Category Archives: Existentialism

A short(ish) post on determinism

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Da podcast!

I was just listening to a great philosophical podcast about moral responsibility (see link to the podcast above, and link to the blog featuring the podcast below), where I was introduced to the following pseudo-syllogism related to determinism:

1st Premise: What you do is determined by who you are.

2nd P: If you can’t control who you are, you can’t control what you do.

3rd P: You can’t control who you are.

Conclusion: Therefore, you can’t control what you do.

I’m not sure whether this is an entirely accurate quote, because I’m too lazy to go back and check, but I do believe I’ve got the gist of it (it certainly works, at least in my head). I just wanted to put this up because I like how concisely it outlines the theory put forth by determinism. As an example, imagine a person who is brought up in a devout Christian community by Christian parents, who later on in life starts writing an anti-LGBT blog (in this example, I’m thinking of a traditional, slightly extremist Christian community – there are of course many Christians today who fully accept non-heterosexual people). Now, we might say that this person had bad moral character. But, really, a reasonable person would have to admit that the individual in question is opposed to the LGBT lifestyle not because hse (sic) is evil, but because hse’s been raised in a particular way.

So there are two things I’d like to talk about related to this. First of all; if we accept determinism (which, of course, we don’t necessarily have to do), then what conclusions can we make regarding ethics? If people aren’t really in control of what they do, then surely there’s no such thing as a moral or immoral action? For someone to be considered a moral agent, they need to have free will – the ability, in the case of ethics, to choose between right and wrong. Here’s what I think; on some level, we can say that an action is wrong even if we do accept determinism, by applying certain tests/moral theories such as utilitarianism. Just because people can’t really choose between right and wrong doesn’t mean that the distinction doesn’t exist. However, what we can’t do is judge people because of their actions.

The second thing I’d like to talk about, quite briefly, is the idea that determinism is somehow an unpleasant theory. Generally, whenever determinism pops up (as in the aforementioned podcast), the discussion immediately turns to how horrible it would be if it were true. No free will! We’d be slaves to fate, incapable of making choices, shackled to causal chains that we have no control over whatsoever. People tend to shy away from this. It’s intimidating. We don’t want it to be true. However (and this is my point), freedom isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Sure, it’s a wonderful concept. On paper, it sounds terrific. But if you look at the work of Jean-Paul Sartre (who thought that we were all most definitely free), you’ll find that he was kinda fond of saying that we’re all condemned to be free. He saw freedom as something that was, in a way, unpleasant. His reason for this was, essentially, that with freedom comes responsibility. If we’re free, we have to take responsibility for every conscious action that we take. That can be pretty heavy at times, especially if we’re unsuccessful or unhappy. If life doesn’t go the way we want it to, it’s our fault. In a way, if determinism is true, we have another kind of freedom. In a deterministic world, we’re free of freedom (or responsibility, if you wish). It’s the sort of freedom an animal, plant, or mineral has. The freedom to simply be, and “go with the flow”.

The above may be interpreted in such a way as to promote anarchy. But sometimes we have to ignore “deeper” truths for the greater good of ourselves and society (in other words, it’s all fine and dandy to not believe in personal responsibility, but it’s probably best if you pretend that you do). And, of course, we can’t be sure; determinism may well be incorrect.

Also, I have to admit that I didn’t listen to the entire podcast, so I might be repeating some of the things that were said  towards the end of it. I’ll probably finish listening to it soon (it was very interesting), and if I find this to be the case, I’ll come back and edit what I’ve written here – probably.

Hse: he/she. Pronounced like “see” but with a really husky voice. The Finnish have a word for man/woman (hen), why shouldn’t we? Makes life easier.

Of Absurdity: What it is

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This is the first in an intended series of essays based around the IB Philosophy exams. It is essentially a summary of absurdism, an understanding of which could prove useful in the paper 2 exam, specifically the “What is a human Being?” section.

Absurdism is a school of existential thought which, as the name suggests, is concerned with the apparent absurdity of existence. Conceived of and developed by philosophers like Sören Kierkegaard and Albert Camus, absurdism deals specifically with a concept known as “the Absurd”. In philosophy, Absurdity is that which arises from man’s incessant struggle to find meaning in what appears to be a fundamentally meaningless universe. Absurdists argue that there is no higher meaning to be found in life, and that this struggle, therefore, can only ever lead to the generation of existential angst. Indeed, absurdists posit that the Absurd is one of the primary causes of such angst, and that dealing with it is an essential step that must be taken by any individual wishing to free him or herself from its clutches. Much like surrealism, the movement has inspired an analogous movement within the arts.

I would like to begin with the man who is generally seen as having started the movement; Danish philosopher Sören Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard is known today for his extensive work within the area of existentialism, and he was the first philosopher to make a concrete attempt at defining and dealing with Absurdity. As he was a devout christian, it is only natural that his particular brand of absurdism has become known as theistic absurdism. His approach to dealing with the Absurd was quite straight forward; after defining it and identifying it as a source of existential angst, he proceeded to offer plausible solutions to the problem, along with an analysis of each. The first of these solutions was suicide. A simple, apparently elegant way to deal with the issue, at least on the surface, but one that Kierkegaard rejected. Suicide, he felt, was a kind of surrender. Rather than a solution to the problem, he saw it as an example of Absurdity pushing a man to extreme and self-destructive action. In other words, he saw it as the virtual opposite of a solution.

But Kierkegaard put forth another possible response, namely that of a “leap of faith”. For Kierkegaard, the only way to give true meaning to one’s life and thus escape Absurdity was to believe in God. This was the final answer for Kierkegaard. All one had to do was to nurture one’s faith, and the problem would be undone. But, as valid as this solution may have seemed in Kierkegaard’s time (the 19th century), it does not seem quite so palatable today. A more modern, secular answer is needed.

This is where 20th century philosopher and writer Albert Camus comes in. Camus, continuing the work of Kierkegaard years after his death, felt that the “leap of faith” was only a marginally better solution than suicide. Indeed, he saw it as a sort of “philosophical suicide”. A surrender of the mind rather than the body, if you wish. After rejecting this response, he set out to devise a third option that did not rely on religious belief. He eventually arrived at the idea of acceptance. By accepting the Absurd, Camus claimed, people could eventually come to free themselves from anxiety and learn to live more fully in the moment. To Camus, this was the only viable solution; Absurdity had to be accepted as a fact of life, at least for the time being, and changes to one’s approach to life had to be made accordingly.

This may sound somewhat bleak, but in reality it is a wholly realistic and at heart quite wonderful response to the problem of the Absurd. Life’s uncertainties, amongst them the potential insignificance of our existence, cannot be escaped. While I do not think religious belief to be such a terrible way of dealing with the issue, I do believe that a critically minded person should at all times maintain an awareness of the fact that belief is belief and as such is wholly separate from fact. Acceptance, then, must be undertaken in order for a person to genuinely overcome the problem of Absurdity, although this can be done in combination with Kierkegaard’s “leap of faith”. This acceptance allows us to have a fuller, deeper understanding of our existence, and makes us more aware of the intrinsic value that can be found in every precious second of our lives. It is a mode of thought that, while trying at times, can enrich a person’s life.

This is only a cursory overview of philosophical absurdism, and I urge anyone who feels interested in the subject to do some further research. I have found the Wikipedia article to be highly informative, and can recommend it as further reading. Other than this, you might be interested in finding a copy of Camus’ “The Myth of Sisyphus” (if you’re very seriously interested, you might want to look at some translations of Kierkegaard’s works, but what little I have read of his stuff seems highly esoteric and exceedingly “heavy”).

Can God exist in an existential world?

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In an existentialist world, where everything revolves around the individual and essentially “every man is an island” (as opposed to John Donne’s “no man is an island” concept), is there any place for God? The existentialists themselves disagree on this particular point, with theist and atheist philosophers taking up stand points on either side of the argument.

Some have said that this world is too small, too constricted, for there to be two free “realities”. Human freedom cannot coexist with divine freedom, and of course it would be illogical and improbable for there to be no such freedom whatsoever. Some see a thesable tension between divine and human freedom. Sartre stated that humans are indeed free and therefore God cannot exist. Indeed, if we do believe that humans are free the notion of God becomes difficult to support. God is by definition omniscient and omnipotent, and so if we have this liberty then the whole idea of the divine being we refer to as God simply ceases to function properly. However, it is possible that we do not have complete freedom. Determinism states that everything we do is the result of a long chain of events, and so we are in fact no more free than puppets. Incidentally, determinism offers a fairly strong piece of evidence regarding the existence of God, as this chain of events must have originated from something. 

Nevertheless, we are talking about an existentialist world. So the problem remains; freedom vs freedom. If God is omnipotent then we are not free and so our personal existence is detrimentally impacted. If we are free, the whole image of God becomes warped. There is however, in my opinion, a way to manouvre around this.  I presume you have seen or at least heard of the comedy “Bruce Allmighty”, where Jim Carrey (or rather the man portrayed by mr. Carrey) is allowed to take on the role of God. He can do absolutely anything he chooses and has absolute power except over free will. He cannot influence human freedom. In a way, this solves the problem admirably. Consider for a moment that there are some “rules” which even God must adhere to, much like in the previously mentioned movie. Naturally, this would impact his omnipotence, but not if it was God himself who made the rules. You may have heard of this concept before, albeit on a less divine scale. It’s sometimes known as discipline. If God where to make the choice to allow us to have our freedom and restrained himself from influencing it, we could have a certain coexistence between divine and human freedom. You could still say that God’s omnipotence would be reduced in this situation, or even that he would not be completely “free” due to his self-imposed limitations. Nevertheless, they would be self-imposed restrictions. God would have exerted his freedom to put this limit into the place. This solves the problem of divine freedom clashing with human freedom rather admirably in my humble opinion.

Existentialism seems to support the idea of us all being “disconnected”; being complete and utter individuals. Perhaps this is true, perhaps this is why many of us are constantly striving to be accepted by others, in order to experience some kind of connection with other people no matter how fleeting this connection is (this is more probably due to us originally being pack animals before evolution remade us in our current model, but that is a matter to be discussed in a science essay). This would suggest that we are also disconnected from God. However, the idea of God is that he is, to a fashion, apart of us all. That we are all interconnected, even with that divine being. If we are complete individuals, entirely disconnected from everything but ourselves, is God not just some abstract concept floating around aimlessly in space? However, things do not truly need to be connected to be a part of a system. The sun does not need to be “connected” with the chlorophyll in plants in order to power their photosynthesis. 

So, I believe a conclusion has been reached. Though there are certain kinks which could potentially make it impossible for God to exist in a fully existential world, with some compromises it would most certainly be possible. And, of course, it seems unlikely that a world would be fully existential to start with.

Very well, that would be all, thank you my dear readers!

House Philosophy

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House Philosophy

Right, so here we are; my first philosophy task. Basically, Mr Noonan showed us an episode of the wondrous tv show House (episode 2 season 7 to be precise) and asked us to record our thoughts on how the episode relates to human existence in our blogs.

Due to a certain personal tendency towards laziness, and an aversion towards the idea of giving a faulty explanation, I shall not engage on the perilous task of summarizing the episode, suffice it to say that it is the one about the athletic girl who winds up needing a part of her wheelchair-bound brother’s lung.

Personal identity seems to be a central issue in this episode, as it is made clear to the viewer that the patient has been trying to live the life of her handicapped brother for him. She even says this straight out. So how does this impact her existence? If she is striving to live the life of someone else, does that diminish her personal existence? Certainly her individuality would be adversely affected, so perhaps one could say that it would indeed reduce her existence to something less complete.

Something which struck me as quite existentially relevant was the climax of the episode, where the girl’s brother sits by her bedside and with tear-filled eyes begs her to take a part of his lung. He explains to her that she is the one doing all those things that she does, and all he can ever do is act as a support team and coach. If she takes a part of his lung, he says, then he can be a part of her and thus be a participant in those activities. The question this raises for me is, quite frankly, whether this would work. If one takes a part of ones physical body and puts it into another person, does that transfer a part of ones being, ones soul if you wish, into that person? How great is the disconnection between the spiritual self and the physical self?