Understanding the Human Essence

Posted: March 21, 2011 in Philosophy
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The basic principle of existentialism is that “existence precedes essence”, that is, we are not born with an essence, but we create it through the choices we make. So, in order to understand the human essence we first need to understand how choices are made.

We clearly have “pre-dispositions” to act in certain ways given our genetic makeup, but is there anything more than a tug of war between the different genes inside me? If we had a perfect understanding of the human DNA and could map and interpret everyone’s gene’s perfectly would we be able to predict what the person would do in any given circumstance? Could we compute the extent to which each of a person’s genes would be stimulated and, given the relative strength of each gene, compute the decision the person would make? If we could then we would have no essence beyond our bodies. So for existentialism to take off at all, this “genetic formula” for decision making must be impossible; that is, there must be something beyond a DNA wrestling match going on in that moment when a choice is made.

There must be an x-factor, a mysterious, undefined part of us that can choose to go with or against the ruling of our genes. (Note that this x-factor, or our “choice-faculty” is not the same as our “essence”, it is what makes creating an essence possible. The x-factor is merely the part of us that chooses, our essence is what we create by our choices). Then this “choice faculty” must not be made up of physical matter since all parts of our body are determined by our genes. At this point any half-wit materialist will ask: If it has no physical parts how is it attached to our body, how does it communicate with it? A dualist might say our body and our choice-faculty are put in sync with each other by God, or held together with holy glue –answers that clearly won’t do in our atheist model of reality. But we still need an answer if this choice-faculty is to exist.

By using a simple analogy I will show that there need not be supernatural intervention for two things, one made of matter and one not, to be interconnected . Consider an electricity generator: it generates an electrical current which in turn generates an electromagnetic field. Now notice that the generator is made of matter but the electromagnetic field is not. They are also clearly interconnected, if the generator is turned off then the field will cease to exist, on the other hand, the field exerts a force on the particles in the generator. So we can use the generator as an analogy for the human body and the electromagnetic field as a analogy for the choice-faculty.

This analogy does not tell us the relation between the choice-faculty and the human body (or if the choice-faculty exists at all) but it does tell us that it is possible for a non-physical choice-faculty to exist. It also does not offend the atheist by implying immortality since the electromagnetic field (or the choice-faculty) ceases to exist once the generator is turned off, that is, when the body dies.

However, there are obvious problems with this analogy. The electromagnetic field is created by the generator- the type of electromagnetic field created depends completely on the type of generator being used. So following our analogy back into our existentialist model would mean that even if a non-physical part of us existed, it would still just be a function of our genetic code. This is clearly not what an existentialist wants to say about the human condition.

So, in the existentialist universe, there must be a non-physical part of us that is not determined by our physical self. However, this is problematic. If our choice-faculty is not determined by our body then (given our current assumptions) there is no reason for it to come into existence with our body and go out of existence with our body: The choice-faculty could exist indefinitely and latch onto a newly born baby. Then it would be conceivable to have different choice-faculties fight over a single body, multiple choice-faculties possessing a single body, a body with no choice-faculty at all, or even an animal body with a choice faculty (given the limited scope of the animal brain would we even be able to tell if an animal was metaphysically free?). With the only assumption of existentialism we have been working with, that is, existence precedes essence, all of the above are possible.

The existentialist, however, makes a further assumption: “we spontaneously throw ourselves into existence”, that is, the choice-faculty spontaneously comes into existence with the birth of our bodies. Also, since the existentialist is not death denying, he thinks the choice-faculty goes out of existence when our body dies. So, in the existentialist model, the human body acts as a switch for our choice-faculty: it just turns it on and off but it does not determine its nature.

However, this leads to the question, what is the nature of the choice faulty? The answer is simple, the choice-faulty cannot have a nature, since that would go against the existentialist claim that we are born with complete metaphysical freedom. The choice-faculty is a blank slate, it perceives the emotions and logical deduction cranked out by the body and makes a choice. The choice-faculty grows with each choice, it stops being a blank slate and picks up characteristics; this growing choice-faculty is the human essence.

As we can see, the human essence is completely man made according to the existentialist. That is why the existentialist is unforgiving in many ways. He gives man no excuse for being weak, petty, malicious, lazy. He doesn’t care if we have bad genes or we’re poor or our upbringing was miserable; to him, none of it excuses or justifies any of our behavior. Regardless of our genes, regardless of our circumstances, at every moment in our lives we have at least two options and we are free to choose. Some options maybe more difficult to chose than others, but it is still possible to chose them. So, man is left with nothing to hide behind, he must stare directly at the choices he has made and accept that he is what he has done

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