The Human Predicament




Have you ever felt alone? I mean really alone, as if you were the only person in the world, that you had no friends, that no one cared about you, that you were left up to your own devices to survive or fail, that there was nothing in the world onto which you could get any kind of intellectual handle. Terrible feeling. But, that's the direction I am going to push us.

The last chapter left us with the hope of God through faith. But, atheistic existentialism dashes that hope and leaves us forlorn in the world. Atheistic existentialism puts us in the quarry of despair, where the rocks of the hardness of life grind upon the very natures of our minds and bodies. The picture existentialists paint for us with respect to man is gloomy --at least at first. Let me use a sci-fi story to set the stage for what existentialists call "the human predicament."

INSERT: "THE TERMINAL BEACH" by J.G. Ballard, copyright 1954 by J.G. Ballard. Author's agents, Scott Meredith Literary Agency, Inc., 845 Third Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10022. The story is reprinted in The Road to Science Fiction, #3, edited by James Gunn (New York: Mentor, 1979). (Synopsis of the story. A man makes a trek to an island that was used for nuclear testing. He roams around on it and is near the point of starving to death. The Navy finds him, but he escapes their rescue efforts and returns to his death pilgrimage. For a more classic version of a similar event, read Albert Camus', The Stranger. Also, much of existentialism is brought to light in Camus' "The Myth of Sisyphus" and J. P. Sartre's, Existentialism and Human Emotions)

The "Terminal Beach" brings us to a point of real concern. So far, it could be said that what we have been doing has been intellectual fun and games. But, Ballard's story brings us to the realization that the world may be overwhelming to the point of suicide --which is what we may presume Traven was up to. Let me put it more bluntly in list form. Let me describe our existence in "the human predicament."

1. The world around us is fundamentally beyond our understanding. Just remember some of what we learned in the previous chapters. What really may exist out there are only small bits of energy whizzing around at incredible speeds. We certainly aren't in direct contact with these small bits of quanta or whatever they are. The best we can know about them are "laws of their behavior" which enable us to predict our future experiences. But, the world as it really is escapes us. We will never know what it really is or truly understand it. Were we God, that would be possible, but we are not. We are stuck with what our puny intellects will deliver. And that is not very much.

The more we contemplate the world, the more alien it gets. Take a look at a simple thing, a stop sign. We see them every day. They are common occurrences in our lives, so common that we hardly pay attention to them except to respond in a robot fashion to them. But, let's think about them. Does the sign intend that you stop? Of course not. But, who does? The sign maker? Probably not. He merely has a job putting them together. It must be society. But, what is society? Is it a conglomerate of individuals all bound together with one intent? It's hard to imagine an actual entity like that. What are people anyway and how do they relate to one another? What is the difference between being married and just living together? There is a societal or legal difference, but is that a difference that makes a real difference when it comes to love? And how is all of this related to a simple stop sign? Airplanes, neutrons, YMCAs, armies, interstates, pollution controls, malaria, rock bands, fossils and all the rest make up a world that simply escapes comprehension. The more we look at the simple things of the world, the more they become alien objects when we try to analyze their relations to us. The big question tends to pop up: what is this place and what am I doing here?

Things really start to go downhill from here.

2. We are a part of that unknowable world. Try this experiment. Stand in front of a mirror and stare at yourself for a few minutes. More than likely you will have the unnerving experience at some time or another in that contemplation of looking into the eyes of a stranger. The image in the mirror will become an alien which is unrecognizable in its existence. You become an alien to yourself. The gist of the experiment is to let ourselves become aware of the haunting fact that we know very little about ourselves, who we are and what we are doing here in the first place. Remember that video theater from the first chapter. It was all dark inside. You can't see yourself. All that you know are the images on the screen. But, where are you on the screen? Where do you, the thinking thing, go when you go to sleep? Worse, why do you do some of the things that you do? If you are like me, many of your actions come from causes that are not conscious, and may never be. That's weird. If we are creatures who do things through free-will, how is it that many of our choices seems to come from causes about which we know very little? Consider what a psychiatrist may say about some of our actions. He/she may say that our actions come from events and beliefs which are formed in childhood and control our actions even though we may profess not to have those beliefs. Take, for example, a person named John who has Paul as his best friend. John has been very anxious and upset the past few months. He finally goes to a counselor to seek help. The meeting goes something like this.

Counselor: You say that you have been feeling very anxious?

John: Yes, practically all the time.

Counselor: Well, describe to me a time when you felt most anxious.

John: Well, that would be yesterday. I was having dinner with my best friend, Paul, and his wife, Susan. In the kitchen, while we were preparing the meal --I like to help-- I just felt really weird and anxious.

Counselor: You were helping with the meal, that's nice. But, then you felt anxious. Can you tell me what was going on?

John: Nothing extraordinary at all. Susan and I were making up the spaghetti sauce and talking about wines and I just felt anxious.

Counselor: Did she say anything that may have been offensive.

John: No. Never. She and Paul are the nicest persons you could ever meet.

Counselor: So, Paul didn't say anything either to upset you.

John: No. As a matter of fact, he was in the den watching the end of a basketball game. He doesn't like to cook that much, so Susan and I do the cooking when I visit.

Counselor: Susan and you like to cook.

John: Oh yes. We have a great time cooking. As a matter of fact, sometimes we even plan a meal and shop together for special occasions.

Counselor: I see. Paul is your best male friend and Susan is your best female friend.

John: Yes. I'd be lost without them.

Counselor: They help you out and give you advice?

John: Absolutely. Whenever I'm in a jam one of them is sure to help out.

Counselor: Give me an example.

John: Last week, I needed some help with a letter I was writing and Susan proofed it for me. Without her help I probably would have lost the account.

Counselor: So, Susan helped you out. Does she help you more than Paul?

John: Come to think of it, yes. When I need help, I usually go to her.

We can see where the story will end up. John is felling anxious because he is in love with Susan, the wife of his best friend. But, he cannot come to grips with that fact. Instead, the fact is repressed. But, repressed psychological trauma usually bubbles to consciousness in one form or another. For John, it was as generalized anxiety. His counselor sees the cause and will work with him to get him into the position to come to grips with the fact of his love for Susan.

The moral of the story is that own selves are just as much a mystery to us as the world is. We may have feelings or beliefs and not have the slightest idea, consciouswise, of the cause of them. Ouch, that hurts, besides not making too much sense. How can we be aliens to ourselves? Certainly, if there is one thing that we know it is ourselves. Wasn't Descartes right; it is absolutely certain that we exist each and every time we think about our existence?

Well, yes, Descartes is right, up to a point. We know that something exists, but the key question now is, "What is it?" Descartes says that we are thinking things. So what? Everyone is a thinking thing, but what about me, the one and only me? What about my personal identity? Descartes doesn't have much of an answer to that. And when we perform the experiment of trying to get to the me, the personal identity that distinguishes each of us from all the others, the me seems to slip away just as the me in the mirror becomes an alien simply by staring at it. The brutal hard-core factuality of the existentialistic motif that we are aliens to ourselves snatches away our personal identity. If we are a part of the unknowable world, then ourSELVES are just as much a mystery as anything else.

Some may claim that being able to remember being the subject of past experiences constitutes personal identity. For example, someone may say that, "I know that I am the same person I was at sixteen years of age because I can remember my getting my driver's license." It does seem that we rely on remembrance of past experiences to identify ourselves. Problem is, it is true in the world of psychology that persons often say that experiences they have had in movies or from reading books are their own personal experiences. Sounds strange, doesn't it. How could someone see a movie and then incorporate scenes in it into their personal lives as if they had actually lived those scenes? But, it is a fact that they do. So, memories are not trustworthy in revealing to us our selves.

What about bodily continuity? We have had the same body since our childhood. So, that could be what distinguishes us from all others. Problem is that body has changed remarkably over those years. Physiologists tell us that our bodies completely replace the parts every seven years. Well, suppose someone had gathered up those parts and put them all together again. Would there be two identical persons? Looks like it. In fact, consider the following story.

INSERT: "All You Zombies," by Robert A. Heinlein. Story appears in Book #3 of The Road to Science Fiction, edited by James Gunn (New York: Mentor Books, 1979). Library of Congress Catalog Card Number 78-070642 Synopsis of the story. A time-traveler switches sex and has a baby, which turns out to be himself/herself.

Heinlein's story has some of the paradoxes of time travel, but the gist of the story is clear. That one has a body does not mean that the same person or consciousness necessarily must belong to it. Just ask yourself, can you be absolutely sure that you are the same person that inhabited the six-year-old body you remember having. Certainly now, the body which you have is radically different. Worse, the mind is radically different. So, who is the real you given that you have changed bodies through time? Puzzling, huh?

But more from the existentialistic theoretical perspective; how is it that we are aliens to ourselves?

3. We exist before we know what or who we are; existence precedes essence. The reason that our selves are such mysteries is because we are conscious entities who are thrown into the world like it or not. Look. You probably didn't worry about truth, metaphysics, epistemology, personal identity or anything like that before you started reading this book. But, now you're into the thick of things and the going is getting quite murky. You found that something exists, a conscious being --you--, but when an examination of that "you" is done, not much turns up except what is already known, that the "you" is a self-conscious thinking thing. Ah, there's the rub. The you is "self-consciousness." You are aware of your existence, but when you look at that existence, nothing explains it satisfactorily.

When we examine critically the self, the "me" or "you," nothing comes up clearly to represent the personal identity of any of us. We are aliens to ourselves. Just who are you, or better ask yourself, "Just who am I and what am I doing here?" The more we think about that question, the more we realize that we have simply appeared on the scene, as does Traven, in a world that baffles us. Not only that, we baffle ourselves. We are said to be self-conscious, but all that seems to boil down to is that we can be terribly aware of the mystery surrounding our existence. Our self-consciousness is not a consciousness of a true self, but a consciousness of the fact that we do not know our true selves. There is a self somewhere in the theater watching the screen, but the only experience the self can have of itself is as an idea on the screen, not as an idea of the self, the real self, watching the screen. Our selves are transparent to us. Catch-22.

Remember the term 'essence.' An essence is the what-it-is-of-a-thing; a thing's essence tells us precisely what it is. OK. What is your essence so that you can tell me precisely what and who you are? Hard to do, isn't it? Just image a scenario such as the following. You suddenly appear in a cocktail party in China. Everyone is talking about things, how Hong Kong will be a central part of China's growing economy, how the Great Wall must be refurbished and so on. Remarkably, they are speaking for the most part in English, but the customs and mannerism are very strange to you. You have no idea how you got there and must try to figure how to get home. You think you are an American and live in Kansas. But, you catch a glimpse of yourself in the mirror and you look just like the other people at the party; you are Chinese. Now what? Could you even get back to Kansas? Would anyone recognize you? Who are you anyway? If your essence is your self-consciousness, you know very little about yourself, save that you have been thrown into the party without your consent. Of course, over a period of an hour, you can get somewhat of a handle on how to act, just to get by. But, the overall party is a mystery. How did you get there and what is the purpose of your being there? The more you interact, the more you feel somewhat secure until you return to those primary questions. Who am I and what am I doing here? The brutal fact is that you are at the party, doing things which have only an ad hoc basis and can never get to the bottom of the matter. Your being in the world is the same. You are thrown into it without your consent. You appear on the scene, into a world that defies interpretation. There is no home to go to for the truth. There is only the present day to day, minute to minute confrontation with being a pushed-on actor on the stage of a play that has no script. Nightmare.

4. Self-consciousness is an affliction. The more you try to figure out who you are, the worse it gets. People speak to you, expect things of you, and do things for you, but why? Who are you and why is all of this going on? You begin to worry that you may be losing your mind, as Traven seems to do. No one else appears to have the trouble that you do. Dogs, cats, horses and other animals all live happy non self-conscious lives. What is the story with you? The more you try to find out what is gong on, what or who is your true self, the more evasive that self becomes. Why, it may be asked, were we not simple animals who could just live lives and be more or less happy? Why did evolution throw in the self-conscious bit so that we have to try to figure out who and why we are, knowing that those answers are more than likely not forthcoming? Self-consciousness, rather than being a blessing and an asset that raises us above animals, turns out to be a gnawing affliction. We cannot sleep easily knowing that our lives are mysteries and our true selves unknown to our very consciousness. Our consciousness cannot bring to consciousness our selves. Consciousness is a blessing; consciousness with self-consciousness is a bust.

5. Death is a fact of life. When we contract a deadly disease or affliction, we sometimes succumb to it. Our bodies and minds struggle against that disease, and in the tragic cases, its power overwhelms us. An untimely death of anyone, especially young persons, always hits us hard. But, consider another brutal fact about this world into which we are thrown; we are all inoculated with one terminal disease, death. We are all going to die, whether we want to or not. The disaster of death is that it can strike at any time from any cause. For most of us, it will strike later in our lives. The problem of death is that it makes our lives meaningless. Why should we do one thing or seek one career over another? If, to borrow a phrase, our lives in the world are but poor players on a makeshift stage with the curtain ringing down on the play whether the play is over or not, then why perform? Why is one performance any better than another? Acing under the condition of the finality of death makes any play on the stage meaningless, absurd. Why chose to act in one play over another if the curtain will end them all and at random times? Why choose to be a doctor rather than a fisherman or, indeed, a bum, given that the same ultimate "reward" will be delivered to any of the alternatives? Everyone will receive the reward, death. You are reading this chapter. You think that it is worthwhile. But, you could be fishing, drawing, painting, racing a car, enjoying the sunshine of the day. You may think that it is more important than any of the other alternatives. But, ask yourself, when the final hour of your life comes, will you say, "Gee, I sure am glad that I spent those extra hours back in my youth reading that philosophy stuff instead of going fishing. Yes, those hours of study sure were worth it in terms of having something to remember as being enjoyable or worthwhile." You may respond, "But, I had to go to school to get an education so that I could get a job and have some leisure time by making a good income." That's true. But, is all the toil and trouble worth those few moments of happiness? Isn't it the case that life is a terrible hardship with bits of happiness sprinkled in it and then you die? Looks like it. Remember, there is no God to provide a Heaven for us. When we die, that's the ball game. The absolute certainty of death no matter what kind of life is led makes any kind of life absurd.

Worse, again, we are pushed on the stage. We find ourselves in an ongoing play about which we really know nothing. Wait. That's not true. We do know something. We do know that our part in the play will come to an end. When that end will happen, we don't know. But, that it will come before the whole play is over is a certainty. We are in a time segment of the play. We know that we will never understand how the play got going or how it will end. But, we do know that we only have so much time to act whatever part is there for us. The play grinds on. We cannot stop it. The final scene for us is approaching with certainty. In our youth, we had wished for time to hurry up. Now that we know that we are in the play and that there are only so many scenes left for us, we wish that time would slow down. But, the more we recognize that we are in the play, the faster the play goes. What a joy it was to be young and not aware of the passage of time. Now days are no more than blinks of an eye. We wish that there would be a time after this time, an after-life, that we would go on to another play -hopefully, a better play. But, all those are mere wishes. This play drags us slowly with the speed of light to our final scene, whatever that scene may be. We have been convicted of a capital crime and must die. And with death, that is the end of us. Period.

6. The affliction of self-consciousness and the hopelessness of the situation lead to two drastic alternatives: insanity and/or suicide. In the story, the "Terminal Beach," it looks as though Traven opts for both. There is little doubt that the circumstances of his life have been unbearable. For most persons, the world is, indeed, a troublesome place in which to live, if not a downright antagonistic quagmire. If there are no answers to be gained, if the world will continually consume us, if there is no meaningful end to our struggles, then why go on? Given that we generally act on our beliefs, if it is true that our lives are meaningless and that continued living is a painful psychological burden, then insanity (in which case self-consciousness is more or less done away with) or suicide (in which case everything is done away with) look to be viable alternatives. Dogs, cats, horses don't commit suicide or go crazy because they do not suffer self-consciousness. Person do because they run smack up against the meaninglessness of their lives. More Nightmare.

7. Summary of our situation. We are thrown into the world without any say about the matter; the world is an unknowable, antagonistic to our efforts; the world is a machine and our bodies are part of that machine; our bodies will eventually die and kill us against our will and wishes; we are conscious of our situation; we are not conscious of our personal identity --it seems to slip away from us and we become aliens to our very consciousness; the only two ways out of the terrible mess ("the terminal beach" which we are washed up on) are drastic --insanity and/or suicide. Our lives are absurd. What are we to do?

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