Defending the Indifferents

While it is amusing to see some psych-research pains taken to quantify nebulous existential entities such as ‘meaningfulness’ and their underlying sociology, I take issue with this egregious conflation of indifference and apathy:

The existentially indifferent appear to live a life of complacency, with few highs and little or no introspection. As Schnell puts it, “Without commitment to sources of meaning, life remains superficial. But superficiality is not necessarily a state of suffering.” They aren’t classified as having “psychological stress,” but they “can hardly be viewed as living a life of health and well-being,” according to Schnell. An existentialist would say they are asleep.

“Existential philosophers and psychologists, from Heidegger to Frankl … have discussed distinctions between an authentic, complex life and a shallow, ‘everydayness’ mode of existence,” Schnell comments. The existentially indifferent characterize this “everyday” mode of existence, and as if to defy existentialism, are perfectly fine with it. To replace meaningful pursuits, they have a wide array of superficial weaponry. “Surrogates for meaningful commitment abound: They range from material possessions to pleasure seeking, from busy-ness to sexuality.”

Problem: there are at least two kinds of existential indifference. What these researchers seem to be taking for indifference is the kind nefariously in bed with apathy. But not caring about meaning is not at all the same thing as being indifferent to meaning once it has been considered: indifference that is in fact a response to consideration. Apathy implies a blatant lack of concern before meaningfulness is even properly considered, or at least a lack of concern despite what ‘meaningfulness’ might even be. However, if life’s meaningfulness is considered, and deemed an epistemological dead end, then this warrants further speciation of those considered existentially indifferent. This variant of the existential indifferents consider the question of meaningfulness, unlike their cohorts the apathetics, but treat the problem itself with epistemological skepticism (can we really even know what meaningfulness is? does Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle apply? ) and may choose to shelve it with other categories of unanswerables like religion.

There is a learned secular pragmatism to this type of indifference: if the problem is at least possibly unsolvable, why waste time engaging it? A parallel of this situation can be observed in the sundry and fruitless religious debates we are all forced to occasionally tolerate. If I can’t prove my religious views are objectifiably true (I cannot), and you can’t prove your religious views are objectifiably true (you cannot), then why are we discussing it? Time waster.

Meaningfulness is an elusive quality like happiness or spirituality and perhaps not necessarily best dealt with head on. The true existential indifferents are just going about their lives, hoping perhaps that meaningfulness will catch up with them at a later date. This is not nihilism or apathy. The idea here is that it is not easily quantifiable (if at all), and as such, should not be obsessed over. And note that this is not categorical indifference, but simply indifference to the epistemologically impossible task of accurately defining meaningfulness. When those hedonistic indifferents play video games and have sex as opposed to sitting around tallying up all the meaning their lives lack (presumably in Quicken’s Meaning Calculator), it is because they have better things to do than spinning wheels over impossible philosophical terrain, things that may one day result in meaningfulness actually being achieved. Quit trying so hard, people.