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E is for “Existential”

Published May 5 / 6, 2021, for Kierkegaard’s & Freud’s birthdays 1

AWESOME

“Building Bridges” 1
  1. Overview and Origins
  2. “Existence Precedes Essence” or “Rock, Paper, Scissors”
  3. “The Meaning of Life” is a Trick Question
  4. Freedom of Choice, Burden of Responsibility
  5. What Existentialism Essentially Isn’t
  6. Absurdity, Anxiety, Authenticity, Awareness, Actualization
  7. The Three Zones
  8. Conclusions
  9. Citations

1. Overview and Origins

“That’s so existential” … “I’m having an existential crisis” … .  We hear this word all the time, but what does it actually mean?!  “Existential” is notorious as a word whose definition is better suited to an encyclopedia article than to a dictionary sentence.  That’s because it emerged nebulously from two centuries’ worth of loosely affiliated philosophical thought.  The great existentialists disagreed with each other on many points, too.  This essay can only claim to be my version of existentialism.

But to meet the challenge, let me propose my dictionary definition.  The root of the word is existence.  Existentialism deals specifically with human social existence.  Science teaches us a multitude of things that we humans have in common with animals, vegetables, and minerals.  Yet there is still something completely distinctive about being human, and that is where existentialists like Heidegger centered their philosophy. 2 I construe broad and narrow senses of the word. 3

Existentialism (broad sense; noun form):  The study of how people exist and co-exist socially, such as how we perceive, create, and fit into existence.

Existential (narrow sense; adjective form):  Self-actualized about the control that one has over one’s own life, including one’s nature, options and choices, freedoms, and responsibilities.

The movement that we now call existentialism emerged in response to the rapidly changing nature of science, psychology, and religion in the 1800s.  Are humans bound by God’s plan?  Are we programmed by clockwork laws of nature, or do we make our own way?  Do we need religion to deal with life’s inevitable challenges and terrible moments?  Existentialism is not necessarily atheistic, but it is an appropriate vehicle for meaning, purpose, and happiness independently of religious beliefs.  This is immensely important at this juncture in history.  You may believe strongly, as I do, that God is dead.  However, few will follow us down that path if they equate “God” with “Good”.  What alternative hope can we offer?

The history of existentialism is studded with colorful characters.  The most influential are often listed as Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and the power couple Sartre & de Beauvoir.  I find it helpful to introduce existentialism with a quote from each of these philosophers. 2


Søren Kierkegaard (19th century, Danish)

Soren Kierkegaard

What I really need is to get clear about what I must do, not what I must know …

What matters is to find a purpose,

To see what it is that God really wills that I shall do …

to find a truth which is truth to me, to find the idea for which I am willing to live and die. 4


Friedrich Nietzsche (19th century, German)

“This is my way; where is yours?” –

Thus I answered those who asked me “the way.”

For the way – that does not exist. 5


Jean-Paul Sartre & Simone de Beauvoir (20th century, French)

Man is a being whose existence precedes his essence. 6

One is not born, but becomes, a woman. 7

2. “Existence Precedes Essence” or “Rock, Paper, Scissors”

When Sartre made his famous “existence precedes essence” statement, he was placing humans in a third category between objects of nature and human-made gadgets.  His example of a human-made object was a “paper-knife”, a form of scissors.  We might also use words like form and function to describe such objects.  Why do scissors exist at all?  First, someone recognized a functional need: “I need something to cleanly cut this paper.”  That inventor then designed scissors with a form to serve their function.  The paper-knife’s essence preceded its existence.

Natural things, like rocks, are different.  A rock has no reason for being; it simply exists.  If it has an essence, it’s only something that we create in our minds afterward.  We might decide, “I will throw this rock to scare away the birds” or “I’ll hide behind this rock.”  But the rock was not put there for such a reason, or any reason.  The same is true for all of nature, from the atoms in your body to planet Earth.  They are not good, bad, or purposeful.  They just exist. 8

What about people?  We are not like scissors.  We are not formed to serve pre-determined functions.  When we are born, we “just exist.”  However, we are also not like rocks.  Everyone comes to assume an “essence” or role in society.  This essence is created by each person herself, and those around her, in her own lifetime.  Thus, her existence precedes her essence.  This may sound simple or even obvious in retrospect, but this point of view is a radical departure from traditional religious ideas about human identity.  We prefer to believe that we are all preconceived instruments, like scissors in God’s stationery drawer. 

Sartre also observed that a person’s essence can only be revealed by his existence, i.e., his past words and actions.  Sartre wrote a brilliant play, No Exit, about three self-delusional characters.  Each one believed that he or she had a “true essence” hidden inside, which didn’t seem to match their actual accomplishments.  The newspaper journalist insisted that he was brave.  When the other characters reminded him of his cowardly actions, he had an excuse ready for each one.  Without an act of heroism, it’s hard to justify an “inner hero”.

3. “The Meaning of Life” is a Trick Question

It’s interesting to compare the Kierkegaard and Nietzsche quotes above for their similarities and differences.  Religious folks, Kierkegaard is the existentialist for you.  He was devoutly Christian.  Kierkegaard was reacting against science 9 as Nietzsche and Sartre later rebelled against religion, but they all arrived at the importance of self-determination.

When Kierkegaard looked for “a truth which is truth to me,” he meant “truth” in a sense that really means “importance”.  If we’re studying most anything else – animal, vegetable, or mineral – there are universal truths and we’re not free to choose our own.  But human goals, priorities, and outlooks are self-made.  In 19th century Europe, science and religion both played up the importance of “knowing the right things”.  Kierkegaard found knowledge useless without purpose.  He was interested in individualizing knowledge, value, and behavior.

Individualism is also a word that would apply to Nietzsche.  If you asked him, “What is the meaning of life?” he’d probably answer, “That’s a trick question!”  Every religious faith believes that it has a monopoly on virtue, truth, and happiness.  Each one pitches “the plan”, something like: 

“There’s only one true path to enlightenment.”

“I am the way and the truth and the life.”

If only everyone followed this plan, they believe, we would finally have paradise on Earth!  Nietzsche, and others after him like Albert Camus, argued that there is no secret answer waiting to be revealed.  Each one of us has just as much right as anyone else to declare a path to virtue, truth, and happiness that works for us individually.

4. Freedom of Choice, Burden of Responsibility

We have arrived at the central tenet of existentialism.  There is no universal meaning of life.  There is only the meaning of your life, and the only person who can choose that meaning is you.  Following the crowd is not necessary, nor in the long run will it give you the most authentic satisfaction.

Misguided criticisms aside, existentialism is not about anarchy and disregard for the law.  It’s a philosophy of emboldenment.  Without being conscious of our options, we tend to conform to cookie-cutter expectations.  People have a natural fear of making hard choices and living with the consequences.  If you don’t believe in the fear of choice, consider the lengths to which people will go to avoid accountability by denying their own agency. 


Outwardly:  “I align myself with the ‘House and Block’ Party.” 

Inwardly:  “Whew, now I don’t have to form nuanced political opinions.  Whatever my party says is right!”


Outwardly:  “My daughter has ‘School Fatigue Syndrome’.” 

Inwardly:  “Whew, it’s not her fault for falling behind in school.  She has a condition!” 


Outwardly:  “The system is rigged.  The Illuminati controls everything.” 

Inwardly:  “Whew, I’m not responsible for any problems or failings.  I can blame everything on THEM!”  


It is okay to question tradition, expectations, and peer pressure.  It’s okay to live creative, alternative lifestyles.  In fact, Sartre and de Beauvoir not only preached this but practiced it.  They were an early well-known example of a couple with untraditional sex lives.  They recognized that they didn’t have to have a traditional marriage with children if they didn’t want to.  They were openly polyamorous.  De Beauvoir was a bisexual woman who adopted an adult child.  Her ideas about feminism were among existentialism’s most enduring legacies. 

This leads into the idea of collective existential thought.  A society, like an individual, is free to define itself and its options.  Feminism is a collective choice to broaden the “role” of women in society.  We can also make collective decisions about ingroups and outgroups, industrialization vs. environmentalism, and taxing & spending.  While an individual is free to behave selfishly, society is free to discourage that behavior with laws or Twitter shaming.  Through most of history, these decisions were made by priest-kings or by nobody at all.  Now they are becoming more deliberate.  They are hard choices that involve tradeoffs and consequences, just like the life choices that each person makes.  

5. What Existentialism Essentially Isn’t

We can contrast existentialism with essentialism.  Essentialists tend to believe in unchanging, absolute, pure essences.  This outlook is manifested abundantly in religious and conservative thought.  For instance, essentialists believe in fixed categories of norms, nationality, or loyalty.  These essences are all too easily enshrined in overly simplistic words like “Muslim” or “Republican”.  Essentialists often get disturbed when people try to blur those boundaries.  They tend to feel that there is one true moral path and that people shouldn’t go changing it. 

There is an existential divide between conservatives and liberals on matters of good and bad behavior, including criminal reform.  The essentialist attitude is that criminals are just bad people by essence, so they should be separated from society; there’s no way for them to learn but to weigh their actions against punishment.  The existential view is that the essence of “criminality” is a label after the fact, not a pre-determined fate.  Education and relief from poverty can go a long way toward preventing crime if not reforming people who have resorted to crime.

6. Absurdity, Anxiety, Authenticity, Awareness, Actualization

Camus popularized the concept of “absurdity” as the vain attempt to interpret a meaningless world as having meaning and purpose. 10 It results in a world that doesn’t always make sense.  Sometimes life is unfair, and you simply can’t negotiate.  You have brilliant ideas, but nobody is listening.  You are bracketed within a century between birth and death.  It’s not enough time to do everything you’d like. 

existential crisis: a psychological episode in which one questions the meaning of one’s life and of existence itself. 11

Why has this phrase come into vogue just in the last several decades?

For most people through history, life purpose was almost entirely determined by self-preservation: simply staying alive, defending one’s life and one’s rights as much as possible, and successfully finding a mate and raising children.  The lower classes had crises, all right, but of a much different nature from today.  They faced economic constraints, social rigidity, and lack of choice.  

Living a middle-class life in a free country is quite the opposite.  Today’s leisurely class – which has grown much larger than ever before – has transcended self-maintenance and must now address the “now what?” crisis.  Freedom of choice is ironically difficult.  It’s hard to plan, commit, and understand consequences.  There is no classical religion or value system to guide us on this modern surplus of liberty.  Many if not most wealthy people dedicate their lives to merely entertaining themselves.  Some of them want to make more of themselves but don’t know what to do.  It’s all too easy to fall into the pattern of “affluenza”: narcissism, entitlement, boredom, and drug abuse.  It’s all too common to live moment-to-moment until all the moments are gone.    

Existentialism is usually associated with its gloomy side: the brooding and the crises.  Let’s remember to think through to the happy ending.  The whole point is to live life on your own terms.  Think of the two sides of awareness.  If brooding is an awareness of life’s limitations, then actualization is the awareness of possibilities.  Be aware.  What are your realistic options, and which of them appeal to you most?  What would you like your obituary to say?  What will you need to do today to start writing that life story?  Why are you doing things today that you’ll regret tomorrow?  In this way, we don’t worry so much about “what’s the meaning of it all?”  We focus our energy instead on, “What meaning will I make of this?”

7. The Three Zones

“The Three Zones” is my own video game model of existentialism. 12 You begin at the center of your existential world.  You are surrounded by icons in three increasingly resplendent zones.  Zone 1 is “Isle Settle”, where many unremarkable icons wash up on the shore.  Zone 2 is “The Couldshould Woods,” full of nicer icons that you can obtain with time, focus, and hard work.  Zone 3 is “Neverland,” filled with tantalizing temptations.  Unfortunately, the game will end before you can get there.   

To play, you must choose a strategy. 

  1. You can remain on Isle Settle and pretend that you’re happy. 
  2. You can build a bridge to the Couldshould Woods.  
  3. You can live and die bitter about the Neverland treasures that will never be yours. 

Maybe the solution looks obvious as a video game.  I think you’ll recognize how many people choose strategies 1 or 3, maybe never even realizing that it was their choice. 

8. Conclusion

I find that discussions of existentialism tend to trace a trio of trope traps.  Academic discussions float up into the abstractosphere.  Pop culture references dwell on the triggering crises, like death and inherent meaninglessness, rather than the valuable psychological lessons.  Critics oversimplify existentialism and distort it into absurd morals like “might makes right.”   

It’s just as easy to oversimplify existentialism in positive verse:

Be the author of your own life.
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference. 13

What is AWESOME thought?

Previous post: ‘W’ is for ‘Worldly’

9. Citations

  1. “Building Bridges” drawn and released into the public domain by Fritz Ahlefeldt, https://www.publicdomainpictures.net/en/view-image.php?image=2568&picture=building-bridges (accessed, saved, and archived 5/05/21).
  2. Heidegger coined the German term da-sein, roughly “being in the world.”  Sein und Zeit (Being and Time), 1927.
  3. Viktor Frankl similarly defined “existential” at three different levels of abstraction.  See Andrew R. Hatala, “Frankl & Freud:  Friend or Foe?  Towards Cultural & Developmental perspectives of Theoretical Ideologies”, Psychology & Society 3(1):1-25 (Aug. 2010), p. 20, note 19, http://www.psychologyandsociety.org/previousissues/?id=14 (accessed and saved 4/15/21).
  4. Søren Kierkegaard, journal entry of 8/01/1835.  It is easy to find English translations of this quote online, though I haven’t found the Danish original.
  5. Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra (German, 1883 – 1885), Vol. 3 Ch. 11, “In the Spirit of Gravity”, trans. Walter Kaufmann, Viking Press (Kingsport, TN, 1985), p. 195 (PDF saved 6/01/20).
  6. Jean-Paul Sartre, “Existentialism is a Humanism” (1945 lecture), trans. Walter Kaufman, p. 12, https://warwick.ac.uk/fac/cross_fac/complexity/people/students/dtc/students2011/maitland/philosophy/sartre-eih.pdf  (accessed 4/08/21).
  7. Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex (1949), Vol. II, Part One, Chapter 1.
  8. The purposelessness of nature as an existential theme is discussed by Douglas Burnham and George Papandreopoulos, “Existentialism: Irrationality / Absurdity”, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, https://iep.utm.edu/existent/#SH1f (accessed 4/08/21).
  9. Thomas A. Wartenberg, Existentialism: A Beginner’s Guide, One World Publications (Amazon Kindle e-book edition, 2011), location 373.
  10. Albert Camus, Le Mythe de Sisyphe (French, 1942), translated into English as The Myth of Sisyphus, first edition by Justin O’Brien (1955), https://postarchive.files.wordpress.com/2015/03/myth-of-sisyphus-and-other-essays-the-albert-camus.pdf .
  11. https://www.dictionary.com/e/pop-culture/existential-crisis/
  12. Girl, ribbon, potion, purse, and flowers by Ani_Banany_Style, https://pixabay.com/illustrations/fairy-magic-fantasy-accessories-6003028/ .  Cloud by Clker-Free-Vector-Images, https://pixabay.com/vectors/cloud-white-weather-cloudy-296722/ . Rainbow by adolfoleite0, https://pixabay.com/illustrations/rainbow-default-colors-948520/ . Unicorn by 7089643, https://pixabay.com/photos/unicorn-rainbow-pegasus-sweet-3739326/ . Money by OpenClipArt-Vectors, https://pixabay.com/vectors/banknotes-bankroll-bill-money-159085/ . Cap by Clker-Free-Vector-Images, https://pixabay.com/vectors/cap-hat-baseball-pink-girly-worn-306816/ . Worm by OpenClipArt-Vectors, https://pixabay.com/vectors/earthworm-worm-cute-happy-inchworm-151033/ . Cat by nekomachines, https://pixabay.com/illustrations/cat-cartoon-kitten-kitty-animal-5746771/ . Apple core by Clker-Free-Vector-Images, https://pixabay.com/vectors/red-apple-fall-food-fruit-bitten-304530/ . Crown by Clker-Free-Vector-Images, https://pixabay.com/vectors/crown-george-prince-wales-royal-34435/ . Treasure chest by Krolestwo_Nauki, https://pixabay.com/vectors/treasure-treasure-chest-icon-5545058/ .  Gem icon by Sido, https://pixabay.com/illustrations/pink-diamond-gem-jewel-game-jewel-1056757/ . Heart by Clker-Free-Vector-Images, https://pixabay.com/vectors/red-heart-health-love-shape-304570/ . Star by OpenClipArt-Vectors, https://pixabay.com/vectors/star-yellow-christmas-star-158502/  . All Pixabay icons labeled “Free for commercial use, no attribution required.” Pencil icon from https://www.clipartmax.com/middle/m2i8H7i8b1H7d3m2_broken-pencil-broken-pencil-png/ .  ClipArtMax believes this icon to be in the public domain.
  13. This is the most popular revision of the aphorism first expressed by Reinhold Niebuhr (an existential Christian) around 1932: “Father, give us courage to change what must be altered, serenity to accept what cannot be helped, and the insight to know one from the other.” See Quote Investigator, “Serenity Prayer” (12/24/2019), https://quoteinvestigator.com/2019/12/24/serenity/ (accessed, saved, and archived 4/08/21).
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W is for “Worldly”

AWESOME

I believe that the human domain is the world, the whole world, and nothing but the world.

I. The World

The term “worldly” has multiple meanings.  I am not worldly like a sophisticated, well-traveled jet-setter.  I am earthly, not looking for answers in the heavens.  Synonyms would include materialist or monist.  Worldly is also a nice stand-in word for “global.”  I consider the human domain to be the world, the whole world, and nothing but the world.

II. The Whole World

A. I Identify as Human

Social theories are self-fulfilling.  If I believe that I belong to Group A, and that Group B is our enemy, it’s amazing how accurate those predictions become.  Xenophobia makes some sense in a long-term evolutionary view.  Social processing is one of the most taxing demands on the human brain.  Sociologists say that a small community can hold itself together by sheer trust when everyone knows everyone’s relationships with everyone.  The upper limit to this group size is only about 150. 3 Any larger than that, and people start to feel that they are living with strangers. There’s a real argument, then, that it is unnatural for people to cohere in groups of 200 or more.

Social cohesion matters most when other groups are competing for limited resources like land, water, and food.  When two groups encounter each other, they have many options.  They can try destroying or dominating each other.  They can agree to a boundary.  They can cooperate and trade.  Sometimes they even merge. 

A merger of smaller groups into a larger one has many advantages.  We give these advantages fancy names like economy of scale, division of labor, standards, and synergy.  One large group can live more efficiently than two smaller groups.  The benefits are so great that people have been merging for 10,000 years, even though they surpassed the “natural” group size as soon as they started to do so.  Large groups found it so important to hold together that they invented new institutions for cohesion: organized religion, law, morality, and group identity. 

Cohesive groups grew to the size of chiefdoms, then civilizations and nations, now up to the gigaperson scale.  Some group identities are more informal and nebulous.  Religions, languages, cultures, and social networks all have their own group identities.  We have to train ourselves to identify with a large group beyond our immediate circle, but we have shown an essentially infinite capacity for doing so.

The final step is obvious, but it seems that, the closer we get to it, the more resistance it faces.  That step is global identity.  Is it possible to say, “I identify as human”?  I believe that we can and should.  The secret to world peace could be something as intangible as this attitude.  It is a relatively new concept, but it is happening incrementally.  As I write this in 2020 amidst the corona virus pandemic, at least I am heartened to see people of all nations feel each other’s pain.  Sometimes it takes a common enemy to bring us together.      

It takes some emotionally meaningful history to form a group identity.  The coronavirus pandemic is the most striking example I’ve seen of an adversity faced by a united world community.

B. World Government?

The pushback against globalism is especially fierce when it comes to government.  We accept government at every level, from the school board to the nation, but something about world governance sends many people into a wide-eyed panic.  Nationalists associate “global” with “foreign”, apparently forgetting that their nation, too, is part of the globe. 

“We must not become global!” posts the nationalist to a social network he shares with a billion people around the world.  Let’s face it, national isolation is impossible.  Culture and the economy are globalizing at break-neck speed.  Many people still deny this, and the institutions to manage this integration of 8 billion people lag far behind.  Without rules in place, you can be sure that the benefits will be reaped by a few and the burdens borne by many. 

Several geopolitical functions seem more naturally suited to one global government than 200 national ones.  To name more than a few: protecting the oceans and atmosphere, phasing out dictators, taxing corporations and billionaires with multi-national assets, settling refugees, preventing and responding to pandemics, mitigating global financial crises, policing the internet and international crimes, facilitating global freedom of movement, establishing global intellectual property rights, protecting international investments in poor regions, overseeing weapons of mass destruction, mediating border disputes, exploring outer space, managing the transition to post-fossil-fuel energy sources … .

Of course, the transition to globalism raises legitimate concerns.  Like any unification, it will involve compromises and transfer of wealth.  In the short-term, it is downright painful for many people.  The UN is the closest thing we have to a world government, but that’s not really what it was designed for, and it has serious flaws as a governing body.  It would be exciting to see the UN gradually reformed into a Global Federation of Republics (GFR).

But rarely have I seen dispassionate opposition to globalism based on well-considered principles.  Just this week, I saw a tweet by Bill Gates offering his support for the World Health Organization. 1 I didn’t see one single supportive reply.  The commenters were rabid.  They hurled “Globalist!” at him like an invective.  They accused him of one conspiracy theory after another.  There is a truly deep-seated irrational fear in the hearts of anti-globalists.  What are they so afraid of?    

I believe that this fear derives from false historic parallels and even mythology.  Historically, large central governments have been empires formed by conquest under a king.  There is a widespread lingering assumption that global unification will have to come about the same way: one of the superpowers will destroy the others, erase all national boundaries, and crown a malevolent global dictator.  Some Christians even believe that the bible prophesies such an “antichrist” tyrant. 2 Globalism also gets conflated horribly with Marxism.  Marx and Engels did call for the “workers of the world” to unite, but this was because they recognized the capitalist upper class as already global.

I don’t know about you, but I am not comfortable basing 3rd-millennium geopolitical decisions on 1st-millennium prophecies.  Globalism does not have to culminate in an evil empire or a socialist revolution.  It’s something we are already forging ourselves as a grassroots effort.  Again, the viability of a system like a GFR depends on attitude and resolve.  Right now, there is so much emotional resistance to the idea of world government that it would not have the consent of the governed.  But I think it’s inevitably on the horizon.  If we don’t want world government planned out by a cabal of billionaires, maybe we should beat them to it and start discussing it among ourselves first.

III. Nothing But The World

A. Spirituality, Monism, and Dualism

People of earlier times matter-of-factly assumed a dualist universe, in which our natural world is controlled by a supernatural, celestial, spirit world.  The modern monist view finds that there is only one world: our self-contained material realm.

The primary difference between these worldviews is the nature of spirits.  Spirits can be embodied or disembodied.  I have addressed the issue of disembodied spirits, such as God, to some extent in my essay, “A is for Atheism / Agnosticism.”  This essay will emphasize the question of the embodied spirit, the mind / brain / body connection. 

B. The Material Brain vs. Embodied Spirits

More than likely, nobody will ever quite understand how the brain makes the mind.  However, monists and dualists must both state a case.  Do we have a general sense of what’s going on in there?  What’s our evidence?

The dualist position is inferred by drawing comparisons between a living person and different things: a living animal, a dead person, or an inanimate object.  The body and brain are made of matter.  Other material objects such as rocks are not conscious.  Therefore, the difference must be something immaterial.  Other animals display conscious behavior like we do, but they don’t talk or think logically.  Our spirit must be more divine than theirs.  A dead person has all the same flesh as a living person, but she has clearly lost something.  It must be an immaterial soul. 

The intuitive dualist view of human nature: a material / inanimate body coupled with an immaterial / animate spirit.  3

These are all very appealing hypotheses, but, until they are rigorously tested, they are only speculation.  Science demands more than the “Yeah, I could buy that” standard.

The problem the dualist faces is that he has no affirmative explanation for how spirits work.  How would an intangible spirit think?  How would it connect to a tangible body and brain?  We can’t even begin to speculate, because we can’t directly perceive anything about these spirits at all.      

By contrast, we can observe the body and brain, and we can draw direct contrasts to the other standards.  The real difference between life and non-life is that life can metabolize, borrowing energy from the environment to animate itself.  Life is complex, and consciousness is due to the brain’s complex organization.  We can identify the specific regions of the human brain that are responsible for language and higher social skills.  Those parts are undeveloped or lacking in other animals.  Finally, death results when cells degenerate and can no longer metabolize.    

Monism. The three functions of consciousness, essentially “SENSE, THINK, DO”, are all performed by one material body, with the brain as command center. Thought might be an internal loop, like the brain doing something to its own sensory mechanisms. 4.

Doctors and researchers have developed a consistent mapping of brain functions to mind functions.  Localized brain damage has a predictable effect on cognitive capabilities.  Waves of electrical brain activity are associated so strongly with mental states that people can now fly remote-controlled drones with sensitive “mind-reading” helmets. 5 There is no doubt that the material brain at least contributes to the mind, if not generating it entirely on its own.  It’s unclear where a spirit would fit into the picture anymore.  

This causes us to take a second look at human nature.  Humans have always prided themselves on being spiritual.  Many cultures have looked down at the earthly and corporeal as the baser part of our nature, the “gross” or the “profane”.  It now appears that we are nothing more than our body and brain.  Moreover, the human mind and behavior evolved to serve the body: to feed, to mate, and to raise children.  Most of our emotions reflect the satisfaction or frustration of our biological needs.  Our earthly form is not lowly; it absolutely defines who we are.

C. Disembodied Spirits

The mind / brain connection also poses conundrums for disembodied spirit theory.  It appears that a brain is necessary for thought, so how would a spirit think without a brain?  Spiritualists might say that consciousness simply permeates the universe, that it is a fundamental force of nature without a cause.  But if that were so, then why would a spirit need a brain and a body at all?  I find no satisfying explanations for how spirits would live, think, or interact with our natural world.  Coupling this with the fact that we are predisposed to see purposeful spirits everywhere we look, I have to conclude that they are simply “all in our mind.”

IV. Conclusions

The human domain is the world, the whole world, and nothing but the world.  To a person living 100 years from now, these truths might be self-evident.  In this day and age, we are fighting two strongly opposing instincts. 

The first instinct is nationalism.  Most people identify as part of a nation, but they have a hard time identifying as part of the world.  Nations have much more history and emotional pull.  Although global culture is nascent, economics and politics are highly developed at the global level.  This will call for increasing demands on world-level government.  I urge people to overcome world-government paranoia so we can plan it wisely.            

The other opposing instinct is spiritualism.  Most people believe in a spirit world alongside our material world.  Brain-mind monism teaches us that bodies and minds are all part of the same unit.  We have now cast serious doubts on both embodied spirits (in this essay) and disembodied spirits (in the previous essay).  This has serious consequences.  If there is only one world, then we can no longer get by blaming our problems on evil spirits and petitioning the goods ones for help.  We must bear all the responsibility for ourselves and our own lonely blue ball in space.   

V. Citations

  1. https://twitter.com/BillGates/status/1250292126643941376
  2. Irvin Baxter, “The New World Order (NWO) World Government Forming Now!” End Time Ministries (2020), https://www.endtime.com/new-world-order/ (accessed, saved, and archived 4/20/20).  For what it’s worth, Baxter isn’t even quoting scripture correctly.  The figures in Revelation and Daniel are called “beasts” in English translations.  The term “antichrist” appears in 1st and 2nd John and is not a kingly figure but simply a heretic.
  3. Drawing by William Blake, “The Soul Hovering Over the Body, Reluctantly Parting With Life” (1813), public domain, https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/383673
  4. Monism figure created and released into the public domain by Wikimedia Commons user “Was a Bee”, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Consciousness_phenomenal-functional_(en).png (accessed, saved, and archived 4/23/20), modified by Scot Fagerland (4/24/20)
  5. “Controlling a Flying Robot … With Your Mind”, Wall Street Journal (6/06/2013), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tJqQuk99F2M
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AWESOMEness

When I was thinking about pitching TEOH to publishers, I wrote a book proposal to summarize the book and its target audience.  I brainstormed some of the adjectives I would use to describe the book’s point of view.  The first three that came to mind were “Scientific, Agnostic, and Moderate.”  That gave the acronym SAM.  Pretty bland!  In an early draft of my proposal, I wrote,

The book champions a scientific, agnostic, existential, objective, moderate outlook.

Now I was up to the acronym SAEOM, which was unwieldy and didn’t make any sense.  With a little thought, I realized that I was anagramatically close to AWESOME.  I just needed a W word and another E word.  Then it clicked …

Agnostic + Worldly + Existential +  Scientific + Objective + Moderate + Educated =

awesome

In our world of hype, the AWESOME voice easily gets lost.  Religion is considered to be righteous, and the irreligious are still lumped in with communists and fringe extremists.  News programs love to interview guests at the far left and far right to get opposing strong opinions.  Political parties force politicians into dramatically polarized teams.  Conspiracy theorists, religious fundamentalists, and bitter cynics dominate every online forum.  Nationalism is still a matter of pride, and globalism is viewed with suspicion despite all its clear benefits.

Beliefs, biases, opinions, allegiances, and emotions all have their place.  Yet if your goal is to truly understand the world we live in, you must try to rise above these distractions. You can’t take sides or get married to preconceived notions.  You have to be agnostic, worldly, existential, scientific, objective, moderate, and educated.

In a series of follow-up posts, I will delve into each of these words and further define what it means to be AWESOME! The plan is for each essay to be about 2,000 words. Altogether, they will form my AWESOME manifesto.

Apply to join the AWESOME Thought Facebook group

A is for Atheist / Agnostic : Posted 6/05/18

W is for Worldly : Posted 4/22/20 (Earth Day)

E is for Existential: Posted May 5 – 6, 2021 (Kierkegaard’s & Freud’s birthdays)

S is for Scientific / Statistical: Coming next!

O is for Objective

M is for Moderate

E is for Educated

As far as I can tell, the image credit belongs to Yoyo Games.  If you own rights to the image and wish to correct this attribution or remove it from this page, please let me know! 

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