The Limits of Existentialism

One notion often associated with existentialism is the nihilist assumption that we live in a meaningless universe. This gets coupled with the idea that life has whatever meaning we assign it. A Christian assumption would be that the universe was created by God the creator. The Creator would have had his own purpose in giving rise to physical and mental reality. My favorite candidate for God’s purpose is that, knowing his true nature to be love, he sought to make this love manifest. The purpose of human existence is thus to learn to love in all circumstances. Our destiny is to live a moral life or suffer the consequences. All failure to love will meet with pain. In our search for happiness, we must grow and develop. Striving for happiness is reaching for perfection. The One gives rise to the Many and the Many strives to finds its Maker. Order is created out of disorder. Cosmic dust gives rise to stars which create planets and the miracle of life emerges. Dust becomes conscious, perhaps embodying a very low grade consciousness already, what Whitehead called ‘prehension.’ We see electrons behaving differently when being observed and when not being observed. The purpose of life is to strive for the perfection of our Maker. To suffer, grow and develop – becoming the perfect embodiment of love as is the Father.

Existentialism

Other characteristics of God, perhaps, to violate via negativa, are creativity, playfulness, humor, openness, caring, compassion and joy; maybe sorrow. Appropriate emotions of the created will include wonder, respect and awe. Hatred, disdain, contempt, disgust, ostracism, scapegoating, including the scapegoating of supposed scapegoaters, misery and depression, are human emotions and tendencies that are counter-productive to the human endeavor.

The meaning of life is best viewed from the perspective of the deathbed.

The Sartre-style existentialist claims to know that we live in a meaningless, Godless, universe with no moral structure. This is a very despairing perspective. Depression, nihilism and suicide would seem to be appropriate responses to this scenario.

Sartre instead claims to find this situation liberating. We have the freedom to decide what meaning the universe has, since it has no pre-given meaning of its own. But this kind of freedom would imply that all meanings are equal. There can be no question of being right or wrong, no better or worse. You can’t be closer or further away from the truth, when it comes to meaning, because there is no meaning.

Oddly, the existentialist often subscribes to the notion of determinism; the denial of freedom. The underground man in Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground complains that modern science pictures man as the keys on a piano pressed by an external source. A perfected science and psychology will find man to be perfectly predictable in his rational egoism. The underground man expresses his intention to act in a totally self-destructive manner if this is what it takes to assert his independence from a science-generated determinism, just to regain his freedom. This has led some people to assert that Dostoevsky himself was an existentialist. This delusion is only possible if one completely misunderstands what Dostoevsky was doing. The underground man is a seething pool of resentment. He is not a model. He is not to be admired. He is sick and the exact nature of his sickness is made clear in part two of Notes from Underground which is precisely the part omitted in existentialist sampler texts such as Walter Kaufman’s Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre. The underground man sees in the Other a god. He desires the being of this Other. His hatred for Zverkov and for the officer combines a desire to merge and be one with them along with the bitterest attacks and resentment stemming from this thwarted love. As René Girard points out, what confuses the critics is that Dostoevsky is obviously sympathetic with this desire not to be a key on a keyboard pressed by an other – objective, scientific forces. Me, too. But that only involves rejecting determinism and the fantasy of scientific omniscience. Reading anyone from Nassim Nicholas Taleb to William James should dispel the latter.

Regarding determinism I have written much. To summarize a few points, if determinism is true, then we have no choice whether to agree with it or not, how to live our lives, or anything else. If determinism is true then love doesn’t exist because love can’t exist without freedom. We can’t assign meaning to our lives because this assigning is not ‘we,’ but objective, immutable forces.

To me, the classic incoherent existentialist pose is to announce one’s agreement that determinism is true and that life is meaningless and to shake one’s fist at the universe as a whole in defiance. I strongly suspect that this fist shaking is supposed to excite the admiration of one’s audience. Look at him! How bravely he acts in the face of what should be despair. He will assign life his own meaning; except, of course, this makes no sense. If all my thoughts and actions are determined, then my fist shaking is also determined. My ‘rejection,’ is determined and not a matter of free will.

The existentialist sees freedom in the death of God. Without God, the universe has no God-given meaning. Life has no predetermined meaning, so Man gets to give it his own. One has to overlook, just for some minimal concession to making any kind of sense, the existentialist’s acceptance of determinism.

The existentialist sees a vacuum where once was a God and seeks to fill the void with himself. He will give the universe the meaning he assigns it. The existentialist gets to play God. But just for himself. He’ll be his own God.

If existentialism is so confused and so delusory, why does anyone succumb to it? Like many other philosophical stances, it contains a grain of truth. The grain is that free will does exist – implicitly assumed but often explicitly denied by the existentialist. We are free to believe whatever we want about the meaning of life, including bumper sticker absurdities like ‘He who dies with the most toys wins.’ We can decide the purpose of life is to spread misery and destruction and anything else we choose.

But, I would argue, this freedom includes the freedom to be wrong. If there is no fact of the matter regarding the meaning of life. If there is no fact of the matter concerning value; if morality is not real; if values have no objective existence, then our decisions about the meaning of life are meaningless and arbitrary. Better and worse don’t exist.

It’s only in the context of moral realism, for instance, that we can determine that the existentialist who decides that the meaning of life is to kill as many innocent people as possible, is making a serious mistake.

With regard to Wilber’s four quadrants, the existentialist focuses on the subjective quadrant. There is objective reality. There is inter-objective reality – the social. There is inter-objective reality – the cultural. Language is a cultural artefact. It is communal in nature and so are the meanings of words. The choices we make are the choices available to us. The choices we are capable of thinking of. The choices that are socially available to us from the models we are familiar with. There is a physical and cultural and metaphysical reality. How we choose to think about these realities is influenced by those realities and we in turn can exert a little bit of influence back. While our circumstances are largely given, how we choose to think about them is up to us within a particular context. Certain possibilities are closed off for social or cultural reasons. We can’t be Daniel Boone anymore, a Native American hunter, or a builder of Egyptian pyramids.

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I once had an officemate who hated the notion that life had meaning. Thinking that the endpoint was some kind of moral perfection, even though moral perfection is scarcely conceivable, he found oppressive. But to say that life has meaning is in some respects just admitting that there are physical and metaphysical realities that exist regardless of how we think of them. If God exists and God created the universe, then the universe IS one way and not another. The only way to avoid this state of affairs is for God to fail to create reality at all. And even if God did not create the universe, the universe STILL just IS one way and not another if the universe exists. Either objective value exists, regardless of our personal opinions on the subject, or not.

Another aspect of truth that the existentialist may be tapping into is our state of doubt and uncertainty about the nature of objective value and meaning. We are in the situation of having to make our best guess, including whether to accept certain religious directives or not. Where they are wrong is in thinking you can’t be wrong! And, in fact, the fact that we can be wrong regarding the meaning of life is what makes trying to determine this meaning meaningful.

Existentialism tends to be particularly attractive to young people because they are in the process of establishing their identities as separate from their parents. In this context, existentialism certainly makes one’s apparent range of choices seem as wide as possible. However, by denying the existence of any metaphysical realities underlying these choices, existentialism implies a nihilism and meaningless to the search, leading to the pathology of cynicism, closing you off to the world before one has even had the chance to experience it.

The idea of Wilber’s quadrants is to encourage one to focus on more than just one’s favorite quadrant. The quadrants are to act as a corrective; substituting more complete truths for partial truths. It’s not a question of abandoning one’s favorite quadrant, but of supplementing it with considerations one might otherwise be tempted to ignore. Partial truths can turn into big lies. Biological reductionism is the result of looking just at the upper right quadrant. Social constructionism focuses exclusively on the lower left. Existentialists tend to ignore both. It’s not life that is necessarily absurd, but their own inadequate perspective.

Richard-Cocks2Richard Cocks teaches philosophy with key interests in ethics, metaphysics and consciousness from Platonic, Christian and Buddhist perspectives, with an especial interest in canonical works of Western Civ.