Are we as human beings, free?
And the answer to this question is pretty obvious. In the bigger scheme of this question, we are not free. Behaviours and actions can be restricted by the authorities linked to society.
Discussing first off, the idea of culture. Human beings are social animals by nature. I am not going to get into the arguments or explanations of this concept, but from a sociological standpoint, the rate of agreement is dominant. The youth develop in a correlative manner. They acquire knowledge from their society and culture. So this educational system, is one of most crucial factors for proper development, integration, interaction, from a collective social context and viewpoint.
Our culture’s ramification shapes our existence. It offers a bridge of connection towards questions based on devoid. Sociological research found that certain cultures are linked to individualism when others are linked to collectivism.
And the denouement related to Individualism accentuates the idea of being independent and self-supporting. Collectivism on the other hand, accentuates the idea of group priority and support. This leads us to a fundamental understanding that individualistic societies on an individual level, gravitates towards fewer social centripetal interactions. Whereas collective societies have the tendency to further engage in social interactions. Talking about the geographic social correlation, research shows that Individual based societies such as those found in North America and Western Europe for example, are not as oriented towards religious ideological beliefs, as collective based societies. As discussed in this book, there is an interrelationship between existence related questions and religion, making the pursue of purposefulness less convoluted. Societies such as the North American and a few others, have an anemic propensity towards theological explanations and beliefs.
This makes existential questions, a bit more arduous for collective societies. Of course, there is a lot of collective societies that are religion based, nonetheless, there is also a significant number of societies and individuals, not linked to any religious beliefs.
Leading to an acute query, individualistic societies also have a variety of existential beliefs, thus it is more abundant with subsistence when it comes to their why, so is there a link between existentialism and those two different types of societies?
Let’s summarize a bit.
Our development within society and culture, breeds our sense of knowledge. For us to understand the reason behind your existence, first you need to know it. For you to know it, it is a knowledge integrative action. With the confirmation of knowledge in the centripetal core of cultural and perceptional and retention, comes belief. Collective societies with religious emphasize generally develop in a repetitive manner. Individualistic societies would develop similarly.
There are cases in religious societies where an individual during his development, and thru the social and cultural influence, believes that celestial legitimacy solves the purpose riddle. Talking about our freedom of thought, where is it now? Conditioning is one of the hardest things to overcome and question.
It is by becoming conscious of conditioning patterns, by liberating and controlling the action and the reaction, that you start to expand your why related scope.
However, we are free to think. On one side of the story, you can think about anything you want, at any given point. On the other side of the story, some people fall victims to ideological conceptions, that restraints their freedom of thought. Taking the example of religious communities can help you understand this better. Often, strict religious communities and individuals, believe that they should not, at any point, question the existence of god. They went beyond faith and they have a fixed belief, that existence can not be questioned. Now they are of course free at any point, to disregard everything, and drift in thought. However, this liberation happens in an instant. The ideology formulation that preceded had an influential ability on our freedom of thought.
Going more on a biological level. When we feel the urge to reproduce, thoughts of sexual interaction starts to surface in our conscious brain. This urge, and those thoughts came out of the blue with no control over them, at least not at moment it started.
Now moving into a psychological level, mental health disorders and past experiences can cause a disruptive pattern restricting our freedom of thought. Clinical depression patients report not being able to control the stream of negative thoughts surfacing in their conscious brain. Past failure accumulates into a future success related block that limits the freedom of thought as well.
October 19th, 1987, the day that people refer to as the Black Monday witnessed one of the biggest stock market crashes in the history the economic, financial and business field. The increased interest in stocks in the period that preceded the crash was built upon a positive attitude of people making a return on their investment, which pushed them to invest even more. Then Black Monday came, and after that day, many of those who were investing in stocks took a decision that they will never engage and invest in the stock market ever again. The system failure that caused a financial crash built a perception linked to stock markets. They are risky, and most people don’t like risk. The victims of the crash, made up mostly of Baby Boomers, carried on with this reflective perception on Stock Markets. The result? They raised their children with a similar ideology that investing in stocks is a lost case, that investing in stocks will lead to failure. The children, mostly millennials, will never get over this pre-programmed fear linked to the market crash and their parent’s inflence on the matter. Once again, each and every person is absolutely free, at any moment to change his thoughts and perception when it comes to investing in the stock market, yet the majority won’t. They are free, yet they are not.
Our freedom of thought is influenced and limited by our biological structure, psychological structure, and social structure.
Bertrand Russel once said: “Men fear thought as they fear nothing else on earth — more than ruin, more even than death. Thought is subversive and revolutionary, destructive and terrible, thought is merciless to privilege, established institutions, and comfortable habits; thought is anarchic and lawless, indifferent to authority, careless of the well-tried wisdom of the ages. Thought looks into the pit of hell and is not afraid … Thought is great and swift and free, the light of the world, and the chief glory of man.”
Thoughts, as destructive as they can be, are nonetheless, one of the main sources of human salvation. Thoughts are the reason behind your weaknesses and your strengths. Control your thoughts and you can control your life. The monk’s greatness doesn’t rest upon the architectural structure of his temples, but the architectural structure of his thoughts.
People are entitled to thoughts that did not originate from a free conscious. People born in social environment that positively influenced their stream of thoughts will usually grow into a healthier, more liberated thought processes. Those born in oppressive social environments are more likely to grow, subject of those oppressive, limiting thought processes. We are enslaved by thoughts we can not even control. While reading, you might highly agree, or highly disagree. But this one thing that you can try at any given moment, will force you to agree, again, restricting your freedom of thought by using the analogy of logic. Can you, for one day, control every single thought that you have? Can you for one day, be free from all your past perceptions and thought related influences? It is biologically impossible. Your thoughts, generated in the brain, are highly correlated with your physical and biological system. If you are claustrophobic, and you were to be put in an elevator for an hour, as hard as you try to control your emotional, cognitive and physical reaction, the chemicals released in your brain will automatically set your system to generate certain thought patterns and behaviours.
On the other end of the spectrum, a revelational concept arises. If we exclude, social, psychological and biological impact on our thoughts stream, our freedom of thought will then be based on a more logical, cognitive and conscious level. It is at this end of the spectrum where our freedom of thought surfaces. It is a matter of choice that determines how our thoughts will unfold. In bigger scheme of existentialism, the concept of finding a meaning lies on this very end of the spectrum. How it unfolds however is yet to be discussed in further chapters.
Individually, understanding ourselves and the world around us, is highly influence by understanding the basic human needs. Why do you need to get an education? Why do you need to have casual intercourses?
Our needs can be grouped and separated. Physiological needs, Safety needs, Belongingness needs, Esteem needs, and Self-actualization needs. That’s the exact order that Maslow followed when he developed the theoretical hierarchy of needs. Physiological needs being at the bottom of the pyramid rest upon basic survival needs, those which derive from our evolutionary survival instinct and mechanisms. Water, food, shelter, sleep.. Are all basic survival elements that we seek before anything else. Safety needs are also part of our basic needs. Once a human being is provided with water, food, shelter, and proper resting, he strives to ensure his safety from all the surrounding menaces and threats. Threat is highly correlated with a productive stimulation of Cortisol. This evolutionary based hormone known as “ The Stress Hormone “, is our internal alarm and defensive system. To ensure survival, human beings needed to be in a high state of alertness and reactiveness when held face to face with a dangerous situation. Cortisol is one of the contributing factor that ensured our longevity and evolution. However, it comes with a downside.
Let’s go back to the last time you felt stressed. How effective was your ability to focus? How logical was your thought structural pattern? How efficient was your ability to control thoughts, impulses and actions? The answer is pretty clear. Whether you know it or not, scientifically speaking, Cortisol has a negative effect on all the functions previously mentioned. Therefore, held in a state of insecurity and stress, human being wouldn’t have been able to develop their intellect, the way they did, if they did not ensure safety.
It is only when a man is well fed and nourished, properly rested and fairly safe that he will start to think beyond the basic needs. Once those basic needs are satisfied, human beings would normally shift towards psychological needs.
We previously mentioned the idea that we are Social Animals, we strive to be part of a community, we aspire to have those feelings of belongingness. Whether its friendship, intimacy, mutual approval and understanding, or affectionate love, a person would start seeking the conceptualized structure of society.
Moving on, once a person finds himself within a society he belongs to, his need to stand out, as a Sui Generis entity, will unfold. In a society where each individual is different, there are “ needs based elements “ that formulates the construct of those differences. According to Maslow, they’re known as Esteem needs. Those needs are fundamentally based on internal and external needs. Internal Esteem needs reside in independence, autonomy, success and achievement. External Esteem needs reside in social status, class, and social image.
All the previously mentioned needs, as different as they are, share one thing in common. Motivation towards these needs decreases as the needs are met. When you eat, you lose the motivation to seek food, because you don’t need it. Once you get hungry, and the specific physiological need starts to arise again, you will restore the motivation until the need is satisfied.
That’s exactly why Self-actualization needs, psychologically speaking, are the building stones behind our reason to exist. In this final spectrum, motivation increases as the needs are met. Self-actualization is attained through personal growth, feelings of personal fulfilment, or as Maslow refers to it: “ To become everything one is capable of becoming. “
For you to bear any how, for you to find a reason to get out of bed in the morning, for you to be motivated despite the situation you’re facing, your why needs to be confined and enclosed within those Self-actualization needs. The following example will help you understand those concepts better.
We often hear that money is not a good source of motivation, yet a lot of people use riches as a fuel to their engine, they use it until it makes their lives miserable. You want to make a lot of money to live the life you want to live? That’s absolutely fine. But when it comes to a point where a person works 16 hours a day, he is not living anymore, he is not even surviving, he is putting himself until tremendous pressure, and we are all bound to break. I’ve watched plenty of motivational videos that preach the 18 hour a day work ethic, and I respect that, every single person should. However, often times, when money is the primary and sole source of motivation, people would start working less and less as the days are passing by, until they get to the point where they give up, they give in, they crack under pressure. Their why is not strong enough to get them back up. Their why is based on a deficiency need, specifically, an Esteem based need, and your motivation towards Esteem needs will never be as strong as your motivation towards Self-actualization needs.
Let’s take another example. A person who is very close to his parents faces the tragedy of his father passing away. His father always wanted to see him graduate out of law school, and the person decides to go back into law school to make his father proud. Now even though his source of motivation is external, its effect is internal. His father can not be proud, for he is dead, only the person himself will be proud as self-actualization is achieved. His motivation will be tremendously high and persistent, based on the fact that the need behind this motivation has a strong enough why.
Viktor Frankl, the founding father of Logo-therapy once said:” Everything can be taken from a man but one thing, the last of human freedoms, to choose one’s attitude in any given situation, to choose one’s way.”
At this very moment, there is a dominating attitude, occupying your cognitive and/or physical level, and interconnecting with your acceptance or rejection of the principles. You also have an attitude towards your life, towards your family and friends, towards your existence.
The two most common types of adopted attitudes are positive and negative attitudes. Previously, we talked about the concept of human freedom, whether we are free to think the way we want to, whether our judgement is objective or correlated with external influences. How can you have a positive attitude towards the person with whom, your partner cheated on you with? Of course, you can say I want to forgive him, I want to move on, but it is easier said than done. I’ll give you a closer example. If you are dwelling upon the fact that you can’t find a meaning in life, which means that your attitude towards the absence of meaning is a negative one, can you, out of the blue, decide to adopt a positive attitude towards the absence of meaning in your life? This meaning in life, is what will help you get a positive attitude towards your situation, so how can you have a positive attitude towards its absence? And if you are to adopt a positive attitude, will you be looking as hard, being adamantine to find a meaning?
It is all a question of choice, and choice, is a question of reason, where reason is a question of motive. Let me explain.
We can agree that despite the insanity of adopting a positive attitude towards certain situations, it is indeed possible. However, it is generally easier to attain, when supported by a reason.
It is way easier to affiliate a positive attitude with the absence of meaning in your life, if there is a reason behind this particular choice. For instance, instead of dwelling on the fact that you did not find a reason to live yet, you can embrace the fact that you did not find a reason to live yet, based on the fact that you have the freedom to explore your reason to live, and make sure that whatever this reason is, will it not only be a rational justification for existence, but a vindication that draws a smile on your face.
Even further than reason, comes the motive. Why is it that you want to find a meaning in life? There’s a reason behind considering a positive attitude towards the question in place, and there’s a motive behind why you want to answer the question in the first place.
Oblivion is also a choice. Some people put huge emphasize on the legacy they leave behind them. They are constantly stressing about potential oblivion after they depart from this world. They want to build a legacy upon which people will remember them, keeping them alive, even when they, realistically and objectively aren’t anymore.
They become so obsessed, that this future ideological inheritance structures their meaning in life. They seek to keep their name standing in history. As they are not alive in the present, nor will they be alive in the future, at least as far as we know, they work towards existing in the past, and when they do exist in the past, significantly, they will, reciprocally, exist in other people’s present and future.
But, there is a huge flaw here. The meaning behind their existence, is to exist, even when they don’t exist anymore.
When you ask the question, what is the meaning behind my existence and your meaning resides within rejecting oblivion and leaving a legacy, your meaning is to exist, after your realistic existence came to an end, analogically speaking, your meaning lies beyond your existence. So putting existence out of the equation, as what you seek is what comes after existence, the question becomes a bit more tricky. You’re looking for a meaning behind your existence, where in contrast, if existence itself is not included in the formula, meaning can not exist.
In contrast, you might be wondering: “ If leaving a legacy, can not be chosen as a meaning in life, how is it that some people did choose it as a way to live a meaningful life? “
Well, today, there are more than four thousand religious ideologies in the world. Almost four out of seven and a half billion people, today believe in life after death. The majority, spend their entire existence working towards this afterlife. They are working in the vicinity of reaching a celestial everlasting existence, beyond their actual, physical existence. Oblivion, for them, is being obliterated, abandoned or spurned in the afterlife. The first group of individuals, want to leave a legacy to exist in the past, and therefore exist in the present and in the future, therefore exist in the afterlife. And the second group of individuals, want to exist in the present, and in the future, in another, life related, continuum spectrum, in a divine macrocosm where they nonetheless, from a interchangeable standpoint, existed in the past. Legacy, turns into a religion, and religion turns into an existential meaning.
Here’s where it gets interesting.
When the question, the reason and the motive are associated with a coextensive, parallel and adjacent, Self-actualization need, its the equivalent of putting all the puzzle pieces together. The puzzle as a whole, contains the meaning behind your existence.
I remember asking my friend Ben: “ What do you think your meaning in life is? Why do you exist? “
The question was followed by absolute silence. Staring at the floor, his fingers rubbing his chin, a moment of deep thinking deranged with a soft smile, and a giggle.
“ To exist. “ Ben answers.
“ And then what? “ I ask.
“ I have to do something with my life. “
Now Ben had recently taken a new job with the government. When I asked him why he took the job, he said because it was the first job where he was offered a work contract. Now if he wakes up in the morning, feeling absolutely neutral in terms of motivation, can we blame him? Well, yes and no. Yes based on the fact that his decision, does not by any means align with Self-actualization, a motive, or a reason to begin with.
Then he said something really interesting, he explained his objective point of view on the meaning of life from an economic stand point. Utility he said.
Do you feel useful in life? Do you feel like you have a roll to fill in the chasm of life, where your absence leaves this crevasse open and empty? Often times, people start questioning the meaning of their lives as they can not figure out what they are useful for. What is the pragmatic usefulness behind their existence? This question can throw us into a turbulent tempestuous stream of catechization, striving to find answers and identify their usefulness. Often times, when the question isn’t met with an answer, uncertainty arises, emptiness emanates, and existentialism emerges.
However, what decides utility in life? Or to be more precise, who decides utility in life?
Stand up, and go look in a mirror. See that person looking back at you? Only he has the ability to decide your utility in life.
It is all a matter of choice.