Time has flown by way too quickly. I didn’t realize it had been so long since my last update! But at any rate, I fully meant to write something here much earlier; I just didn’t have anything to say. Work has been going fine, but it’s nothing to get excited about. Mostly it involves crunching numbers and doing data analysis, and then writing up and editing papers. So while I enjoy it, it’s not something I’m going to write about a whole lot.
I’ve kind of gotten into an intellectual slump for the past little while. I think I’m just all tuckered out from thinking too much. I’ve been taking an online course in existentialism this term, and while I’ve found it interesting, it just means that I don’t feel like thinking about anything else. So I haven’t been reading as much as I’d like to (other than the five books I’ve had to read for the course), and I haven’t been doing a whole lot of deep thinking like I was when trying to figure out moral obligations or political/economic systems. I guess I’ve just been taking a vacation for the time being. I’ve been watching TV shows and movies, and living life. I’ve also made sure to do some things around the Ottawa area while I’m here, like going to the art gallery and some museums and such. That’s about the extent of my intellectual activity.
At any rate, with that said, since learning about existentialism, I’ve been seeing it everywhere. Existentialism is essentially philosophy that deals with meaning and value, but (roughly speaking) it attempts to answer the question, “How should we live our lives in a world with no objective values?” I find this an interesting question, because as a Christian, I was always taught that life without God or without “ultimate meaning” was meaningless and not worth living. When I lost my faith, I began to discover that this simply was not true. Even a life which has no objective, ultimate purpose – a life that wasn’t “designed” to do anything in particular – can still have meaning which springs up from within. To give an analogy, one can find adventure and meaning even when driving to nowhere in particular. It’s something I discovered on my own, and some of existentialist philosophy attempts to expand on this. (There is more to existentialism than just this, including stuff about the “essence” of objects, etc., but I won’t bore you with that.)
So, like I said, since I’ve learned about existentialism, I’ve seen it everywhere. When I watched Lost, I saw it in the character of John Locke, who previously believed that they had been put on the island for a purpose, and yet at one point in the show, he loses his faith in that and has what one might call an “existentialist crisis.” People have said things to me, and my face has suddenly lit up as I recognize some existentialist theme behind it. At one point, I had a bit of a “revelation”, you might say, and experienced the world in a very strange way. I started seeing the absurdity of the world (a very common theme in existentialism) and literally laughed out loud when walking home from the bus stop one day. It was odd, to say the least. I’ve even had some scattered thoughts which grew out of that experience and related ones that I tried to piece together into a way of living that was very existentialist. But I don’t think it really worked out all that well. Like I said, I’ve been on vacation from intellectual pursuits.
Anyway, I wanted to talk more in-depth about my thoughts on existentialism, but I really am just not up to it at the time being. I do want to say that I have found some merit in the philosophy, even though I don’t entirely agree with its presuppositions. Obviously, like I said, it starts off with the idea that we live in a world with no objective values. I disagree that this is the case. Although I don’t believe in some ultimate meaning or purpose for the universe (which is what they seem to primarily focus on), I do still believe in objective morality. I’ve talked about how I formulate my ethics a little bit elsewhere, but regardless of why I believe it, that means that I can’t entirely accept existentialism. What I also find odd is that most of the existentialist philosophers that we looked at don’t seem to bring up ethics much. Perhaps it is just that we didn’t cover the books/passages where they did so, but it seems that ethics would be one of the primary focal points of any objection to the philosophy. It is a very individualized way of thinking, and in some of my assignments, I’ve pointed out the lack of attention to the fact that humans are creatures that live in society. We are social beings that must interact with each other, and any philosophy that puts out a lifestyle to follow must take that into account.
However, like I said, I do think that there is some merit to existentialism. Because of the lack of external values on which to base one’s life, these philosophers place a strong emphasis on responsibility for one’s actions. The man living in the absurd universe cannot make excuses for his actions by pointing to some reference point or rule outside of himself – he has to own each action he takes, and take full responsibility for it. Regardless of the fact that I think there are objective moral values to point to, I do appreciate the merit of living conscious of the fact that one’s actions are one’s own. It’s an empowering concept, but it’s terrifying at times as well. We are free to do whatever we want, but we are fully responsible for the choices that we make and the consequences that come from them. That mindset is a good one to keep in mind.
As well, several existentialist philosophers have come up with the idea of “projects”. These are essentially conscious lifestyles that we take on, which create meaning for our own lives. Albert Camus gives the example of an actor, who consciously takes on a role, but then becomes so immersed in that role that he “becomes” that person. However, when the role ends, he doesn’t mourn the end of the character or try to take it on again. He moves on and creates the next role. It’s always a conscious process, and Camus likens this to the projects that we take on. We are free to create any project we so choose, and because it is our project, we are free to discard it when we wish. I like this idea. There are a lot of things that we take on seemingly because we “have to”, because it is expected of us. We wake up, we take a shower, we go to work, we sit at a computer all day, then we come home, we eat dinner, we watch TV, we go to bed. At some point, most of these activities become so routine that we just perform them like a robot. They no longer have any meaning to us. They are done because they must be done, and that is that. While of course it would be naive to simply quit our jobs, existentialism would say that we need to take responsibility for that. We need to treat our job as a project that we choose to take on – and if we need to constantly remind ourselves that it is an act that we have chosen to do, so be it. Living life consciously and aware that one still has freedom is a big theme, and it’s something that I think can be adapted for those who still believe in some form of objective values.
There are certain other topics that I found persuasive, but I don’t want to get much more in-depth. I certainly find existentialism an interesting philosophy, and I intend on playing around with it a little while to see whether it’s something worth keeping. I actually have already applied it in one respect, almost subconsciously. I have noticed that, for the past little while, I’ve become more spontaneous. This is something that I’ve sort of wanted to do for myself for the past little while, and it seems that existentialism has helped. I’m not talking about anything radically impulsive or dangerous, but…well, let me give you an example. I was walking through one of the smaller malls here in Ottawa, on the way back from a haircut, and I was mulling over these thoughts of existentialism in my mind. I was thinking about a sense of adventure and creating meaning in one’s own life, and as I walked through the mall, I saw an escalator. Bingo! Without any particular reason, and without any regard for the social norms I was breaking, I ran down the “up” escalator. Why? Because I could! I was being spontaneous. And the old lady going down the “proper” escalator gave me a strange look. But it didn’t matter. Instead of performing the boring, routine task of going down the “down” escalator, I chose to put meaning back into that act. Maybe it’s a silly example, but why not be silly? Perhaps the world has lost a sense of silliness. Often we’re just too serious.
So I’ve been trying to be a bit more spontaneous, since I tend to be the kind of guy who thinks things over so long that the opportunity passes me by. I also tend to be the one who cares what everyone else is thinking, as if somehow the thoughts of random strangers that I will never see again should for some reason be important to me. I still fully remain a person who advocates thinking things through, but I am starting to become a person who can be excited about small things and find adventure in unlikely places. And I count that as a good thing. When we can create meaning for ourselves, why focus so much on the purposes that other people try to impose on us? I see a root of truth in existentialist philosophy, and so I am going to try to hang onto that. And who knows? Mayble I’ll have a bit of adventure along the way.