Sherlock Holmes with magnifying glass - free will, philosophy, existentialism, choiceThe original quote from Sherlock Holmes of course was “It’s elementary, my dear Watson.” I use this play on words to illustrate, like it or not, that the nature of reality which we as human beings face is, at its most fundamental level, existential.

Before writing this, I started by looking up both the definitions of philosophy and existentialism. I found that even a word as common as philosophy has several different connotations depending on the context in which it’s used.

Let’s look at the following definition from the Merriam-Webster dictionary:

Philosophy (n): A theory underlying or regarding a sphere of activity or thought.

Using this definition then, with regard to the sphere of activity or thought that we call “life” or “existence,” existentialism is a theory underlying the way life or human existence works.

Existentialism is a philosophy that I believe has earned a particularly bad rap. The average person considers existentialism to be quite obscure and difficult to understand and possibly even dangerous. It has been said that some of the early exponents of existentialism actually committed suicide. However, when I looked up the definition of existentialism, I found that it was expressing something about human existence that’s really quite basic and fundamental to human existence. You might even say, “It’s elementary.”

Here again, according to Merriam-Webster:

Existentialism (n):  a chiefly 20th century philosophical movement embracing diverse doctrines but centering on analysis of individual existence in an unfathomable universe and the plight of the individual who must assume ultimate responsibility for acts of free will without any certain knowledge of what is right or wrong or good or bad.

There are two parts to this definition to which I want to call your attention. The first part tells us that the universe is unfathomable, and that any certain knowledge of right or wrong or good or bad is beyond our grasp. I can certainly see why human beings would want to reject this assertion. We human beings just love to be right. There’s something satisfying to the ego about having all the right answers. It’s as though we feel that if somehow we have the right answers we are in control. If we can convince others that we have the right answer we can exert power over them. Politicians do this all the time.

This is why I contend that existentialism has gotten such a bad rap. Human beings don’t want to accept that the universe could be unfathomable. And yet if we have the courage to explore this possibility logically, the evidence for it abounds.

Many years ago I came across an anecdotal dialogue between two people in which one person was telling a story. The person listening to the story responded only by making judgments and jumping to conclusions. It went something like this…

Person one: I went on a plane ride.

Person two: That’s good!

Person one: I jumped out of the plane.

Person two: That’s bad!

Person one: No, I had a parachute.

Person two: That’s good!

Person one: No, I forgot my parachute!

Person two: That’s bad!

Person one: No, I landed in a haystack.

Person two: That’s good!

Person one: No, there was a pitchfork in the haystack!

Person two: That’s bad!

Person one: No, I missed the pitchfork.

Person two: That’s good!

This anecdotal dialogue reveals the existential nature of our existence. What the existential philosophy is telling us is that we can never know how the choices that we make or the things we do will ultimately play out. And yet every day we fight battles (wars) with each other, large and small, over what we believe is right and wrong. It’s no wonder existentialism is not popular. Human beings are just not ready to accept the possibility that the ultimate rightness or wrongness of anything is outside the purview of what humans can know.

That great response from Jack Nicholson in the film A Few Good Men comes to mind. “You want the truth? You want the truth? You can’t handle the truth.” Human beings are not ready to face the possibility that there is no ultimate truth. Maybe this is why some of the early existential philosophers supposedly committed suicide. They didn’t have the courage to live in the world where there was no ultimate right or wrong. And the rest of us prefer to live in complete denial of this possibility.

What kind of a world would it be if there were no judgments? Would it be the Garden of Eden? Would it be as it had been before Adam and Eve ate the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil?

The second part of the definition of existential philosophy is the notion that we, as individuals, must assume ultimate responsibility for our acts of free will. No wonder this philosophy is so unpopular. It’s telling us that we cannot blame others under any circumstances for the things that we do. If there were anything that human beings could feel more adamant about than the concept of being right, it would be the concept that when things go so-called wrong it’s not their fault.

Now this is where existentialism really gets interesting. Human beings typically act because they believe in the ultimate rightness or wrongness of their actions. If they believe that an action will produce a particular result and they have judged that result to be the right result, they will proceed with the action. On the other hand if they believe that an action will produce the wrong result, they will refrain from that action and choose another action that they perceive will produce the right result. Under these circumstances if the results that they believe will occur suddenly reverse, then the human being will need to reverse the action he or she takes in response.

absolute right or absolute wrong

Wow, it sounds like we are acting like puppets. We are making the result be responsible for our action. If it occurs to us that the result that will ensue from our action has changed, we then must modify our action accordingly. All this sounds quite logical but a closer look will reveal that it has absolutely nothing to do with exercising free will.

Again, although we insist we’re acting out of free will we’re merely reacting to circumstances as we perceive them. Free will is something quite different, something most human beings have never really exercised before. To illustrate what I mean I’ll use the words of a popular (or not so popular) TV personality that many of us love to hate, Dr. Phil.

On many occasions I’ve heard Dr. Phil point out the difference between making the right decision and making the decision right. At first this sounds like doublespeak. But hidden inside these words is the key to acting out of free will as opposed to acting based on circumstances. Here’s an example:

Let’s say you and your spouse decide to adopt a child. You consider all the circumstances and the possible outcomes, however, there’s information hidden from you that the child may develop a serious mental illness. Had you known this ahead of time you may not have adopted the child. You would logically feel the decision to adopt this child under the circumstances would be wrong and you can find a lot of people that would agree with you because there was a good reason for your decision. Now you can spend a lot of time blaming the adoption agency, yourself or even the child when the mental illness becomes apparent in the teenage years. Or you can exercise free will in the face of all the circumstances, you can choose to “make the decision right” by finding the courage every day to stay in touch with the love you feel for your adopted child.

Now here’s an outrageous suggestion:

Let’s go back to the time the baby was adopted, but this time you’re informed that there’s the possibility that a serious mental illness may develop years later. Out of sheer love, determination and courage, and in the face of all logic and reasons that would bode future failure and hardship, you still decide to adopt the child.

We’re just beginning to touch on the kind of power we have at our disposal as human beings when we truly exercise free will.

by Michael Jenkins

Images: Sherlock investigates with magnifying glass and right-wrong concept via Shutterstock, Inc