Are You a Practical Existentialist?

19 08 2010

For many years now I have spent a significant amount of time speaking to college students at campuses around the Chicagoland area. What I love about speaking with college students is they are in an environment of idea exchange and they enjoy engaging in thought provoking conversations. I often ask students where they find meaning for their lives and I often get answers in a similar vein; they usually tell me that meaning is wrapped up in what they will do with their lives or with whom they associate. That is the answer of a practical existentialist (whether they know it or not).

Some of you may be asking, what is existentialism? It is a philosophical system that has been attributed back as far as Søren Kierkegaard, a 19th century Danish philosopher. This system of belief can be boiled down in its core to the statement, existence precedes essence. The opposite view would be called essentialism and would hold that essence precedes existence. So, for the existentialist, what we do gives meaning to who we are. Our existence determines our essence. Friedrich Nietzsche was another famous existentialist as he pursued his “will to power,” his quest for the overman (sometimes referred to as the superman).

I often hear people say that they determine their own meaning; in fact, it has become a rather common mantra in our days. The question is, can we determine our own meaning and purpose? I obviously don’t think so as I believe that ultimate meaning and purpose always comes from the designer and creator. In our case, I believe that we are designed and created by God who gives us our ultimate purpose and meaning. However, what if we were merely the product of some blind process of natural selection. I say blind (which some evolutionists would dispute) as it is not guided by anything other than events which have no foresight as to what the end result will be (it is hoped it is survival). But, is survival a purpose for a person’s life? I think it can be an outcome, but as a purpose, I think it is a rather hollow one, if it is one at all.

One could always ask, is survival an end or a means to a further end? I don’t think that survival is an end, but merely a means to a greater end (child rearing, experiencing the world, etc.) Then we need to ask the same question of those, “are they ends or means to a greater end?” Let’s take child bearing and rearing. Is that an end or a means to an end? It seems that it is a means and not an end in itself Yes, we enjoy our children, but when we consider child bearing and rearing, we would then have to say that our children have that end as well, as will their children, and their children, ad infinitum. It seems to me to be a means and not an end in itself. We need to consider each of these supposed ends and question whether they are truly ends or simply means to a greater end.

A second question to ask is, what would happen if I lost that which gives life meaning and purpose, could I go on with life or would it all be over at that instance? Most people, when I ask them that question, will tell me that they would go on, which indicates to me that it is not a true purpose or source of ultimate meaning. True and ultimate meaning, when taken away, would and should mean that life is over for us – we have no purpose for living any longer. True, some people feel that at the loss of a loved one; however, even if for a little while, they continue to live and survive. I believe that if that source of ultimate meaning ceased to exist, then we would cease to exist. If we continue to exist after that thing ceases, then it means that we had some other hidden purpose that kept us going.

The Apostle Paul said it well, “If the dead are not raised, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” (1 Cor. 15:32) But, as he said earlier in that chapter, “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.” (15:20) Paul concludes this chapter by writing, “But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.” (15:57-58) Our labor is not in vain because God has created us for a purpose and with a mission, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” (Luke 10:27) Jesus said that on these depend all of the Law and the Prophets (Matt. 22:40).

Our purpose, as defined by our Creator, is to love him and to love our neighbor. These are ends in themselves rather than means to a greater end. Sure, loving God and our neighbors can produce benefits; however, that is not why we are to love them, we are to love them because that is the purpose for which we were designed and created and we are fulfilling that ultimate purpose. God is relational and he created us to be in that relationship with him and with others whom he has created. That is our purpose and that is what gives us ultimate meaning. So, are you an essentialist, who believes that God defines our meaning, or an existentialist, who believes that we define our own meaning through what we do? Something to think about…

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What is True and Can We Tell? Reflections on Inception

12 08 2010

Which is more difficult, to awaken one who sleeps or to awaken one who, awake, dreams that he is awake?Søren Kierkegaard, Works of Love (1847)

These words, though written more than a century and a half ago, could have been written about Christopher Nolan’s latest movie, Inception. This movie, if you have not yet seen it, is a labyrinth of dream sequences of different levels into which the main character, Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) enters with his team to implant a thought into the head of Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy) so that he will break up the oil empire that his father is set to leave him upon his imminent death.

Cobb, an architect by training, left the world of designing buildings to enter the world of designing dreamscapes. He develops his skills to not only extract information from people by entering their dreams, but to also implant ideas, leaving no trace of his having done so. Cobb is approached by Fischer’s competitor and enticed by the offer of being able to return to his home and kids from whom he had been estranged due to legal troubles. To do this, he must go into the consciousness of Fischer through his dreams and continue going deeper and deeper into those levels of his consciousness until he can implant the thought without leaving evidence of his having been there.

The story combines elements of Dante with hints of Freud as the team delves lower and lower into the mind of Fischer, while at the same time, Cobb battles his own memories of his kids and his deceased wife for whom he carries the guilt of her death. The story is a parallel between what Cobb is trying to accomplish in the mind of Fischer and what is going on in his own consciousness. As he goes into the dreams of others and plunges deeper into their consciousness, he can’t help but bring along the memories that haunt his own.

Nolan uses different images to depict this Dante type going down in the life of Cobb as he tries to keep these memories caged up within him, only to have them escape at the most inopportune moments. In the end, Cobb appears to conquer these plaguing visions, but is it too late? That is where the audience is left questioning in the end. Has Cobb returned to reality? Can one distinguish between reality and a dream? Can one awaken a person who dreams that he is awake? Nolan leaves us wondering what is real and true and what is not. Does the spinning top tumble in the end or keep spinning? We may never know…

While this movie is a fun thought experiment, it is not indicative of the world in which we find ourselves. Yes, there are those who would have us believe, as Nolan hints at in this movie, that all expressions of reality that we experience are merely that which our minds produce. The real world, according to these solipsists (for that is what they are called) merely exists in the mind of the thinker and does not exist outside of the mind. To seriously pursue that line of thinking, I believe, would lead a person to madness. To doubt one’s intuitions is to question all of reality as we experience it and that is an endless pursuit downward into the abyss of nihilism.

Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life…” He spoke as if what Francis Schaeffer called “true truth” actually exists and the it was embodied in him. The reality toward which it pointed was the Father, for he said, “No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6) In other words, our pursuit of truth should result in a restored relationship with our Creator, which makes sense. If we want to understand our meaning and purpose, who better to reveal that reality than the one who created us with a purpose in mind.

In the end, Cobb’s pursuit led him back to the relationship with his children (if you believe that, in the end, he was not still caught in a dream state), and that is a good pointer to the ultimate relationship to which we are called, but only a pointer. One of the benefits of human relationships is to point us to a still greater relationship, the relationship with God through Jesus Christ. The Apostle Paul says, “now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.” (1 Cor. 13:12) That is the truth we are called to pursue.





The What and the How

26 07 2010

You are probably looking at the title and asking, “what are you talking about?” Well, this topic came up during a discussion I am involved in on my local college campus. We’ve been discussing the idea of telos for some time now. For those not familiar with the word or the concept, telos means end, purpose or goal. In other words, when the author of the Westminster Shorter Catechism asked the question, “What is the chief end of man?” he was asking, “What is man’s telos or purpose?” The pursuit of meaning has been, I believe, one of the oldest pursuits of man.

So, your asking, what does the title of this blog post have to do with this discussion of telos? Let me explain. The question was asked whether we could tell what a thing was by how it was made. In other words, can we describe a thing, its composition, its features and make up, and determine what it is? Let’s use a hypothetical to try to illustrate. Suppose an alien craft was passing by our planet and something fell off and landed in such a way that it remained completely intact and undamaged. Suppose also that this object was something that we had never seen, made from a material of which we were completely unfamiliar. In other words, it is a completely foreign object to our observers, scientists and philosophers.

Our researchers would take pictures of it, try to determine what it is made from, and try to determine its function. Let’s also suppose that they were able to reduce the material make up to its base elements, all of which were common to the universe, even though the final make up of those elements was unfamiliar (I am supposing that the aliens had some technique to uniquely change the structure of these materials into a unique finished material for the sake of this illustration).

So, we could determine what its make up was, its shape, size and weight, but would that tell us what it was? No, I don’t think so. In essence, we would need to know the intent of the designer to know what it was and what its function was. In other words, we could not determine a “what” from a “how”.

Sometimes, I feel like that is what many are trying to do today. We look at evolutionary theory and theories are constructed as to how some creature developed, or even, some feature of the creature. But, does that description, even if it is valid, determine what that thing is? If we knew nothing else about the feature or the creature, like the foreign object from the alien craft, would merely describing its make up and development determine its telos? I don’t think so. Now, suppose we are the product of purely natural processes, how would we determine our telos, or would we even have a telos? I don’t think that natural processes determine telos. Telos always seems to come from the mind of a designer. Machines obviously don’t think and don’t determine their own purpose.

If we are merely glorified machines, I don’t know why it would be any different for us. In fact, I am not sure what it would mean to determine one’s own purpose and if it could be done, why any purpose, say being an evil dictator, would be any worse or better than determining that you were going to help the poor. After all, given the scenario that one determines his or her own purpose, who could say that the one that he or she chose was wrong.

I don’t see that a how could determine a what. I think that the chief end of man must be determined by the one who designed up and designated our purpose. He has revealed that the chief end of man is to glorify Him and enjoy Him forever.