“So, to better understand the meaning of acceleration, we have to start thinking of humans as nothing more than fluid-filled meat sacks,” my physics teacher had told our class during the first week of junior year of high school as we were learning the fundamentals of this science. I frowned as this comment: “Is that really all we are?” Is there really nothing more that makes us something more than the notebook in which I was hesitantly writing down this controversial statement. Although I had initially resisted these words, over time I found that I was embracing them as the truth. All I am is an object going through space down a predetermined path based on the chemical reactions occurring in my brain and body, with no free will, and a conscious experience that is merely a hallucination created by the evolutionary deficiencies within the brain. This is an eerily comfortable philosophy to adopt: it takes away any moral responsibility, any inherent meaning of our existence, and any purpose of our lives. In my self-proclaimed search of the unknown that I attempt to undertake, I am inadvertently seeking out the most complacent world view to fall under. This realization prompted me to explore a different approach to life: existentialism, the idea that the meaning of our lives is to find a purpose within a meaningless world, that our actions define us, and that we are responsible for them.
Before the nineteenth century, it was widely accepted that God created the purpose of the universe, that He grants us our purpose, or our essence, before we are even born, and the meaning of our lives is to follow that essence, and on that token, God was also the source of objective moral values. But, as the belief in God slowly began to diminish, existentialism began to take root. This philosophy states that, since there is no God, there is no real meaning for the universe and we are born with no real purpose. It is up to us, then, to determine our own purpose through the actions we take and the decisions we make. Additionally, since the world does not have any meaning, there are no absolutes or values that we have to live by, and if we do try to find objective rules to follow, we are doing what existentialists call “the absurd”- looking for meaning in a meaningless word. And any rules and values that do exist, the ones that come from our parents or the government, come from people who are also trying to find meaning in the world. So, if you think about laws through this lens, they are really just subjective beliefs about the meaning of the world, that, through their large following, have been turned into objective truths.
This leads to the interpretation of the existential philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, who explained his interpretation of existentialism through three words: abandonment, anguish, and despair. Abandonment corresponds with the realization that there is no God and that we are all alone in the universe. Anguish corresponds with the realization that humans have a terrifying abundance of freedom: “that we are condemned to be free.” We limit our freedom by adhering to the commonly accepted proprieties, laws, and rules that govern society. But our freedom comes with great responsibility for our actions: our one decision is also a choice for all other humans. For example, by purchasing a computer, you are endorsing the use of electronics for the rest of humanity. Lastly, despair is the realization that there is no certainty in any action that you take. Sartre’s view is summed up in this quote: “You are free to choose, therefore choose – that is to say invent. No rule of general morality can show you what you ought to do: no signs are vouchsafed in this world.” Essentially, existentialism states that only we have the power to give our lives purpose through our actions and therefore only we can determine the greatness of it, but our decisions do have to be made through a more global perspective in mind.
Sartre’s argument, and the philosophy of existentialism in general, is weakened when criminal actions come into question, but I rather like the general message it proposes: we create our own purpose and are therefore defined by our actions, as they are responsible for the course of humankind, that we have the sole power to define our existence. For me, this argument is much more difficult to accept than one stating that we do not have free will: that we are not responsible for our actions and are simply cogs in the machine doing what we were always meant to do. And no matter how true I might think that is, I should try to embrace that clear and distinct feeling of freedom created by my consciousness. It’s a valuable human characteristic, after all. Why not use it?
Sources: an article from Philosophy Now: A Student’s Guide to Jean Paul Sartre’s Existentialism and Humanism
Image: Google Images