World Philosophy Day: Existentialism

World Philosophy Day: Existentialism

What gives your life meaning?

God? Money? Love? Work? Shopping? Jujitsu? Donuts? You must have a personal sense of purpose in your life. A sense of meaning is what we all crave, whether you consciously realize it or not. I believe it’s a personal responsibility to try to understand how and why we should make our lives meaningful. The reality is, we do try to convey meaning through religion, educating others, a fulfilling job, advocating for social justice or seeking beauty in artistic expression but may not entirely be aware of it. Readers (very few I’m sure) of my blog or friends who have had a chance to sit down with me for a cup of coffee may have noticed a persistent theme in my discourse. My favorite of all philosophical thought, and what I adhere to for many years now, is Existentialism. For this year’s UNESCO World Philosophy Day, I thought I’d try my best to do a very brief explanation on what this means and who are the philosophers, or rather existentialists I like and the ideas I admire to. Just a quick repudiation, existentialism is not synonymous with atheism. Just want to put that out of the way!

Existentialism is also not a set of doctrines nor a philosophical system. Rather it’s best classified as a philosophical movement that first ascended in 19th century Europe. Existentialism became especially prominent in the 20th century with many thinkers coming from various backgrounds such Franz Kafka and Jean-Paul Sartre with groundbreaking notions. Existentialists are all concerned with the problem of living life as a human being. Existentialism is an attitude that recognizes the unsolvable confusion that of the human world, yet resist the all-too-human temptation to resolve the confusion by grasping towards whatever appears or can be made to appear firm or familiar. The existential attitude begins with a disoriented individual facing a confusion that he cannot accept. (Robert Solomon) In other words, existentialist all share a common concern with what is called the ‘human condition’. They take seriously at such questions as, why am I here? What does it mean to be a person? And how should I go about living my life?

While all reject an all-encompassing system, each existential thinkers have different evaluations of the ‘human condition’. Any system that comes from the media, society, institution and body that takes away the massive burden one would have to face were they to try to create meaning and purpose for themselves in a unique and personal manner, will always lose sight of the human perspective on life. Existentialists also see the benefit to facing up to our mortality; we will all someday die. And this will give us the courage to stop living in conformity to the masses and instead take control of our own lives, and live by standards and values of our choosing. This idea of being able to freely choose a standard of value and create meaning and purpose in one’s own life is closely related to arguable one of the most famous existentialist, Jean-Paul Sartre.

Jean-Paul Sartre

“We are our choices.”

Sartre is by far my favorite existentialist. He asked the question: what if we were born without purpose and it’s up to us to imbue meaning in our lives? For Sartre, it’s up to us to figure our own ‘essence’. He coined the term, ‘Existence precedes Essence’. What does this mean? ‘Essence’ came from the Greek philosopher, Aristotle that believed that every independent thing has an ‘essence’. It is the necessary properties or characteristics which are required for a thing to be what it is. For example, a caterpillar has an essence to become a butterfly someday. This is a very structural point of view. In terms of humans, Aristotle believed that unlike inanimate matter or animals, humans can choose whether or not, to act in accordance to their nature. Although, we were not free to create a unique ‘essence’ for themselves in a course of their lifetime. Sartre on the other hand, saw this situation of humans in the opposite light. For him, humans are fundamentally different from things like cars, houses, trees or phones as these are ‘designed’ for a pre-determined function. Sartre did not believe that humans were ‘designed’ with a specifically function. We have a chance to sculpt a unique ‘essence’ in our lifetime. In fact, we are painfully, shockingly free. We have a terrifying abundance of freedom. We are condemned to be free, and you might think there’s some authority you can look up to for answers but all the authorities (rules from your parents, religious institution and government body) you can think of are all fake to Sartre. Those authorities are just people like you – people who don’t have any answers, people who had to figure out for themselves how to live.

For Sartre, the best thing you can really do is to live ‘authentically’. This means you must carry the full weight of your freedom in the light of the ‘absurd’. You must recognize that any meaning you have in your life is given to it by you. The refusal to accept the ‘absurd’ and follow a life given to you by your teachers, society and so on, you would be living in what he calls ‘bad faith’. If you live in ‘bad faith’, you’re burying your head in the sand. Sartre is inspiring in his insistence that things don’t have to be way they are. We have unfulfilled potential as an individual, and as a species. He urges us to accept the fluidity of existence and create new institutions, outlooks and ideas.

Albert Camus

“Should I kill myself, or have a cup of coffee?”

Camus’ philosophy is bleaker, darker. He believes that the literal meaning of life is whatever you’re doing that prevents you from killing yourself. Hence, the above quote. Camus won the noble prize in literature in 1957 and was an accomplished writer so early in his life. Camus argues that once we do start to think about life seriously, we start to wonder if life has any sort of meaning and whether or not if we should be done with it all. He is in a long line of existentialist with such an extreme hypothesis. Camus accepts that our life is ‘absurd’ in the grandest of schemes. However, unlike some philosophers, he resists utter hopelessness or nihilism. He argues that we must live with the knowledge that our efforts will largely fertile, our lives soon forgotten, our species irredeemably corrupt and violent, and yet we should endure.

Ultimately, Camus urges us to accept the ‘absurd’ background and then try to fill the constant possibility of hopelessness. Camus wants us to know that life is worth enduring. Endure everything, and love intensely all things relationships, nature, family, friendship and food. These can be reasons to live for. Once you realize that life is ‘absurd’, you’re more compelled to live life more convincingly and intensely. Accordingly, Camus saw his philosophy as an invitation to live and create in the very midst of a barren desert that is life. He’s a great champion of the ordinary; he praises sunshine, loves sports, the beauty of women. The Parisian intellectual wrote “If there is a sin against life, it consists perhaps not so much in despairing of life as in hoping for another life and in eluding the implacable grandeur of this life.”

Søren Kierkegaard

“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”

I mentioned earlier that existentialism is not synonymous to atheism. While many existentialists are atheist, plenty are theist such as Kierkegaard. For him, while God may exist, we are each born in a universe in which we and our world and our actions lack any real inherent importance. This is what we call ‘absurdity’. I’ve mentioned this word many times earlier in this post. It’s a technical term that means searching an answer in an answer-less world. We are creatures who need meaning but are abandoned in a world of meaninglessness. Kierkegaard was a gloomy and brilliant Danish existentialist who believed that we should wake up and give up our sentimental illusions. He systematically attacks our pillars of modern life, our trust in work, our faith in family and friends, our attachment to love and our general sense that life has purpose and meaning. He tells us “I was older, I opened my eyes and beheld reality, at which I began to laugh, and since then, I have not stopped laughing. I saw that the meaning of life was to secure a livelihood, and that its goal was to attain a high position; that love’s rich dream was marriage with an heiress; that friendship’s blessing was help in financial difficulties; that wisdom was what the majority assumed it to be; that enthusiasm consisted in making a speech; that it was courage to risk the loss of ten dollars; that kindness consisted in saying, “You are welcome,” at the dinner table; that piety consisted in going to communion once a year. This I saw, and I laughed.”

Everywhere he turned, Kierkegaard saw intolerable incompatibility and impossible choices. The key to his philosophy is that the only intelligent response to life’s horrors is to laugh at it defiantly. He’s often regarded as the founder of existentialism, because in him we see all the themes and interest we later see in Sartre and Camus. He coined a new word in 1844 called ‘Angest’ – a condition of where we understand how many choices we face and how little understanding we could ever have on how to exercise these choices. Our constant ‘Angest’ or angst in English means that our unhappiness is are more or less written in the script of our life. For Kierkegaard, he is the few philosophers we can turn to when the world has let us down as he encourages us to surrender to simplicity, give up material things and to love all humans. He is a companion that tells us to take a ‘leap of faith’ in our darkest moments. His philosophy is valuable to us because of the intensity of his despair at the compromises and cruelties of daily life.

I am sure I left out quite a bit of history, background and context from Sartre, Camus and Kierkegaard. I’m going to let you do your own research on them and continue to better understand their existential thoughts. For existentialists, life can have meaning but only if you assign it. On a personal level, philosophy fills a gap and answers questions in my own life. With the power of marketing, corporate branding, influx of information from social media and cults of personalities, it’s no wonder we need to think a little deeper of our existence in current times. If the world and your life is lacking purpose, you can imbue it with whatever purpose you want. No one can tell you if your life is worth anything if say, you don’t have children, don’t find a more stable government job or even achieve whatever standards your parents or the society holds you to.

Existentialism is a philosophy that emphasizes individual existence, freedom and choice. Whether you’re an existentialist or not, I think you should choose to find meaning in your life. There’s no real right or wrong answers when you believe in what you do.

Live a life that you think is worth living.

Travel Journal: Early Days in Sukasaba

Travel Journal: Early Days in Sukasaba

14th October 2013
10:25PM (Indonesian Time)
Sukasaba, Indonesia

Tonight is the night I start a travel journal. I’ve been contemplating about this for a while now especially since I’ve been in Indonesia for the last 2 weeks or so. I can’t point to a sole reason why I’m starting one. However, one of the reasons would be, to document my travel experiences. This basically means that I will only write when I’m abroad. I’ve traveled to a few Southeast Asian countries since the start of my twenties. And it has been quite an experience.

I travel with a reason: forums, conferences, to volunteer, lectures, project collaborations and to meet individuals who are making a difference. Personally, I don’t believe in vacations. My views, perspectives and my core standpoint of people, life, friends and family have been broadened to more than I have ever expected. A vacation can’t do that. I can honestly say that I’ve learned quite a lot and maybe even, dare I say changed. Anthony Bourdain said travel in your youths while Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon him) said to seek knowledge from cradle to grave.

I’m opening my journal on the night before Hari Raya Eid Adha at one of the rural areas of Indonesia. The environment is more than lively. Actually, it’s quiet by the villagers’ standard. You can hear the Takbir and traditional drums playing and it’s almost 11PM. It’s supposedly normal; such a contrast to back at home.

As I mentioned earlier, I’ve been here 2 weeks or so already. The once privileged way of living becomes a distant memory. Our water source is from a well, we have a roof but no ceiling, there are no cars, no roads and life here is quiet (well apart from tonight). As a whole, I don’t know if I’m at a point where I’m still adapting. But I’m happy, happy that I’m learning through an extraordinary experience.

Andi (pseudo name), our local friend, house mate and now part of our new found family, said something profound. A couple of houses away from ours were a family that was once extremely poor. That family came from rags to riches. He now has a new house and a car. A change of fortune did not change the attitude of this strong knit community. They were family when they were poor and they are still family now that they are rich. Andi said that you don’t bring your fortunes to the grave. Everyone dies with nothing. This humble and honest village doesn’t look at someone else’s fortune. As long as you have your family, your faith and your rokok (cigarettes), life is good.

So, tomorrow starts an early and busy day of religious festivities. I look forward to it. Since I’ve taken up smoking again, life is essentially good.

Our Moral Compass

Our Moral Compass

What guides our moral compass?  What makes us so sure that something is morally wrong or right?

Morality is what we are suppose to do; what we are ought to do. In religious cultures, holy books and scriptures are filled with moral rules on how we’re suppose to act to align yourself with God. The Quran forbids from killing an innocent, the Torah forbids pork and so on and so forth. Religiosity are felt more strongly in cultures where the community is the central unit and not the individual. Religion is the easy answer to our moral compass. Like many others, I am proud of my own religion and have the opinion of having the superior belief than others. Don’t you? That is something very human. Religion, even my own, is a topic that I ought to leave out though. When I do discuss it, it’s something that I will always try to thread carefully. Abraham Lincoln once said “better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.” For now, let’s talk about the individual because the reason I started this blog is to challenge ideas and explore different perspectives of truths. Ultimately, to the best of our abilities, to think philosophically.

Reality is malleable. Reality is alterable and people are persuadable. Glaucon once puts a great question to Socrates. Worded in the popular “would you rather” style: would you rather be an honest person and have everyone believe that you’re a liar or would you rather be a liar but have everyone believe that you’re an honest person? It’s easy to say the former is better than the latter. One can argue that our minds are perfect ‘reasoning devices’ made to find what is to be true despite having to go down as a villain. However, the reality about us is that our minds are less equipped for reasoning than they are for justification. David Hume said “reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions”. Intuitions and emotions rule. We instantaneously react towards our bias (for or against) and investigate for answers not because of the truth but a way to justify of what we have already decided.

Have you ever told someone they’re wrong with a forceful tone? That person senses confrontation and the ‘reasoning devices’ in their heads that works to find the truth, goes to work finding the reason to why you are wrong instead! Human beings are outstandingly adept to finding justifications to our emotions. Let’s use examples to stimulate the brain even more!

Case #1: Vietnam War

Back in the 60’s and 70’s, many were against the Vietnam war. One of them was Noam Chomsky. He gained public attention for his vocal opposition to the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. To summarize, while the U.S. was fighting a war that they categorized as ‘legal’, Chomsky thought otherwise. He strongly believed that the U.S. was ‘illegally’ invading Vietnam. One would argue that the state would have the best of intentions and would guide our moral compass to what is wrong or right. Chomsky challenged this and his reality of what was ‘legal’ was distorted. I read somewhere that patriotism is not necessarily to obey to what the State tells you what is morally correct but instead to uphold principle of what you think the State should see is morally correct.

Case #2: New Shoes

Let me give a more innocuous example: your best friend just bought a new pair of ugly shoes. You should say it looks bad but instead you say it doesn’t because you don’t want to hurt his or her feelings. The moral rule is to don’t tell your best friend that his shoes are ugly. Maybe it’s right to tell your best friend that his or her shoes are unflattering. You value the truth, even if it hurts. Another legitimate moral rule: always be honest.

Case #3: Minions

I just saw the new Minions trailer and it was hilarious. Their experiences with the ‘evil’ Tyrannosaurus, Dracula and Napoleon Bonaparte was utterly ridiculous. But, it made me think. Why do they align themselves with villains? And yet, we love every bit of these cute little creatures. While we can easily hate the Dracula’s and Napoleon’s for being dastardly, we forgive the Minions for following their evil orders. Why do we forgive good looking people or cute little things even when they do something wrong?

Thinking back, perhaps the advantages to being a liar is far more beneficial than being an honest person. Would you think so? Now that we have established the acknowledgement of our intuitive nature to get what we want, we have a better understanding of moral rules. The point of this post is to ask the readers question our everyday moral compass. Our morality is more fluid than we think it is and we see this even through our most mundane actions. There exist flexible realities and fluid moral rules. All of these are real moralities and each foundations are product of millions of years of adaptations. When someone tells you something is wrong or right, question it. The best of people can navigate through sinuous realities. Maybe, we should too?