Defining what it means to exist as a human being has never been straightforward. Some define the meaning of a human existence as a gift from God, others as a biological product of millions of years of evolution. What ‘being’ is,however, is no easy question. It may be a state, a state of consciousness, a state of bodily function, or a state which is primarily to do with the soul. It may be, though, that being is an action, rather than a state, something is achieved through doing, and may only be attained by a few, rather than many. Anything that exists can be said to have ‘being’, but what human ‘being’ consists of is a hazy concept.
Hegel distinguished between the being of objects and being as human, but concluded that attaining any meaning from ‘being’ is difficult since it lacks a predicate (‘I am’ without a predicate means very little, if anything at all). Being may in fact be just as meaningless a term to us as non-being, even if we exist, because it is so intangible to define it-it is so subjective. Although we have a concept of what non-being might be like, we really have no experience or tangible idea of what it is or what it consists of. Being for humans may be defined as consciousness or sentience, yet this comes with a bundle of moral dilemmas and problems. Being cannot be clearly defined, since being may either something very simple or something very complex, so complex that it is subjective.
What it means ‘to be’ cannot be easily defined, and being without a context may in fact be a meaningless term.
Guy Debord wrote about media and the concept of representation in the Society of the Spectacle, a book which was heavily influenced by the thought of Karl Marx, most particularly the ideas of commodities and fetishism in culture and capitalism. Debord believed that the spectacle had become an integral part of society, and that what one had become more important than who one was. It is no longer about what experiences are, but how they are perceived, particularly by other people. Experience, and thereby existence, has become a commodity, something that is represented and ‘sold’ as something for people to watch. The spectacle is for Debord a ‘wish for sleep’, and, like Marx’s idea of religion, holds people back, numbing them and preventing them from truly living.
There is little doubt that Debord would despair at how the spectacle has developed. Image and representation is more rife than ever in the form of social media, the news, and television. The spectacle has grown immensely, shown since the mediation of images having become so common in people’s relation to each other. He writes ‘this society eliminates geographical distance only to produce a new internal separation’. The emergence of Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat may prove Debord more true than ever. We can through technology reduce our geography from each other, yet we remain separated nevertheless, since all we are seeing is a representation of something or somebody, leaving users in a state of restlessness and dissatisfaction.
Literally a ‘lover of wisdom’, the philosopher can be defined in many ways. Some imagine a philosopher as someone sitting around thinking about abstract concepts which have very little relevance to real life (Marx said that philosophy is to the real world what masturbation is to sex), others may view the philosopher as an antisocial outsider who does not participate in anything public, or as an exclusively academic position. Perhaps the most notable description of what a genuine philosopher is comes from Nietzsche, who wrote that living “as a philosopher” ‘hardly means more than living “prudently and apart”.’ He argues that the genuine philosopher lives “unphilosophically” and “unwisely”-‘he risks himself constantly, he plays the wicked game.’ The wicked game, it seems, is the game of making a judgement, ‘a Yes or No, not about the sciences but about life and the value of life’. The philosopher doubts his ability or even duty to this judgement, but he must seek this right ‘only from the most comprehensive-perhaps most disturbing and destructive-experiences, and frequently hesitates, doubts, and lapses into silence.’ Genuine philosophising involves delving into the darkness of existence, and not only contemplating it, but experiencing it. The Yes or No judgement, perhaps the greatest judgement of all, is incredibly complex and not at all straightforward. The answer is unclear, and may remain elusive for great periods of time, perhaps for one’s whole lifetime, yet only through experience and feeling ‘the burden and the duty of a hundred attempts and temptations of life’ can a person begin to become a true philosopher.
Aquinas’ via negativa is well-known. We cannot say what God is, only what he is not. Aquinas is also notorious for his Five Ways. Aquinas seeks to prove the existence of God, claims to have done so, yet also says that God’s nature cannot be known. This seems to be mistaken, however. If one claims to have knowledge that a being or thing exists, then it necessarily follows that one must also have at least some knowledge about that being or thing’s essence. If you claim that X exists, you must have at least some concept of what X is, otherwise you could not claim that X exists, since knowledge of X’s existence includes a minimum amount of knowledge about what X is. One might say that this is only true for things in the universe (contingent), and that God is an exception (necessary), yet this only makes God even more estranged from the universe, making it seem that a deist belief is as far as one can go before stretching beyond the realms of evidence or logic.
‘Yes, much bitter dying must there be in your lives, you creators!’ Thus Spoke Zarathrustra, Friedrich Nietzsche
Creation is one of the unique things about human existence-without creation existence becomes difficult and tiresome, perhaps even completely pointless. Marxist theory suggests that a life devoid of creation is the reason why people turn to religion. Many jobs involve little or no creation, and Marx believed that this lack of creation leads people to religion as a form of consolation, an idea developed later by Freud. Nietzsche said ‘Creating-that is the great redemption from suffering’. Creation is painful in itself, but through this painful creation there is a salvation from suffering. Nietzsche combats the way which people turn to religion for salvation, and entreats that we should rather create in order to save ourselves. Why, though, must creation involve ‘bitter dying’? Because that which precedes creation is self-destruction. Sacrifice must be had if we want to create. Pain and death, then, can give rise to a redemptive and greater form of life.
This is a question which has been asked for centuries, but is there any definitive answer even now? The most common debate is that of relativism and absolutism, whether there are things which are universally right and wrong at all times for all peoples, making morality objective, or whether everything is relative, either culturally or individually, and therefore subjective.
Morality presupposes freedom. If we are not free, then there is no actual morality, just an idea of what it should be like. There is no doubt that societies cannot function without this idea of freedom, otherwise the judicial system would collapse, since nobody could be blamed for anything, since no actions are made freely. However, just because societies would not be orderly without the concept of freedom and objective morality, this does not necessarily mean that freedom and objective morality are actualities. Free will may just be an illusion, and merely provides a basis for responsibility and a system of justice, as well as our brains tricking ourselves into thinking that we are making choices when really we aren’t.
Again, the objectivity of morality seems somewhat absurd. How does one know what is actually right and actually wrong? The general claim is that morality comes from God, thereby making it objective, but what kind of morality is it that comes from God and how do we find this out? There are so many different interpretations of scripture, and religions differ and oppose each other constantly in moral beliefs, all claiming that their own morality is the divine one. It seems to me impossible to reach past our subjective nature to any objective truth about morality. Even if there was a right answer as to what to do, how would we attain this answer without the trouble of subjective interpretation arising?
Morality keeps society orderly and maintains a system or justice, but this system of justice seems based on a set of subjective principles which are then proposed as objective from a standpoint of power. A moral statement seems to be a preference or opinion put forward as a fact. Yet this solves nothing, and the question of what is right and what is wrong may go forever.
For the past century or so, the question of religious language has caused numerous problems, the biggest being whether talking of God is meaningful or meaningless.
Thomas Aquinas established the via negativa, a way of talking about God which aims not to say what God is, but what God is not. Moreover, the use of analogy is for Aquinas a way of talking about God. He uses the example of a bull to explain analogy of attribution. An expert can tell the health of a bull from its urine, but the health of the bull is not in the urine as such, and is just a reflection of the actual health of the bull. Likewise, the world is a reflection of God, and a reflection of his goodness (problems obviously arise here). The language of symbol is a way of explaining things that cannot otherwise be explained because of their nature as experienced (William James would describe them as ineffable). However, the use of religious language does not seem to get very far, particularly with skeptics or atheists, seeming helpful only to those who believe already.
A.J. Ayer used the verification principle to do away with all religious and moral statements as mere noise and nothing else. The verification principle states that ‘a proposition is only cognitively meaningful if it can be definitively and conclusively determined to be either true or false (i.e. verifiable or falsifiable).’ Moral statements are for Ayer nothing more than an expression of approval or disapproval of something, but add nothing factually to a statement (his theory is known as the ‘boo-hurrah’ theory). Since religious statements cannot be verified, Ayer claims that they are ‘evidently nonsense’.
Ludwig Wittgenstein believed that language is that of a game, and that when we speak we are partaking in a language game. We play many different language games, he argued, with many different people and in many different places. Outside a language game, the language is meaningless, but inside it is meaningful (which begs the questions whether language games is all there is, and if this is so, whether objectively all language is just primitive noise, though Wittgenstein probably would not agree with this). Religious language is another language game, but does that mean that if you are not playing the game the language is meaningless? Perhaps so.
Speaking of God is difficult, regardless of one’s belief. It remains unclear as to the meaning of religious language, and whether it holds any weight at all.
It might seem easier or less trouble or more polite to approach ideas, opinions, and belief systems with sensitivity. It may even seem right to do so. Yet logic is not discrete or caring. Logic is logic. Today’s society is obsessed with accepting other people’s opinions and letting them be. But simply letting people be will get us nowhere resulting in no kind of progression or evolution. Questioning and deliberating is necessary for progress to be made. Questioning is what gets us somewhere, rather than nowhere. Of course, some people ask questions, and some don’t, and some societies work like that, but if no questions were asked at all, then we wouldn’t get anywhere. That is what society today is partaking in-the withdrawal of questioning, the withdrawal of rigorous skepticism.
It is thought that approaching an idea mercilessly and wholly rationally is dangerous, but it is in fact the other way round. If we fail to attack an idea, we will fail to discover what the idea holds and the potential of it, which could lead to a damaging idea growing and developing. It is not dangerous to attack an idea, but it is dangerous both to leave an idea to grow without doubting it, and also to refuse an idea even in the face of proof (whatever that is).
Many of us are asleep. This isn’t stating the obvious, this is stating that even when ‘awake’, many of us are still asleep, not really aware of where we are or what we are doing. We are the products of millions of years of evolution. Millions of years of toil and suffering has produced you and me. Not only that, but our lifespan is completely negligible compared to the time spent evolving before our existence began. If you’re not careful, life will pass you by without you realising, you’ll have wasted years of time, filled with regret, and you’ll be old, near to death. The cessation of life is a reality we all have to face, and it is perhaps the most important of all realities, and perhaps the only one. Yet in spite of all this, we remain where we are, asleep and half-conscious, dazing through life like a zombie-doing, but not really living. Nietzsche had this idea, that life is usually rejected, and rather than striving for greatness, we settle with mediocrity. His idea was to create an Ubermensch, an overman. This target is a target of greatness and of evolution-to make something better of ourselves, parting from ‘herd instinct morality’, and simultaneously becoming life-affirming, in essence-waking up. And once we do wake up, asleep will never appeal again. We just have to fight ourselves if waking up is what we really want.
Everybody says they want to be free. In the west, freedom is a value which is viciously fought for and supported, yet the freedom we talk of so highly is, in practice, not so sought after as it may at first seem. All around us are things which tells us what to think in the form of advertising, telling us that this is what makes you happy, this is what makes you feel free. The feeds of social media are also places of a certain slavery, in which we are told what to think, who to follow and how to think. The television, our phones, our shopping centres, all of these are places proclaiming and heralding false freedom. These are mediums which tell us-‘look here, if you do this, buy this, watch this, you’ll be free and you’ll be happy’. We consequently believe them and gradually we become hooked on these actions, and what we once thought would make us free now holds us down as a slave caught in an addiction. We say we want freedom, but the way we act suggests we desire quite the opposite. Another form of this rejection of freedom seems to be religion, an organization which likewise says that following the religion will lead to some form of happiness and freedom, be it redemption, salvation or satisfaction. The problem with both of these is that they are things outside of ourselves-they are external to us. We make the fundamental mistake of thinking that freedom will come from something out in the world, when in fact genuine freedom comes from the internal-within yourself. It may come in the form of detachment or the recognition of what is in your control and what is not or the way in which you prepare for and deal with loss and suffering, because once we find a fool proof way of dealing with suffering, then true satisfaction can come, and the only way that works effectively at all is in your own mind. I can’t just tell you this. The only way is to discover this for yourself. And why is it that we fear freedom so much? Because of the responsibility it brings, the unknowns it will show, and the fear of becoming lost. Yet, if we prepare ourselves, we can find freedom, within ourselves, and from there recognise that we will not become lost but we will rather find something worthwhile and good.