Existentialism is a strange and counter-intuitive philosophy to most people unfamiliar with its deep driving concepts. It seems upside-down when explained in a bar room conversation to laymen. It is disconcerting to those brought up on religious notions of life. It is repulsive to those that prefer the complacency of conforming to their lives and the world in which they live. To me, it is the only correct view of life.
There is an irresolvable problem this philosophy brings up. If we take it to its logical conclusion, some very anti-humanistic views emerge. This problem we will get to during the course of this article. It would be almost impossible to write about this monumental leap forward in human thought without citing its distinguished thinkers.
The general tenets of Existentialism were laid down in the 20th century by writers like Jean-Paul Satre, Husserl, Albert Camus, and Heidegger, to name a few. What they all contended is simple but alarming to most whom have not thought at length about the metaphysical import of their ideas. What they assert can be summarized into four principal ideas:
1) Reality is without meaning or purpose.
2) You are placed in this meaningless reality without choosing to be here. You become aware of this fact during the course of your life.
3) You must eventually come to terms with 1 and 2 as you approach an inevitable event: your death.
4) Your consciousness of the above three ideas leads you to see life as absurd.
We are born into this world and nurtured by our parents until a certain age, and then we repeat the pattern. At least in general this is what happens. In this upbringing, we are molded into socio-emotional bonds with our relatives and friends. Later, we develop such bonds with others of our ilk: those whom speak our language, share our culture, those to whom we feel a racial affinity, and lastly those to whom we are sexually attracted. Existentialism in its extreme form directly combats some common sense notions. It contends you should feel no bonds with anyone except yourself. When we are born, we are just a thing-of-existence, as we grow, we learn and find an essence as Jean-Paul Satre called it. If we faithfully follow our growing self-consciousness, we should see, that no one, NOT one living being is the same as the subject of his/her conscious mind. You are the only being that is in your head. You should be the only being that feels the same as you. The phrase same as has another term: Identify. Identity is to feel that something is the same as something else. In this case, you feel the same as yourself. That's obvious for sure, but the concept of identification is at the heart of Existentialism and leads to the strange conclusion I cited. You don't identify with anyone other than yourself, or you are mis-identifying. Weird, right? So, a good existentialist doesn't identify with their parents, siblings, race, linguistic group, countrymen, fellow living things, etc. These others are not you! But, for instance you can identify with your actions and creations, like this article I'm writing now. These things are a part of you. Look where this idea is taking us. Existentialism affirms only a self-conscious mind, which comes to maturation as we age. This process of maturing makes us see we are alone in reality. No matter how we may appear to be part of others, by artificial social relations built out of the necessity to survive, we are still alone in our heads. Of course, we don't readily see this, because , after millions of years of evolutionary development, we are pre-disposed to having a sentiment of being a part of others. Yet, from the Existential perspective, this is the truth of our collective state of being. We are beings alone in a world that exists outside us, without the ability to escape this condition-this human condition. Though, new developments in cybernetics may change that state of affairs in the future. I'm thinking of cyber implants that could allow us to someday achieve telepathy in some limited form or speak another language instantly, by downloading the knowledge into an implant. Ray Kurzweil, the famous futurist has written in non-technical books about both topics. More on that in another essay.
As we continue in life, we do eventually see we will always be alone until, well until we die. And here is where the term absurd comes into play. Jean-Paul Satre described it best with two French words he uses in his opus Being and Nothingness. At birth we are pour-soi, that is we are a being becoming a part of the world at large. We are an existing thing in the world and growing in our understanding of it, not yet a part of anything, even ourselves. As we mature, we become en-soi, that is a being becoming a part of itself. We have introspection, we come to know ourselves in a special way: we are separate living beings interacting with the world at large. As an example, you might imagine a man thinking to himself the following: I shouldn't have gone out last night and drunk too much. My head is killing me, and I gotta go work today too, I shouldn't have gone out last night. That was dumb thing to do, really dumb man! In this example, the person is a being reflecting to himself about a world outside himself. He is pure en-soi, as Satre would say. But, how does this lead to the Absurd? The short answer to that question is, he is concerned with a world that he can never find meaning in, but we need to dig deeper to really understand the Absurd.
Just look at it and the absurdity of life will be clear to you. You are born, without you choosing to be born, and then you grow up to find, you are a separate conscious individual that is locked in your mind, never really getting beyond yourself. If that's not bad enough, you quickly discover that you are going die. It just doesn't make any sense, at least to a mind that seeks meaning. As you look around, you see that all others too seem to be leading meaningless lives.We're all just here for oh maybe 70 or 80 years and then death shuts down our absurd play with a curtain fall. Okay that's a cornball metaphor I admit. Marrying, having children and raising them doesn't make up for this feeling that life is a strange kind of joke on you. I can remember when my daughter was born and I was in a happy but troubled common-law marriage with her mother, I felt such pride at her beauty, but as time went on the feeling of the absurdity of it all only increased in me, rather than abate as I had expected it to. I kept thinking: soon she'll be an adult and who knows how she'll feel about me, what about when I'm dying will all I wanted to instill in her remain?...no it won't..what is the good of creating this beautiful child only to find, my offspring will not really ever know me or her I?... I conquered those feeling eventually as she grew up.
Let's go back to identity. Identity is more than same as when we apply it to human psychology. It also means you see in others quality or aspects of yourself. We are constantly identifying with other human beings, though we may be unaware of it. When a person is injured in your presence, you may cringe feeling their pain. If the injury is great, like say a stab in their flesh deeply, you might actually feel faint.Why is that? You are identifying with the injured person. You feel their experience as if it were happening to YOU! Identification happens all the time, my friends. It is a part of being human. When you hear of someone's close relative dying tragically, you feel pity. But what is the content of that pity you feel? Again, you feeling as if your close relative died. This explains why so many people make the self-centered mistake of rushing to tell a grieving person whose relative has died, about their own experience with losing a relative. I've had a fair number of my closest relatives die, and I must say this attempt to comfort me in these situations really disaffected me. It shows the nature of identification. People are focused on how THEY feel when identifying not on how the other person feels. They are often unaware of how this doesn't make a person in sorrow not feel comforted but increases their pain. A co-worker hears of how someone's mother died tragically and when he or she returns to work this person rushes to their desk, and tells him or her how they are there for them and adds how they felt when their mother died, so they understand.
Identity is really a larger class of knowledge that cognitive science describes as the other minds class. As human beings we are aware that other human beings are like our own minds. It is the ability we have of knowing others are thinking beings like ourselves that welds us together as a species. The species human, I mean. But, it is ironically also this ability that separates us.By knowing they're other minds like yours, the individual also knows, those minds are not the same as his/her mind. His tacit knowledge of others like him, in effect works to alienate him from them. Paradoxical isn't it? As a side note, I might point out racist human beings that hate other people because of their racial group are actually recognizing their humanity. When they use invectives and slurs designed to show their hatred and hurt others, they are really showing that they know they have minds like their own and can experience shame from these vicious comments, thereby recognizing their humanity. These people would never consider calling a computer something like you disgusting bloodless machine! It would make no sense. A computer can't feel shame! It is even more of a paradox: to show hatred a racist has to know the one hated is like him/her: a person. In this sense a racist really identifies with his/her target of hate. But enough of that sordid aside.
Man must judge existence as a kind of senseless phenomenon in which our participation is obligatory. I mean he can't escape it. These unfolding negative truths about our existence only add to the sense of absurdity he feels as he travels through life. In the face of these realizations many fall victim to what Satre termed self-deception. This experience has varied roots, but religious faith is a fertile field for it to blossom. In religion he develops mythological conceptions of a being or beings that exist outside his world, whom will at some point, make meaning and content for his temporal life. Then comes the myth of an afterlife that overcomes death. These notions are merely ways to placate and appease a growing dread of the end of the individual's life. These notions are self-deceptive because the person that is misled into believing them is the individual himself.And he is the only one deceived.The outside world, governed by the laws of physics has not such deceptive ideas. In fact, it has nothing other than existence. Now, Satre went further than other Existentialists on this point. He declared that people that accepted faith as a way to find meaning in their lives were being cowardly. He believed that they were afraid to face the stark and cold fact that there was nothing to comfort us in the face of death. These people being cowardly by nature turn to belief in something eternal, that will give them salvation. I don't go quite that far. I do affirm, that beliefs which attribute our reality, to some omnipotent being are false. I can't prove this conjecture. Moreover, Existentialism is a philosophy with its own moral code of action. It, like Catholicism, Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism and add to this many animistic nature-based religions are founded upon a belief. Unlike, the aforementioned belief systems, Existentialism applies its beliefs to the individual's perceptions and ultimately to his concepts that evolve from these perceptions. Existentialism in this respect is in alignment with scientific reasoning. Yet, it is not a philosophy of science. And this is what we will explore next.
Science is the human attempt to know the external world through study. It applies no evaluations of purpose to what it studies. It does make conclusions about what it studies. Science refines the conclusions once made based upon new data found, if that data are in conflict with current conclusions. In this way, science is a self-correcting system of analytic knowledge. Science, unlike Existential philosophy never applies an evaluative judgment to any conclusions made.
Science can tell us nothing about the meaning of our lives, or the universe, or any subject to which we apply the idea of meaning or purpose. Science is not teleological. Science doesn't tell us anything about final meanings and intentions of reality. In light of this, we might conclude that science and Existentialism are not compatible. Contrarily, from the point of view of the Existentialist, science needn't agree with the philosophy's conclusions. It need only support them, or at least not contradict them. Existentialists have a lavish regard for science. They believe that science can do nothing more than assist their conclusion of purposelessness in the universe. It can only augment the notion of self-aware beings concluding that this world is absurd.
Cosmology argues for a universe, uncreated by a chance event: the singularity of the Big Bang. Though, I must say that new models of cosmology have called into question BB in the last 10 years. The new theories are just as purpose-free. Biology, through evolutionary theory teaches that life is orchestrated by organisms struggling to maintain their species, but with no overall end to this struggle. Scientific disciplines show no purposive end to reality. In fact, science stays out of the teleological theater. This is so because science is descriptive not prescriptive in its methodology of study. This is true even of the less exact sciences like Economics, Sociology and Psychology. An economist describes the nature of human beings managing natural resources, but doesn't attribute meaning to it.The same can be said or the other fields. No, science doesn't intrude on the great philosophic debate about Purpose and Meaning in the world. Well, it doesn't unless you subscribe to that category of thinkers whom can only be called Pseudo-Scientists. Those charlatans that argue since science doesn't make teleological pronouncements, they must make such conclusions. The nerve of this lot is immeasurable. I detest them for their corruption of truth and spreading lies and half-truths. It is quite fitting that Existentialists are most at odds with them. Existentialists argue in the opposite direction, it is BECAUSE science does not show meaning in the world, that we KNOW there is none! If there were a meaning behind say the initial singularity to the universe's creation, shouldn't a theory of physics quickly exhibit this? If there were a final purpose to the struggle of genes to continue their existence in the natural world, shouldn't genetic science see this?
This last example affords me the opportunity to illustrate how careful we must be, when addressing the question of meaning and purpose. Richard Dawkins, a British biologist wrote a book in 1976 entitled The Selfish Gene, in which he described a thesis that fascinated me. As a fellow atheist and man of science, I have great regard for Dr. Dawkins. He concluded that life is really all about genes reproducing themselves.This is the abbreviated conclusion of the book. Though, I must say this wonderful book describes much more. I am giving the short story.Now, we must ask what does he mean by life being nothing more than various organisms being subject to genetic struggle? Is he saying genes consciously decide that they want to survive and thus make use of the bodies they are in to survive? If that were the case, well I would certainly have to admit there is purpose and meaning in our world. Yet, this is not what he's saying at all. He depicts in riveting prose, that this is the objective conclusion we can come to by studying the nature of genetic reproduction. Genes are not conscious beings, but a molecular process within an organism that operates on a set of rules, that in turn affect the larger species in which they reside. The rule is to reproduce itself or significant portions of its DNA code, and this drives struggles in the larger organisms. It seems purposive to us, because we interpret it as such. It is deterministic, in the sense that the process itself leads to definable results. But the process of genes struggling for hegemony can only be seen as that by our interpreting it as such. And this is what Richard Dawkins does. What you say? Now you've fallen right into the trap of showing that there is purpose and meaning in the world! No, I say, what Dawkins showed (and he went to great pains to make this clear) is when we look at the process in total; we see that there is a definable end to it. It doesn't mean that the parts of the process have an intrinsic goal or purpose. Here we have again a scientific conclusion that can easily be misconstrued with a philosophic one. Genes don't think: man I gotta pass myself on to another person, animal or plant if I'm gonna keep my line going.We know that's ridiculous.But the process of DNA reproduction achieves such an end.A better way to see this can be found in human economy. If we look at world economy, we might see that our use of this planet's resources is destructive and will ultimately lead to the annihilation of all species on this planet. We consume minerals, and destroy plant life, and pollute our atmosphere in the course of trade and material production. Any outside observer might conclude the purpose of human life on this planet is to destroy itself and all other life on this planet. But as parts of the huge economy machine on Earth we can't be said to intend this. Again, this conclusion is not one of purpose but a deterministic process. One, which can be remedied I must add to our merit.
Robleh Wais 12/4/11
Next, we come to the deepest realm of the Existential philosophy. We are aware of ourselves and know we are headed to death in a meaningless reality. This I have described above. But, there is a positive side too. In the face of death and our pointless lives we have freedom, we are free to do as we think and feel. Though it all comes to nothing, we are free to live and express ourselves and possibly learn of this meaningless world. There are limits to our freedom. Existentialism is not Anarchism. The twine that binds Existentialism to Science proper is strong. We should not let our free minds indulge in anti-biologic actions or behavior. We shouldn't violate evolutionary inherited behavior through our genes. Things like: not killing one of your species, or engaging in sex with one of your same sex, or parent-child incest for instance. Why? Well, not because there is meaning in adhering to evolutionary drives, but our conformance to these innate principles gives us the opportunity to know, to keep being free to learn and grow. The Existential Concept does affirm purposelessness, but not that we shouldn't try to understand why it's purposeless. And yes there are some who always choose to die or rape or commit acts of murder, or extreme incest, homosexuality, and so on. But they have had the ability to choose.
Think of yourself as a conscious entity. From the time you achieve your state of being, you are aware of yourself, but moreover, you have something so special to human beings: choice. You can choose to be this way or that. Even, if you are under duress, threatened, or even facing torture, you as a conscious being can make a choice. You can express your freedom of mind by choosing. Sometimes in my past, I've felt as if I wanted to murder certain people, but I didn't. Why? because I chose not to do that. But, in every minute of my life now passing I know that all that I do is my conscious decision. I am aware of my ability to choose. Then in the face of knowing that I will die, I can choose to do all I desire, though it has no meaning. Against the backdrop of a hard cold layer of non-existing, I can make a living beautiful plane of creation, like writing this article now. This is what freedom means in Existentialism. Though we live meaningless lives, we can choose how we live them. It doesn't mean that we live happy lives, or there is no oppression, hate, like racial animus, or wrong-doing, like swindling. It means we as a human species have the special quality of free will without a determination by anything. Yes, it is true, that there are people without this ability. And yes they are reduced as human beings. Think of the mentally insane or those suffering mental diseases, they are not fully human. But, this doesn't detract from the point the most of us are free to be as we choose. I know that advances in neurological experimentation have called into question the idea of free will, but I stand firm on the idea that, these experiments will never discredit the notion of a non-deterministic consciousness. We will see in the future.
Still, this doesn't solve the problem of meaning. We still lead meaningless lives, knowing we will die in time. Existentialism exhorts us to live free, to know our pointless fates, and live as if we will die at any moment. It tells us to stop interpreting what is good or what is bad or what is beautiful and what is ugly, or what makes us as we are.
One pointless activity of our species which I expand on in the articles below is this obsessive penchant we have for record-keeping and marking events. Worldwide, this behavior is a part of all human cultures in one form or another. It has become a perversion in some cultures; the need to find unique events.The set of cultural commemorations are numerous: birthdays, death days, marriage, age periods like middle age, youth, infancy, height, size, occurrences, durations, types, and that's just for starters! The list of things we count, celebrate, deplore, revere, etc. becomes odd and yes absurd. Existentialism asks: why keep having birthdays? What does it do?Or name the first X that did Y, or the tallest A out of B, why note this? Where is the meaning in that? An important distinction here, is it is NOT being argued to be unaware of these facts, but to give them some odd form of meaning is what is being denied. That idea is where Existentialism finds faults. Here we are creating artificial meaning where there is none. If you go on and read the succeeding articles, you'll find I keep hammering away at this notion of attaching meaning where none is to be found, objectively. In some cases we do it through the interpretation of our reality, in other by assignment of statistical attributes like those mentioned above. In all cases it is a failing of our human race. One last caveat on this topic is in order. I am a mathematician by education and I am not arguing that human activities like games should be considered meaningless. Not at all, but tabulating whom has won the most games in X series, whom has done the most Y in Z contests is meaningless.See the difference? I like certain musical artists and listen to their works repeatedly, but to tally their greatest hits would be absurd. See the difference? Existentialism would never argue against statistical attributes, but it would argue against assigning non-objective meaning to those stats. So, to know a non-normal distribution of earthquakes in a seismic location is important to evacuation plans, but to give this distribution some reverential significance would be well what else can I say ABSURD. To all readers of this series, I want to ask you to do the following. Become aware of this continual mensuration. Take note, when you hear a news report that tells you of the first this, or the number of years since that. And not just in the media, look for it in your friends, co-workers, even relatives. The next time you make a search on the Net, see if you're not told of some form of measure or unique record. I promise you, you will find it in every case mentioned.
12/6/06 Robleh Wais
More articles in the Existentialism series
Existentialism and Naturalism
Falsity, and Intuitionism. The Dutch mathematician Luitzen Brouwer gives us a
new way to view these concepts in mathematics and outside the field. 12/6/06 Robleh Wais Return to Portal
Truth, Falsity, and Intuitionism. The Dutch mathematician Luitzen Brouwer gives us a new way to view these concepts in mathematics and outside the field.
12/6/06 Robleh Wais
Return to Portal