What You Should Think About Existentialism

November 30, 2007

“In the struggle between yourself and the world, side with the world.”

–Franz Kafka

In some circles, existential philosophy has the reputation of an angry teenager. Yet that reputation is different in crucial ways from the “nobody understands me” cliché of adolescence. The trials and tribulations of a typical experience with puberty are made to seem more intense by a host of physical and chemical changes. Little by little, young people must cope with a range of adult issues for the very first time. Like teenage acne, teenage angst is unsightly yet also perfectly natural and well understood by adult outsiders, most having endured it themselves.

By contrast, many critiques of existentialism do not stem from any sort of genuine understanding. It is one thing to have passing encounters with notions like individualism and uncertainty. It is a much different thing to delve into the profundities of the human condition without any ideological safety blanket. Many are the clumsy critics, mauling great works of existentialist thought with interpretations bereft of nuance. Rather than embark on a lifelong journey of learning and personal growth, they wallpaper over great mysteries with conformity and faith.

Understanding existentialism begins by understanding the futility of asserting useful absolute knowledge. We can only be ourselves. Even much of what we know of ourselves comes through flawed perceptions and imperfect communications. All the knowledge we possess of entities beyond ourselves is also a product of those perceptions and communications. Then there is the ever-present prospect of faulty inference.

To uphold any teaching as beyond dispute is to assert inhuman perfection exists within human belief. Yet this process does not end where it begins. Accepting the general limits of human understanding is a major step toward transcending the limits of any specific tradition or doctrine. Insofar as existentialists have any particular aim, it is to liberate the human mind from the circumstance of life as a moral marionette. However uncomfortable a question with no answer may be, it has clear advantages over dedicated entanglement in the threads of popular false narratives.

When existentialist ideas were emerging in the 19th century, even ivory towers were populated predominantly by people convinced that questions of morality yielded to certain answers rooted in traditional beliefs. To people firmly anchored in a particular religious or cultural worldview, it is unpleasant to confront the suggestion that life is packed with unknowns and unknowables. From Apollo’s chariot to literal interpretations of Genesis, it seems human nature to favor even outright implausible narratives over comfortable coexistence with the unknown.

Much of existentialist thought is concerned with philosophical deconstruction. This is no haphazard obliteration of all that has come before. Martin Heidegger, among others, favored the term “abbau.” Perhaps the best metaphor for this process involves the architecture of a growing city. To deliberately level the entire place would be enormously harmful. Yet selective demolition of edifices that are not useful in the present is an essential activity that clears space for new projects that serve new needs.

Abbau offers us a minor paradox in that it is at once destructive and constructive. Just as decrepit brick buildings are best dismantled to make way for towers of glass and steel, invalid or obsolete ways of thinking are best abandoned so as to make way for more realistic and useful beliefs. It is a creative form of destruction, as the absence of dogma and falsehoods is itself a phenomenon worthy of creation. It also facilitates further constructiveness to the degree that accepting uncertainty establishes a foundation for later acceptance of novel information.

Existentialists are often accused of discarding all of tradition in order to embrace amoralism or nihilism. Yet this accusation can only be born from some simple-minded interpretation of philosophy. If anything, existentialists encourage the pursuit of knowledge about other moral and philosophical beliefs. After all, it is dogmatic thinking that causes that the vast majority of human thought to be discarded as heterodox. It becomes much less difficult to assimilate the vast diversity of worthwhile human wisdom after recognizing the profound limitations of all human wisdom, including those beliefs one holds most dear.

Centuries earlier, the dawn of astrophysics prompted ecclesiastical authorities to persecute, even kill, people guilty of no greater heresy than challenging official church doctrine on the nature of heavenly objects. Thus it should come as no surprise that existentialist writings condemning absolute faith in religious morality provoked, and in some circles continue to elicit, incendiary hostility from devout worshipers. The rise of secular governance, especially Western civilization’s embrace of free speech as a human right, protected men like Friedrich Nietzsche and Søren Kierkegaard from state-sanctioned reprisals for controversial publications.

Those two individuals have a peculiar part to play in the story of existentialism’s rise. Both struggled with inner demons even as they displayed outright genius in the analysis of human morality. If there is any real link between nihilistic brooding and existentialist philosophy, it is not in the actual message of existentialist philosophers but rather in the darkest moments of human drama endured by its pioneers.

Neither of them actually espoused nihilism. Kierkegaard was a devout Christian who observed (as is also apparent today) that a vast gulf divides the teachings of Jesus from the deeds of those most vocal about acting in his name. Yet Kierkegaard was also an existentialist. He granted that his faith was a personal choice rather than a logical conclusion, and he never lost touch with an inner struggle between faith and doubt.

By contrast, Nietzsche leveled many powerful broadsides at the core of religion. His command of religious history conspired with a rapier wit to make his works especially provocative. Even as he wrote about the folly of being certain in beliefs, his literary voice conveyed a merry prankster’s boldness. Traditional thinkers were insulted enough to see sacred teachings linked to the ancient myths from which they were so clearly derived. Adding ridicule to the mix helped to shake some readers out of mental malaise even as it afflicted some critics with obsessive hostility.

To some degree there is a link between Buddhism and existentialism. Some Buddhist teachings promote stark honesty regarding the human condition.  Others emphasize the importance of arriving at beliefs as a continuous process of searching for personal enlightenment transcendent of any established doctrine.

Yet existentialism is no religion. In fact, it actively discourages the kind of orthodoxy that comes with most organized religious activity. The central lesson existentialism teaches regarding religion is that whatever wisdom priests and scripture may contain should be given due consideration right alongside wisdom that contradicts the assertions of clerics and holy texts. The search for insight is also a search for the will to let go of the false security provided by attachments to tradition, faith, conformity, nationality, etc.

Existentialism does not offer a path to the easy satisfaction of transcending doubts. This is good, because that easy satisfaction is the progenitor of dangerous zeal. By acknowledging that the human condition simply does not permit an absolute escape from the unknown, existentialism offers a means to become comfortable with abundant mystery. It shines light on the illusory nature of the comforts of dogmatic belief. By acknowledging the real limits of human knowledge, the stage is set for a rebellion against tradition.

Through this process of rebellion, guided by awareness of human limitations, it becomes possible to constantly refine one’s own beliefs, moral and otherwise. Few people find it controversial to assert that lifelong learning is better than settling for an outlook firmly fixed long before life’s end. Yet few also understand just why and how an adaptive personal approach to morality has more to offer than an inflexible doctrinal approach.

Existentialist philosophy offers a long, and occasionally absurd, journey to the frontiers of human understanding. Still, it seems unsound to me to avoid this journey. Attributing infallibility to any particular tradition or teaching can only retard personal moral growth. If there actually was a creative thought process driving the birth of the universe or the development of its inhabitants, it seems clear that this process left human beings with the capacity to think for ourselves. With or without a God watching over us, it seems better to exercise that capacity for moral reasoning than to settle for uncritical adherence to beliefs promoted by others.

What You Should Think About Freewill

November 13, 2007

“Life is like a game of cards. The hand that is dealt you is determinism; the way you play it is free will.”

–Jawaharla Nehru

Many people turn to philosophy in a search for purpose. “Why are we here?” has driven much thinking throughout, and no doubt before, history. Yet there are even more fundamental questions to ask. Understanding humanity’s purpose, or lack thereof, must follow from some understanding of what it means to be a human being. “What are we?” is a question with answers much less self-evident than superficial analysis would suggest.

There can be no doubt that making decisions, and taking action based on the results of decisions, is part of the human experience. Then again, had apples the capacity to appreciate their existence, growing ripe and falling from trees would be part of the quintessential apple experience. As scientific inquiry reveals more and more about the physical workings of the brain, mystery yields to empiricism. Can it be that we are nothing more than chemistry and biology at work?

Truth be told, even in times of abundant mystery there was no evidence substantiating the existence of supernatural components to human existence. The cosmos as it is at present results from the cosmos as it was before. The future will follow from the cosmos as it is now. Understanding all of the processes as they unfold would require an unfathomably complex information system. For that matter, computing all the electrical and chemical activity in a human brain while also modeling the environment from which all stimulus emerges is an impractically complex challenge.

This brings us to the heart of a concept like freewill. It may be reasonable to believe in physical predestination — that the properties we are born with and the experiences we have in life are the only forces that shape human behavior. However, given that those causes defy comprehensive comprehension, an analysis of our decision-making processes takes on a form necessarily different from an analysis of the growth and descent of a falling apple.

Too often, predestination is used as a shield against the notion of personal responsibility and other ethical considerations. Someone who is quick to anger may walk away from a violent outburst thinking, “well, I have a short fuse, of course that was going to happen.” Even worse, forethought along similar lines may motivate people to act more boldly on malicious or selfish tendencies. Yet without the vast inaccessible collection of knowledge required to be certain in calculating an individual’s destiny, we may instead look to one of the most useful forms of uncertainty.

Even if one grants the notion that freewill is an illusion, it is an illusion that adds to the meaningfulness of being human. Uncertainty is resolved as potential gives way to action or inaction. Self-awareness creates conditions in which reflecting on the outcomes of behavior can change the behavior itself. A strictly natural view of the universe holds that all such reflection is inevitable and predictable, at least in theory if not in practice. Being aware of ourselves yet not possessing perfect self-knowledge or comparable knowledge of our environment, we perceive contemplation and introspection to be spontaneous.

With the natural uncertainties of unresolved human decisions, the value of activities like reflection, meditation, and analysis become real. As alternatives to acting on impulse, they do not free us from metaphysical predestination, but they can liberate us from practical folly. Recognizing the usefulness of freewill as a concept provides a foundation for recognizing the usefulness of much of philosophy and psychology. Ethics becomes especially crucial once one accepts that carefully weighing a decision to act, while itself also a decision, offers up the potential to better control the outcomes of our actions.

Even so, recognizing the human responsibility to restrain the worst of our impulses and pursue the best of our aspirations can be taken too far. Neurological damage, chemical addiction, or even a genetic predisposition to mental illness can create conditions that inhibit sound decision-making processes. In some instances the mysteries shrouding human motives are less significant than identifiable externalities that also have predictive value in assessing human behavior.

This insight goes beyond justification for providing treatment to people with psychological problems. Action on a societal level can result in significant change. Strong anti-poverty programs do not insure that any particular individual will never commit a theft. Yet property crimes and crimes of violence both tend to decline as poverty is alleviated (and rise in response to a surge of poverty.) It may be unfair to characterize advocates of cutthroat economics as culpable in the same way that actual thieves and murderers are. Yet, as far as useful illusions go, social responsibility seems to deserve a place alongside personal responsibility.

Perhaps the most important consideration in assessing predestination and freewill is the role of uncertainty. Rare is the tyrant lacking a conviction born out of certainty that his personal destiny involves taking bold action as a national leader. Even worse than shrugging at the impulse to do wrong is surrendering to a sense of fate driving some grand plan forward. If indeed a particular grand plan is worthy of pursuit, then it will stand up under the rigors of methodical analysis. In fact, thoughtful reflection on any worthwhile agenda should only serve to refine understanding of related goals and methods.

Predestination is a useful concept when it comes to the philosophy of the natural universe. It also has some application when it comes to the formulation of social and economic policies. However, it has very limited usefulness when applied to personal perspectives on individual behavior. Limitations in that understanding remind us that freewill is crucial to understanding our own behavior. It is through processes that create the perception of freewill that we are able to escape our most destructive tendencies. Be they delusions of grandeur or compulsions to do harm, the perspective freewill offers is a means to transcend it all.

Yet is it really just a perspective . . . just a perception? If one grants that view, so much else must be written off as illusion. Emotions and reasoning may be the way we experience neurochemical processes, but those experiences have a reality of their own. Living within our mortal limitations, it is this reality that defines the human condition. In one sense we are a small part of a complex chemical reaction that has been ongoing for billions of years. Yet in another very real sense, we are the sum of the choices we make.

What You Should Think About Rugged Individualism

October 6, 2007

“Great men can’t be ruled.”

–Ayn Rand

Seldom do political discussions get more absurd than when they are joined by someone intent on regarding every social service, every stimulus effort, and even every bit of public infrastructure as an unforgivable assault on his perceived “right” to resist taxation. Even as most of these individuals imagine themselves to be somehow greater than ordinary citizens of our nation, they display a self-inflicted mental impairment that diminishes them to less than average. Be it misanthropic contempt for America’s least fortunate citizens or megalomaniacal confidence in their own personal grandeur, this renunciation of society as a concept is simple ignorance masquerading as keen political insight.

In fairness, I believe a society should allow people to be as economically independent as they choose to be. If someone wants to hike out into the woods and actually live as a “rugged individualist,” so be it. However, if someone wants to espouse that peculiar political philosophy while lounging in the comforts and securities he or she rails against, then that someone is a hypocrite of the first order. Utilizing banks and currency, hiring publicly educated employees, enjoying the security of emergency services, benefiting from the protection of the criminal justice system — I could easily go on beyond my self-imposed 1,500 word limit were I to be more exhaustive and more specific about how modern institutions of government facilitate modern accumulations of wealth.

More often than not, entrepreneurs up in arms about their obligations to support the state are really just bitter they cannot keep more of the money they siphon away from employees who actually do produce something of value with their daily labor. Yet even wealthy people who accomplish more than organizational scheming — writers, athletes, inventors, etc. — still cannot honestly claim that their personal income is something that could be sustained after the dissolution of various agencies and institutions that constitute the public sector of civilized societies.

How can I possibly know that? Well, civilization has broken down from time to time in recent history. Take Iraq, for a fresh example. The “less government is good government” ideologues in the White House seemed to think that pretty much everything except oil field security was an unfit activity for authorities in occupied Iraq. I mean, they didn’t even bother to plan for protection around museums packed full of ancient treasures . . . not to mention explosives stockpiles! It is as if they expected anarchy to be a significant upgrade over fascism.

Hindsight makes it clear this is not at all a realistic belief. Huge populations left to their own devices, with no state supervision, find themselves quickly falling prey to organized violence. Given enough chaos, self-styled “warlords” tend to replace ordinary gangsters as de facto authorities (as has been the case in some parts of Africa lately.)

State sponsored enforcement of criminal bans on various forms of victimization are essential to the accumulation of real wealth. Not only do police make it possible to retain wealth without personally becoming the leader of an armed gang, but they also create an environment of security where people of all levels of affluence will have better opportunities to become involved in productive enterprises.

However, it is fair to say that the fringe of true anarchists in modernity is fairly small. Contemporary hostility toward government usually falls short of calls to ban courts and armies altogether. Yet it still goes too far in so many other areas. Resolving basic security issues is just the foundation of a structure for promoting prosperity. Wise policies can raise that structure to great heights, creating opportunities that would otherwise simply not be viable.

For example, public education involves a mix of local, state, and federal spending intended to promote knowledge and useful basic skills amongst the general population. A simple-minded critique of public education compares the work product of private schools with public schools and produces the conclusion that everything should be privatized. This neglects the obvious fact that public school enrollees are selected by default, whereas private schools benefit from student bodies selected by the special interests or needs of those students and their families. Privatization advocates never even try to normalize for household income, scholastic aptitude, and other hugely influential factors because, even in the field of education, getting near the truth runs contrary to naked corporate avarice.

Though there are truly wasteful forms of government spending, many self-styled “rugged individualists” are awash in real benefits from really useful programs even as they renounce those programs as waste. Public roads and even subsidized mass transit facilitate enormous economic opportunity by making commuting a more inviting opportunity for workers. Social Security and related programs enable many people to focus on their careers when they might otherwise be overburdened by tending to the basic needs of elderly or disabled loved ones. Even public housing is good for business — unless your idea of good business involves being awash in panhandlers with a sprinkling of desperate criminals in the mix.

I suppose for some people there is a romantic notion at work here — the bold pioneer off in the Wild West with only his trusty rifle and the family dog to protect his kin from assorted dangers. Eking a living from the land may have its appeal for some, but that image is not at all applicable to modern day professionals and entrepreneurs. However much personal attributes factor into personal economic successes, no modern American prosperity tales would be remotely possible without the broad range of support provided by civilized governance. From regulated capital markets to bans on indiscriminate dumping of toxic waste, we see progress when collective needs are responsibly addressed . . . and setbacks when they are neglected.

Take the current economic mess related to inadequately regulated mortgage issuing and reselling. Elected officials unduly enamored with “rugged individualist” thinking were openly hostile to placing responsible controls on the American mortgage industry. Their single-minded fervor for unregulated growth caused them to forget the clear advantages generated by a middle ground that balances the need for economic freedom with the need for economic accountability. Arcane financial instruments were repackaged and resold again and again until some debtors had no idea who to actually pay . . . and likewise some creditors had no idea who to collect from. The resulting confusion combined with irresponsible pushes to promote large debt loads for working class homeowners to create a bursting bubble heard round the world.

It remains to be seen what the full impact on the American economy and America’s creditor nations will be from this mismanagement. However, it already seems clear that responsible regulation in the mortgage industry would have done much less to impair prosperity than the inevitable consequence of not having responsible regulations in place. While technocrats thrive amidst all the relevant nuances, many people prefer a coarser approach to political, economic, and philosophical issues. As much as that crudeness may feel like a stand on principle, it is all too often a stand in favor of gross oversimplification instead.

Thus it is I contend you should think that “rugged individualism” is a ruse intended to promote simple-minded approaches to civic thought. It creates a smoke screen obscuring clear insight into the realities of sound economic stewardship — an inescapably complex matter in the modern era. As far as philosophies go, it manages to be archaic and corrupt at the same time. It serves only to prevent people from getting the kind of clear picture that might be obtained by focusing on the realities of cause and effect in American public policy. In short, even though I probably don’t know you, I can write with confidence that you can do better for yourself when it comes to adopting a basis for your political, economic, and philosophical views.