Wednesday, February 18, 2009


A line in Sartre's Existentialism Is A Humanism that made me chuckle the first time I read it: "And when we speak of 'abandonment'--One of Heideggers favorite expressions--we merely mean to say that God does not exist, and that we must bear the fully consequences of that assertion'.


It's Sartre's use of the word merely that gets me. What an underappreciated word, and what a strange word to use to describe the thought that this world is a godless one. There doesn't seem to be anything mere about the existence of God. At least, not in any way I can think about it. defines the word this way:

–adverb 1. only as specified and nothing more; simply: merely a matter of form.
2. Obsolete. a. without admixture; purely.
b. altogether; entirely.

1400–50; late ME mereli. See mere 1 , -ly

But we discover a more substantial meaning to his use of the word a little further on:

" The existentialist, on the contrary, finds it extremely disturbing that God does not exist, for there disappears with Him all possibility of finding values in an intelligible heaven. There can no longer be any good a priori, since there is no infinite and perfect consciousness to think it. It is nowhere written that “the good” exists, that one must be honest or must not lie, since we are now upon the plane where there are only men. Dostoevsky once wrote: “If God did not exist, everything would be permitted”; and that, for existentialism, is the starting point. Everything is indeed permitted if God does not exist, and man is in consequence forlorn, for he cannot find anything to depend upon either within or outside himself. He discovers forthwith, that he is without excuse. For if indeed existence precedes essence, one will never be able to explain one’s action by reference to a given and specific human nature; in other words, there is no determinism – man is free, man is freedom."

Now, this is a bold statement, and one we need not embrace in totality. Even Sartre was very careful to hedge his bets about the existence of God. You can believe or not believe in God and accept the following proposition: Man is free, and thus must decipher a meaning for himself. He is responsible for his own actions and decisions, and is responsible for the person he chooses to be. No one is born a hero or a coward, therefore no one has a right to resign themselves to accepting such stations. We are what we make ourselves.

The bottom-line question Sartre asks us to ask ourself when deciding (through action) what kind of person we are to be is this: If everyone else in the world acted as I am, would this be a good world?

Apparently there is more to merely than I had initially thought.

the exact opposite of an existential worldview:

*The image at the top of the page comes from


Lodo Grdzak said...

Like the great animal behaviorist--Konrad Lorenz, I'd argue that free will is something that must be obtained. If you don't understand basic psychological principles that drive and motivate you, then the idea of free-will is laughable. To think that some starving kid in Africa thats never received an education and has to grub all day for food has free will is a bit of ivory tower thinking (not that you're arguing that this is the case--Im just saying). I'd say that only after your basic needs have been met, and after you've taken the time to contemplate your existence, can you maybe "achieve" free will. But I'd argue that it's an accomplishment and not something we're born with. Actually just the opposite.

Spencer Troxell said...

Those are really good thoughts, and I agree with them to a point: It's true that if we're not insightful people, we'll never fully appreciate the degree of freedom we have. I also agree that it's probably harder to self actualize when you're operating lower on Maslow's scale, ie, your African child example.

But poverty and destitution doesn't limit free will, although it may limit certain options. The limitations of options doesn't make free-will laughable. Free will is about the possibility of action within a given context. A poor african child is just as free to see the world in any way they choose as the rich intellectual in an ivory tower. The idea of the strenuous life probably has even more meaning to them. They are just as free to be heroes or cowards, or whatever they choose to be in a moral, spiritual, or intellectual sense, which is in my opinion, the most important kind of freedom. Much more important than the ability to hop on a private jet and fly to Paris, or whatever.

To say that an impoverished person lacks free will because of their economic status strips them of their humanity. That's not something I'm willing to do.

Lodo Grdzak said...

Well, Im going to have disagree w/ you on that one. Particularly when you say a super-poor kid is just as free to see the world in any way he chooses as a rich intellectual. Sure he can choose from one set of superstitions to another, but is that really what you mean by free will? This is exactly why poverty is such a crime and lack of an education is so detrimental--because you do lose out on the development (key word) of your humanity. Its not that poor people are less human, but they have fewer behavioral options, less contact with the larger world to formulate opinions, and less understanding of what motivates the limited behaviors available to them. I would also argue against the notion of being born with free will. For example, is it really possible for a healthy 14 year old boy not to want to get his dick off at least one time? I mean this--Im not just being a jerk (pardon the pun). Our body's are wired for certain things and (like sex or having an orgasm) you have to do them at least once. Its the whole reason our bodies evolved! Sure, once you've had the experience one time you can so "No, no more" (well, I can't, but some can!). But if you're body's healthy, you've gotta do it at least once. You really have no choice and I truly believe that.

Spencer Troxell said...

While there are perameters placed on all of our freedom by environment and genetics, this is not a reflection on the will.

There is a creeping determinism that takes hold as we age. It's fueled by our experiences, genetics, and previous acts of will. This is not a determinism that says, 'you will act this way', it's a soft determinism that says 'you will PROBABLY act this way based on existing data.' The will is a separate entity from freedom, which does indeed vary. A person who doesn't have access to the writings of Sartre may come to similar conclusions as Sartre from some remote location in Africa. A person with all the resources in the world may not even know who Sartre is, and may not even be capable of understanding it. There are perameters on these kind of freedoms.

I also agree that most humans seem to be hardwired for the ability to perform certain activities (notice how many caveats I stuck in there?)

To me, free will simply means the ability to define our world, ourselves, and to seek meaning. The meaning we find may not be palatable to us, but it will be a meaning that we ourselves defined, according to the authority of our own senses, within the parameters of our own freedoms.

There are alot of blind spots out there for sure. We are all limited in our capacities in one way or the other: That's why the cash value of our constructed worldviews are important to consider as we proceed to define ourselves and the world around us.

Thanks for this conversation. I think it's important to talk about this kind of stuff.

Lodo Grdzak said...

Yeah, right back at ya Spence. The distinction between free will, self-actualization, and freedom is certainly not a topic of thought I began the week with. As always, good stuff.