Are we here for a purpose? This question puzzled not only philosophers but many ordinary people throughout centuries. To avoid falling into an existential crisis and follow its hard path, people choose to look away and not contemplate whether there is meaning to what we do. People find given meaning to their lives from religion, devotion to their government, or from the wills of their parents. I think we should choose the harder path and consider existentialist philosophy. I argue that we are a collection of atoms that exists in a universe that isn’t created for a reason. If there is no reason for our existence, then there are no absolutes to abide by, so it is better to reason ourselves rather than to trust authority figures who do not know any better than us. We must all learn, contemplate, accept the weight of the freedom we have in the light of the absurdity of the world, and ascribe meaning to our own lives. Otherwise, we will fall into ‘bad faith’ and get our purpose from authorities that won’t serve our own values, and we’ll be left unfulfilled. We’ll wonder time to time about something bigger in us than what we believe, but quickly suppress that insight that would change and improve our lives.
What is a human being? We’re a collection of atoms; 99 % of our body is made up of hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen. This collection of atoms is organized in such a way that we have a sense of unity, and our physical experience is somehow accompanied by subjective conscious experience. While we are built out of tiny alive stuff, cells, we’re embedded in a vast and dead universe. One person is smaller than a single grain of sand if the universe is all the sand in the world, so it is unlikely that the universe wants us to do something or that we have an inherent purpose given by the universe. If essentialism were to be true, and we had properties given to us that make our lives meaningful, how can we explain so many differences between human beings around the world? Each person has a different subjective experience, a different point of view, values, and moral compass. The variety of lifestyles shows that there is no one essence that we all carry. For instance, homosexuality is punishable by death in some countries, and in other parts of the world, they are allowed to marry and have children. The difference is so dramatic that even children who carry the same genetic figuration dissent from their parents’ values and lifestyles. Some worldviews look bleak to some, while others cherish. For example, I learned all the information and reasoned that the best decision for me was to be a vegan, while my parents cannot even get close to comprehend why or how I would do that. I agree with existentialists, such as Sartre and Camus, that we do not have an inherent morality or essence. In a dead universe where our existence is so small and short-lived, our lives have no inherent meaning or purpose.
This is a hard pill to swallow. What people typically do is avoid contemplating their beliefs and comply with others’ set of values. It is much easier to accept a form of authority, let it be religion, parents, teachers, or government, and conform to the values they preach. However, the people we look up for guidance are just people, like us, who don’t have any answers. As there are no ultimate answers, they also had to figure out for themselves. The problem here is that their way of reasoning cannot be how you reason, and what is right for one is not the same for everyone. Each person is different and probably would come to different conclusions given any case. As in the story of the ‘Ethical Dilemma of Sartre’s Student,’ the only correct choice is the one that the student makes for himself authentically, upon deliberation, determined by the values he chose to accept. We accept the conclusion they give, but we don’t know the premises they go through to arrive at that, so bluntly accepting an authorities’ decisions and moral compass is the idle way of living, which existentialists call, ‘bad faith.’ It’s lazy to avoid learning to make our own mind and decide through our reasoning. We shouldn’t live according to someone else’s values.
Bad faith is the refusal to accept the absurdity of life as we force ourselves to believe something we are not really convinced by. It lets us off the hook to take responsibility for our lives while it also closes the options of freedom. However, it’s not something uncommon or unexpected as it’s the natural outcome of how our minds work. The brain chooses the easy path that requires minimal work, which is also the path that has been chosen many times. The more action or thought is repeated, the more neural connections are strengthened. People follow ideas that they didn’t reason while deep within, they know it is not right, but they escape the hard work, follow their choice of authority, and bury what they know inside. When belief doesn’t support action and people experience cognitive dissonance, they are inclined to say to themselves that their beliefs are in line with their actions because the action is done. It takes more willpower to own up and make peace with the mistaken acts done before.
Learning and making up our own mind always requires more will power, mental energy, and agency. People lie to themselves to avoid making hard decisions and put themselves to long term psychological hardship to escape short term distress. For example, we always lie to ourselves, saying that we don’t have any other options to do otherwise, while, in reality, we always do. It feels reassuring in our choice to say that we don’t. We fall into ‘bad faith’ once we see that we can do otherwise in any given case; the abundance of freedom is terrifying because we need to take responsibility for our own lives. We can leave where we are, what we do, change how we look, and do practically anything. “Who we are right now is the only person we can ever be” is such a reductionist point of view for human nature as we can reinvent ourselves at any given moment. We can’t be narrowed to one particular job or relationship, and as Emerson says in “The American Scholar,” we’re thinkers that understand the interconnectedness of it all above else. We will be destined to be unhappy if we narrow ourselves to one particular thing because we’re capable of much more, and there are profound aspects to a human being. It’s even dangerous to be attached to an idea of who we are through one thing because everything is impermanent, as Buddhists say. We could lose any outside thing we attach and define ourselves with. We shouldn’t be sad for the years lost, but we need to realize and embrace freedom at any time. If there are no guidelines for action, then each of us is forced to design our own life and moral code. If the world is inherently devoid of meaning, then we can choose to infuse it with whatever purpose we want. So, no one can impose their values on others or say that one life is meaningless if that person chooses not to marry, have children, follow a career path, or achieve certain standards. Any meaning of life is given to it by you.
We need to realize the absurdity of the world around us, and how we search meaning in a meaningless world, scream for guidance to a dead universe that won’t answer to us. We’re condemned to be free, and while this causes anxiety in all of us, it means we get to create our own meaning. Instead of following authorities and falling into bad faith, we must ascribe meaning to our lives through our values; and find our values through learning about everything we can from various approaches and points of view before believing in something. Figuring out our own values is the only way to live our own truth, make authentic choices, and find a purpose that we’ll feel good working towards. Meaning doesn’t come from scratch: we start with those already internalized from our family, culture, relationships, and previous experiences, and then we reconstruct through learning, deliberation, and action. We are not a blank slate, but we can still create major changes from our parents’ beliefs and the mainstream point of view. Through sustained deliberation, little by little, change grows as we live authentically and leave the internalized meanings prescribed by the authority figures behind.
We are born first, and then we make our meaning in this meaningless world. Most fall prey to bad faith, as they live according to the values they didn’t reason to, but that is the wrong way to live. We must recognize our freedom, do the hard work, contemplate on our values, ascribe meaning to our lives, and make our own moral compass. We must give importance to learning so we can reason and find our purpose to live authentically. When we do that, we can then stop spending valuable energy on having cognitive dissonance, putting up a mask, telling ourselves lies. Instead, we can accept things as they are, see the absurdity of the universe, and use that energy to flourish, achieve great things as it’s so much easier to live according to the values that we truly believe in. As we live authentically, we’ll radiate that energy, which will bring people in the same mind state around us.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. The American Scholar. 1837.
“Existentialism: Crash Course Philosophy #16” Youtube, uploaded by CrashCourse, 6 June 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YaDvRdLMkHs.
“Philosophy — Sartre.” Youtube, uploaded by The School of Life, 7 November 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3bQsZxDQgzU.
Sartre, Jean-Paul. Existentialism Is a Humanism. 1946.