31 May 2013
Sixth in a Series on Existential Risk:
Existentialism and Existential Risk
Sometimes when you talk to people about existential risk they only pick up on the word “existential” and then make a comment about existentialism, which I guess demonstrates that they weren’t listening very closely or that the whole idea of existential risk is so foreign to the way many people think that it takes time for the idea to sink in. Having become aware of this, I sometimes formulate existential risk in terms of “human extinction scenarios,” which actually constitutes a subset of all possible existential risks, but at least gets the general idea across and seems to be less vulnerable to being misconstrued.
To be so misconstrued, however, is understandable, since most people with a passing acquaintance of intellectual debates will have heard the term “existentialism” (perhaps they’ve even heard Sartre’s familiar formulation that existence precedes essence, or maybe they once tried to dip into Heidegger’s Being and Time) while they very well may never have heard “existential risk” as it is employed in its contemporary usage. It is more likely that a random interlocutor might have heard the term “existential threat,” and indeed this might be an opening for a discussion of larger existential threats (larger, that is, that the existential threat that individuals or nation-states pose to each other) that pose genuine existential risks.
But to return to the understandable confusion between existentialism and existential risk as might occur in a semi-casual conversation, especially when talking to someone you might assume to be aware of such things — what is it about existentialism that makes it an existential philosophy, and what is it about existential risk that makes it an existential concern? Is there any common existential core?
Put in its simplest terms, existentialism is a philosophy of existence. This sounds rather unremarkable. Aren’t all philosophies philosophies of existence? Well, no. Many philosophies have been philosophies of essence, even going so far as to consider essences the truly real constituents of the world to the point of existence in its mundane form construed as not real at all. This tradition goes back at least to Plato, who is the most eminent representative of this school of thought, but by no means the last. Existentialism broke — violently — with this tradition on the continent just as positivism broke — again, violently — with this tradition in the Anglophone world. Existentialism was very interested in exactly the kind of mundane existence that Plato called unreal.
So, existentialism is a philosophy of existence. This is why Sartre defined existentialism in terms of the precedence of existence before essence. What, if anything, does this have to do with existential risk? Existential risk, too, is a philosophy of existence, after a fashion. It is, if anything, even more concerned with the mundane world of the everyday than were Sartre or Heidegger. I will try to explain why this is the case.
Both existentialism and existential risk are concerned with asking radical questions that are not ordinarily asked in going about the ordinary business of life. When one gets out of bed, goes about one’s morning routine, and eventually goes to work, one doesn’t ask oneself whether the world will still be in existence tomorrow, or an hour from one, one simply assumes that this is a case and acts upon this assumption. If one does ask these questions, one might end up as an impoverished philosopher, perhaps enjoying the fruits of what Socrates called the “examined life,” but unfortunately not enjoying the fruits of the unexamined life, which might include such simple and innocent enjoyments as sound sleep and knowing where one’s next meal is coming from.
I want to try to make this point in greater detail, and to do so in relation to a classic existentialist text that will allow the reader to make his or her own connections between existentialism and existential risk, if one cares to follow up on the parallels that I will try to suggest below.
In his Being and Time, Heidegger made a distinction between Existentiell and existential, which is confusing because the words look very similar and sound very similar; it would have been less confusing to coin a completely different word to cover the concept that Heidegger wants to get at with the term “Existentiell.” Now, Heidegger exegesis is a highly technical subject, and something that many philosophers have spent their entire lives giving expositions, so I begin with a warning to the reader that my exposition of this Heideggerian distinction is not likely to correspond with that found in Heidegger scholars.
The distinction betweeen existentiell and existential reflects the Heideggerian distinction between beings and Being, as beings are an ontic swarm of actual particulars while Being is the ontological ground of beings and the condition of their possibility. What Heidegger calls “existentiell” is an ontic understanding of things in the world, which corresponds to what Husserl (Heidegger’s one-time mentor) called “the thesis of the natural standpoint” (which it was the imperative of phenomenology to overcome). This might also be characterized in Alfred Marshall’s classic formulation of economics: the ordinary business of life. The existential, in contradistinction to the existentiell, involves the presuppositions that make the existentiell possible, which corresponds to Husserl’s suspension of the thesis of the natural standpoint, in order to get at the ultimate presuppositions of thought.
Here is one formulation of the distinction from Heidegger himself:
We come to terms with the question of existence always only through existence itself. We shall call this kind of understanding of itself existentiell understanding. The question of existence is an ontic “affair” of Da-sein. For this the theoretical transparency of the ontological structure of existence is not necessary. The question of structure aims at the analysis of what constitutes existence. We shall call the coherence of these structures existentiality. Its analysis does not have the character of an existentiell understanding but rather an existential one.
Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, translated by Joan Stambaugh, State University of New York Press, 1996, pp. 10-11
In other words, you don’t need to know anything about the structure of the world to come to terms with existence in it most mundane forms, but an analysis of what constitutes existence is necessary to a more fundamental coming to terms of existence. This latter is what Heidegger called an existential perspective. As I implied above, I’m not interested in engaging in any extensive Heidegger exegesis. On the contrary, I want to take this philosophical idea, usually expressed in highly abstract terms (as it is expressed in Heidegger) and reformulate it in naturalistic terms.
I‘ve pursued this approach previously in The Mind/Body Problem in the Context of Natural History (when I tried to place Cartesian dualism in the context of natural history) and in A Human, All-Too-Human Eternity (when I tried to place the idea of eternity in the context of natural history. Now I would like to place the Heideggerian distinction between the existentiell and the existential, or between beings and Being, in the context of natural history.
From the perspective of natural history, one comes to terms with existence every day when one goes about one’s practical routine, engaging with the world in a pragmatic and utilitarian fashion. This is the existentiell perspective. The existential perspective takes this further, looking for the structure of existence. And what is the structure of existence from a natural historical perspective? It is one and the same world as that ordinary world of ordinary experience, expect extrapolated radically to its greatest extent. In other words, coming to terms with existence from an existential perspective means coming to terms with Big History, which provides the ultimate (natural historical) context for ordinary experience and its objects.
The parochial world of personal experience is meaningful and valuable on a personal level, and it is easy to go through life as if this is the only world that mattered, but everything personal and particular exists in a context, and your personal life and all its immediate objects are dependent upon the whole history of the world that made all of this possible (diachrony), and apart from this history, there is the whole interconnected web of things in the present that cannot exist unless all the other things exist (synchrony).
Similarly, when we think exclusively in terms of our private and personal lives, we are likely to think of dangers such as being involved in an automobile accident or contracting an illness. These are existential threats to the individual. But the individual life is set in the context of many other lives, and all these lives are set in the context of a living biosphere, and this living biosphere is set in the context of a cosmos that makes it possible for such a thing to exist. This is the perspective of Big History. The existential threats to the individual life scarcely register at the level of Big History, but there are other existential threats that appear at this level of consideration. The existential threats that threaten the many lives that are the context of our individual life, or which threaten the biosphere entire, or which threaten the biosphere-consistent cosmos are existential risks.
From the perspective of the individual, transcending the imperatives and threats of the individual life constitutes a radical form of thought, and a radical rethinking of what is important. This requires, in Heidegger’s terms (though not at all in the sense in which Heidegger intended), “the theoretical transparency of the ontological structure of existence.”
Heidegger is not a philosopher that I greatly admire, but to many people Heidegger is synonymous with existentialism, so I wanted to develop my point in a Heideggerian context, but all existential thought is philosophy of existence, and the interpretation that I have given the above Heidegger quote could be adopted and adapted, mutatis mutandis, to other existential philosophers. The existentialist concern for the individual existence largely remains valid when transferred beyond individual existence.
The fragility and vulnerability of existing things is powerfully expressed in Sartre’s famous novel Nausea:
“Every existing thing is born without reason, prolongs itself out of weakness, and dies by chance.”
The unreasoning fact of one’s birth and death, and the unreasoning blindness of the will to live that maintains us in existence, makes us as vulnerable to ourselves as we are to others, and this vulnerability seems also to hold for larger wholes that incorporate individuals. Biospheres give birth to invasive species that crowd other species out of existence and threaten the very web of life upon which the invasive species depends; and planets give birth to civilizations that potentially threaten the entire planet. We would just as well say that every existing world is born without reason, prolongs itself out of weakness, and dies by chance.
Nietzsche, too, had a sense of this vulnerability, or being a hostage to fortune:
“That my life has no aim is evident even from the accidental nature of its origin; that I can posit an aim for myself is another matter.” (Notes 1873, The Portable Nietzsche, Kaufmann, p.40)
That Nietzsche should add to this palpable sense of vulnerability that I can posit an aim for myself is another matter reminds me of one of the “Proverbs of Hell” that William Blake wrote for The Marriage of Heaven and Hell:
“The most sublime act is to set another before you.”
Continuing in existence out of the blind, unreasoning will to live is a weakness, as Sartre suggests, but consciously choosing some end or aim is another matter entirely.
Choosing one’s own destiny and taking responsibility both for the choice and for one’s actions was a favorite theme of Sartre (before his later Marxist phase) and a position that he expressed very eloquently in his well known lecture Existentialism is a Humanism (which I have quoted many times, since it has profoundly influenced by own thought). Here is Sartre’s uncompromising formulation of human responsibility:
“If, however, it is true that existence is prior to essence, man is responsible for what he is. Thus, the first effect of existentialism is that it puts every man in possession of himself as he is, and places the entire responsibility for his existence squarely upon his own shoulders.”
Sartre repeatedly places this responsibility in a social context. For example:
“I am thus responsible for myself and for all men, and I am creating a certain image of man as I would have him to be. In fashioning myself I fashion man.”
This is the weakest part of Sartre’s exposition. I agree with it, but I still see the weakness of his assertion. This is not the sort of thing that can be asserted; it must be demonstrated, and Sartre does not attempt a demonstration of how personal responsibility is at the same time social responsibility.
To demonstrate that personal responsibility does entail social responsibility for larger wholes of which the individual is a part, and to do so with the unflinching sense of individual responsibility that Sartre brings to his formulations is a task for our time — a task left undone by the philosophy of existence in its earlier iteration, and remains now as a task for a philosophy of existence in its later iteration.
We can see the relationship between personal responsibility and social responsibility — more than see it, we can feel is viscerally — but to demonstrate these linked responsibilities would require passing beyond both to a theoretical perspective that is a common context of both, and perhaps at this point we pass out of the perspective of natural history and resume a philosophical perspective.
While we may not yet be in possession of a fully explicit and formal expression of these linked responsibilities of the personal and the social, we can grasp what the structure of this must be, and it is this:
Existentialism is the ontogenic formulation of existential risk; existential risk is the phylogenic formulation of existentialism.
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Existential Risk: The Philosophy of Human Survival
6. What is an existential philosophy?
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22 November 2009
On the flights from Tampa to Portland I started reading Herbert Marcuse’s essay on Sartre, “Sartre’s Existentialism” from 1948, collected in Marcuse’s Studies in Critical Philosophy.
In reading Marcuse on Sartre (with the subtle, sublimated hostility of a Marxist to the early Sartre, who went out of his way to distance himself from Marx and Marxists), it occurred to me that what we could call historical existentialism or historical naturalism are the heirs and continuators of historical materialism. That is to say, they are (or would be, if they were systematically formulated) the philosophical development of Marx’s historical materialism in the light of subsequent philosophical developments.
An existentialist philosophy of history begins from the premiss that existence precedes and creates essence — thus every conception of history that has recognized that individuals and societies are shaped by geography, topography, landscape, and earlier history is history understood in terms of existence preceding essence. Earlier history is, in its turn, a function of earlier naturalistic forces that have shaped that history. Ultimately we must trace this chain of earlier histories backward to the point that human history disappears imperceptibly into natural history.
This idea of an existentialist philosophy of history is very much in the same spirit of what I recently wrote in A Formulation of Naturalism, and, in fact, is not only in the same spirit but may be considered an extension of that post. In that post I argued that contemporary philosophical naturalism could be considered a conservative extension of materialism: naturalism is materialism wherever materialism was adequate, and only goes beyond materialism where materialism fails. Just above I suggested that historical naturalism and historical existentialism are synonymous. In so far as historical existentialism — in which historical existence precedes historical essence — is simply another formulation of historical naturalism, and in so far as naturalism is a conservative extension of materialism, historical naturalism “naturally” becomes a conservative extension of historical materialism.
I make no claim for the novelty of the position stated above; it is nothing but an alternative way to formulate the geopolitical perspective that current events must be seen in the context of history, and history must be seen in the context in which history is made, and that context is geography. I have only cast the net a little wider, and the more comprehensive nature of the thesis makes it appear that much more radical. This is one of the virtues of abstract and general thinking: once particular issues are framed in these terms, matters otherwise only implicit become explicit.
Perhaps more problematic yet is that I should burden the above formulation with the tag “existentialist”, since existentialism suffered from the irredeemable fate of becoming a briefly popular sensation in the middle of the twentieth century, so that it now sounds terribly dated. On the one hand, I should not allow popular taste to prejudice a valid philosophical position. On the other hand, it could be argued, in a similar spirit to the argument in made in A Formulation of Naturalism that the essential conceptions of existentialism have been superseded by more recent, and more accurate, philosophical formulations. For the moment, I will allow the label to stand.
I have, in this forum, several times quoted Ortega y Gasset’s famous line that man has not an essence but a history. This is also in the spirit of an existentialist philosophy of history. One might take Ortega y Gasset’s bon mot as an alternative formulation of Sartre’s famous dictum that existence preceding essence. In both, the emphasis falls upon man’s historical, temporal, actual existence and denies that there is any eternal, essential nature of man. In so far as Ortega y Gasset’s formulation sharpens the point by denying the essence that Sartre delayed and subordinated, he sharpens it to a point that an existentialist philosophy of history so conceived comes into conflict with other conceptions of history.
Recently in The Incommensurability of Civilizations and Addendum on Incommensurable Civilizations I wrote, “Each civilization is not only distinct, but each is based on a distinct idea of civilization.” And, citing a particular example, “We can explain both the continuity and the periodizations of Western civilization by reference to a basal ideal that changes over time.” Now, in so far as the idea of a civilization is similar to the essence of man (and, while the two are clearly distinct, I think it is fair to say that each conception is integral with the other), and in so far as an existentialist conception of history requires that we abandon any essence of man, then an existentialist conception of history, it would seem, must abandon all pretense of history that makes reference to idea, ideal, and essence.
This is the dilemma that faces me now. I do not say that these two approaches cannot be reconciled and rationalized, but I do say that some effort at conceptual clarification is necessary to that reconciliation and rationalization.
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3 October 2009
I have, in a couple of posts, quoted a line from Sartre’s “Existentialism is a Humanism” lecture that ends with I must confine myself to what I can see:
I do not know where the Russian revolution will lead. I can admire it and take it as an example in so far as it is evident, today, that the proletariat plays a part in Russia which it has attained in no other nation. But I cannot affirm that this will necessarily lead to the triumph of the proletariat: I must confine myself to what I can see.
For corroboration from a fellow Frenchman and a fellow novelist consider this from Balzac’s Louis Lambert (not his most admired novel, but perhaps his most philosophical novel), delivered by the novel’s protagonist:
“To think is to see,” he said one day, roused by one of our discussions on the principle of human organization. “All science rests on deduction, — a chink of vision by which we descend from cause to effect returning upward from effect to cause; or, in a broader sense, poetry, like every work of art, springs from a swift perception of things.”
Honoré de Balzac, Louis Lambert, translated by Katharine Prescott Wormeley, Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1889, p. 39
Fellow Frenchman and philosopher Descartes offers more than corroboration: he stands at the foundation of the tradition from which both Balzac and Sartre come. In his most systematic work, the Principles of Philosophy (Book I, ix), Descartes presents an all-encompassing conception of thought, as is appropriate for the philosopher who is the locus classicus of the cogito:
By the word thought, I understand all that which so takes place in us that we of ourselves are immediately conscious of it; and, accordingly, not only to understand (INTELLIGERE, ENTENDRE), to will (VELLE), to imagine (IMAGINARI), but even to perceive (SENTIRE, SENTIR), are here the same as to think (COGITARE, PENSER). For if I say, I see, or, I walk, therefore I am; and if I understand by vision or walking the act of my eyes or of my limbs, which is the work of the body, the conclusion is not absolutely certain, because, as is often the case in dreams, I may think that I see or walk, although I do not open my eyes or move from my place, and even, perhaps, although I have no body: but, if I mean the sensation itself, or consciousness of seeing or walking, the knowledge is manifestly certain, because it is then referred to the mind, which alone perceives or is conscious that it sees or walks.
On the one hand, one can view these accounts as tributes to the visible and the tangible, except that Descartes, who stands at the origin of the tradition, can in no way be assimilated to materialism. On the other hand, and more interestingly, all of these accounts can be understood as expressions of various degrees of constructivism — mostly unconsciously formulated constructivism, but nevertheless an awareness that our thought must be disciplined by experience in a rigorous way if it is not to go terribly wrong. This is also a Kantian orientation, as we observed in Temporal Illusions, and Kant is counted as an ancestor of contemporary constructivism.
Skeptics have always demanded that truths be exhibited. We saw this in our previous posts about Sartre’s atheism, taking Doubting Thomas as the paradigm of the skeptic, who must needs touch the wounds of Christ with his own hands before he will believe that it is the same Christ who was crucified and subsequently risen.
It is a feature of constructivist thought, and most especially intuitionism, to reject the law of logic that is called (in Latin) tertium non datur or the Law of the Excluded Middle (LEM, or just EM). This simply states that, of two contradictory propositions, one of them most be true (“P or not-P“). Intuitively, it seems eminently reasonable, except that we all know of instances in ordinary experience that cannot be adequately described in a black-or-white, yes-or-no formulation. Non-constructive reasoning makes unlimited use of the law of the excluded middle, and as a consequence holds that all propositions have definite truth values even if we haven’t yet determined the truth value or even if we can’t determine the truth value. This can lead to strange consequences, like the famous Aristotelian example of the sea fight tomorrow: either there will be a sea battle tomorrow or there will not be a sea battle tomorrow. We don’t know at present which is true, but if we accept the logic of non-constructive reasoning, we will acknowledge that one of these propositions is true while the other is false.
The law of the excluded middle implies the principle of bivalence — the principle that there are two and only two logical values, namely true and false — and bivalence in turn implies realism. Realism as a philosophical doctrine stands in opposition to constructivism. Plato is the most famous realist philosopher, and believed that all kinds of things were real that common sense and ordinary experience don’t think of as being “real,” while at the same time disbelieving in the reality of the material world. Thus Plato is something of an antithesis to the kind insistence upon the tangibility and visibility upon which the skeptic and the materialist rely.
It is interesting, then, in the context of Sartre’s atheism and his insistence upon relying upon the seen, which we have now come to recognize as a kind of constructivism, to contrast the very different viewpoint represented by William James. One of James’ most famous essays is “The Will to Believe” in which he lays down the criteria for legitimate belief even where sufficient evidence is lacking. William James offers, “a defence of our right to adopt a believing attitude in religious matters, in spite of the fact that our merely logical intellect may not have been coerced.” Among the criteria that James invokes is when a choice is forced, which he describes like this:
…if I say to you: “Choose between going out with your umbrella or without it,” I do not offer you a genuine option, for it is not forced. You can easily avoid it by not going out at all. Similarly, if I say, “Either love me or hate me,” “Either call my theory true or call it false,” your option is avoidable. You may remain indifferent to me, neither loving nor hating, and you may decline to offer any judgment as to my theory. But if I say, “Either accept this truth or go without it,” I put on you a forced option, for there is no standing place outside of the alternative. Every dilemma based on a complete logical disjunction, with no possibility of not choosing, is an option of this forced kind.
Logical disjunction is another name used for the law of the excluded middle. Here James reveals himself as a realist, if not a Platonist, in matters of the spirit, just as we saw that Sartre revealed himself as a constructivist, if not an intuitionist, in matters of the spirit. The point I am making here is that this is not merely a difference of belief, but a difference in logic, and a difference in logic and reaches up into the ontology of each and informs an entire view of the world. People tend to think of logic, if they think of logic at all, as something recondite and removed from ordinary human experience, but this is not the case. Logic determines the relationship that we construct with the world, and it organizes how we see the world.
Nietzsche wrote in a famous line (or, perhaps I should say, a line that ought to be more famous than it perhaps is) that the nature and degree of an individual’s sexuality reaches into the highest pinnacles of his spirit. I agree with this, but I would add that the nature and kind of an individual’s logic — be it constructivist or non-constructivist — also reaches into the highest pinnacles of his spirit and indeed informs the world in which his spirit finds a home… or fails to find a home.
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