Thursday, September 19, 2013

Essential not Existential

In the 1940's though 1960's, and sometimes even into today, the philosophy of Existentialism was established which according to one early proponent; Jean-Paul Sartre, who famously refused the Nobel Prize for literature because he worried it would influence his prose, suggests that "existence comes before essence."  At least when it comes to humans anyway.  This is of course wrong, despite the works of reputable scientists like Steven Pinker and his book The Blank Slate and despite psychological heroes such as B. F. Skinner, the founder of  behaviorism who quipped, "give me a child and I will shape him into anything."  Despite being an interesting way to view the world, existentialism is wrong and below I discuss why.

As alluded to, existentialism is a philosophical viewpoint that gains credibility due to its purported grounding in fact.  The most notable proponents of this theory are Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre.  However, ever since this time, and perhaps prior to it, the philosophy of existence predating purpose has flourished in some circles.  Indeed, the idea may have its roots in the concept of 'free will,' which is both liberating and simultaneously horrifying in that it suggests that we are absolutely and totally in control of what we do in the world.  'Free will' is a very old concept, and has been debated heavily by theologians, ethicists, lawyers, scientists, and of course good ol' philosophers.  The 'free will' debate has been further sub-categorized by those who believe in free will and the non existence of determinism, called metaphysical libertarians (not to be confused with political libertarians who believe that laws should be limited to allow for increased personal choice, but still overlapping in concept) and so called compatiblists, in which both determinism and free will exist and are compatible. (for more on this concept see the holy all-knowing Wikipedia page written on the subject)  It is the former of these two groups, the metaphysical libertarians who most closely resemble the existentialists in philosophy, and it is this view point which is definitely false.

Essentialism, I thus coin (though undoubtedly with predecessors), stands in opposition to the existential philosophy.  For with essentialism we have the conception of essence prior to existence.  As Sartre mentions in his own book on the subject of existentialism, the paper cutter was designed with a function in mind, i.e. an individual planned its structure with a purpose of cutting paper.  He argues that this is not the case with human nature.  (How now, brown cow?)   For Sartre determines, from such mental places where magic and fantasy are rooted, that men are born without a purpose and only obtain one through their existence and personal direction.  Why is this wrong?  Because the structure of the human brain follows a dedicated set of rules, laid out by physical and chemical laws, which in turn control genes, and genes are controlled by heredity and the environment of countless organisms that have come before us in the course of evolution.  As such, the human existence is quite literally determined by a multitude of essentials well before our birth.  Essentials that, thus far, are completely out of our control.  And while other such factors may be slightly within our control, such as where we would like to eat a picnic lunch (New York or Siberia), our predetermined brain has a lot to say about the decision we inevitably make.

To put existentialism firmly in its place; let's consider this further.  Based on the existence of a predetermined brain structure, we as humans are bound to a range of responses.  Thus, we are incapable of 'free will' outside of that range, essentially limiting our prospects.  This range of responses is predictable, and the propensity towards one response over another can be influenced further by outside forces, i.e. the environment, the news, our fitness level, our bone density, our previous experiences, etc.  Therefore, as any good psychologist or media mogul will tell you, behavior can be modified, but only within a range.   B.F. Skinner was aware of this, and used it to his advantage in training chickens to play the piano based on their innate interest in obtaining food.  And while any child can be anything, according to Skinner, this does not mean that they can be anything outside a range of possibilities predetermined by the structure and the function of the organism.  Due to this notion, keep it in mind that there are certain things we cannot think, cannot see, and cannot do.  And we will never be able to, unless the essentials are altered.

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