." Red supergiants are also rare to low Z environments. The now-missing star was looked to as a rare opportunity to observe a massive star's late stages in such an environment.

Celestial sleuthing

In August 2019, the team pointed the four eight-meter telescopes of ESO's ESPRESSO array simultaneously toward the LBV's former location: nothing. They also gave the VLT's X-shooter instrument a shot a few months later: also nothing.

Still pursuing the missing star, the scientists acquired access to older data for comparison to what they already felt they knew. "The ESO Science Archive Facility enabled us to find and use data of the same object obtained in 2002 and 2009," says Andrea Mehner, an ESO staff member who worked on the study. "The comparison of the 2002 high-resolution UVES spectra with our observations obtained in 2019 with ESO's newest high-resolution spectrograph ESPRESSO was especially revealing, from both an astronomical and an instrumentation point of view."

Examination of this data suggested that the LBV may have indeed been winding up to a grand final sometime after 2011.

Team member Jose Groh, also of Trinity College, says "We may have detected one of the most massive stars of the local Universe going gently into the night. Our discovery would not have been made without using the powerful ESO 8-meter telescopes, their unique instrumentation, and the prompt access to those capabilities following the recent agreement of Ireland to join ESO."

Combining the 2019 data with contemporaneous Hubble Space Telescope (HST) imagery leaves the authors of the reports with the sense that "the LBV was in an eruptive state at least between 2001 and 2011, which then ended, and may have been followed by a collapse into a massive BH without the production of an SN. This scenario is consistent with the available HST and ground-based photometry."

Or...

A star collapsing into a black hole without a supernova would be a rare event, and that argues against the idea. The paper also notes that we may simply have missed the star's supernova during the eight-year observation gap.

LBVs are known to be highly unstable, so the star dropping to a state of less luminosity or producing a dust cover would be much more in the realm of expected behavior.

Says the paper: "A combination of a slightly reduced luminosity and a thick dusty shell could result in the star being obscured. While the lack of variability between the 2009 and 2019 near-infrared continuum from our X-shooter spectra eliminates the possibility of formation of hot dust (⪆1500 K), mid-infrared observations are necessary to rule out a slowly expanding cooler dust shell."

The authors of the report are pretty confident the star experienced a dramatic eruption after 2011. Beyond that, though:

"Based on our observations and models, we suggest that PHL 293B hosted an LBV with an eruption that ended sometime after 2011. This could have been followed by
(1) a surviving star or
(2) a collapse of the LBV to a BH [black hole] without the production of a bright SN, but possibly with a weak transient."

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