Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Existence, Nothingness, and the Will

In addition to skeptics, relativists, and others who believe that the concept of truth is important, but that it is uncertain and not fixed, there are some who consider the question of truth to be entirely pointless and without meaning.

Existentialism is a philosophical movement in which individual human beings are understood as having full responsibility for creating the meanings of their own lives, and thereby counter the deep anxiety of human existence that there is nothing and no purpose at its core. Existentialists insist that radical freedom is the condition of human existence, and who a person is is a function of the choices that he makes, that is, we are what we choose to be. As such, there is a predominance of the will over reason, and “truth” is necessarily subjective.

The rejection of reason as the source of meaning is a common theme of existentialist thought, as is the focus on the feelings of anxiety and dread that we feel in the face of our own radical freedom and our awareness of death. It then follows that existentialism tends to view values as subjective, and human beings as subjects in an indifferent, objective, often ambiguous, and "absurd" universe, in which meaning is not provided by the natural order, but rather can be created, however provisionally and unstably, by human beings' actions and interpretations. “Choice” becomes a virtue in and of itself. Additionally, social order, like natural order, is a fabrication that is created to avoid the fact of our total isolation.

A leading existentialist, Jean-Paul Sartre, stated that “Existentialism is nothing else than an attempt to draw all the consequences of a coherent atheistic position,” and a central proposition of his atheistic existentialism is that existence precedes essence, that is, that a human being's existence precedes and is more fundamental than any meaning which may be ascribed to human life. That is, because there is no God to design mankind, he has no blueprint, no essence or soul. His essence or nature comes not from a Creator but from his own free choice; “man is nothing else than what he makes of himself.” This idea that existence precedes essence thus strongly rejects the belief that human existence has inherent meaning. Because there is no God for the atheistic existentialist, and because we therefore create our own values and laws, there is no evil. Moreover, since God does not exist and since God is love, genuine altruistic love does not exist. (Søren Kierkegaard, Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, and Friedrich Nietzsche)

Nihilism, from the Latin word for “nothing,” is a philosophical position which argues that the world, especially past and current human existence, is without objective meaning, purpose, comprehensible truth, or essential value. Nihilists generally assert that there is no reasonable proof of the existence of God, a "true morality" is unknown, and secular ethics are impossible. Therefore, life has no truth, and no action is known to be preferable to any other. Nihilism not only dismisses received moral values, but rejects “morality” outright, viewing it as baseless. The most common type of nihilism tends toward defeatism or fatalism.

Friedrich Nietzsche saw nature as a brutal and savage contest of strength, and he aggressively attacked traditional Judeo-Christian morality as being an invention of the weak to weaken the strong. Mankind was something to be overcome and surpassed in favor of the “Übermensch” (Superman), who represented a higher level of mastery. One interpretation is that the Übermensch is neither person nor substance, but the existential process of overcoming both oneself and nihilism.

Nietzsche thus proposed a transvaluation of values and morals, a discarding of the old morality of equality and servitude in favor of a new morality, which was “beyond good and evil” because “God is dead,” or more precisely, society’s conception of Him is dead (since He never really existed in the first place). With the death of God, all objective truths, objective values, and morality die with Him. True morality, said Nietzsche, was built from the immediate sense of power which one felt within himself. Without God, a heaven, truth, or an absolute goodness to aim at, the essence of an individual is not reason, but will, that is, the meaning of life is simply the “will to power,” that is, power as its own end, not a means. The meaning of life is thus seen as nothing more than self-affirmation and egotism, expanding the meaningless self into the meaningless void.

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