The Existential Concept

12/6/06 Ken Wais




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 disaffecting 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. I will name and discuss a few during the course of this article.


Existentialism Basic


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 principle 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.


There are many other deduced results from these four tenets, and we will explore them.


The Genesis of the 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.As we go on in life, we develop such bonds with others of our ilk: those whom speak our language, share our culture, our blood relations,and those to whom we are sexually attracted. Of course, the list is much longer than this, but these are some of the major relationships that spring to mind. Existentialism in its extreme form directly combats some common sense notions.It contends you should feel no bonds with anyone save yourself.Here is where the heart of the philosophy comes into play.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.And you should be the only being that feels the same as you. The phrase same as has another term: Identify.Identity means to feel that something is the same as something else.In this case, you feel the same as yourself.While this sounds obvious, the concept of identification is extremely important in Existentialism and leads to the strange conclusion I cited.If you identify with anyone other than yourself, you are mis-identifying.Weird, right? But, true, very true. Stop feeling like your brother, or your father or your child, they are not you. This DOESN'T mean don't feel emotional love for them. I love my daughter deeply, but I don't identify with her. It means so much misdirected emotion on the part of humanity has to do with feelings that are directed outward. A good existentialist doesnít 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 Iím 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.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 being toward 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 toward itself.We are have introspection, we are aware of ourselves in a special way, we know, we are separate living beings that interaction with the world at large. As an example, you might imagine a man thinking to himself the following: I gotta get up early tomorrow and go to work and finish the coding feedback loop I started. Damn I shouldnít have gone out tonight. In our fictional 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 under the Absurd.


Just look at it and the absurdity of life should jump at out 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.But, thatís not bad enough, you quickly discover that you are going die.It just doesnít 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.Weíre all just here for oh maybe 70 or 80 years and then BANG, bye-bye.Marrying, having children and raising them doesnít make up for this feeling that life is a strange kind of joke on you.


Lets go back to identity.Identity means 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 someoneís 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, or in other words you identify with that person.Now, I must point out that identity is really a larger class of knowledge that cognitive science describes as the other minds class.This means we, as human beings 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 But, it's ironical also, that same ability separates us. By knowing their other minds out there that like yours, the individual also knows, those minds are not the same as his mind. His tacit knowledge of others like him, in effect works to alienate him from them.Paradoxical isnít it?


So, man must judge existence as a kind of senseless phenomenon in which our participation is obligatory.I mean he canít escape it. These unfolding negative truths about his existence only adds 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. From this root springs 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 individualís life.These notions are self-deceptive because only the person that this misled is the individual himself.He is the only one deceived.The outside world, governed by the laws of physics has no 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 accept faith 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 take away to belief in something eternal that will give them salvation. I donít go quite that far. I do affirm, that beliefs which attribute control of reality, to some omnipotent being are false. I canít prove this belief.More important is that Existentialism is a philosophy with its own moral code of action. It, like Catholicism, Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism and many animistic nature-based religions is based upon a belief.Unlike, the aforementioned ones, Existentialism applies its beliefs to the individualís perceptions and ultimately to his concepts that evolve from these perceptions. In this way, it agrees with much of that scientific reasoning does. Yet, it is not a philosophy of science. And this is what we will explore next.


Science and Existential Reasoning

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, unlikely the 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 doesnít 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 neednít agree with the philosophyís 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 doesnít attribute meaning to it. The same can be said of the other fields. Science doesnít intrude on the great philosophic debate about purpose and meaning in the universe. Well, it doesnít unless you subscribe to that category of thinkers whom can only be called pseudo-scientists. Those charlatans that argue since science doesnít make teleological pronouncements they must make such conclusions. Itís quite fitting that Existentialists are most at odds with them. Yet, Existentialist would not engage in polemics with this lot. They're not worth such consideration. One mistake that Existentialists must avoid is arguing in the opposite direction: i.e. because science doesn't show meaning to existence, then we know there is none. This is just as logically flawed as the pseudo-scientists views. Lack of evidence for a proposition is not proof of its invalidity or falsehood. With that said, what Existentialists can affirm is science cannot help any argument that seeks to establish purpose or meaning in reality. The field of Biology provides a good illustration of the point.

Richard Dawkins, a British biologist wrote a book in 1976 entitled The Selfish Gene, in which he described a thesis that was novel and new. 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. But, thatís the short story. Now, we must ask what does he mean by life being nothing more than various organisms locked in struggle? Is he saying genes consciously decide that they want to survive and thus make use of the bodies they are in to effect this desire? If that were the case, I would most certainly have to admit, there is purpose and meaning in our world. Yet, this is not what heís 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. More clearly, genes are not conscious beings, but a molecular process within 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 youíve fallen right in 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 doesnít 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 donít think: man I gotta pass myself on to another person, animal or plant if Iím gonna keep my line going. We know thatís absurd. 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 planetís 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 canít be said to intend this. Again, this conclusion is not about purpose, but about the deterministic process. One, which can be remedied I must add to our merit.

Next, we turn to the topic of meaning and interpretation. I want to make it clear what these terms are in Existentialism. The crux of the philosophy is embodied in them. After that, we can examine the psychological implications of Existentialism. As you will see, there is an ethical code in this philosophy. A true ethical code that puts responsibility for the individuals actions squarely upon the shoulders of him or her.

Meaning and Interpretation