Essay—Applied Existentialism—(76)

Summary—This essay presents a method of applying existentialism where the reader starts with simple sources of knowledge—and that each of us has total freedom and total responsibility for the entire world.

Quotation—Existentialism is an attempt to gather all the elements of human reality into a total picture of man. —William Barrett

Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821–1881) was a Russian writer of novels, short stories, essays, journalism and is considered to be a great philosopher and psychologist. Dostoyevsky’s literary works explore a variety of philosophical, psychology and religious themes in the troubled political, social and spiritual state of 19th Century Russia. His 1864 novel Notes from the Underground is considered to be one of the first works of existential literature, and introduced the concept of perverse freedom. He was arrested in 1849 for belonging to a literary group that discussed banned books critical of the government. He spent four years in a Siberian prison camp followed by six years of enforced military service. He was one of twenty prisoners sentenced to be shot at dawn on December 22, 1849. Their clothes were removed and they were forced to stand outside naked for twenty minutes. At the last minute their death sentences were commuted. Some of the men suffered mental breakdowns while Dostoyevsky did not even remember feeling the extreme cold of the Russian winter.

I Hate Nietzsche. In studying existentialism, I suggest starting with writings about, and not by, the great existential philosophers. The reader could begin with Philosophy Magazine and YouTube. He could then move onto beginners’ books by authors like Paul Strathern, Donald Palmer and William Barrett. If he liked them he could go onto the source and read books written by existential philosophers like Nietzsche. Diving headfirst into writers like Nietzsche can be problematic. I try to be consistent and uncomplicated in my writingwhile Nietzsche is bombastic and sometimes contradict himself. He abuses the reader with the intention of forcing him to think for himself. Reading Nietzsche is the metaphysical equivalent of rock climbing. It might be better to start off with foothills. And even if the reader were to read and understand all of Nietzsche’s books, he would still only know a slice of existentialism. I recommend building the base with writers that talk about the great existential thinkers.

Behaviorism and Existentialism. I believe we are using the behavioral psychological model primarily in Canada. Behaviorism only asks that we behave normally and is the sickness that pervades society. It is the theory that human behavior can be explained in terms of conditioning while ignoring thoughts and emotions. Behaviorism argues that mental disorders can be treated by altering behavior. Existentialism cures behaviorism by asking each of us to take total freedom and total responsibility for the world. It is the philosophical theory that emphasizes individuals as free and responsible agents determining their own development through acts of freewill. Existentialism gives us purpose. Doctors like physicists are guilty of the agency problem, which is that they have chosen their own wellbeing over the health of the nation. I would argue that doctors are making people sick with behaviorism and are in turn making a killing off this inflicted illness. Like the physicists, who are in denial of my theory of one, the doctors are also in denial of their painfully obvious mistake. Behaviorism is the brainchild of a couple of halfwits named Watson and Skinner. Existentialism is the product of a long history of great thinkers that goes all the way back to Socrates and includes Shakespeare, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Dostoyevsky, Kafka, Camus and Sartre. They all shared the belief that philosophy begins with the acting, feeling, living, human being.

Existence and Essence. Sartre tells us that for man, existence precedes essence. Consider a pen for example. Its essence is designed on the drawing board and then it comes into existence, so essence precedes existence. But for man who arrives on the scene and then creates his essence, existence precedes essence. Christianity tells us that man is created in God’s image or essence. Christian man’s essence is predefined and thus his evolutionary curve is flat. He believes he is only required to behave himself and he will be admitted into Heaven when he dies. Obeying the Bible and the Ten Commandments is only a façade of morality. Beneath the surface Christian man is gang raping Mother Nature in a crazed feeding frenzy of nonrenewable resources. Scientists tell us we only have fifty years of oil remaining. Nietzsche tells us, “My enemies are those who destroy the world without creating themselves.” Existential man creates himself while responsibly using the nonrenewable resources. His evolutionary curve goes upward to infinity and beyond. With existentialism there is no predetermined human nature that man is obligated to fulfill. Existential man is thus free to create himself.

Freewill and Determinism. The question of determinism versus freewill has been around since the time of Saint Augustine (354-430). Determinism is the worldview that the decision to floss one’s teeth tonight was determined at the moment of the Big Bangwhile freewill is the worldview that rejects the idea that determinism applies to the actions of man. The debate between determinism and freewill is important in criminal psychiatry. The crucial question is whether the criminal act is the necessary result of a set of previous causes so that the criminal could not help doing what he did. Or is the criminal free to do otherwise and therefore is responsible? Determinism arises in a society when the government fails to draw a distinction between it and freewill. In that Canada is strictly deterministic, it could be argued that criminals are not responsible for their criminal actions. According to Skinner, “Many anthropologists, sociologists and psychologists have used their expert knowledge to prove that man is free, purposeful and responsible. This escape route is slowly being closed as evidence of the predictability of human behavior is discovered. Any personal exemption from complete determinism is being revoked as scientific analysis progresses.”

Condemned to be Free. With existentialism individuals are free to make choices and cannot escape this freedom no matter the circumstances. The individual always has freedom of choice even if he must choose in anguish. Bad faith is a key element of existentialism and is defined as the flight from freedom and responsibility. One flees freedom and responsibility by claiming that it is just the way things are and they cannot be changed. The other form of bad faith is when a person sets lofty goals but does not make the effort to achieve them. Authenticity or good faith is also a key element of existentialism where one’s true nature, spirit and character exist in reality despite overwhelming social pressure to behave otherwise. Perverse freedom occurs, for example, when a person refuses medical help even though its in their best interests.

Decision Analysis. According to Wikipedia, “Decision analysis is the discipline comprising the philosophy, theory, methodology and professional practice necessary to address important decisions in a formal manner.” Decision analysis provides a holistic set of tools with which a decisionmaker can formulate models representing decisions. Jean-Paul Sartre tells the story of a young Frenchman during World War II who must decide whether to avenge his brother’s death and join the war effort—or to stay home and look after his mother. Sartre advises the young man to simply decide. Decision analysis is the missing link in which we may employ a formal methodology of making both large and small decisions in the absence of complete information. Value-focused thinking means we have to understand what we value. In risk management, which is closely linked to decision analysis, we identify the acceptable value-at-risk for a given confidence level. I would thus argue that decision analysis aligns perfectly with applied existentialism.

Applied Existentialism. The first step forward in applying existentialism is to build the base by reading material from elementary sources. Then, by comparing and contrasting behaviorism with existentialism, we can see where we have been and where we are going. This will enable us to understand the monolithic freedom we have in creating ourselves. Understanding the difference between freewill and determinism in turn captures the essence of existentialism from thirty thousand feet. While decision analysis is not typically associated with existentialism, it teaches us to make good choices in the presence of uncertainty. We should see our lives like works of art. One cannot say that a brushstroke is correct or not, but only that its value is only subjectively revealed in the coherence of the whole work of art. Just like physicists are ignoring my theory of one because it puts them out of business, doctors are making people sick with behaviorism and are making money from it. The existential revolution could begin by encouraging grade 12 students to take total freedom and total responsibility for the entire world. Some would take up the challenge while others would not. Ultimately, I sincerely hope one day existentialism will be just another core subject taught in high school like English or mathematics.

Conclusion. Camus defined philosophical suicide as abandoning our soul in exchange for a comfortable life. He also wrote, “The only true philosophical question is that of suicide.” Camus concludes by saying we should choose life over suicide. According to EF Schumacher, “People ask for bread and are given stones. They beg for advice on how to be saved and are told that salvation is an infantile neurosis. They long for guidance on how to live responsibly and are told they are machines, like computers, without freewill and therefore without responsibility.” Following Schumacher while, at the same time, choosing an existential attitude decidedly means taking the elusive road less traveled. In keeping with Nietzsche’s inflammatory styleI love Nietzsche.