The nature of our reality and existence has been a topic of debate since at least the ancient Greeks. Do we exist? Why do we exist? Does it even matter? These are questions I will attempt to address thoroughly. Answers may not be comfortable or satisfactory, but it’s better to rip that band-aid off now than continue blindly in the dark. Rationalism and Empiricism have both attempted to prove existence, but at their most extremes they fall apart. Using these two opposite systems of investigation, existence cannot truly be known without a shadow of a doubt.
Does it matter? Existentialist philosophers say simultaneously yes and no: what passes for existence is intrinsically meaningless, but any meaning is derived from you, but only if you choose to do so. If questing over a perfect proof for existence gives one’s life/existence meaning, then that is the only true meaning. In 1637, Rene Descartes published his Meditations on First Philosophy . For its day, this work was groundbreaking; most of philosophy before Descartes was dominated by Aristotelian thinking.
Descartes started off by pointing out in his first meditation that we explore our world by using our senses. However, our senses are prone to error; if we see a person we recognize, we might run up to greet them, tap them on the shoulder, only to be completely mistaken and embarrassed. If our senses are so prone to error, how can we trust anything? How can we believe without a shadow of a doubt our entire existence is even true? Descartes attempted to attack skepticism head on by simply using logic and reason. He transitions to pointing out that he has the capacity to doubt.
This clearly means he is a thinking thing; which means in he must exist in some form. Anything beyond that is uncertain (at that point in The Meditations). This is where Descartes’ famed Cogito Ergo Sum is derived; “I think therefore I am” (Descartes, 2006 pp 8-12). Descartes goes on to offer proofs of things existing beyond himself, as well as offering several proofs for the existence of God and that he is not a deceiver. The structural beauty of Descartes’ Meditation system is that each meditation builds upon the previous, that each proof depends on the stability of the last.
This structure ends up being Cartesian Skepticism’s undoing. Enter Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche (1844-1900) famed for his Nihilistic take on philosophy and his phrase (albeit generally misinterpreted by angsty teenagers) “God is dead” from his 1886 work Beyond Good and Evil. Also from this work is Nietzsche’s critique of Descartes’ Cogito. Descartes states that he knows he exists because he is a thinking thing. Nietzsche points out that to think is a verb, and there must be one in order to perform said verb (Nietzsche, 1886 pp 24-25).
Descartes never once offers a proof that the one performing the action of thinking is himself. Nietzsche says that using this method of skepticism, the only thing one can be sure of is that “there are thoughts. ” Nietzsche has several other issues with Descartes that I will not get into that further tear down Descartes’ iconic argument for existence. Because Descartes never proves that he is the one having thoughts, he is never able to go onto proving his concept of Clear & Distinct Perceptions, and therefore that God exists and is not a deceiver.
One could even suggest that Descartes’ infamous evil deceiver is still in play, even though Descartes reportedly never truly believed in such a being (only knew that he could never rule him out). From here, that leaves us in a precarious situation, how can we build certainty back into our world? There are two main camps that try and address skepticism. Descartes is considered on the more extreme end of rationalism, or the branch that attempts to dispel uncertainty through logic and reason alone (stereotypical “arm chair” philosophers).
Since rationalism falls, perhaps its foil empiricism can bring certainty back into to the world and prove existence and give us some comfort? John Locke (1632-1704) is considered the founder of modern empiricism (Uzgalis, 2017). Locke’s approach to building certainty was not quite nearly as extreme as Descartes. Locke suggested the following in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding: Every object has primary qualities and secondary qualities. Primary qualities are things that definitively make an object. These are things like mass, weight, depth, firmness, anything that can be empirically measured.
These are things that everyone can all agree on; nothing is subjective. Secondary qualities on the other hand are are more subjective. Since the classic example is an apple, I’ll run with that. Secondary qualities of an apple would be things like colour and taste. How can one know that the red of some arbitrary apple is the same for all of us? We could quantify the colour of an apple through computer software, but are we all still seeing the same colour at the end of the day? Locke essentially says it doesn’t matter.
These secondary qualities are actually fake, since they are what introduce uncertainty and doubt into our world, since we all perceive them differently. After John Locke introduced his system to address doubt, a philosopher by the name of George Berkeley (1685-1753) came about. Berkeley was incredibly inspired Locke, and took his system even further to near absurd levels to the point of using the system against him. He essentially became the “Empiricist Descartes. (Downing, 2004) Berkeley pointed out that the primary and secondary qualities of an object are intrinsically linked.
You cannot have one without another. You cannot have an apple without any secondary qualities. A colourless apple? A tasteless apple? No such thing exists. If you try to imagine a colourless apple it is impossible. If you try to imagine one, it is either black, white, or transparent. A transparent apple is simply the colour of whatever is behind said apple being superimposed on it. Berkeley says that if the secondary qualities of an object are fake then so must be the primary qualities. He concludes that all matter is therefore fake, and the only thing we can be certain of is that “there are perceptions. This conclusion is not a far cry from Nietzsche’s critique of Descartes’ Cogito. So, this leaves us in a precarious situation. Both ends of the spectrum are unable to build any true certainty back into our world. Locke offered a fairly reasonable system, but as Berkeley points out it collapses in on itself when taken to its logical conclusion. So we have two paths we can take: we can either accept imperfect systems that Descartes and Locke have provided, or we can reject them and live in a world of doubt and simply accept whatever this is that passes for existence.
What is the correct option? Well, a German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer will tell you: neither option truly matters. Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) is mostly known for his extremely pessimistic nihilistic philosophy and his disdain for religion (Wicks, 2003). Schopenhauer’s work went onto influence many of the later Existential Nihilists such as Friedrich Nietzsche and Soren Kierkegaard. Now that we’re getting into the Existential part of this paper, let’s get some relevant terms out of the way to keep things from getting convoluted.
In this area of philosophy there are three camps one can fall into: · Nihilism: The belief that life and existence has no intrinsic meaning, and looking for any meaning is a pointless effort; an action that is absurd. · Absurdism: The belief that life and existence has no intrinsic meaning, but living on in spite of that, searching for some meaning even though these ideas are in conflict with each other. Essentially, living in “the abused” and enjoying life in any way possible.
Existentialism: The belief that life and existence has no intrinsic meaning, however one can build their own meaning into their own life (your essence) by adopting a sort of code to live by. The opposite of Essentialism which suggests that you are given your essence and meaning prebirth. Arthur Schopenhauer falls squarely into the Nihilism school of thought. In his work he gives several proofs that life itself is pointless and devoid of value. Schopenhauer, n. d. ) He says “All our striving is in vain because of death; the goal of our being is non-being”.
The one I will focus on is his proof via the existence of boredom (as it shows up in several of its works). From Schopenhauer’s essay On The Vanity of Existence, the proof goes like this: the fact that boredom exists is a direct proof for the meaningless of life. If existence had any meaning, it would fulfill us all of the time. Man by nature has needs: hunger, sleep, sensual, curiosity, academic, etc. Man is constantly striving to satisfy these things. Some are easier to satisfy than others. However, once these have been satisfied, we enters a state of “painlessness,” but that only leads to boredom.
As Schopenhauer puts it “boredom is nothing other than the sensation of the emptiness of existence. For if life, in the desire for which our essence and existence consists, possessed in itself a positive value and real content, there would be no such thing as boredom: mere existence would fulfill and satisfy us. Schopenhauer goes on to say we only take real pleasure in existence when we are striving towards something, otherwise boredom, the emptiness of existence, consumes us. All of this leads Schopenhauer to believe that human life in itself must be some sort of a mistake.
I have even heard the phrase from an unknown source: “we are evolved chemical byproducts that have tragically achieved self awareness. ” An evolved chemical byproduct stuck hurling away on a rock through an indifferent universe; a universe who does not care whether we live, die, succeed, or fail. This revelation is likely not comforting to most. We are creatures who crave order and meaning. If none of it truly exists, how do we cope? There are three paths one can take: · Embrace religion or create a system, a moral code to live by built upon things you value · Continue living in spite of the absurd.
Accept the meaninglessness and continue anyway and enjoy what life has to offer · Suicide; since existence is meaningless, and sometimes too painful or boring to bear It wasn’t until the mid 20th century until these schools of philosophy really took root. Likely due to the holocaust not long before. Men, women, children, entire ethnic groups; led into gas chambers to die a horrible, senseless death, or shot on the spot, whatever the Nazis felt doing at the time. What of the horrors of Dr. Josef Mengele’s experiments? There is no meaning in this.
To justify some meaning is disgusting and insulting to victims of atrocities like this, whether it be large scale genocide (Armenian, Rwandan, and Darfur genocides, the Holocaust, Khmer Rouge Killing Fields, etc. ) or smaller scale tragedies (day-to-day murder, rape, accidental death, etc. . Birth defects, cancers in children, forced genital mutilation, systems created that exploit the most disadvantaged of people. Our world is full of horrors: if there is a cosmic meaning to any of these things then it is completely beyond human understanding.
A French philosopher by the name of Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) tried making sense of this problem by building on Existentialism. How can we as human beings, who need structure and meaning in our lives, cope with non-meaning? Sartre’s work can get abstract, so please bear with me; reread sections if you have to. Flynn, 2004) A large part of the Sartrean philosophy is the idea of freedom (free will). Since there is nothing that has any true preordained purpose or meaning, that means anything is truly possible.
With no meaning comes no rules or order, with no rules or order comes no consequences for any action. Sartre calls this the “angoisse” or the “anguish of freedom. ” Sartre even goes as far as saying “man is condemned to be free. ” This type of “terrifying” freedom, as Sartre puts it, can explain for the deepest depths of depravity human beings can sink to. How can things like the Holocaust happen? There is literally nothing stopping humans from doing them; there is no cosmic force or justice preventing it.
Any authority that could possibly oppose it is simply made up of human beings; to which Sartre argues is fake. These authorities are human constructs, made up of people just like you and I, figuring things out as we go. Concepts of what good and evil are simply arbitrary human creations. Humanity was not given a guide book on how to live. There is no one correct way to approach life. This is what Sartre means when he says we have a “terrifying” amount of freedom. With this knowledge of the immense amount of freedom we have, what are we to do with it?
As mentioned before, since all authorities are fake, you can really do whatever you want with it. Infact, Sartre suggests one live their life “authentically. ” Living authentically is essentially, accepting that existence in and of itself has no meaning, however one can build meaning into their own life by making choices based upon things they value by acknowledging your freedom. Nobody can make a choice for you, you have to make one for yourself. People who do not live this way, and follow what they’re told to do by religion, parents, teachers, etc.
Sartre says have “bad faith. ” Bad faith is simply burying your head in the sand and not accepting the full weight of your freedom by limiting your options: “I have to become a teacher because my mother was a teacher and so was my grandmother” or “I have to become a doctor because my parents want me to” would be an example of someone living with bad faith. Only through living your life authentically, can one truly build actual meaning into their life. Sartre has a famous example of how to live life authentically.
In 1946 Sartre gave a lecture he titled “Existentialism is a Humanism” (and later published in 1956) and in this lecture he tells the tale of a student he had during 1940 who was faced with a dilemma. This story is set shortly after the German invasion of France, and this student’s older brother had already been killed in combat. Regardless, this student wanted to go off and fight for his country. He felt that this was the morally right thing to do. However, his father had left the family, and his mother lived all alone with nobody to take care of her.
Since his brother was killed, this young man was all that she had left in her life; she lived for him. If he went to war, she would be left behind with nobody to take care of her, and would likely plunge into despair or even die from a broken heart if he were to disappear or die. This young man was incredibly conflicted because he could only make a single choice. He knew that if he went to war, he would only be a small part of something larger than himself that would make a huge impact on many people, but if he stayed home with his mother he would make a huge impact on just one person.
So what is the correct answer? Sartre says there isn’t one, or at least not until this young man chooses one for himself. Nobody could give tell him what the authentic thing to do is, because nobody else is him. There is no moral system outside of his own that could lead him to making a choice authentically. So whatever choice he ended up making was the only true choice, assuming he made that choice authentically. A contemporary of Sartre was a French/Algerian philosopher and novelist Albert Camus, who took his solution to the intrinsically meaninglessness of existence in a more simplistic direction.
While Sartre cultivated existentialism, Camus more or less founded Absurdism, even though he disliked being identified as a philosopher (Aronson, 2017). In 1942 Camus published his essay The Myth of Sisyphus, which analyzed the myth and attempted to solve what he considered to be the fundamental question of philosophy: is life worth living or not? Because life is intrinsically meaningless, it seems almost logical to not even bother with it and just end things to spare ourselves of the pain, suffering, and boredom that comes with living. Instead however, Camus argues, we must accept the meaninglessness head on.
However, we must continue knowing nothing we do will ever matter in the grand scheme. Simply put, we must enjoy what life has to offer, and make the best of things. We must live our lives like Sisyphus; forever pushing the boulder up the mountain knowing nothing will truly come of it after seeing it tumble down to the base for the nth time, but, Camus says, “we must imagine Sisyphus happy. ” We must acknowledge the absurd, and continue on in spite of it with a smile on our face. The two main areas that try to address skepticism, rationalism and empiricism, at their logical conclusions either fall apart or are lacking.
Descartes’ attempt collapses in on itself, while Berkeley deduces that we don’t have anything beyond the perception of matter; which is still lacking. Locke gave a reasonable system, but by more extreme empiricist standards is imperfect. Nihilism addresses that none of it truly matters in the end; whether existence is certain or not. Absurdism and Sartrean Existentialism both address the fact that our existence, or what passes for existence, is devoid of any real meaning, but give solutions to that meaninglessness.
One can either live on in spite of it and pursue whatever earthly pleasures one enjoys, like Camus and the Absurdists recommend, while one is able to. Or one could attempt to build their own meaning into their life through living authentically. One must meditate on and evaluate what they value in their life, and pursue all things that interest them. If a passion one has is tackling the problem of existence, whether it is real or not, or whether there is some meaning that the Nihilists are missing, then by all means make an attempt; provided you do it on your own terms.