Ruminations on Existentialism: tentative agreements and disagreements

In my attempts to get a handle on the key schools of thought within ancient, modern, and contemporary theology, I’ve often read that certain theologies (especially Kierkegaard) have roots in Existentialism. After enough encounters with this label I figured I should familiarize myself with it. So I read Existentialism: A Beginner’s Guide by Thomas E. Wartenberg. What follows are some of the key points and associated reflections. All misrepresentations and errors are my own.

Point 1: “Existence precedes essence.” Existentialism is a reaction to much of the Enlightenment paradigm that sought for a scientific, rationalistic, and determinative account for human existence and behavior. These paradigms ultimately understand human beings to be the same as any other organism (albeit more creative and intelligent) and the same essence as the other material and things of the universe. Existentialism says NO to this and asserts that humans are unique in that we can choose and create our own natures through self-will and determination.

This is something I’ve been struggling with for a few years now, even since I dug into the research on the nature of consciousness and neuropsychology. I’d like to agree with the Existentialists on this one… but I also can’t discount the mountain of evidence about the determinative nature of human behavior based on brain stimuli. The best I’ve been able to come up with so far is some sort of solution through either “consciousness as an emergent property” or applying quantum theory in some way to allow for the effect of quantum mechanics (with its focus of randomness) on our neurons to enable free will in one way or another.

Point 2: Most people would rather not accept the burdens of freedom but outsource their moral thinking and responsibility to others (political systems, religious philosophies, etc.).

I tend to agree with the Existentialist viewpoint here. There’s all kinds of evolutionary research that can help explain why humans are so quick to organize themselves into groups and hierarchies, as well as to simplify their decision-making processes. Most of the time most people feel more comfortable following orders and conforming to their social groups than making decisions on their own and accepting the full responsibility for the consequences.

Point 3: We live most of our lives thinking about what other people think about us and feeling pressure to conform to their opinions.

Yep. Once again there’s all kinds of evolutionary explanations in social psychology for this reality.

Point 4: The knowledge that we are ultimately responsible for our own choices gives us anxiety, which we like to pretend is not there. This anxiety, though, is a key characteristic of human experience.

I suppose I appreciate that Existentialists are trying to put a positive spin on anxiety. I’m someone who spends a good part of most days actively managing generalized anxiety about one thing or another. It’s helpful for me to reframe this from being a negative to a positive (“at least it’s a good thing that I’m able to have anxiety about this or that”).

But then, are we ultimately responsible for our own choices? How much of our behavior is outside of our control, whether from genetics, context, socialization, environmental constraints, etc. etc.? I used to think not very much, but more and more research is continuing the shrink the space of behaviors that is not explainable by some factor outside our control.

Point 5: We should give up on the idealistic fiction that we can fully understand the world. We’re limited to our own perspectives and experiences and that’s about as much as we can expect.

This seems to me to be a blend of Burkean conservatism (the world is too complicated for limited humans to be able to figure out) and postmodern relativism (we can never fully transcend our own limited perspectives).

I don’t want this to be true. I have this romantic ideal that someday all truth will be known (or at least can be known) and that humans will be able to figure out the One Grand Theory that explains All The Things of Everything. I’m a sucker for the Enlightenment mentality that reason and science will ultimately be able to figure everything out, and I find meaning in my career as a social scientist helping add to the sum total of knowledge in the world.

But the realist in me also recognizes that this may not ever be fully achievable.

Point 6: The knowledge that we will someday die should motivate us to live a more authentic life and free us from the expectations of what others expect us to do and think.

This is a KEY point for me. I’m someone who suffers from a lot of “people pleaser” anxiety and I’ve spent a good deal of my life managing other people’s expectations and opinions about me. I don’t like to make other people sad or disappointed with my actions.

Something that really hit me square in the face was reading about the major regrets that people tend to express when they near the end of life, one of which is: “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.” Wow. It took me a while to internalize this. When I get to the end of my life and it’s just me and me left to think about my life and actions, will I be more glad that I spent my time conforming my choices and behaviors to help other people feel comfortable… or that I’d done what brought me joy, happiness, meaning, and fulfillment? I realized I didn’t want to have this same regret when the end of my life is drawing near.

Of course, that wasn’t a magic cure. I still spend too much time worrying about what other people think about me. And I don’t believe that this gives us an ethical license to just do whatever we want with no consideration for how our actions affect others. But reminding myself of this major regret has given me the courage sometimes to make decisions that I think are right and good, even if they disappoint others close to me.

Point 7: The meaning of life is to create for ourselves the meanings most authentic to us. Nietzsche: how would we live our lives if we were going to live the same life over and over and over and over again infinitely? What decisions would we want to be the ones that we experience forever? That is what authentic experiences are. Morality is what is authentic.

Wow. I’m going to have to really think on this one. Morality is what is authentic to you? My personal ethic system has to include some account of how my actions are affecting other people, (whether I’m actively harming them or not, for example). Would I still make the choices that I look at now as “mistakes,” as I wouldn’t be the person I am if I hadn’t made those mistakes and learned from them? I don’t know. At this point I don’t think I could accept Nietzsche’s definition of morality, but I’m open to thinking about it further.

Point 8: Life is full of absurdities, that is, things that do not conform to reason. We should embrace this. For Kierkegaard, one these included the scandal (absurdity) of religious belief and the “leap of faith.” It’s not rational and there’s no point trying to rationalize it. You just CHOOSE it even though it’s somewhat absurd.

I agree to some extent I suppose. I believe in randomness and chaos as a principle of the physics and the nature of reality. This can cause things that we might call “absurdities” to happen, but then, this chaos is a principle accounted for within the framework of reason, math, and science.

And I agree that ultimately, a “leap of faith” is required in many things because we don’t have full access to All The Knowledge needed to be able to make a 100% fully informed decision on most things.

I disagree, though, about “there’s no point trying to rationalize it.” There are plenty of absurdities that people believe today, and if we get into the habit of people believing things just because they want to without any empirical support, you get stuff like QAnon, climate change denial, and civil war when enough people chose to believe that election outcomes are “rigged.” I don’t think these are morally praiseworthy decisions to believe these things in the face of reason and evidence.

Ultimately, my belief in God and associated spiritual life depends on the leap of faith that I make on a daily basis. I don’t think, though, that this releases me from the obligation to try to understand that decision and its associated consequences (for myself as well as others) as best I can through the lens of reason, science, and evidence.

All in all, what I find useful and compelling in Existentialism is that it helps give me more courage to make choices that are true and authentic to me even if they disappoint other people. I agree with them that most people most of the time take the easy road of social conformity.

That said, at this point I’m not persuaded by Existentialism’s strong rejection of Enlightenment principles of reason and skepticism, that “authenticity” is the sole and only ethical principle in human life, or their expansive view of free will.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s