Monday, November 30, 2009

God as an Object

My post started as a response to Eric’s blog, “[His] Beef With God,” which raises a lot of interesting questions--as you can see. Basically, I tried to think of a way in which God could be an object.

What if God, in some way or another can/could be experienced or quantified? If I can say "tigers exist," without ever seeing one or knowing how to go about seeing one in reality, then I have not really experienced one, and therefore cannot know for sure what a Tiger is or whether it exists all. I also would not know whether or not I have experienced anything like it. But this does not make the existence of the Tiger any less real as an object. There is also still the possibility of finding a way to experience a Tiger, to see one in real life, and for the Tiger to be disclosed in a being.

Just because I have never seen God or experienced him, does not mean that there is no possibility for me to do so. You could say that inherent to the idea of God is infinity, and therefore he could not be experienced or quantified. But also inherent to the idea of God is infinite possibility. Couldn’t God then be made in some way material/quantifiable? From another perspective, when we think of the word perfection, don’t we recognize on some level it’s being? I think we do, and to a further extent than may seem apparent. We have a strong idea of what perfection is, even if it might be wrong. And even if it might be wrong, it also might be right. If our notion of perfection could be right, then why couldn’t our idea of God as some sort of object be right? In this way, God does not seem that different from the example of the Tiger. Both cannot be quantified or determined unequivocally or in themselves. But in one case our idea of something (the Tiger) is in fact correct. Thus, why couldn’t our idea of another thing (God) be correct? This isn’t to say that it is correct, but just that it has the possibility of being correct.

There is always the possibility that we may be right in our perceptions of things, even things that we have yet to come in to contact with or fully know (e.g., the Tiger). This means that God could possible exist as an object in relation to humankind. There does not seem any way to determine the existence of God simply by believing in Him or thinking about Him, but we also do not know a whole lot about exactly what He is. We should check a lot of our assumptions regarding belief and what we know is true or is not true, but also realize the possibility that our assumptions might be right.

I’d appreciate any thoughts on this. I know there are some problematic ideas here.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Shaping the Freedom of Thought

Thinking back to Merleau- Ponty’s thoughts about freedom in relation to that of Marquez’s, I began to wonder about the limitations that can be placed on our freedom to think or whether such restrictions are possible.
During class discussion we said that Merleau- Ponty’s concept of “ lived experience” leads to explain that freedom has to be in a “field” and there have to be limitations and restrictions for freedom in order to be applicable and exist. Also, according to Merleau- Ponty, freedom is limited in a number of particular possibilities or boundaries. A person is able to only thinking of choices within this so called field of freedom and is not able to think outside of these restrictions; this is in fact the limits of freedom.
In the love story presented by Marquez, a woman’s, Fermina Daza, husband passes away suddenly. Fermina is not seen to follow societal norms; she does not have a typical funeral as Fermina does not have a “ traditional nine- night wake“ for her late husband . At this unorthodox funeral, a past lover of Fermina’s, Florentino Ariza, comes and stays the whole time. At the end, Florentino confesses that he loves her. Femina is offended at the moment but later, when she is alone, is caught thinking about her Florentino and not her recently dead husband.
Therefore, I did not understand if thoughts could ever be limited through any kind of restrictions. Our thoughts are a product of experiences that we have along the way. We know what love is by seeing our family or , on a superficial level, watching movies. We understand pain or suffering through our own experiences in relation to hardships in life. Hence, though other people can not limit what we think, I think that our thoughts are limited only by our sphere of experience.
So in relation to Merleau- Ponty, I wonder if our freedom of thought is limited by a field of experience. The limits and restrictions of experience are what restrict our thoughts. The woman in Marquez’s story can not be physically restrained by society to think a certain way but through her past experiences with her former lover, Florentino, can have thoughts about him rather than of her late husband because of experience not society.

So my main question is can thoughts ever be limited? If so would society be considered “ the field” that restricts and helps to form other people’s thoughts or is "the field" the person’s experience regardless of society through which these thoughts are limited and shaped?

My beef with proving God's existence

I hate to come back to this again, but I, like Jen, cannot let it go. In class, we had quite the discussion about whether a belief in God implies the existence of God (or whether the first can exist without the second), and although I originally thought that the first could indeed exist without insisting on the second, I have a slightly altered view after a couple weeks of mulling it over. First, I want to distinguish between the idea of God and God himself, at least in terms of existence, to help make my claims clearer (hopefully). Keeping that distinction in mind, I claim that a belief in God not only infers the idea of God but demands it. This concept is somewhat trivial- in order to believe in God, one must have some pre-existing idea of what God is, i.e. what it is that defines God; whether it be that he is the ultimate power and knower or whether he is pure perfection, one must have some idea of what he is in order to believe in him. Scholars of Descartes would argue that this necessitates the existence of God, insofar as we have some concept of perfection in our minds, and while this is an argument for another day, I think in short that it is just as easy for us to have created the word perfection to describe what seems complete to us and for us to be completely mistaken than for us to have an accurate idea of what completeness truly is and for us to term it as such. Anyhow, my main problem with asserting that belief in God necessitates or infers the existence of God is that it seems to assume that we can prove the existence of God as if he is an object. Think about it this way- when we speak of existence, what do we mean? We mean that we have experienced a thing or something similar in a certain state that we term "existing". When I say "I exist," I mean that I continuously experience my own Being disclosed in a being by way of thinking, walking, looking in the mirror, getting bitten by a mosquito, etc. When I say "tigers exist," I mean that if I went to Africa, it would be simple for me to point at a Tiger and say "look, a tiger" or that I saw a tiger in a national geographic film. When I say "God exists," however, how can I supply evidence for my claim? Although Descartes' solution is a clever one, it seems just as simple for me to say that I received the idea of completeness from a drawing of a circle, which even the most simple minded child could produce, even on accident. I cannot say that I have or could readily experience God as I could any other object- he is not a site at which Being is disclosed, but rather he is Being (possibly). At any rate, while I can certainly postulate that God exists in order to make my own experiences more relevant and meaningful to me, I cannot declare God's existence absolutely and outside myself because it would be doing so as if he is an object, which he is most certainly not.

I understand that there are many holes in this, and I invite criticism/comments- I struggled for weeks with these ideas and this is the brief version of my conclusion, although I am still wavering on many fronts. I guess at the root of it all it just seems, to me, both immoral and against all intuition and reason to attempt to claim for all others' existence that God exists.

Revisiting the Conflict between Existentialism and Religion

I know it was a couple of weeks ago when we discussed the role of God in existentialism, but the idea continues to plague me. We continuously debated whether belief in God is “allowed” if one is an existentialist philosopher. We came to one possible conclusion, in which a belief in God could serve as a “meaning making activity” in our lives. Although this proposes the idea of God and existentialism functioning harmoniously, this still does not seem convincing. If one claims to be an existentialist, he asserts that he is born entirely free make meaning for himself or not. If he adopts a belief in God, he recognizes a higher being in control of his life. This directs him to live according to a certain “plan.” Thus, the person’s existentialist beliefs regress as he accepts God as the All-Powerful Creator. He negates the idea that he is the original source of his freedom. Therefore, I do not believe that a true existentialist can simultaneously believe in God.

Tillich discusses the concept of fear and anxiety in the context of courage. Like we discussed earlier, fear is the unpleasant aversion to an animate object, but anxiety is what underlies that fear. It is as if we are giving control to that object, and we are anxious because we anticipate the harm it might cause. It is the recognition that it could end us. Courage is the feeling in which we take control of our emotions even in knowing that something could kill us or cause the “nonbeing.” Tillich claims that religion is omnipresent, especially in the “threat of nonbeing.” I think that this ties into the “role- of- God- in- existentialism” argument. Religion to some people is the stringent belief in God, in others religion causes skepticism and apathy, in others it is meaningless and causes the denial of all gods. However, in the threat of nonbeing, we are always faced with religion. If one is devout, they understand that their death is God’s responsibility. This would then be sloughing off responsibility, as one allows another Being to control the afterlife. If religion for one causes him to deny or be skeptical of God, they remain unclear of the afterlife. That would make the idea of death even more unbearable. Would this belief, that religion must always be present, allow for this excerpt to be entirely existential? It seems that if it were existential in its purist form, then religion need not be always present.

How Beckett Struck Gold

I’m going to be perfectly honest: when I first read Samuel Beckett’s "Act Without Words", I was confused. Hella confused. As much as I hate to admit it (especially given that I’m an English major whose focus is creative writing), I’ve never been very good at pure and self-contained symbolism. But after repeated re-readings and Ben’s oh-so-amazing précis, I finally discerned the main points of Beckett’s drama: that even when circumstances prohibit us from doing what we should be able to do (when someone’s thirsty, they should be free to have a drink of water) or what we could do (when someone possesses the means to secure their own sustenance, they should be free to use those means to pursue what they desire to the height of their individual potentiality) we’re still able to practice the option of what we cannot do. That, in Beckett’s view, is our ultimate and unalienable freedom: to not act. Such a perspective may seem completely antithetical to so many of Beckett’s preceding existentialist colleagues – such as Nietzsche, Heidegger, Unamuno – who all argue that man’s greatest freedom is to go forth and act with purpose. But when examined closely (which multiple readings allows ample room for), his argument actually strikes at the heart of all existentialist theories: that even when robbed of all opportunities to act, man is still free. And as a quick perusal through my notes reveals, such a notion has famous company, especially in the works of Feodor Dostoevsky.

In "Notes from Underground", Dostoevsky famously declares, “I am a sick man. . . I am a spiteful man. I am unpleasant man. I think my liver is diseased” (38). Based on that premise, one automatically thinks of what he could do (see a doctor) or what he should be able to do (pursue any option he wishes for curing himself of his ailment), but instead Dostoevsky’s narrator instead chooses to do nothing at all and simply “let[s] it get even worse” (39). Why? Because he can, because this freedom to pursue even what is seemingly detrimental to himself is what he believes to be the only thing that differentiates himself from an unthinking organ stop.

Of course, it can be argued that in that regard, the theories of Dostoevsky and Beckett are worlds apart: Beckett’s protagonist arrives at this realization through necessity whereas Dostoevsky’s narrator pursues this option out of choice. But regardless of the routes taken, the resulting insight does not tarnish in the slightest. In fact, the final moment of Beckett’s play where the protagonist gazes at his hands could be interpreted as the protagonist’s comprehension of his freedom and capacity to act, even in that moment of not acting. Now, whether that moment should be seen as an instance of hopefulness over still possessing the ability to act even in the absence of suitable means, or a submission to complete and utter despair over being able to act but having nothing to act upon, one cannot be sure. In a literal sense, that would all depend on the manner in which each individual director manipulates the text for the stage. But therein lies the shining kernel of existentialist philosophy: like the possibility for sheer hopefulness or inconsolable despair, we are free to do absolutely anything or utterly nothing. But no matter what, even when our surroundings rob us of absolutely everything, we can still think, we can still decide, we are still free.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Camus vs. Beckett

I think that Beckett and Camus have two very different attitudes for the same situation. Beckett tries to make the claim in “Act With Out Words” that the absurd is horrible. While we do have a freedom to choose, the situation we are put in is horrible. In the play the Protagonist is unable to leave a desert; He is unable to make anything productive happen. Any time he finds any meaning in the things he sees, those things are taken away from him. Like when he figures out what to do with the boxes the boxes are taken away, when he figures out he can hang himself on the tree, the tree is taken away. At the end of the story the man resigns himself to doing nothing, plugging his ears, and humming. He decides not to play the game, because he knows that every time he attempts to play he will fail. Beckett’s attitude toward the absurd is one that is torturous and cruel.

Sisyphus is in a similar situation; he is resigned by the Gods to pushing a boulder up a hill. In this task he will inevitably fail, however he keeps trying to push the boulder up the hill. Camus says that this would not be a bad life because he gets to spend eternity pursuing the absurd. He can choose to be happy in the task that he is assigned. Camus point is that we do not have to resign ourselves to unhappiness; we can enjoy the absurd task we are given and take joy in our attempts.

Camus and Becket differ, because while the character in Beckett’s story accepts defeat and resigns himself to nothing, Sisyphus continues to take joy in his task. Beckett’s character did not create his own value for the things he was doing. He only valued the end result of his task, not the act of doing them. Both live in the absurd however one is able to enjoy things while the other does not. Sisyphus had it worse; at least Beckett’s character was able to be given different tasks to enjoy. Sisyphus had to do the same thing over and over. Becket’s character should find happiness in the fact that while he can’t enjoy the fruits of his labor at the end of the day, he can still enjoy his freedom to do things. At least Beckett’s character got boxes he can try to create a value for, a far worse hell would be one where a person is stuck in the desert with absolutely nothing to do, or attempt to do.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Student Film: "The Call"

A Film By: Hugh Barber, Aaron Fitzgerald & Kip Geddes


Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Samuel Beckett's "Act Without Words"

Theistic Absurdity and Living Without Appeal

As there has been some question of the necessity of atheism in existentialism, one should point out that the atheist considers a godless universe and grapples with absurdity, issues of objective meaning, differently than the religious explaining their faith or constructing a specific notion of God. However, a strict atheism is not necessary to find absurdity in life, though it propels the question with a greater force in the absence of absolutes. In a lecture by Robert Solomon (somewhere on the internet, I cannot remember), the problem of evil is discussed as an example of absurdity within the belief in a benevolent God. Thus, a godless universe is not necessary to recognize absurdity, but the problem does not take on the specific dimensions of an atheistic perspective on objective meaning. Shortly, the problem of evil does not question the existence of God but rather the nature of his "plan," as evil exists in the world.

As for the question of freedom in the face of a divine "plan," such predetermination is not the same as being born into a certain facticity. One's facticity influences the choices one makes and allows for freedom only to the point that the specific facts of existence are not designed, that one's transcendence allows a person to choose to engage in a difficult, unusual action, something with a high coefficient of adversity, without corresponding to a preordained purpose for that person's actions. The problem is that our self-creation, our desire for freedom is cheapened, lessened, etc. when the specter of an omnipotent God enters the picture, when all our actions merely fill in the walls set for us by God. The idea of human freedom, in the robust atheistic sense provided by Sartre, Camus, etc., derives its power from the lack of a given nature in humans, the lack of a prepackaged self, the lack of a merely given freedom. As for Camus, the absence of the absolute allows humans a certain "increased availability" of action, able to live without appeal to divine purpose. The sole justification of human action comes from humanity, and self-creation thus takes on a greater importance in freedom for the atheist conception, an increased power and authenticity to oneself and others if that decision is not part of some divine plan but freely arrived at in a transitory body. Of course, this all arises from the human want for a seemingly boundless field of action: one cannot fail at scaling a mountain without freely choosing to attempt the action. In the presence of a plan, the outcome is already decided and known. "Degrees of freedom" are not what Sartre and Camus want: they give human freedom its proper power by attempting to live without appeal. Humans thus justify their own actions without recognizing a conscious giver and guarantor of freedom.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Student Film: "Do Not Walk"

... by Carol Faulk, Brendan Keegan and Christina Cooke


Sunday, November 22, 2009


I think that because existentialism, as a philosophy, is presented as more of an attitude than a formal argument, it more easily lends itself to be portrayed in films or other forms of art. In another one of my classes, we have been talking about Dadaism, and I think that this could be a form of existentialist art. Here is a site that has a lot of examples of Dadaist art.

Dadaism was a challenge because it was seemingly so meaningless. Before Dadaism, art was judge based on values such as the skill of the painter (think Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel) or the genius of his or her ideas (like Impressionism’s new interpretation of how we see) or the ability of the art work to appear beautiful to us. Each of these values seems to be intrinsically precious: we do not choose what genius is, we merely find genius in the world and recognize it as intrinsically valuable.

To challenge these ideas, Dadaism created art that anyone could accomplish and the ideas behind them seemed more like random stupidity than genius. They made poems where words were chosen at random to create each line. Duchamp, a Dadaist, created the idea of ready-made art which is when the artist would choose a random object (a bottle rack or a urinal, for example), and then put it on display in a gallery.

Dadaism was largely a reaction to World War I. The artists were creating meaningless art to protest against the meaningless death and destruction that the war brought. Although we have seemingly rational reasoning behind our wars and ideas, so much death and suffering for the sake of keeping treaties and promises seems blatantly ridiculous. Dadaists were creating art that was just as senseless as the war but without rationalizing it and without pretending that there was anything intrinsically good or beautiful about their work. In this way, they reinforced the existentialist idea of human's constantly determining the meaning of things and events.

These acts of creating nonsense poems or ready made sculpture seem meaningless. I think that they are existential acts in that they ask the viewer and society to take them seriously and give them meaning or see the meaning or intention of the artist. We value and view Dadaist works as art despite the fact that they defy the basis upon which we defined and still define art from earlier in history.

Sartre and Lobsters

I found a short article about how Sartre briefly experimented with mescaline, and how the drug caused him to have visions of lobsters. It doesn't have so much to do with anything we've talked about in class, but apparently mescaline was influential to writing his novel Nausea, and crabs/lobsters were incorporated into his play The Condemned of Altona as well.

The couple of quotes that the article has of Sartre talking about his visions are interesting, kind of funny, and a little sad, so I linked it here if anyone wants to read

Friday, November 20, 2009

Existentialist Ideas in South Park?

Last class we talked some about the relative merits and demerits of using other mediums, particularly the artistic medium of literature, in order to deepen our understanding of particular existentialist ideas and concepts. We all also have the opportunity to create an "existentialist film" for extra credit. Earlier tonight, I caught one of the better known south park episodes titled "Raisins." I don't want to spoil the episode too much, to those who haven't seen it. But it mainly focuses on two storylines: how Stan deals with his g/f Wendy breaking up with him and Butters' imagined relationship with a girl who works at the restaurant "Raisins"--think Hooters for 3rd and 4th graders.

It's really hilarious, and touches on some of the themes we've talked about in class, such as bad faith, the they, authenticity & inauthenticity, meaning i life, pain, suffering, and death--although I'm not quite sure whether or not the episode, in the end, is "existentialist" in it's outlook. Anyway, watch for yourself and be the judge. You can watch the episode online here:

Frankl and Literature for Me

Ok, so the other day in class we talked about Frankl's Three Stages to readjust to freedom and his tragic triad however, I will just focus on the Three Stages to readjust to freedom. The first he says is shock, which is basically where an individual has forgotten how to be and what it means to be free. The second of which is apathy, which is basically when the individual forgets how to feel and express emotion - their sole purpose is to survive. And the third, which is de personalization/disillusionment, which is when an individual has been scarred. I look at these three stages and the first thing that came to mind for me was when you are learning how to read. When you learn to read as a young child you pick up a book entitled "Harry." The very first line of the book and probably one of only 10 lines in the book is "Harry loves to walk his dog." These books have no protagonist, antagonist, climax, etc, however, we, as young children read them and enjoy them. Once I learned all of the names for the different parts to a novel such as the setting, or the antagonist and the protagonist, "shock" comes into play. My freedom of loving the novel for a novel and the characters for simply characters, and where they live for their house have all been construed. I can only look at the characters and the role they play as good guy or villain, when they say where they grow up the word setting pops into my head and forces me to relate everything they are doing to: time period, location, etc, etc. I have forgotten what it means to read a book for a book. Once apathy sets in, I can no longer enjoy the book at all. Every book that I read after this is simply because I have to, not for enjoyment. And thirdly, I have been scarred because of the simple fact that I no longer want to read books now because I remember what's going to happen anyway. I'm going to pick it up, thinking I want to read it, and ulitimately get lost in the "english" of the book, and put it down never to be read.
This was the first thing I thought about when we were going over Frankl in class....I was sitting in my seat and I said "wow...that's how I feel about books." So I decided to share my example on the blog....


Thursday, November 19, 2009

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Tillich and Creativity

In the excerpt from The Courage To Be, Paul Tillich purports that in his view, the philosophies of Martin Heidegger represent the clearest view of Existentialist philosophy, so much so that Tillich unapologetically declares that Heidegger is the “symbol of present-day Existentialism” (333). From there, Tillich offers his reading of Heidegger’s texts, stating that from Heidegger he concludes that man possesses complete and utter freedom, that “[n]othing is given to him to determine his creativity” (334). On this point, I strongly disagree. Whether the fault lies with Heidegger or merely with Tillich’s interpretation cannot be easily delineated, but as other contemporary philosophers such as Adriana Cavarero and Judith Butler have hypothesized and repeatedly argued, mankind receives a myriad of characteristics and expectations from the moment each individual takes their first breath that influences the path of their lives.

From birth, man is given language, given culture, given gender, and even given ethnicity. In the works of Judith Butler, for instance, she avows that people are categorized from birth into two categories that possess drastic ramifications for the opportunities that will be made available to them throughout their lives: the two categories of male and female. Gender, according to Butler, is not biological. Rather, it is assigned, forced upon us from the cradle, and used as the parameters for how one may act and what one may pursue. For instance, if someone is male, they are expected to be brawny, stoic, and professionally successful. If someone is female, on the other hand, they are expected to be sensitive, nurturing, and domestically-minded. As such, any individual who acts outside of those boundaries are seen as strange, queer, or even sub-human. Hence, the constructs of gender restricts one’s supposedly inherent freedom.

But to be fair, it can be argued that all these social structures can be escaped, should one possess the inner fortitude to do so. New languages can be learned, different cultures can be experienced, the boundaries of gender can be traversed, and foreign ethnicities can be inhabited. But regardless of whether man disposes of or adds to the characteristics assigned to him, man does receive an entire gamut of traits upon his arrival into society. Only through a conscious effort can the limitations of these traits be broken down. Hence, man does receive certain expectations that can sway the path of their lives. However, to evoke Freidrich Nietzsche’s concept of the Ubermensch, it is up to the individual as to whether these traits will truly curb their creativity.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

meaning and belief in god

I was thinking about two end of class questions today, regarding how one could believe in god without believing that god actually exists, and whether this belief is pointless like a child’s belief in an imaginary friend. I think atheistic existentialists would very much agree with this comparison, in that they would argue the child’s imaginary friend, just like God, serves a very important function despite the fact that they do not believe either actually exist.

I think that when people are placed in situations where they have trouble accounting for what has happened, for the meaning in life, for their own purpose, as existentialism in a way requires one to do, an easy and comforting fall back is to look for something else to provide meaning. In the case of the child and imaginary friend, although the imaginary friend does not exist, it is a helpful and meaningful belief for the child. The imaginary friend allows for the child to take comfort in having a relation with another being that understands their problems, is a best friend, knows them better than anyone else and provides them with a constant source of strength, especially when they lack other real human relationships. In the same way, regardless of whether or not any god actually does in fact exist or not, the belief in god provides for many people a lot of the same comforts.

Atheistic existentialist would argue that god, like an imaginary friend, can be a source of comfort in a lonely world, allowing people to transform their anxiety into a meaningful suffering.When something bad happens, it is for some immensely comforting to say that there is a god who has a reason for this unfortunate event occurring. When hit by a feeling of anxiety about the possibilities of life, it may be comforting to believe there is a plan that will guide one safely through it. When struggling with questions of whether or not there is any meaning to life at all, it may be more comforting to assert that a god has made an absolute meaning than to believe that there is no meaning at all.

Frankl argues that all humans strive to create or to find meaningful answers to our problems, and that as a result it may be as natural for humans to find meaning and comfort in believing in god as it is for a lonely child to find meaning and comfort in their relationship with an imaginary friend. This is all good as long as every believer recognizes that they create and believe in god in the same way that a child creates and believes in an imaginary friend. According to atheistic existentialist, neither the child or the existential believer should really think that the imaginary friend or god exist in reality, while this does not mean they cannot value their beliefs as meaningful since believing in these things is an expression of their own meaning making potential.

Atheistic existentialists would view this belief as good, though, only insofar as believers do not start attributing meanings and values as existing independently of themselves. Just as parents are scared if a child begins claiming to act on the instruction of their imaginary friend, atheistic existentialists are scared by religion when believers start claiming to act in accordance to the purposes of a god.

Student Film: "The Housewife in Bad Faith"

... by Alin Florea and Leann Farha


I-Thou, I-It, and Reality TV

When we discussed Martin Buber’s I and Thou it made me think of reality television. Buber’s text presents two modes through which people interact with the world, the I-It and the I-Thou. The I-It relationship is a quantitative one where the subject is viewed as a definable object in the world that is a sum of its part. The I-Thou involves recognizing the innate humanity in others and viewing them as greater than the sum of their parts. Reality television has taken what seems to be the most obvious interpretation of the I-Thou, Love, and made it into an I-It relationship. Take for instance a show like The Bachelor or, more recently, My Antonio both shows feature a group of women trying to win the hand of an eligible bachelor in hopes of marrying them. The audiences of these shows are expected to believe that the relationships generated constitute Love, or an I-Thou relationship, which is ridiculous given the amount of engineering show producers do to garner good ratings. However in viewing the show the audience participates in an I-It relationship where it quantifies the contestants and in the shows like this where there is also a cash prize at stake the participants treat each other as things amongst things using each other like means to an end. It seems with the popularity of reality television, VH1, and MTV the I-thou will be completely obscured by and confused with the I-It making true caring relationships between people become superseded by relationships based solely on utility.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Mind Your Body

I’ve fully never understood why people always seem to view the mind with such detachment from the body, the way Decartes put it, “like a pilot in his ship.” I think it may have something to do with the introduction of the idea of a soul; since it is supposedly everlasting, and when compared to the fragile and finite existence of the body it seems as though there must be a disconnect between the two to allow them both to “exist.” Since the exact definition of a “soul” is often vague and poorly understood I see it frequently used nearly interchangeably with “mind” in casual conversation. Many seem to forget that the only way we learn with our minds at all is through interaction by using our five bodily senses, and by using our minds to reflect upon and analyze those very experiences. That being said, I really like the importance Merleau-Ponty puts on understanding the link between the body and mind. Derived from that line of thinking, because all we have to rely on are our own senses, there is no way to externally test the veracity of the ability of those senses to accurately represent the true reality of the world around us. All we have is our own imperfect perceptions based on those sensory experiences. It can be quite disconcerting to always have a doubt deep within oneself as to whether or not the things one perceives is accurate at all. This may be another reason why people like to view the body and mind as detached from each other, so that all of the imperfections we know about the body won’t seep into the minds with which we think about them.
Furthermore, the whole idea of understanding the relationship between the body and mind has been made even more complicated by modern science, as technology has progressed to the level where we can see one fade beyond control while having the means to artificially sustain the other: The mind can fail the body (as seen in coma patients) and in turn the body can fail the mind (in cases such as Locked-In Syndrome). The fact that these types of conditions exist prove that the two are indeed separate and distinct, but I think most of us overemphasize that division, while instead we should be focusing on the synergistic relationship between the two—how they interact, how they communicate, how deficiency or greatness in one affects the other, and so forth. I feel like I think those two previous phrases mean effectively the same thing.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Buber and God

In the I it relationship, the subject attatches meaning to the object. In other words, the subject sees the objects and "describes it," i.e. gives it certain attributes, which create its meaning as the object. Thus, the object has no intrinsic value, but rather its value is given externally and thus is wholly subjective and in no way absolute. This manner of relating is certainly a reality in our existence- it is the only way in which we can relate to objects which we encounter everyday. Even so, when it comes to interpersonal relating, i.e. subject-to-subject relations, there exists a higher and more abstract manner in which we can relate to each other: the I- Thou relatoinship. According to Buber, in this relationship each subject recognizes the other as wholly free, and as such no external value is deposited on the subject. Instead, the subjects participate in dialogue that relfects each's entire essence. I wonder, though, if we can even accurately describe such an idea as a full and genuine dialogue between two wholly free subjects, and I think buber would agree, insofar as he defines our I-thou relations as derived from our relationship with God. In his view, i.e. that of someone with faith, he has no problem asserting that he has a free and open relationship with God. Thus, he can move from his relationship with God, using it as a model, in order to guide his I-thou relationships with other people.

I wonder, though, if for the athiest existentialist, getting to the point of being able to relate in the I-thou fashion is impossible because the athiest existentialists' relationship with God is non-exisistent. I think Buber would likely respond by saying that the atheist existentialist is not asserting his full reality through the I-though relationships because of this fact, and as such Buber would call for a re-evaluation of one's relationship with God or lack thereof. Any thoughts?

Affirming the Consequence

I class I noted that Buber’s jump from I-Thou relationships between people to the claim that there is an eternal Thou was affirming the consequence. Affirming the consequence occurs when you say P then Q, Q, therefore P. Buber states that we have I-Thou relationships because there is an eternal Thou and “each individuated Thou is a vision through to it” (329). However, the claim (or fact) that we have I-Thou relationships does not necessitate that these relationships mimic an eternal Thou. This is a logical fallacy. This made me realize that as strange as it seems to me, there is no logical reason to say that because we exist, God (or anything for that matter) created us. The syllogism is as follows:

If God created us, then we exist.

We exist.

Therefore: God created us.

This is affirming the consequence. It would make just as much sense to say “if God didn’t created us, then we exist; we exist therefore God didn’t create us.” It is strange to me, but logically we cannot deduce any causation for our existence because it will always be affirming the consequence. What is very strange to me, logically causation for our existence is not required. It makes perfect sense to simply say: we exist; therefore we exist, and that our existence does not require a cause.

Through science it may be possible to discover the causation of our existence. However, personally I cannot imagine a science providing a satisfactory answer to such a question. The big bang theory coupled with evolution and etc works but I feel like there is more behind it. But like I said, there is no logical reason for me to think that. Religion, or more specifically God, makes sense. However, it is not required logically for existence. Because of this, God must be accepted on faith alone. If we knew there was a God then there would be no point in having faith.

It is funny to me that because we can debate about whether or not God exists, the world would be the same with or without God. One so religiously inclined might say this isn’t true because we can’t perceive of a world without a God. However, an atheist could just as easily reply that this is exactly how a world would look without one. This, of course, works in the reverse as well. So in the end, as always, the question goes unanswered.

In class we briefly discussed Simone de Beauvoir's book The Second Sex, about women being seen as the “other” sex, coming second to the male norm. This is a concept that has developed throughout the years in all societies, thus a stereotype of woman has been produced. There is the question of how exactly does one “become” a woman. It was explained that women, in society, are understood to act a certain way, to be a certain way, that "one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman." Thus, biology does not determine one’s identity, but it is the social construction that is at the core of identity. However, this attaches certain meaning to the word woman, almost objectifying the woman herself. It has become simply a word, a stereotype: she cooks, she cleans, she wears dresses, she takes care of the children, etc. Society has made meaning for being a woman, yet this meaning is generalized and ambiguous—it almost seems as if the “they” is responsible for constructing this image of what a woman should be and how she should act. So what happens when this idealized image of a woman is gone against? What if a woman should “become” someone who does not fulfill this identity? As we discussed, society then has to make sense of this and form again their own meaning—is she accepted? I think society has developed stereotypes as certain guidelines for certain idealizations. Some woman grow up and “become women” based on these guidelines and might follow this structure and the ones who do not still become women, though it might be that society never accepts them as such, based on their meaning when figuring out their place in the world—every experience is different for an individual and even when following society’s stereotype, no two experiences are alike.

To be a courier the way a king would be a courier?

Last week when we were talking about the kings and couriers scenario, we briefly discussed whether couriers could be couriers the way that kings could be couriers. I think that the couriers are collectively the kings, but can't (as couriers) individually assign themselves the role of a king, just like Heidegger's das Man is both everyone and no one. To be a king, similar to an übermensch, one must take on all the possibilities of the world, creating their own values, outside of the average everydayness. The way I see it, everyone chooses to be a courier because of wanting to dispel some of the anxiety of acknowledging the whole host of possibilities that we have. If we could cope with and live with the complete awareness of these possibilities, then it would be possible to have kings. I do not think that anyone can be a courier the way a king would be a courier, because that would be a person who had complete awareness of their possibilities, but still chose to participate in the self-limiting of these possibilities. The two sides seem contradictory to me, but I'd be interested in what the rest of you think.

Someone mentioned in class that being the king of the couriers is just climbing your way to the top of the herd, which I agree with. To be a courier in the way a king would be a courier as much as possible (as I said above, I do not think that this is completely possible), you might be the most übermench herd-member out there, but you are still part of the herd.

Sisyphus and Regular Life

I think Camus is right, I can easily see the character Sisyphus as happy. Rolling a Boulder up a hill may seem meaningless to us, however we need to keep in mind that that is our subjective view of the situation. From Sisyphus’ point of view the act may very well have meaning. Some people try to become great lawyers or doctors; however these professions have different value for everyone. An Engineer might not see a philosopher as someone with a meaningful life, however the philosopher will probably have a different opinion. Sisyphus might just like to roll boulders up a hill, who we to tell him that his job is meaningless. Sometimes people are forced to do mundane tasks in life. Some people have jobs that consist of filing papers for a company. The company will always have new papers to file, so no matter what this person does they have they will never be finished.

Some people might say that Sisyphus was forced to this task; however the employee has to do something in order to make a living. They have their own obligations, to fulfill. However we would be wrong to say that the person has, without a doubt, an unhappy and meaningless life. They can still enjoy their life even if it is filled with these tasks.
Some people might say that because Sisyphus will never accomplish his goal, that he is living a horrible and meaningless life, however same can be said about our day to day activities. A philosopher for example will spend their entire life trying to figure out meaning, and find out the answers to all of life’s questions. Despite their effort however I doubt they will ever come up with a concrete answer to all of their questions and problems. Their life will be similar to that of Sisyphus. A person trying to become a great lawyer will face a similar problem, at the end of their life they will never reach the top of their hill, In the end they will always fail, because in the end they will always die, and up until that point there will always be new challenge. There is no time in life where they will be able to look back on the things that they did and say, that they are done. There will always be goals and problems they will have to face. We are all like Sisyphus. Each foot up the Hill Sisyphus tried to roll a rock up is like the goals and problems we set in our regular lives. The only thing we can do is to try to enjoy our own life and the decisions we make.

Do we understand everything we experience?

Merleau-Ponty claims that freedom only exists in a field. That is absolute freedom does not exist, because if there are no limits or parameters to a freedom, then it according to Merleau-Ponty, it doesn’t exist. However, this logic assumes that in order for something to exist, we must understand it and compare it to something else. While using this logic cannot prove that something we don’t understand must exist or even has a chance of existing, it does put some doubt on Merleau-Ponty’s claims. Why do we need to compare freedom to a limit to legitimize it?
Let’s look at a scenario where a human can do anything he or she wants, because there are no limits. Can we say this person is not a freedom or not even acknowledge the freedom he/she experiences? The person may not understand the freedom since there is nothing to compare it to, there is no limit, nothing that he or she can’t do, so there is just existence. However, given our perspective, where we experience self imposed limits on our freedom, as Sartre suggests, we recognize the person’s absolute freedom.
In a more relatable example, we experience freedom and its limits throughout our lives. However once we become aware of this freedom by experiencing limits, it doesn’t mean that in the past when those limits were recognized and we could in fact do what we actually wanted, freedom didn’t exist or it wasn’t relevant. We just didn’t understand as we do know, nor placed enough emphasis on it to understand how to make choices in a given field with parameters. Now that we do, we can look back at our experiences where freedom may have truly not been limited and understand why and how that happened. We can also look at scenarios where freedom was in fact limited, but we didn’t understand or weren’t aware of the limits, so we ignored them, thus not having something to contrast our freedom to.
Merleau-Ponty’s claim is more based on our conscious understanding of freedom itself. However, we don’t need to acknowledge the existence of freedom for it to exist in the world. Even if freedom doesn’t mean anything for an individual or that individual has never grasped the concept, it doesn’t mean that it is irrelevant for that individual and that he or she doesn’t experience it. After all, do we understand everything we experience?


Other people are indispensible to our own existence. It would seem as though we need other people to help us define ourselves even. If we grew up all alone, we would be merely animals and indistinguishable. Because we have other people to teach us how to live in modern society, we are able to build ourselves upon the foundation that is society. It’s funny how if this is true, one’s quest to set themselves apart from other people almost brings them closer to other people. We use what has been found by the generations before us and elaborate on it to find ourselves. It’s almost as though we pick up where our ancestors left off and add our own discoveries to theirs and so on and so forth. Once we’ve had the interaction with other people and have figured ourselves out, we cannot simply just leave humanity behind either. If we look at Tom Hanks’ character in Cast Away, he still needs, even desperately, the company of another person to keep living. He finds a companion in the volleyball Wilson, without which he could possibly perish. Without other people, we lack a wealth of resources that make our lives livable. I remember being told recently that if babies are coddled they aren’t able to develop certain abilities and relations and may even die. Other people are indispensible to our survival, and although some people believe they only rely on themselves and don’t need anyone else to get by, that is simply not true. Some people don’t allow themselves to build connections with other people or rely on them because those people aren’t going to be there one day, but they fail to realize that people come and go and just because one individual isn’t going to be there for the rest of your life doesn’t mean they should be shut out. The human condition is one of community; sometimes we rely on others and sometimes others rely on us.

Thinking about Justification

At this point in our course work I am beginning to wonder whether or not the justification for an action is more valuable than the action itself. For Sartre, it seems that who a person is is constituted in their behavior, hence we are who we are in the mode of not being it not in our reflection upon that action. For Sartre, whenever we attempt to become some ideal, we are making an error as we can never truly and wholly fulfill that ideal. With that being the case, I wonder if the justification for an action can take precedence over the action itself in the way we actually live our lives. So if I steal money from my friend and never get caught, there is no need for justification. In that situation I need only justify to myself why I did it, if I choose to do that at all (perhaps I do not feel any moral inclination at all to engage in such a practice). Additionally, if the action is perceived, then I must make a case for what I have done, especially if it is morally reprehensible.

For Simone de Beauvoir, ethics are wrapped up in our conception of freedom. I am responsible for my actions and it seems that in this way the actions themselves become less important than the justification. Of course, there would be no need for justification if we did not act in the first place. However, in a world of other freedoms it seems as if it is not simply the things I do but how I can make a case for those things to others that defines me. We live in a world with other people, rules and prescribed modes of being and because this is the case, it seems to me that I can never be truely free from having to justify my actions.

laws smaws

So there’s this gate keeper that’s standing in front of this door. He tells the countryman that cannot go through the door when, in fact, you are able to make the decision to walk right on through the door. One problem is however, that if the countryman goes through the door then he will encounter more terrifying gate keepers that will increase in horrification as the countryman progresses through each of the doors. The person standing in the midst of the gate keeper finds himself in a position of whether or not he should proceed through the doors to encounter more horrifying gate keepers. Fighting himself, about whether or not he should enter, the man eventually dies in front of the door. Nietzsche refers to this as weak and lazy because of the simple fact that we would rather just accept things as they are instead of trying to create our own. I don’t fully agree with the idea that we, as humans, like to merely agree with everything instead of creating our own. We, way back when, were the ones and still are today, the ones that created the law in the first place. Kind of like what De Beauvoir states when she says that you become a man or woman by conforming to social construction, we, in a sense, forget that we ourselves created the social construction. We created the things needed for someone to figure out whether or not they will be a man or woman and at the same time, create everything else around us. The force of a law is only how much we allow it to have. To an extent we can do whatever in the world we want to do. The countryman could have gone through the doors, and probably, no matter how scary all of the other gatekeepers would have been, especially if they all just stood there like the first one, would have just done nothing. We, as a population, are reified by the social norms we are created. We become these robots who, though we don’t realize it because “it’s the norm,” follow all these rules and don’t say anything about it. I don’t think we are lazy for following these rules and not wanting to create our own, I think we just don’t realize that we are following the law all the time. Whether these laws are human made or natural, like we wake up when the sun comes up and go to sleep when it goes down, we are ultimately run by them and, if everything runs smoothly, have no reason to change them.

Why Can’t We Be Kings

Even after a couple weeks of thinking about it, I still disagree with Kafka, and possibly all other Existentialists, that I would choose to be a courier over a King. I can only think about examples from my childhood when I choose to take the lead, or be recognized as the leader during games such as Emperor or Teacher. In all situations when I got chosen to be anything other than the leader, I neglected my duties.
When I look back at it though, as a child I didn’t quite understand the idea of an oath, or allegiance to someone. Playing a game like teacher just enhanced my feelings of resentment for the person chosen to be teacher rather than generate respect. This is definitely a good example of Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals, in which he says people began to resent those with life-affirming values. Does that mean as a child, before I even became aware of the concept of ‘the herd’ I was a member? If so, then this definitely clarifies Kafka’s position of children naturally wanting to be couriers, as we really have no other choice. So why then, as I grew older, is it that I would prefer to be a King over courier? Is it my natural desire to break away from the herd, even though the herd is simply a self-imposed prison? Or perhaps, Nietzsche got it wrong, and there really isn’t such a thing as a life-affirming person. Essentially that means that man is doomed to fail then. Since eventually we “would like to put an end to this miserable life of [ours] but [we] dare not because of [our] oaths of service”, this quote from Kafka, pretty much sums up why life-affirming individuals have to exist from an atheistic existential viewpoint. If we are all just miserable couriers with no direction, what else do we have to live for?
This also explains why a King, or God, is a necessary construct for us humans to have. God allows us to be his couriers, which in turn, provides our life with meaning. Without a God, our messages are meaningless; therefore, the benefit to do more than grow old and die outweighs all other possibilities to make our jobs as couriers useful. This isn’t the life I want, and I believe that others wouldn’t want to live this way either.

Sartre or Merleau-Ponty: Who has the better conception of freedom?

For Merleau-Ponty, freedom is a mode in which personal actions and commitments can be chosen within a situation or field of possibility. According to MP, freedom is always within a given field of possibility. Whereas, for Sartre, freedom seems rooted in our power of negation--imagining alternatives and trying to pursue them. To me, it seems like the existential picture Merleau-Ponty provides is deeply at odds with the Sartrean picture, or any other existentialist vision of subjectivity that prioritizes a rational, autonomous individual, who is capable of imposing their choice upon a situation that is entirely external to them (side note: I wonder if Kierkegaard fits this bill too?).

I think MP would argue against Sartre that while it sometimes is an expedient shorthand to distinguish between transcendence and facticity (or Being-for-itself and Being-in-itself), it is a mistake to take them to be distinct metaphysical categories as Sartre does, because these two ideas fundamentally overlap in a way that undermines any absolute difference between the two. If that's right, then consequently Sartre’s vision of absolute freedom in regards to a situation is untenable, because we have to recognize the ways in which the self and world are intertwined--though not intertwined in a way that means that the world can be reduced to us, or us reduced to the world. Thus, MP and Sartre have very different views about our situatedness, for lack of a better term, and how that relates to our freedom. For Sartre, we seem like outsiders to our specific contingent situation, which comes to have meaning out of some original free choice we make: probably something like deciding to make my life a por-soi instead of an en-soi. Whereas, for Merleau-Ponty, I suppose the best characterization is that we freedoms are constantly in a kind of back and forth dialogue with the situations we are thrown, fallen, and cast into, and out of that dialogue certain potential possibilities come to be expressed. Thus, freedom, for MP, is more about sanctioning, rather than negating. I apologize if that is really confusing, I'm not sure I completely get the ins and outs of both of their positions, but I'm going to try and re-state what I just said and hope it comes out somewhat clearer. I think the difference between Sartre and MP ultimately boils down to this: Sartre seems to think freedom creates meaning (and thus is more fundamental), whereas MP seems to think that meaning is more fundamental, since a person has to already be woven into world (or field) of meaning before a personal act of freedom can occur.

Which view of freedom do you all think is more accurate? At this point, I'm leaning toward MP, since it seems like free choice requires situations that allow for different possible aims or activities, though I'm curious to hear other opinions.

alternative epistemology

In light of Beauvoir and our discussion on his work, I've been thinking a lot about alternatives.  People seem to make rules for themselves in life, whether on a personal or ethical level.  These could be anything from wiping your feet before coming into the house, to thou shall not kill.  We create these rules for ourselves and live by them, more or less.  Whether based on nature, reason, or God, we all have these rules and can logically defend them, despite the fact that they can be equally valid, yet completely contradictory.  In the back of our heads, however, we know that we are free beings and that we fabricated our own values.  In other words, we are responsible for our own rules, we made them and technically we can break them.  This presents two questions, the first being just how arbitrary are our values systems and rules?  Could they just as easily be completely different, yet still make sense within society?  The second, and perhaps more important question is why do we stick to them?  If somewhere in our consciousness we are aware that we are free from our own rules because we made them and they really don't limit our freedom as individuals, why do we embrace them and let them dictate our lives?  I recall Dr. J's question as to whether or not we do this because of a lack of alternatives.  At first this concept made a lot of sense to me; there really don't seem to be too many reasonable alternatives to how we live that don't seem absurd.  But after really thinking about it, I realized that the world is literally full of alternative systems of ethics and laws.  The Imbonggu people of Papua New Guinea, for example, have a totally alternative set of beliefs and way of living in the world.  So the alternatives are out there, but why do we still maintain our ways?

Conflicting Ideas in Buber and Sartre

After thinking about Satre’s notion of bad faith and Buber’s notion of human reciprocity, I think there is somewhat of a contradiction concerning the individualist aspect of Existentialism. On the one hand, we must be attuned to our own self-interest and personal responsibility—and prevent ourselves from being in bad faith. We thus should not consider ourselves things in-themselves, because we have the ability to choose who we will be. It seems, then, to not be in bad faith, we must be self-interested in the sense of not allowing the influences of the exterior world—the world of “Da-sein,” as Heidiegger would say—to affect us.

However, when we consider Buber’s philosophy, recognizing the importance of the I-Thou relationship, the value of the individual becomes slighted. We are not entirely self-interested in the sense described above, because we garner meaning from the interaction with other freedoms. As Buber writes, “meeting the Thou, I become” (321). Therefore, our very existence rests on an encounter with “the Thou.” How then can we not be in bad faith if we follow Buber’s philosphy? If it takes viewing someone else in the world to understand who we are, then it seems we can never really choose for ourselves. In Sartre’s terms, it seems that if the self depends on the other, the self is not a true self at all. It is a self in bad faith.

How then do we get rid of the apparent discrepancy between the two viewpoints? Certainly Buber’s philosophy coincides with Satre’s, and Existentialism’s, fundamental premise that existence precedes essence. But it seems that according to Buber, the original human essence is not one chosen by the individual, but rather by an interaction with another freedom in the world. According to Satre, it seems, true essence is entirely incumbent upon the individual’s desires, what the individual wants for himself. Maybe the encounter with the Thou is our own personal choice: a choice made by the individual. Perhaps if we can choose how to relate to the Thou and how we wish to understand ourselves through this relationship, we are not in bad faith. This might be congruent with Sartre, but I’m not entirely sure. I’d appreciate any other ideas on this problem. It still seems to me that someone is in bad faith he allows the world of the other to substantially impact who he will be.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Martin Buber vs. NPR

Martin Buber asserts that the there are two “founding relationships” that humans form. There is the human-to-object relationship, the I-It, as well as the I-Thou, a human’s relationship with another human. The I-thou is more than just humans connecting one another, however; it is the freedom-to-freedom relationship. That is, we have a profound connection with other people when there is a reciprocation of the understanding that each is a free being. Buber, a theologian, states that we are capable of forming such connections because they reflect our experience with God. This is the case for both believers and nonbelievers. When a human encounters the I-It, the person seeks for the object in need. Conversely, the I-Thou relationship is deeply significant because the human with whom we connect enters our lives naturally, creating meaning for both subjects. This is similar to a human’s experience with God. Our views of God develop based on life experiences, rather than constant search for a finite answer of God’s existence.

While Buber suggests that our personal relationships reflect that with God, an NPR broadcast I came across in my Psychology class complicates this. The broadcast, entitled “To the Brain, God is Just Another Guy,” supports that the brain responds to God as if He is another person. Functional MRIs were performed on participants as they were told statements such as “God is with me throughout the day and watches over me,” and “there is no higher purpose.” The statements activated areas of the brain responsible for empathy and understanding others’ thoughts. If we formulate opinions about God, our brain cannot help but to understand God as if He were another finite being. The study also suggests that that religion formed in the brain as result of social interactions (Hamilton, 2009). In other words, our idea of God developed over years of people collectively attempting to understand a higher being and the afterlife. It benefits human evolution, however, because it allows us to form unity, especially in times of turmoil. Essentially, the study claims that we have developed an idea of God because of complex human interactions.

While I do not believe that this experiment directly disproves the I-Thou relationship, I do believe that it complicates Buber’s claim. God is an incredibly infinite Being that the human brain cannot fully fathom. Whether we believe in God or not, we cannot entirely understand God’s purpose or existence. Thus, the study’s findings suggest that we can only expect so much from the I-thou relationship. We are supposed to model our I-thou relationships with the ideal Eternal-Thou. However, if we can only understand God as “another guy”, then the model for such relationships is restricted. It is not degraded into the I-It, as we are not necessarily objectifying God. However, Buber’s idea that humans must strive for the Eternal Thou in our personal relationships is too idealistic.

Hamilton, Jon. (2009, March 09). “To the Brain, God is Just Another Guy.” All things Considered. Washington, DC: National Public Radio.

atheistic existentialist and the choice to ignore god

Considered from the existentialist viewpoint, god is not only a subject of contention, but seems to be an atheistic existentialist’s nightmare. Although the freedom of existentialism may be full of anxiety due to the burden it places upon individuals to create his or her own purpose out of an inherently meaningless life, the opposite, that there is a god that creates our purposes, seems even more troubling according to an atheistic existentialist philosophy.

For example, consider that a meteor falls out of the sky and lands directly upon, and kills, a single person in a large crowd. For existentialist, this example would be an appropriate illustration of the absurdity and meaningless of life. That a person is killed by a meteor that has flown through space for thousands of years which have unfortunately coincided with the thousands of years leading up through the generations of the single person’s family history, with both culminating in a single moment when meteor and person meet is an almost funny event- it forces one to consider the absurdity of life that is so unlikely, so unpredictable, and so impossible to predict that it doesn’t make any sense to attribute meaning to the events that occur within it.

This understanding comes up in the movie No Country for Old Men, with the coin toss. Taken not as an illustration of fate, the random chance of coin toss in one sense drives home the objective lack of meaning in life. Life is just a toss of a coin, which has no meaning other than that which is created for it.

For one who believes in god though, it would be tempting to say that meteor accident happened for a reason, that it is not an illustration of absurdity or coincidence, but of purpose. This consideration seems much more terrifying for existentialist than the absurd. Believing that all things happen for a purpose, for purposes that one will likely never ever know but is trapped in anyways, forces questions such as what the purpose is, and why. Existentialist would argue that adhering to the belief that there is an objective purpose to life reveals all humans to be nothing more than Dostoevsky’s piano keys, limited in how they will live by their order in a set piece that is written and conducted by a god. All of the philosophers we have read run from this illustration of human life. No one wants to be a piano key, and so we are encouraged to rebel by spiting the meaningless of life and to create and live freely instead, to not accept what “they” say is our purpose but to make our own, to break out of the limits ascribed by others, to believe in the freedom and eternity of our own subjective meaning.

As a result, on the side of existentialism is an exhilarating freedom where each individual creates their own limits and is creator of their own purposes and values. Although the anxiety of living with so much possibility may be debilitating for some, for others it provides the room necessary to live a subjectively meaningful life that one may feel joy in living over again and again. Believing that god controls purposes and meaning, though, consigns humans to only ever living one set of events that are out of their control. Good or bad, there is no responsibility for what happens as the pressure and explanation of life is lifted onto god. While this may be a more comfortable existence than existentialism, since existentialist can only ever say that life happens while believers may say that it happens for a reason, atheistic existentialist would abhor this belief in god as ultimately constricting their potential for free meaning making and creativity.

Perhaps in the end neither side can be objectively proven though. Existentialist will only ever feel comfortable believing that we are each free to be totally and individually responsible for our lives, while believers in god will argue that though we live freely it is ultimately in accordance with a plan and under the guidance of god. Atheistic existentialists, though, would force the issue by asking not only on what basis anyone believes in god, but more importantly why anyone would ever want to, even in the case that god actually did exist. Given the troubling questions that come with accepting an objectively meaningful life as guided by god, answers to which all involve taking away responsibility and freedom from the individual while limiting the subjective creative and purposive meaning making processes of life, in the end atheistic existentialists would argue that even if god was objectively proven to exist, that it would be better for everyone to try hard and ignore this evidence, to live their lives believing with conviction that god is dead.

Friday, November 13, 2009

The Fifth Amendment in light of Kafka and Sartre

“ No man is bond to betray himself,” a quote by John Lambert, is the essence of the Fifth Amendment’s self incrimination clause. The Fifth Amendment of the United States Constitution protects individuals from self-incrimination. The problem with the Fifth Amendment Self Incrimination Clause is that the individual may refuse to testify against himself. How is the jury supposed to determine the correct verdict for any case without a confession from the defendant?

The self incrimination clause makes it seem as if the defendant is in Sartrean “bad faith” by lying to him or herself about being guilty. The defendant is trying to be not guilty in the mode of being guilty, therefore, is trying to be free from guilt rather than be rightfully guilty. If the individual is guilty then the clause gives him the ability to withhold incriminating parts of his testimony, which is to be in “ bad faith” as to lie to himself.

In “ In Trial,” Kafka presents the story of " a man from country" who wants to be admitted by the Law. When he asks for access to the Law, he is denied by the gatekeeper who is guarding the gates that lead to the Law. In relation to Kafka, the defendant can be seen as the man before the gate, the gatekeeper symbolizes the legal system, specifically the Fifth Amendment. The Fifth Amendment helps the defendant to become free from an incriminating confession. Both the man and the defendant strive for different forms of freedom; the man in the story wants a genuine yet paradoxical sense of freedom which is the freedom to be accepted by the law but subconsciously adhere to laws as he waits in front the door all his life. This causes him to deprive himself of freedom regardless the gatekeeper‘s action while trying be accepted by the Law. The man at the gate is not free in the mode of actually being free so he is in a type of “ bad faith” as well. However, the defendant wants freedom from self incrimination, so he takes makes use of the Fifth Amendment. However, complying to the Fifth Amendment’s self incrimination clause causes the defendant to fall into the Sartrean bad faith. Neither the man at the gate nor the defendant are able to attain their own sense of freedom without falling into Sartre’s concept of bad faith.

I am not sure if the defendant is really free if he achieves the illusion of freedom by slipping into bad faith. Is this really being free even though the defendant is withholding incriminating information through means of bad faith? Will Kafka's man at the gate or the defendant be able to attain freedom without a drop of bad faith?

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Wishful Thinking

I think that it is only wishful thinking that can imagine Sisyphus as happy. Imagine pushing the same rock up the same hill again and again and again. Enduring a perpetual punishment and never reaching the goal of a task. The Greeks specifically formulated Sisyphus’ situation to be one of eternal torture. I am a goal-oriented person, and the thought of pushing a rock up a hill for all of eternity only to have it fall back again is tormenting. There is no hope.

I think that there is absurdity and certainly absurd situations in life but I think that there are situations in which meaning and achievement are present. When someone close to us dies unexpectedly and unfairly, we experience what Camus’ describes as the absurd. There is no rule, order or meaning to what happened, and we realize how fragile our world is. The Holocaust would also be an instance of the absurd. However, there are also moments in life where true victory and happiness are achieved. Being with my family has given me experiences that I would never take to be meaningless. Even if I, for some reason, never see them again, I will still cherish the memories and take them as moments of true happiness and victory. There is nothing absurd about my relationship with my little sister, it is entirely good and meaningful. In addition, we as a society have made great social advancements in the past century. Gender and race issues have been brought to the surface and progress has been made on discrimination.

Although Camus is right to point out instances where we encounter the absurd, I think that he neglects the fact that there are also moments in life where things are achieved and goals are completed. Sisyphus is a dejected prisoner destined to a meaningless existence.

We are never a mere Sisyphus rolling a rock up a hill for no reason; we instead are taking three steps forward, four steps back, three steps forward, and then one step back. I believe that each of us is working towards some meaning in our lives and that although there is absurdness in our lives, it is not the only thing we experience. Camus might reply by saying that the absurd will break everyone into abandoning all meaning in life. However, I believe if one expects the absurd, one can withstand the arbitrary events that set us back and hurt us.

Failure through Inaction

Simone de Beauvoir’s philosophy, as perhaps Existentialism as a whole, can be reduced to the word possibility. De Beauvoir writes, “Nothing is decided in advance, and it is because man has something to lose and because he can lose that he can also win.” Thus, according to de Beauvoir, there always exists the possibility to win and lose in any given situation—that is, unless we act to deliberately limit them. There exists the possibility of neither winning nor losing, of not playing the game, so to speak. We can pretend that a possibility is not a possibility. Using her example, we can pretend that a door cannot be opened because it could not be opened on the first try. In other words, we can live in a state of inaction in which we rid ourselves of the possibility of failure, but also of the possibility of success. This, of course, is undesirable. In this state, we would not be truly living.

I see this as failure in its worst conception. It seems that to exist happily and meaningful, we must attempt to increase the possibilities of our life. If we do not maximize our possibilities, we in some way limit them—along with our potential successes and failures. Limiting our experiences, the possibilities of life, is the sort of “evil” it seems that de Beauvoir describes in her commentary on the “ethics” of Existentialism. It is evil to accept our life as it is, as if we have no say in its direction and, more importantly, its meaning. This approach to life is largely masochistic. If life has the possibility to be better, then by not attempting to improve it, we resign ourselves to an unhappier state of being, a comparative life of misery. Although some may say that people do not realize their possibilities, this is no excuse. We all in some way or another realize the possibilities available to us. Some of us chose to act on those possibilities while others don’t.

People say that they could never sky dive or climb a mountain, but this is synonymous with pretending as if it is impossible to open the door. One can chose not to climb a mountain or sky dive, but it still remains a possibility. Although this may be an extreme example, people frequently resign themselves to inaction. They are scared of failure of the lesser kind. People will refuse to apply for a job because they tell themselves that they won’t get it. People won’t go to college because they tell themselves that they can’t succeed. By not doing these things, people indeed get rid of the possibility of failure in the sense of not getting the job or not succeeding in college. However, they also prevent themselves from bettering their lives—a greater failure it seems. In any case, it seems that actively attempting to better the quality of one’s life is essential to obtaining any kind of meaning or happiness. We must be active participants in life to succeed on a higher level.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Where is happiness?

Our class discussion Tuesday and last Thursday got me thinking about the importance of thought and it’s connections to your actions. For Sisyphus, his actions were a revolt against the absurd, and he was happy in his decision to remain rolling the bolder up the mountain to see if fall again. Sisyphus could have been angry with the world or revolted in another way, yet he sustained pleasure in the idea of revolting by doing the monotonous task.

Throughout this class, we have talked so much about our perception of the world shaping our actions or how we feel about our situations, yet I can’t help but think isn’t there a choice in deciding how we feel. We all have the freedom to walk around upset, angry, or mad at the world, but isn’t it more important to have the freedom to chose how we feel. I know some mornings the last thing I want to do is smile, interact, and overcome my exact feelings, yet when I make that decision to continue to do it even though I don’t want to my perception changes. I’m not saying people have to cover their true feelings, but I do think it is important to look at our situations and reassess how we perceive them and how they control our emotions. The philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote in his book The Conquest of Happiness, "Happiness is not, except in very rare cases, something that drops into the mouth like a ripe fruit... Happiness must be, for most men and women, an achievement rather than a gift of the gods, and in this achievement, effort, both inward and outward, must play a great part." Here, Russell is saying that happiness is a choice. It is not something that comes naturally or can found through certain things. It is a conscious decision that we each have to make whether the situation is good or bad.

Although my eyes have been opened to the positive aspects of existentialism, there is still negative ideals that none of us like to face. Merleau-Ponty points out that although we may think we are free, we are never completely free. For Sartre, we try not to act in “bad faith” yet we continue to act in bad faith. I guess what I am getting at is how one can look at these perceptions of life which do parallel our existence and overcome the angst. Where is the happiness? How can it be achieved? I don’t have any great ideas, but I think it is through the acceptance of the now and the appreciation of the life at hand we find happiness.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009


The other day we were talking about people wanting to follow the commands of another in the example of the couriers as well as the idea that if we were truly free we would leave school and do whatever it was we really wanted to do. I was pondering these ideas and I decided that we don’t have to go to such great lengths to prove our freedom. Why perform an action just to prove you are free? It would be a much better action to consider your options and figure out what is the best route to take in life. I believe that making a good judgment is more important than proving my own freedom. In fact, I don’t have to prove my own freedom to anyone. I know I am free and I am free to choose that which is best for me in my own life. Hell, I don’t even have to choose to do what’s best because I don’t have to prove anything to anyone else. Personally, I don’t need validation from the outside world to tell me what I am doing is good. We are fully capable of making our own morality and not everyone needs outside influences to guide them. It doesn’t take the signing of the honor code to convince me I shouldn’t cheat. This can be for whatever reason, whether it be I think cheating would be contrary to the whole goal of education or because I think cheating is inherently wrong. Frankly, it doesn’t matter much what I think except to myself. Many of us are caught up in thinking about ourselves and proving we are good to other people, but other people don’t care either. Just as we are worried with validating ourselves, they are worried about validating themselves. Our ideas and feelings about things revolve around us and our experience and we aren’t usually trying to figure out whether someone else is a good person. Due to this, performing an action just to prove I am free is not only foolish, but pointless because I would not be proving anything to anyone, just the fact that I have the freedom to make a bad decision. Wouldn’t it be way better to prove I have the freedom to make a good decision? By deciding to stay in school instead of leaving and doing whatever is fun I am showing that I can make a good judgment call, and if anyone wants to doubt my freedom they can go right ahead because they have the freedom to do that, but I have the freedom to ignore them.

Despair or Laughter

“A world that can be explained even with bad reasons is a familiar world. But, on the other hand, in a universe suddenly divested of illusions and lights, man feels an alien, a stranger,” (Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus, 6).

“Humility falls between nihilistic detachment and blind self-importance,” (Nagel, The View From Nowhere, 222).

The existentialists describe the human activity of self-creating, self-overcoming, and positing values as an exercise of human freedom and thus our most valuable function and the only method of intuiting anything resembling “truth” or “value” from the world. As a human is, in Heidegger’s terms, a being for whom its Being is a question (and perhaps the only being of this sort), the question of objective value, a priori principles, and the like are necessarily to be butted against subjective valuations of the world, distinctly for Camus as the recognition of only subjective meaning for life in a void of objective meaning. Thus, Camus presents man’s relation to the world as one necessarily shot through with absurdity, this recognition of the relative meaninglessness of human life in the non-rational darkness of the universe. From these assertions, Camus draws three possible conclusions, the religious devotion to the irrational as God (a la Kierkegaard), suicide, or revolt. Camus presents MOS as explicating the relationship of suicide to the absurd, and he portrays Kierkegaard and Chestov as representing the religious response to the absurd, hypostatizing the irrational and impossible as God, as committing "philosophical suicide." But can these three responses possibly exhaust all relationships to the absurd? Camus’ revolt consists of scorning the fate of humans to whom this bleak situation has been forced by a non-rational universe, but this fate is not a punishment as there is no punisher. The dramatic quality of Camus’ writing, that of the “traumatized atheist” as Robert C. Solomon characterizes him (Solomon, The Passions: Emotions and the Meaning of Life), has been assessed harshly by several contemporary philosophers. Solomon, for example, concludes that Camus’ “literary genius enables him to paint this ghastly scenario in heroic colours; but we must see it for what it is. It is a degrading, spiteful, and hopeless version of the Christian denigration of man – as petty and helpless, virtually crushed by the weight of his guilt and his punishment, virtuously salvaging his last crumb of self-respect through resentment, scorn [and] silent defiance,” (Solomon, 45).

Bob Plant explores the possibility of a hearty Nietzschean laughter as a response to objective meaninglessness of life through his discussion of Nagel’s dispassionate recognition of absurdity, in the essay “Absurdity, Incongruity, and Laughter.” Camus’ resentment of the absurdity of life is possible, according to Nagel, if one presupposes that “the harmonization of subjective and objective viewpoints is, at least in principle, possible,” (Plant, 130). This seems like a mischaracterization of Camus’ worries, as his despair arises from an acknowledgement of the inevitable lack of possible unity between the perspectives, the thought that humanity will always suffer this tension between subjective meaning and the lack of objective meaning. But notice how I describe the absurd here, in Camus’ dramatic terms of suffering and fate. For some, surely, existence primarily resembles suffering, coping with rather than overcoming certain facticities, such as a life-long depression. For those who do not find the lack of external corroboration of the meaningfulness of human life at least troubling perhaps simply do not share a certain roughly defined disposition. The way in which Plant takes laughter for granted in response to absurdity is the way in which Camus takes despair as a normal response to the sudden realization of the absurd. These may simply represent different characterizations of revolt against the absurd, but whether one is better or more convincing than the other is another issue. Plant’s example of an exchange student reading The Stranger and falling immediately into a protracted despair, only to be immediately remedied by recognizing that one’s thoughts are of importance to the thinker, may show a shallow sort of anguish about the absurdity of life, but this is one example of someone who obviously did not seriously ponder the absurd prior to reading such lines as “Nothing matters.” Someone who grapples critically with the problems of faith will recognize a certain despair that, if only momentarily, resembles the feeling of the absurd as Camus illustrates it. While Plant posits that laughter is “the right response to absurdity,” he never spends much effort describing how convincing someone out of despair and toward laughter would occur. Early on in MOS, Camus acknowledges, “It is legitimate to wonder, clearly and without false pathos, whether a conclusion of this importance requires forsaking as rapidly as possible an incomprehensible condition. I am speaking, of course, of men inclined to be in harmony with themselves,” (Camus, 6). Could being continuously conscious of the absurd, the great incongruity between human aspirations and an unfeeling universe, an inevitable tension between striving toward objective meaning but really only creating subjective meaning, resemble more a pathological sort of misery than a Heideggerian authentic existence? Through constant consciousness of the absurd, or for someone like Rorty, the contingency of language, selfhood, and community, one can avoid placing too much emphasis on either an objective lack of meaning, falling into nihilism, or the subjective meaning of life, becoming too self-important. Thus, Nagel presents a manageable tension between inner and outer perspectives (subjective and objective) as humility. However, it can be said that Nagel is merely another voice on this subject, not inherently more correct than Camus’, but rather the description of another response to the absurd.

Offering a fruitful counterpoint to Camus’ revolt in the face of the absurd, Nagel implores us not to lose sight of either the objective or subjective points of view, that there should always be a tension between them. “The pursuit of objectivity with respect to value runs the risk of leaving value behind altogether…if we continue along the path that leads from personal inclination to objective values and ethics, we may fall into nihilism. The problem is to know where and how to stop, and it shows itself in some of the more personally disturbing questions of philosophy,” (Nagel, 209).