Developing an Existential Perspective

1 May 2014


to be or not to be

Two Conceptions of the Existential

What is an existential question? How and why do philosophers ask existential questions? How and why do philosophers attempt to answer existential questions, or seek to avoid them? One way to understand the nature of existential questions is to make it personal. Hamlet proposed the most famous existential dilemma in western literature, personalizing it in the line to be, or not to be, that is the question. Should I live, or should I die? Camus was riffing off the same theme when he said that suicide is the only philosophical question.

Previously in What is an existential philosophy? I attempted to demonstrate what is as stake in the distinction between the concern for existence that is the common foundation of existentialism and existential risk mitigation. To say that there is a common foundation in existential questions for existentialism and existential risk is not to confuse or conflate the two; existentialists and advocates of existential risk mitigation both take existential questions seriously. The response is distinct, to be sure; in fact, it is relatively easy to guess that major existentialist thinkers would have had to say about philosophical formulations about existential risk and the response thereto.


Naturalism and the disenchantment of the world

Much of existentialism was about coming to terms with the world no longer overlaid with the Sacred Canopy, and therefore a world in which we must accept death without consolation. Although we usually think of existentialism as an emotional response to the world (and a personal response to the world), the deeper meaning of existentialism is profoundly stoical. No doubt for some existentialists, stoically accepting death without consolation also meant accepting the death of societies, of civilizations, and perhaps also the planet entire and its sun equally without consolation.

The existentialists were not the only ones seeking a stoical acceptance of fate after what other philosophers called “the disenchantment of the world.” Bertrand Russell had little patience for the existentialists, but here is what he wrote early in his career about the apparent pointlessness of life:

“That Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins — all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.”

Bertrand Russell, “A Free Man’s Worship,” collected in Mysticism and Logic, 1917

The existentialists didn’t invoke the entropic heat death of the universe in the way the Russell did, and their temperaments are worlds apart, but Russell and the existentialists offered a similar prescription for human life after the death of God.

The philosophical elaboration of existential risk mitigation is utterly naturalistic in its conception of the world — just as was Russell — and so accepts the world as the existentialists would have us accept it, without a Sacred Canopy, but instead there is also an utterly pragmatic attitude to what can be done to ensure the ongoing viability of the human project, such as it is. In so far as existential risk mitigation shades over into transhumanism as a strategy for ongoing human viability, it may go so far as to deny the the death of the individual. (This transhumanist aspect of contemporary thought has come in for much contemporary criticism from traditionalists — many of whom are not even aware that they are traditionalists.)

edwards encyclopedia of philosophy

The eliminativist evasion of existential questions

There is another philosophical tradition, distinct from those above that take existential questions with deadly seriousness, that attempts to demonstrate the conceptual bankruptcy of existential questions — that existential questions are either pseudo-questions, or they are systematically misleading expressions that need to be purged from our minds if we are to understand the world rightly.

In the Encyclopedia of Philosophy that he edited (i.e., he edited the first edition), Paul Edwards contributed an article on ultimate “why” questions that belongs to this other tradition. Arguing in the eliminativist fashion of classic positivism, Edwards allowed that, while “why” questions of a more limited scope can be meaningful, ultimate “why” questions — which he called the superultimate “why” — are logically incoherent:

In any of its familiar senses, when we ask of anything, x, why it happened or why it is what it is — whether x is the collapse of an army, a case of lung cancer, the theft of a jewel, or the stalling of a car — we assume that there is something or some set of conditions, other than x, in terms of which it can be explained. We do not know what this other thing is that is suitably related to x, but unless it is in principle possible to go beyond x and find such another thing, the question does not make any sense… Now, if by “the universe” we mean the totality of things, then our x in “Why does the universe exist?” is so all-inclusive that it is logically impossible to find anything which could be suitably related to that whose explanation we appear to be seeking.

Paul Edwards, “Why” in Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Second Edition, Vol. 9, Donald M. Borchert, Editor in Chief, Thomson Gale, 2006, p. 760

If you follow the logic of Edwards’ argument you may be convinced on a rational level that superultimate why questions are logically meaningless, and yet still experience a certain misgiving at simply dismissing these “why” questions as meaningless. After all, these superultimate why questions in religious dress have been at that heart of the consolation offered by religion to the anguished cri de coeur that the superultimate why question so often represents. “Why?” in this sense is the cry of an existentially wounded creature. Agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization is built on the promise of addressing this existential need.

This is a very human response — a human, all-too-human response. I am reminded of a passage from Walter Kaufmann’s The Faith of a Heretic in a discussion of Paul Tillich’s The Dynamics of Faith, of which Kaufmann says:

“In a little over one hundred pages, [Tillich] redefines such terms as faith and heresy, atheism and revelation. It turns out that the man who accepts the ancient beliefs of Christendom, the Apostles’ Creed, or Luther’s articles of faith may well be lacking in faith, while man who doubts all these beliefs but is sufficiently concerned to lie awake nights worrying about it is a paragon of faith.”

Walter Kaufmann, The Faith of a Heretic

On Kaufmann’s reading of Tillich, Tillich is giving voice to the existentially wounded creature who demands answers, while Kaufmann here plays the Nietzschean positivist who will have no truck with such human, all-too-human weaknesses.


Existential Questions

Existential questions would presumably be those questions asked by existential philosophers. However, I am going to use the phrase in a broader sense, though not necessarily in a way unjustified by the initial presumption. If a broader construal of “existential questions” includes questions not usually asked by existential philosophers and questions asked by philosophers who ignore or repudiate the existentialist approach, perhaps we should consider identifying as existentialists even those thinkers who explicitly reject the label. But that is neither here nor there at present.

The sense in which I would like to use the term “existential” is perhaps closer to what philosophers of mathematics have in mind when they discuss “existence proofs” and “existence assumptions,” which are understood to be characteristic of non-constructive thought. Indeed, existential thought and existential questions are broadly non-constructive, while a rejection of or disinterest in existential thought and existential questions is typical of constructivist thought.

I want to once again personalize this discussion so that reader doesn’t get thrown by terms like “constructive” and “non-constructive.” I know that some people find philosophical terminology to be off-putting, and they stop paying attention when technical terminology begins to play a role. So continuing the theme of Hamlet and Camus, which personalizes existential questions by relating them to the life and death of the individual, we can do the same thing with constructive and non-constructive conceptions of existential questions. It is a poetic thought encountered occasionally in literature that there is a date that will someday be the anniversary of our death. Every year we live, we live through the day that will be the anniversary of our death, but we hare unaware of this. Well, this is a perfectly non-constructive idea. We are asserting the existence of something, but we can’t point of an actual example.

I can say, “some day this year will be the anniversary of my future death,” but unless I am a suicide or a victim of capital punishment I cannot say, “the date such-and-such will be the anniversary of my death some day.” The good constructivist, even if he feels the poignancy of the poetic idea, will reject the idea that there exists a date that we cannot concretely exhibit. It has been said that an intuitionist who rejects the law of the excluded middle (P or not-P) will not agree with the statement, “either it is raining or it is not raining,” unless he looks out the window to confirm that the weather is one or the other of these alternatives. It is a similar matter with a constructivist who would reject that there is a date that will be the future anniversary of one’s death without being able to ascertain exactly what this date is. (He might, however, be so frustrated with our non-constructive claims that he kills us and settles the question then and there.)

Some will find the constructive claim to be the stronger position; some will not be able to resist the non-constructive claim. I maintain that constructive and non-constructive claims are complementary, and that both approaches have important contributions to make to human thought. The constructivist who insists that either the constructivist is right or the non-constructivist is right, is simply instantiating the principle of the excluded middle on a meta-theoretical level while denying its validity for infra-theoretical reasoning. Because I take constructivism and non-constructivism to be equally valid, I take existential and non-existential thought to be equally valid; the two are complementary perspectives. Sometimes the one offers the better insight, and sometimes the other.

Brain and mind

The Existential Stumbling Block

While the example I have used above of an existential question that illustrates the difference between the constructive and the non-constructive perspective is the kind of existential question that is likely to provoke an emotional response, yet many existential questions that preoccupy philosophers are such as to leave most people with little or no emotional response. There are technical questions concerning every putative existent as to whether or not it exists. When we discuss the ordinary objects of experience only radical skeptics question the existence of such things, but when it comes to intangible objects, or exists too large or too small, too brief or too long in existence for the human senses to easily detect, then skepticism comes more easily, and one understands why there is a debate as to whether such putative existents exist at all. Hence we come to the existential questions that preoccupy philosophers.

Existential questions have a peculiar quality to them that I would like to try to illustrate with some examples. This peculiar quality I will call the existential stumbling block, that is to say, that philosophers (or anyone else, when thinking philosophically about putative existents) often encounter existence questions as an impediment to further and constructive inquiry. I do not maintain that this is always or universally the case, nor to I say that all philosophers (or anyone thinking philosophically about existence) are tripped up by this stumbling block, but it is common enough — one might even call it a metaphysical bias — that it is worthwhile to make this philosophical impediment explicit.

Because of the particular approach taken to philosophy of mind by analytical philosophy — viz. it comes to a screeching halt at the existential question of mind and because of this conceptual scruple does not move forward to create a theory of mind, and even less to consider the practical implications of such a theory for thinking beings — this tradition of thought has been able to contribute very little to substantive questions that involve mind-dependent entities, and by “mind-dependent entities” I do not mean entities created or sustained by the mind, but entities that are recognized in, by, and through consciousness but which cannot be recognized in, by, or through the senses.

The existential account of the philosophy of mind — is there or isn’t there — is analogous to existential accounts of the philosophy of mathematics, which are primarily concerned with the ontological status of mathematical objects. There is a further analogy between these existential questions and traditional proofs of God’s existence in philosophical theology. Dostoyevsky provided the intuitive case for such existential preoccupations in his famous claim that if God does not exist, then everything is permitted. One can imagine a similarly preoccupied philosopher of mathematics asserting, “If mathematical objects do not exist, then everything is permitted in formal reason.”

These examples represent a particular style of philosophical thought and inquiry, and it is much more in evidence in some areas of than than in others. In using an example from theology I risk losing my readers, because here is another question upon which some individuals become emotionally involved, but even on the question of the existence of God there are those who do not get caught on the existential stumbling block (cf. Stephen Cahn, “The Irrelevance to Religion of Philosophical Proofs for the Existence of God”).

Put simply, existence questions get “stuck” on determining the existence or non-existence of a putative existent, and in so far as philosophical effort gets “stuck” in this way, it prevents those so stuck from pursuing or investigating other questions. A great deal of rigorous, hard-headed analytical philosophy is, essentially, caught up in existential questions — Is there any such thing as mind, or is mind a mere aspect of the brain? Do mathematical objects exist? — and in so far as these are existential questions, they constitute a “wall” that blocks further inquiry. This kind of existential inquiry has a rigor of its own — though not the rigor of constructivistic inquiry — and it is sometimes a bracing and salutary tonic for the mind to think in existential terms. But every approach to thought has both advantages and disadvantages.

Edmund Husserl first formulated phenomenology in order to circumvent the existence questions of the natural standpoint.

Edmund Husserl first formulated phenomenology in order to circumvent the existence questions of the natural standpoint.

The existential perspective and the phenomenological perspective

The existential perspective can be profitably and most dramatically contrasted to the phenomenological perspective. The phenomenology of Edmund Husserl sought to do away with the ancient philosophical dichotomy between appearance and reality, and to level the ontological playing field, taking all things only in so far as they present themselves to consciousness. Husserl called this principle the original right of all data, by which latter he meant the data of consciousness, or what an analytical philosopher would call sense data (and what Schopenhauer called Vorstellung, often translated as representation).

The central conceit of phenomenology is to conceive of the world as though existence is irrelevant. For the phenomenologist, existential questions do not exist, except as a phenomenon of conscious life. In this respect, Husserl was not unlike Meinong, a fellow student of Brentano, and with whom Husserl is often contrasted, but wrongly in my opinion. The Meinongian distinction between being and being-so (Sosein), i.e., between existence and a certain way of existing, i.e., having a certain character (a distinction sometimes called Meinong’s principle of independence), allows us to compare the characters of things apart from any consideration of their existence, and this is also the perspective of Husserl in formulating phenomenology.

The phenomenological perspective does not pause over existential questions, and this is most clearly evident in Husserl’s approach to mind. Husserl never asks if mind exists or if consciousness exists; he takes mind and consciousness as given, and attempts to provide a phenomenological description of the structures of consciousness, such as they present themselves. The analytical philosopher who is debating endlessly whether or not mind is a legitimate concept is not free in the same way that Husserl is free to take mind for what it appears to be and to begin giving an account of what mind is on its own terms.

I want to be explicit and to emphasize here (because sad experience has taught me that, no matter how carefully I try to make a point, that others will not necessarily get the point I have tried to make) that I am not saying that Husserl’s investigation into the structures of consciousness is “good” while the debate over the legitimacy of consciousness is “bad,” nor am I saying the opposite. Both are legitimate philosophical inquiries, but they are distinct inquires. Our world is large enough, and sufficiently crowded with philosophers, that some can focus on existential questions even while others disregard these existential questions entirely and seek to go to the things themselves (as Husserl put it).

Arthur C Clarke

The existence question and extraterrestrial life

Compare the analytical philosophers who discuss the mind-body question in ever-increasing detail, but always coming back to existential questions of mind and consciousness, to the work of Husserl, who accepted consciousness as a fundamental datum and spent his philosophical career delineating the structures of consciousness. If one holds that there is no such thing as consciousness, then it would be pointless to attempt to investigate its structures; Husserl’s entire inquiry — as is the whole of phenomenology based on Husserl’s work — is closed to those who deny the reality of consciousness. Similarly, an investigation of the nature and properties of mathematical objects is closed to those philosophers who deny that there are mathematical objects, or who find them so problematic that the central question of the philosophy of mathematics is whether or not there are mathematical objects. This is the sense in which I mean that existential questions constitute a stumbling block, or an inquiry “wall” (like the retrodiction wall I previously wrote about).

I have, for some time, been planning to write a follow up post to my post on Arthur C. Clarke’s tertium non datur, which discusses the role of the law of the excluded middle in our thought. Clarke, in formulating his dilemma regarding extraterrestrial life in terms of the law of the excluded middle gives a non-constructive perspective on the question; the obvious response to this is a constructive conception of extraterrestrial life. The most obvious instantiation of a constructive approach to the question of extraterrestrial life today is to be found in astrobiology, which is a scientific rather than a philosophical approach, but the outlook of which could easily be captured in a philosophically-informed approach to astrobiology.

Clarke presented us with an existential perspective regarding extraterrestrial life, and most people feel the visceral appeal of the dilemma, in a way not unlike the way that most people will respond to the poetic idea that there is a date that will be the anniversary of their death. Part of what makes the dilemma powerful is that it appears to describe an exhaustive dichotomy that characterizes the world even if we do not know on which side of the dichotomy the world is to be found. But what is the value of an absolute and exhaustive disjunction between the existence of extraterrestrial life and the non-existence of extraterrestrial life? What would it mean to be alone in the universe? If there is life in the oceans below Europa’s icy surface, and we can determine that this life emerged separately from life on Earth (what astrobiologists call “strange” life or “weird” life), would we feel any less alone? Once we start to approach the question in this spirit, we can no longer make the sweeping distinction that we are either alone in the universe or we are not. It becomes a much more complicated and subtle question, and that can be a good thing.

Magritte The Banquet 1958

Existential questions and metaphysical questions

The existential perspective can also be contrasted to the metaphysical perspective. If the existential perspective is concerned with the ontological question of beings, i.e., whether or not they exist, the metaphysical perspective is concerned with the essence of beings, i.e., what they are, their nature. This is also an ontological inquiry, but it is in inquiry into Sosein rather than Sein (as in Meinong’s principle of independence, as noted above).

In several posts I have tried to formulate a metaphysical perspective — cf. Metaphysical Responsibility, Metaphysical Modesty, and Metaphysical Pride — but I am still far short of a definitive formulation, and I am working on further posts to try to get a handle on the metaphysical, which will now involve its contrast to the existential.

For the time being, lacking either a definitive formulation of the existential or the metaphysical, I simply want to note, to point out, that the kind of philosophical inquiries undertaken in the existential spirit differ markedly from the kind of philosophical inquiry taken up in the metaphysical spirit. Again, I am not saying that one is “right” and the other is “wrong”; both the existential perspective and the metaphysical perspective have something to contribute to our understanding of the world. Furthermore, both can benefit from their contrast with the other, which can serve to sharpen and to refine our perspective.

wanderer over a sea of fog

The existential perspective in philosophical context

I am not arguing here that existential questions and the existential perspective from which these questions emerge, and which presumably finds these questions to be meaningful, are either legitimate or illegitimate (which would simply be to reinstate the law of the excluded middle which is the source of most existential questions). Philosophy needs both existential and non-existential perspectives, existential and non-existential questions, in the same way that philosophy needs both formal and informal inquiry, both constructive and non-constructive reasoning, both abstract and concrete conceptions.

That being said, while existential questions have a definite value in philosophical inquiry, they can become a stumbling block. The apparent absoluteness of the existential dilemmas posed by existential questions can lead us, if we are not careful, into oversimplified black-or-white dichotomies that are not helpful in expanding our range of inquiry. One can simply shift one’s perspective away from the existential, and a whole range of interesting questions emerge. If one accepts that there are such things as minds, rejecting the eliminativist account of mind, then the investigation of mind becomes a legitimate field of philosophical inquiry. The point here is that the open existential question should not shut down open questions elsewhere. We can honestly admit that the existence of minds if problematic, and still be interested in mind as mind.

Developing an existential perspective also means developing a sense of the limitations of the existential perspective. We have see above that the existential perspective, in so far as it is non-constructive, admits of complementary constructive perspectives, and there are contrasting perspectives such as the phenomenological and the metaphysical. Similar considerations hold for the metaphysical perspective: developing a metaphysical perspective means developing a sense of the limitations as well as of the possibilities of the metaphysical perspective.

While this has been a rather long post, I hope that the reader sees that this is only a mere outline that scratches the surface of how we might approach existential questions without allowing them to become a stumbling block. As implied above in my brief discussion of Arthur C. Clarke’s existential dilemma about extraterrestrial life, this question can be taken in many interesting directions.

I hope that the study of existential risk can be undertaking in this spirit, and that the very interesting questions of whether or not human beings as a species survive, whether civilization has a future, or whether we are all doomed, are not exclusively taken up as existential questions. Because of our likely emotional response to these questions, there is a real danger that the legitimate existential questions will become a stumbling block to further inquiry.

Let me try to give you a sense of what I mean. In Bertrand Russell’s book An Inquiry into Meaning and Truth, Russell spends more than three hundred pages on the question of universals (and the philosophical tradition probably has millions of pages on the question of universals), only to conclude his inquiry as follows:

I conclude, therefore, though with hesitation, that there are universals, and not merely general words. Similarity, at least, will have to be admitted; and in that case it seems hardly worth while to adopt elaborate devices for the exclusion of other universals.

Bertrand Russell, An Inquiry into Meaning and Truth, London: Allen and Unwin, 1956, p. 347

This strikes me as a kind of philosophical capitulation, and I can imagine someone similarity saying (as Russell himself often said, in many different contexts), we know that humanity, one way or another is doomed; therefore, there is no reason not to view our fate as already having been decided, and we ought to act as though we are already doomed. What concerns me, in short, is existential capitulation based on our present imperfect knowledge of the place of life in the universe.

Fatalism fed by the stumbling block of existential questions connected with the place of life, consciousness, and civilization in the cosmos can be readily moderated by sometimes distancing ourselves from the existential questions and adopting a phenomenological or metaphysical perspective — or any other perspective you might care to adopt.

The take-home message here is that, when one thinks in existential terms (or, for that matter, in any particular kind of terms), one should be aware that one is thinking in existential terms; philosophical reflexivity can be our bulwark again painting ourselves into a corner.

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danger imminent existential threat

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Existential Risk: The Philosophy of Human Survival

1. Moral Imperatives Posed by Existential Risk

2. Existential Risk and Existential Uncertainty

3. Addendum on Existential Risk and Existential Uncertainty

4. Existential Risk and the Death Event

5. Risk and Knowledge

6. What is an existential philosophy?

7. An Alternative Formulation of Existential Risk

8. Existential Risk and Existential Opportunity

9. Conceptualization of Existential Risk

10. Existential Risk and Existential Viability

11. Existential Risk and the Developmental Conception of Civilization

12. Developing an Existential Perspective

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ex risk ahead

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Grand Strategy Annex

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