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The Existential Nihilist?
Kris Notaro   Apr 19, 2012   Ethical Technology  

It’s a simple but very scary concept – that we live in an “Existential Atheistic Nihilist” world and universe. As Mike Treder wrote online “A clear comprehension and acceptance of existential reality, a recognition of ultimate truths – the absurd randomness, pointlessness, and futility of everything – can only be depressing for most of us and typically produces a bleak outlook.”... “This does not mean that existential nihilists, like me, must always be gloomy. We can and do still have fun, still care about others, still try to be good people. But we know, deep down, that it all adds up to nothing, and this leaves a dark hollowness at the center.”

One day, over 5 years ago,  I was walking and looking at the beautiful sky and trees. What we can call “Existential Atheistic Nihilism” hit me hard. When you realize such a concept its like someone punched you in the face, woke you up to the truth, and there is no escaping it forever. The existential “dark hollowness at the center” is something that I have direct experience with while thinking just like Mike did. For months I was engulfed in thinking about dialectical materialism, historical materialism, monism, the absurdity of life, materialism, physicalism, consciousness, and existence.

However I did not become a nihilist because of those concepts.

Instead one finds ways out of “Existential Atheistic Nihilism” or at least around these concepts:

  1. Moral theories presented by Kant, Mill, Simone de Beauvoir, and many others
  2. “Scientific value” of existence and all that exists, especially every living creature
  3. Ethics from nihilism – its basically called Anarchism and Socialism, respectfully
  4. If we do live in an atheistic universe then one should value scientific theory and discovery
  5. Existential angst, dread, and anxiety can be set aside and temporarily replaced with responsibility and rational logical thought about your next actions (assuming one is not mentally ill). Though still anxiety can arise, one can flip a coin, etc to minimize anxiety, dread, and angst when it comes to decision making, in the context of an existential world view
  6. This article, posted on the IEET, should not be afraid of also considering that in the future, egos, consciousnesses and selves will be networked together to feel these feelings collectively. These feelings will result in super computers that will calculate utilitarian calculus for us, destroying nihilism forever. Think about it!
  7. Aesthetics – Subjective or Objective? There is something to be said about the beauty of being a consciousness in the here-and-now to experience life, science, theory, law, and phenomenological reduction. I guess that is my opinion however.


Scientifically, so many of us continue to value things like finding “The Theory of Everything” or a “Grand Unified Theory”. We, also, as the scientific and philosophical community contemplate how we will not fall into the trap of extinction (the extinction of consciousness/mind/brain that is) by thinking very hard about catastrophic risks to our environment/world and to our solar system. We think of ways to keep going, to keep existence and experience thriving throughout the world for decades, and in some cases centuries to come. Why would we do this if we are true nihilists? It would make no sense.

Politically, its only rational to consider Socialism and Anarchism as the main political theory which leads to the most freedom and happiness for the greatest amount of people. Yes, we know what makes up happiness inside the brain, we know its just chemicals and electricity, but reductionism does not have to lead to a grim outlook on political theories that would make the most people happy. Instead lets think of these political theories as Emergent properties of consciousness instead of reducing them down to their atoms, waves, nano-properties and Calabi–Yau manifolds.

“The problem with a theory that posits some inbuilt drive (that is, the “drive to pleasure” or “tension reduction”) is that it is ultimately and devastatingly reductionistic. In this view [the human] is “nothing but…” (and here may follow any of an infinite array of formulas). Frankl’s favorite is: “Man is nothing but a complex biochemical mechanism powered by a combustion system which energizes computers with prodigious storage facilities for retaining encoded information” Correspondingly, love, or altruism, or the search for truth, or beauty, is “nothing but” the expression of one or the other of the basic drives in duality theory. From this reductionistic point of view, as Frankl points out, “all cultural creations of humanity become actually by-products of the drive for personal satisfaction.”(1)

It’s amazing what consciousness is able to produce, and without it, we would not be able to live together to think of the best ways in which a society should be run. Society, scientific inquiry, and family and friends…. Are they enough?

The Other is an important existentialist concept. For Simone de Beauvoir and John Macmurray the freedom of the Other is essential.  They both sway away from the idea that governments or people in power have the right to enforce very strict laws on others. de Beauvoir goes as far as to expose the tyranny of serious revolutions where people take away the freedom of other people in hopes of winning that revolution. The state or government does not act as a community, but a collective of a select few who take their ideas seriously enough to enforce it on everyone else.  Some revolutions have been controlled by the people, but many have ended up splitting the very community they tried to build, for example as in Russia where millions of non-revolutionaries were murdered.  “The organic conception of the human, as a practical ideal, is what we now call the totalitarian state.”  The individual cannot be looked at like a gear in a machine, or a predictable economic unit confined to laws of any revolution where the outcome of that revolution only change the connections, or order of the gears, but treat it in the same organic way.  To be free, to respect the freedom of others, and to have faith in community but not law, is to break away from the organic theory modal of the individual and community.

The Ethics of Ambiguity by Simone de Beauvoir is a very articulate and eloquent example of how we can have an existential world view while denying the Serious and an appreciation of the freedom of the Other. However, in having an appreciation of the Other de Beauvoir writes “To want existence, to want to disclose the world and to want [people] to be free are one and the same will” She goes on to say:

“Thus, we see that no existence can be validly fulfilled if it is limited to itself. It appeals to the existence of others. The idea of such a dependence is frightening, and the separation and multiplicity of existants raises highly disturbing problems. One can understand that men who are aware of the risks and the inevitable element of failure involved in any engagement in the world attempt to fulfill themselves outside of the world. Man is permitted to separate himself from this world by contemplation, to think about it, to create it anew. Some men, instead of building their existence upon the indefinite unfolding of time, propose to assert it in its eternal aspect and to achieve it as an absolute. They hope, thereby, to surmount the ambiguity of their condition.” … “We have seen that the serious contradicts itself by the fact that not everything can be taken seriously. It slips into a partial nihilism. But nihilism is unstable. It tends to return to the positive. Critical thought attempts to militate everywhere against all aspects of the serious but without foundering in the anguish of pure negation. It sets up a superior, universal, and timeless value, objective truth. And, correlatively, the critic defines himself positively as the independence of the mind. Crystallizing the negative movement of the criticism of values into a positive reality, he also crystallizes the negativity proper to all mind into a positive presence. Thus, he thinks that he himself escapes all earthly criticism. He does not have to choose between the highway and the native, between America and Russia, between production and freedom. He understands, dominates, and rejects, in the name of total truth, the necessarily partial truths which every human engagement discloses. But ambiguity is at the heart of his very attitude, for the independent man is still a man with his particular situation in the world, and what he defines as objective truth is the object of his own choice. His criticisms fall into the world of particular men. He docs not merely describe. He takes sides. If he does not assume the subjectivity of his judgment, he is inevitably caught in the trap of the serious. Instead of the independent mind he claims to be, he is only the shameful servant of a cause to which he has not chosen to rally.” (2)

Without consciousness utilizing emergentism (a concept outside of existentialism) to come up with “the absurd randomness, pointlessness, and futility of everything”, consciousness can utilize emergentism in great ways to both discover new things about the universe, put emphasis on scientific discovery, and to calm the mind down a bit from reductionism’s “absurdity”. Emergentism is also somewhat unpredictable – new exciting properties can arise in complex systems. One then feels a connection with other human beings (which are in reality complex emergent systems), the Other, and invites themselves into the game of life called society – striving for existential freedom for everyone.

I just might enjoy moments when my consciousness apathetically, absurdly, and nihilistically embraces the concept that nothing is explained or understood but that does not mean we don’t live in a kind of beautiful existence. A reason to keep willing oneself towards some kind of goal like increasing the freedom and happiness of the Other is enough, at least for me, to wash away any feelings of apathy and nihilism.

To further explain this concept, first I realize my surroundings are as “beautiful” as can be.  Second my consciousness embraces and then tries to integrate apathy and nihilism into the overall aesthetic experience that is being processed.  Third, I easily allow my brain to process data in such a way as to allow aesthetics to bring on a feeling of happiness and joy that I can live freely and live life for the freedom of the Other while experiencing my own subjective aesthetic, scientific, phenomenological beauty.

In the Ethics of Ambiguity, the adventurer-like person is one who is really free when they respect the freedom of others – according to de Beauvoir.  This is because they are living in an undefined, ambiguous reality where the anti-nihilist adventurer is not claiming to have all the answers on how to live but a sense of understanding that he/she must respect the freedom of others in order to be free themselves.  The adventurer (nihilist) however may use people as means and ends in their nihilist and ambiguous reality, therefore not respecting the freedom of others.  Macmurray’s conception of the free human being is similar in that the person who respects the personhood of others is living in a philosophical ethical way. de Beauvoir declares that if the adventurer respects others freedom in their explorations, then they have ceased to be an adventurer per se and become what she calls a “genuinely free person.”

I was going to end this article with a quote from either Richard Feynman’s The Meaning of it All, Chomsky’s The Responsibility of Intellectuals, or Lucretius’ On the Nature of the Universe – for the aesthetics and poetry of life is still going on – leading us always away from Existential Nihilism.

Instead I will end this article with a quote from Postmodernism For Beginners on the Enlightenment: “Reject religious authority! Down with old things like metaphysics, ignorance, superstition, intolerance and parochialism! Let the rational faculties of the mind, wedded to science, advance knowledge to ever expanding vistas! Let reason unlock the laws of nature and usher in an optimistic age! Let the practical discoveries of science allow men and women to get on with the proper business of seeking happiness! And happiness means political freedom! Let the happiness of humanity on earth mean the liberty – the liberation of humanity! All this means progress! Let science and reason bring progress and freedom!”


(1) Yalom, I. D. Existential psychotherapy. Basic Books (AZ), 1980. Print.

Feynman, Richard. The Meaning of It All: Thoughts of a Citizen Scientist. Perseus Publishing, 1999. Print.

Powell, Jim. Postmodernism For Beginners. New York: Writers & Readers, 1998. Print.

Lucretius On the Nature of the Universe. London, England: Penguin Group, 2005. Print.

(2) De Beauvoir, Simone. The Ethics of Ambiguity. Trans. Bernard Frechtman.
Citadel Press, New York. 1948, 1976.

Macmurray John. Persons in Relation. Humanity Books, Amherst, New York. 1961.

Existentialism, Robert C. Solomon, Oxford University Press, 2005

Kris Notaro served as Managing Director of the IEET from 2012 to 2015. He is currently an IEET Rights of the Person Program Director. He earned his BS in Philosophy from Charter Oak State College in Connecticut. He is currently the Bertrand Russell Society’s Vice-President for Website Technology. He has worked with the Bertrand Russell A/V Project at Central Connecticut State University, producing multimedia materials related to philosophy and ethics for classroom use. His major passions are in the technological advances in the areas of neuroscience, consciousness, brain, and mind.


Nice article.

I have written here previously about my own two-stage “existential atheist nihilist” experience. The first time it scared me enough for me to stop thinking an out it; the second time I realised that it was, literally, nothing to be scared of, and the only reason to stop thinking about it was that to do so seemed rather pointless. And it was then that I realised that if I did stop thinking then some new motivation would emerged. Since then the existential atheist (and above all subjectivist, as far as aesthetics and its subdiscipline ethics is concerned) part has stayed with me, but the nihilist part visits only at the bleakest or (especially) tired-est of moments. I don’t have Mike’s sense of a “dark hollowness of the center”, especially since I’ve reduced my tendency to repress my dreams. I hope Mike is also finding a way to fill the void.

Perhaps the most important point to bear in mind in this context is that the idea that life shoild be “meaningful” is itself a cultural meme. I doubt that our stone age ancestors thought of their life as “meaningful”. Apart from anything else they wouldn’t have had words to express such a concept. My guess is that they pretty much got on with it. Of course they imagined all sorts of gods and imperatives that gave them the sense that we now tend to associate with the word “meaning”, but I think that was just the creative mind at work, rather than a strategy for “filling the void”. It is when we have been surrounded,, from early age, by suggestions that life is or should be meaningful, and then we realise that those ideas have been built on sand, that we start to anxious.

Or simply we are anxious or depressed by nature, or because of other factors, and we come to associate those feelings with our lack of theistic or teleological beliefs, especially when we see people around us drawing comfort from them or have ourselves done so in thenpast. In my experience separating the feeling from the thought is a key part of the healing process. That, and understanding that it is possible to be fully committed to a set of values without needing to regard them as “true” in an objective sense (or insisting that everyone else share the same ones).

I just don’t find these positions to be as logical as their proponents claim they are.

Panpsychism, fractal cosmology, pancomputationalism, simulism, and the holographic paradigm make far more sense.

Materialism, and empiricism, have some pretty extreme logical limits.

Using the methods of science and empiricism - empirical demonstrability - for example, one is led to the conclusion that any part of reality cannot be demonstrated to be independent from awareness. It’s logically impossible to do so.

That doesn’t mean that there isn’t a reality independent from awareness, but that it is logically impossible to demonstrate.

This would make solipsism in some form more logical than materialism.

But I digress.

I write, because I’m curious why so many people actually find these perspectives (nihilism, materialism, atheism, etc.) more logical than an essentially panpsychist (or panprotoexperientialist) perspective?

Is it a matter of naivete? Have so few people had the time to actually pore over the arguments of all these positions?

THE ETHICS OF AMBIGUITY (out of print, can now be put on the web for
Simone de Beauvoir
translated from the French by BERNARD FRECHTMAN



I Ambiguity and Freedom 7
II Personal Freedom and Others 35

III The Positive Aspect of Ambiguity 74

  The Aesthetic Attitude 74
  Freedom and Liberation 78
  The Antinomies of Action 96
  The Present and the Future 115
  Ambiguity 129

Conclusion 156
Index 160

“Life in itself is neither good nor evil. It is the place of good and evil, according to what you make it.” MONTAIGNE.

I. Ambiguity and Freedom

THE continuos work of our life,” says Montaigne, “is to build death.” He quotes the Latin poets: Prima, quae vitam dedit, hora corpsit. And again: Nascentes morimur. Man knows and thinks this tragic ambivalence which the animal and the plant merely undergo. A new paradox is thereby introduced into his destiny. “Rational animal,” “thinking reed,” he escapes from his natural condition without, however, freeing himself from it. He is still a part of this world of which he is a consciousness. He asserts himself as a pure internality against which no external power’ can take hold, and he also experiences himself as a thing crushed by the dark weight of other things. At every moment he can grasp the non-temporal truth of his existence. But between the past which no longer is and the future which is not yet, this moment when he exists is nothing. This privilege, which he alone possesses, of being a sovereign and unique subject amidst a universe of objects, is what he shares with all his fellow-men. In turn an object for others, he is nothing more than an individual in the collectivity on which he depends.

As long as there have been men and they have lived, they have all felt this tragic ambiguity of their condition, but as long as there have been philosophers and they have thought, most of them have tried to mask it. They have striven to reduce mind to matter, or to reabsorb matter into mind, or to merge them within a single substance.

Those who have accepted the dualism have established a hierarchy between body and soul which permits of considering as negligible the part of the self which cannot be saved. They have denied death, either by integrating it with life or by promising to man immortality. Or, again they have denied life, considering it as a veil of illusion beneath which is hidden the truth of Nirvana.

And the ethics which they have proposed to their disciples has always pursued the same goal. It has been a matter of eliminating the ambiguity by making oneself pure inwardness or pure externality, by escaping from the sensible world or by being engulfed in it, by yielding to eternity or enclosing oneself in the pure moment. Hegel, with more ingenuity, tried to reject none of the aspects of man’s condition and to reconcile them all. According to his system, the moment is preserved in the development of time; Nature asserts itself in the face of Spirit which denies it while assuming it; the individual is again found in the collectivity within which he is lost; and each man’s death is fulfilled by being canceled out into the Life of Mankind. One can thus repose in a marvelous optimism where even the bloody wars simply express the fertile restlessness of the Spirit.

At the present time there still exist many doctrines which choose to leave in the shadow certain troubling aspects of a too complex situation. But their attempt to lie to us is in vain. Cowardice doesn’t pay. Those reasonable metaphysics, those consoling ethics with which they would like to entice us only accentuate the disorder from which we suffer. Men of today seem to feel more acutely than ever the paradox of their condition. They know themselves to be the supreme end to which all action should be subordinated, but the exigencies of action force them to treat one another as instruments or obstacles, as means. The more widespread their mastery of the world, the more they find themselves crushed by uncontrollable forces. Though they are masters of the atomic bomb, yet it is created only to destroy them. Each one has the incomparable taste in his mouth of his own life, and yet each feels himself more insignificant than an insect within the immense collectivity whose limits are one with the earth’s. Perhaps in no other age have they manifested their grandeur more brilliantly, and in no other age has this grandeur been so horribly flouted. In spite of so many stubborn lies, at every moment, at every opportunity, the truth comes to light, the truth of life and death, of my solitude and my bond with the world, of my freedom and my servitude, of the insignificance and the sovereign importance of each man and all men. There was Stalingrad and there was Buchenwald, and neither of the two wipes out the other. Since we do not succeed in fleeing it, let us therefore try to look the truth in the face. Let us try to assume our fundamental ambiguity. It is in the knowledge of the genuine conditions of our life that we must draw our strength to live and our reason for acting.

From the very beginning, existentialism defined itself as a philosophy of ambiguity. It was by affirming the irreducible character of ambiguity that Kierkegaard opposed himself to Hegel, and it is by ambiguity that, in our own generation, Sartre, in Being and Nothingness, fundamentally defined man, that being whose being is not to be, that subjectivity which realizes itself only as a presence in the world, that engaged freedom, that surging of the for-oneself which is immediately given for others. But it is also claimed that existentialism is a philosophy of the absurd and of despair. It encloses man in a sterile anguish, in an empty subjectivity. It is incapable of furnishing him with any principle for making choices. Let him do as he pleases. In any case, the game is lost. Does not Sartre declare, in effect, that man is a “useless passion,” that he tries in vain to realize the synthesis of the for-oneself and the in-oneself, to make himself God? It is true. But it is also true that the most optimistic ethics have all begun by emphasizing the element of failure involved in the condition of man; without failure, no ethics; for a being who, from the very start, would be an exact co-incidence with himself, in a perfect plenitude, the notion of having-to-be would have no meaning. One does not offer an ethics to a God. It is impossible to propose any to man if one defines him as nature, as something given. The so-called psychological or empirical ethics manage to establish themselves only by introducing surreptitiously some flaw within the manthing which they have first defined. Hegel tells us in the last part of The Phenomenology of Mind that moral consciousness can exist only to the extent that there is disagreement between nature and morality. It would disappear if the ethical law became the natural law. To such an extent that by a paradoxical “displacement,” if moral action is the absolute goal, the absolute goal is also that moral action may not be present. This means that there can be a having-to-be only for a being who, according to the existentialist definition, questions himself in his being, a being who is at a distance from himself and who has to be his being.

Well and good. But it is still necessary for the failure to be surmounted, and existentialist ontology does not allow this hope. Man’s passion is useless; he has no means for becoming tile being that he is not. That too is true. And it is also true that in Being and Nothingness Sartre has insisted above all on the abortive aspect of the human adventure. It is only in the last pages that he opens up the perspective for an ethics. However, if we reflect upon his descriptions of existence, we perceive that they are far from condemning man without recourse.

The failure described in Being and Nothingness is definitive, but it is also ambiguous. Man, Sartre tells us, is “a being who makes himself a lack of being in order that there might be being.” That means, first of all, that his passion is not inflicted upon him from without. He chooses it. It is his very being and, as such, does not imply the idea of unhappiness. If this choice is considered as useless, it is because there exists no absolute value before the passion of man, outside of it, in relation to which one might distinguish the useless from the useful. The word “useful” has not yet received a meaning on the level of description where Being and Nothingness is situated. It can be defined only in the human world established by man’s projects and the ends he sets up. In the original helplessness from which man surges up, nothing is useful, nothing is useless. It must therefore be understood that the passion to which man has acquiesced finds no external justification. No outside appeal, no objective necessity permits of its being called useful. It has no reason to will itself. But this does not mean that it can not justify itself, that it can not give itself reasons for being that it does not have. And indeed Sartre tells us that man makes himself this lack of being in order that there might be being. The term in order that clearly indicates an intentionality. It is not in vain that man nullifies being. Thanks to him, being is disclosed and he desires this disclosure. There is an original type of attachment to being which is not the relationship “wanting to be” but rather wanting to disclose being.” Now, here there is not failure, but rather success. This end, which man proposes to himself by making himself lack of being, is, in effect, realized by him. By uprooting himself from the world, man makes himself present to the world and makes the world present to him. I should like to be the landscape which I am contemplating, I should like this sky, this quiet water to think themselves within me, that it might be I whom they express in flesh and bone, and I remain at a distance. But it is also by this distance that the sky and the water exist before me. My contemplation is an excruciation only because it is also a joy. I can not appropriate the snow field where I slide. It remains foreign, forbidden, but I take delight in this very effort toward an impossible possession. I experience it as a triumph, not as a defeat. This means that man, in his vain attempt to be God, makes himself exist as man, and if he is satisfied with this existence, he coincides exactly with himself. It is not granted him to exist without tending toward this being which he will never be. But it is possible for him to want this tension even with the failure which it involves. His being is lack of being, but this lack has a way of being which is precisely existence. In Hegelian terms it might be said that we have here a negation of the negation by which the positive is re-established. Man makes himself a lack, but he can deny the lack as lack and affirm himself as a positive existence. He then assumes the failure. And the condemned action, insofar as it is an effort to be, finds its validity insofar as it is a manifestation of existence. However, rather than being a Hegelian act of surpassing, it is a matter of a conversion. For in Hegel the surpassed terms are preserved only as abstract moments, whereas we consider that existence still remains a negativity in the positive affirmation of itself. And it does not appear, in its turn, as the term of a further synthesis. The failure is not surpassed, but assumed. Existence asserts itself as an absolute which must seek its justification within itself and not suppress itself, even though it may be lost by preserving itself. To attain his truth, man must not attempt to dispel the ambiguity of his being but, on the contrary, accept the task of realizing it. He rejoins himself only to the extent that he agrees to remain at a distance from himself. This conversion is sharply distinguished from the Stoic conversion in that it does not claim to oppose to the sensible universe a formal freedom which is without content. To exist genuinely is not to deny this spontaneous movement of my transcendence, but only to refuse to lose myself in it. Existentialist conversion should rather be compared to Husserlian reduction: let man put his will to be “in parentheses” and he will thereby be brought to the consciousness of his true condition. And just as phenomenological reduction prevents the errors of dogmatism by suspending all affirmation concerning the mode of reality of the external world, whose flesh and bone presence the reduction does not, however, contest, so existentialist conversion does not suppress my instincts, desires, plans, and passions. It merely prevents any possibility of failure by refusing to set up as absolutes the ends toward which my transcendence thrusts itself, and by considering them in their connection with the freedom which projects them.

The first implication of such an attitude is that the genuine man will not agree to recognize any foreign absolute. When a man projects into an ideal heaven that impossible synthesis of the for-itself and the in-itself that is called God, it is because he wishes the regard of this existing Being to change his existence into being; but if he agrees not to be in order to exist genuinely, he will abandon the dream of an inhuman objectivity. He will understand that it is not a matter of being right in the eyes of a God, but of being right in his own eyes. Renouncing the thought of seeking the guarantee for his existence outside of himself, he will also refuse to believe in unconditioned values which would set themselves up athwart his freedom like things. Value is this lacking-being of which freedom makes itself a lack; and it is because the latter makes itself a lack that value appears. It is desire which creates the desirable, and the project which sets up the end. It is human existence which makes values spring up in the world on the basis of which it win be able to judge the enterprise in which it will be engaged. But first it locates itself beyond any pessimism, as beyond any optimism, for the fact of its original springing forth is a pure contingency. Before existence there is no more reason to exist than not to exist. The lack of existence can not be evaluated since it is the fact on the basis of which all evaluation is defined. It can not be compared to anything for there is nothing outside of it to serve as a term of comparison. This rejection of any extrinsic justification also confirm the rejection of an original pessimism which we posited at the beginning. Since it is unjustifiable from without, to declare from without that it is unjustifiable is not to condemn it. And the truth is that outside of existence there is nobody. Man exists. For him it is not a question of wondering whether his presence in the world is useful, whether life is worth the trouble of being lived. These questions make no sense. It is a matter of knowing whether he wants to live and under what conditions.

But if man is free to define for himself the conditions of a life which is valid in his own eyes, can he not choose whatever he likes and act however he likes? Dostoevsky asserted, “If God does not exist, everything is permitted.” Today’s believers use this formula for their own advantage. To re-establish man at the heart of his destiny is, they claim, to repudiate all ethics. However, far from God’s absence authorizing all license, the contrary is the case, because man is abandoned on the earth, because his acts are definitive, absolute engagements. He bears the responsibility for a world which is not the work of a strange power, but of himself, where his defeats are inscribed, and his victories as well. A God can pardon, efface, and compensate. But if God does not exist, man’s faults are inexpiable. If it is claimed that, whatever the case may be, this earthly stake has no importance, this is precisely because one invokes that inhuman objectivity which we declined at the start. One can not start by saying that our earthly destiny has or has not importance, for it depends upon us to give it importance. It is up to man to make it important to be a man, and he alone can feel his success or failure. And if it is again said that nothing forces him to try to justify his being in this way, then one is playing upon the notion of freedom in a dishonest way. The believer is also free to sin. The divine law is imposed upon him only from the moment he decides to save his soul. In the Christian religion, though one speaks very little about them today, there are also the damned. Thus, on the earthly plane, a life which does not seek to ground itself will be a pure contingency. But it is permitted to wish to give itself a meaning and a truth, and it then meets rigorous demands within its own heart.

However, even among the proponents of secular ethics, there are many who charge existentialism with offering no objective content to the moral act. It is said that this philosophy is subjective, even solipsistic. If he is once enclosed within himself, how can man get out? But there too we have a great deal of dishonesty. It is rather well known that the fact of being a subject is a universal fact and that the Cartesian cogito expresses both the most individual experience and the most objective truth. By affirming that the source of all values resides in the freedom of man, existentialism merely carries on the tradition of Kant, Fichte, and Hegel, who, in the words of Hegel himself, “have taken for their point of departure the principle according to which the essence of right and duty and the essence of the thinking and willing subject are absolutely identical.” The idea that defines all humanism is that the world is not a given world, foreign to man, one to which he has to force himself to yield without. It is the world willed by man, insofar as his will expresses his genuine reality.

Some will answer, All well and good. But Kant escapes solipsism because for him genuine reality is the human person insofar as it transcends its empirical embodiment and chooses to be universal.” And doubtless Hegel asserted that the “right of individuals to their particularity is equally contained in ethical substantiality, since particularity is the extreme, phenomenal modality in which moral reality exists (Philosophy of Right, § 154).” But for him particularity appears only as a moment of the totality in which it must surpass itself. Whereas for existentialism, it is not impersonal universal man who is the source of values, but the plurality of concrete ’ particular men projecting themselves toward their ends on the basis of situations whose particularity is as radical and as irreducible as subjectivity itself. How could men, originally separated, get together?

And, indeed, we are coming to the real situation of the problem. But to state it is not to demonstrate that it can not be resolved. On the contrary, we must here again invoke the notion of Hegelian “displacement.” There is an ethics only if there is a problem to solve. And it can be said, by inverting the preceding line of argument, that the ethics which have given solutions by effacing the fact of the separation of men are not valid precisely because there is this separation. An ethics of ambiguity will be one which will refuse to deny a priori that separate existants can, at the same time, be bound to each other, that their individual freedoms can forge laws valid for all.

Before undertaking the quest for a solution, it is interesting to note that the notion of situation and the recognition of separation which it implies are not peculiar to existentialism. We also meet it in Marxism which, from one point of view, can be considered as an apotheosis of subjectivity. Like all radical humanism, Marxism rejects the idea of an inhuman objectivity and locates itself in the tradition of Kant and Hegel. Unlike the old kind of utopian socialism which confronted earthly order with the archetypes of justice, Order, and Good, Marx does not consider that certain human situations are, in themselves and absolutely, preferable to others. It is the needs of people, the revolt of a class, which define aims and goals. It is from within a rejected situation, in the light of this rejection, that a new state appears as desirable; only the will of men decides; and it is on the basis of a certain individual act of rooting itself in the historical and economic world that this will thrusts itself, toward the future and then chooses a perspective where such words as goal, progress, efficacy, success, failure, action, adversaries, instruments, and obstacles, have a meaning. Then certain acts can be regarded as good and others as bad.

In order for the universe of revolutionary values to arise, a subjective movement must create them in revolt and hope. And this movement appears so essential to Marxists that if an intellectual or a bourgeois also claims to want revolution, they distrust him. They think that it is only from the outside, by abstract recognition, that the bourgeois intellectual can adhere to these values which he himself has not set up. Regardless of what he does, his situation makes it impossible for the ends pursued by proletarians to be absolutely his ends too, since it is not the very impulse of his life which has begotten them.

However, in Marxism, if it is true that the goal and the meaning of action are defined by human wills, these wills do not appear as free. They are the reflection of objective conditions by which the situation of the class or the people under consideration is defined. In the present moment of the development of capitalism, the proletariat can not help wanting its elimination as a class. Subjectivity is re-absorbed into the objectivity of the given world. Revolt, need, hope, rejection, and desire are only the resultants of external forces. The psychology of behavior endeavors to explain this alchemy.

It is known that that is the essential point on which existentialist ontology is opposed to dialectical materialism. We think that the meaning of the situation does not impose itself on the consciousness of a passive subject, that it surges up only by the disclosure which a free subject effects in his project. It appears evident to us that in order to adhere to Marxism, to enroll in a party, and in one rather than another, to be actively attached to it, even a Marxist needs a decision whose source is only in himself. And this autonomy is not the privilege (or the defect) of the intellectual or- the bourgeois. The proletariat, taken as a whole, as a class, can become conscious of its situation in more than one way. It can want the revolution to be brought about by one party or another. It can let itself be lured on, as happened to the German proletariat, or can sleep in the dull comfort which capitalism grants it, as does the American proletariat. It may be said that in all these cases it is betraying; still, it must be free to betray. Or, if one pretends to distinguish the real proletariat from a treacherous proletariat, or a misguided or unconscious or mystified one, then it is no longer a flesh and blood proletariat that one is dealing with, but the idea of a proletariat, one of those ideas which Marx ridiculed.

Besides, in practice, Marxism does not always deny freedom. The very notion of action would lose all meaning if history were a mechanical unrolling in which man appears only as a passive conductor of outside forces. By acting, as also by preaching action, the Marxist revolutionary asserts himself as a veritable agent; he assumes himself to be free. And it is even curious to note that most Marxists of today - unlike Marx himself - feel no repugnance at the edifying dullness of moralizing speeches. They do not limit themselves to finding fault with their adversaries in the name of historical realism. When they tax them with cowardice, lying, selfishness, and venality, they very well mean to condemn them in the name of a moralism superior to history. Likewise, in the eulogies which they bestow upon each other they exalt the eternal virtues, courage, abnegation, lucidity, integrity. It may be said that all these words are used for propagandistic purposes, that it is only a matter of expedient language. But this is to admit that this language is heard, that it awakens an echo in the hearts of those to whom it is addressed. Now, neither scorn nor esteem would have any meaning if one regarded the acts of a man as a purely mechanical resultant. In order for men to become indignant or to admire, they must be conscious of their own freedom and the freedom of others. Thus, everything occurs within each man and in the collective tactics as if men were free. But then what revelation can a coherent humanism hope to oppose to the testimony which man brings to bear upon himself? So Marxists often find themselves having to confirm this belief in freedom, even if they have to reconcile it with determination as well as they can.

However, while this concession is wrested from them by the very practice of action, it is in the name of action that they attempt to condemn a philosophy of freedom. They declare authoritatively that the existence of freedom would make any concerted enterprise impossible. According to them, if the individual were not constrained by the external world to want this rather than that, there would be nothing to defend him against his whims. Here, in different language, we again meet the charge formulated by the respectful believer of supernatural imperatives. In the eyes of the Marxist, as of the Christian, it seems that to act freely is to give up justify one’s acts. This is a curious reversal of the Kantian “you must; therefore you can,” Kant postulates freedom in the name of morality. The Marxist, on the contrary, declares, “You must; therefore, you can not.” To him a man’s action seems valid only if the man has not helped set it going by an internal movement. To admit the ontological possibility of a choice is already to betray the Cause. Does this mean that the revolutionary attitude in any way gives up being a moral attitude? It would be logical, since we observed with Hegel that it is only insofar as the choice is not realized at first that it can be set up as a moral choice. But here again Marxist thought hesitates. It sneers at idealistic ethics which do not bite into the world; but its scoffing signifies that there can be no ethics outside of action, not that action lowers itself to the level of a simple natural process. It is quite evident that the revolutionary enterprise has a human meaning. Lenin’s remark, which says, in substance, “I call any action useful to the party moral action; I call it immoral if it is harmful to the party,” cuts two ways. On the one hand, he refuses to accept outdated values, but he also sees in political operation a total manifestation of man as having-to-be at the same time as being. Lenin refuses to set up ethics abstractly because he means to realize it effectively. And yet a moral idea is present in the words, writings, and acts of Marxists. It is contradictory, then, to reject with horror the moment of choice which is precisely the moment when spirit passes into nature, the moment of the concrete fulfillment of man and morality.

As for us, whatever the case may be, we believe in freedom. Is it true that this belief must lead us to despair? Must we grant this curious paradox: that from the moment a man recognizes himself as free, he is prohibited from wishing for anything?

On the contrary, it appears to us that by turning toward this freedom we are going to discover a principle of action whose range will be universal. The characteristic feature of all ethics is to consider human life as a game that can be won or lost and to teach man the means of winning. Now, we have seen that the original scheme of man is ambiguous: he wants to be, and to the extent that he coincides with this wish, he fails. All the plans in which this will to be is actualized are condemned; arid the ends circumscribed by these plans remain mirages. Human transcendence is vainly engulfed in those miscarried attempts. But man also wills himself to be a disclosure of being, and if he coincides with this wish, he wins, for the fact is that the world becomes present by his presence in it. But the disclosure implies a perpetual tension to keep being at a certain distance, to tear one self from the world, and to assert oneself as a freedom. To wish for the disclosure of the world and to assert oneself as freedom are one and the same movement. Freedom is the source from which all significations and all values spring. It is the original condition of all justification of existence. The man who seeks to justify his life must want freedom itself absolutely and above everything else. At the same time that it requires the realization of concrete ends, of particular projects, it requires itself universally. It is not a ready-made value which offers itself from the outside to my abstract adherence, but it appears (not on the plane of facility, but on the moral plane) as a cause of itself. It is necessarily summoned up by the values which it sets up and through which it sets itself up. It can not establish a denial of itself, for in denying itself, it would deny the possibility of any foundation. To will oneself moral and to will oneself free are one and the same decision.

It seems that the Hegelian notion of “displacement” which we relied on a little while ago is now turning against us. There is ethics only if ethical action is not present. Now, Sartre declares that every man is free, that there is no way of his not being free. When he wants to escape his destiny, he is still freely fleeing it. Does not this presence of a so to speak natural freedom contradict the notion of ethical freedom? What meaning can there be in the words to will oneself free, since at the beginning we are free? It is contradictory to set freedom up as something conquered if at first it is something given.

This objection would mean something only if freedom were a thing or a quality naturally attached to a thing. Then, in effect, one would either have it or not have it. But the fact is that it merges with the very movement of this ambiguous reality which is called existence and which is only by making itself be; to such an extent that it is precisely only by having to be conquered that it gives itself. To will oneself free is to effect the transition from nature to morality by establishing a genuine freedom on the original upsurge of our existence.

Every man is originally free, in the sense that he spontaneously casts himself into the world. But if we consider this spontaneity in its facticity, it appears to us only as a pure contingency, an upsurging as stupid as the clinamen of the Epicurean atom which turned up at any moment whatsoever from any direction whatsoever. And it was quite necessary for the atom to arrive somewhere. But its movement was not justified by this result which had not been chosen. It remained absurd. Thus, human spontaneity always projects itself toward something. The psychoanalyst discovers a meaning even in abortive acts and attacks of hysteria. But in order for this meaning to justify the transcendence which discloses it, it must itself be founded, which it will never be if I do not choose to found it myself. Now, I can evade this choice. We have said that it would be contradictory deliberately to will oneself not free. But one can choose not to will himself free. In laziness, heedlessness, capriciousness, cowardice, impatience, one contests the meaning of the project at the very moment that one defines it. The spontaneity of -the subject is then merely a vain living palpitation, its movement toward the object is a flight, and itself is an absence. To convert the absence into presence, to convert my flight into will, I must assume my project positively. It is not a matter of retiring into the completely inner and, moreover, abstract movement of a given spontaneity, but of adhering to the concrete and particular movement by which this spontaneity defines itself by thrusting itself toward an end. It is through this end that it sets up that my spontaneity confirms itself by reflecting upon itself. Then, by a single movement, my will, establishing the content of the act, is legitimized by it. I realize my escape toward the other as a freedom when, assuming the presence of the object, I thereby assume myself before it as a presence. But this justification requires a constant tension. My project is never founded; it founds itself. To avoid the anguish of this permanent choice, one may attempt to flee into the object itself, to engulf one’s own presence in it. In the servitude of the serious, the original spontaneity strives to deny itself. It strives in vain, and meanwhile it then fails to fulfill itself as moral freedom.

We have just described only the subjective and formal aspect of this freedom. But we also ought to ask ourselves whether one can will oneself free in any matter, whatsoever it may be. It must first be observed that this will is developed in the course of time. It is in time that the goal is pursued and that freedom confirms itself. And this assumes that it is realized as a unity in the unfolding of time. One escapes the absurdity of the clinamen only by escaping the absurdity of the pure moment. An exist ence would be unable to found itself if moment by moment it crumbled into nothingness. That is why no moral question presents itself to the child as long as he is still incapable of recognizing himself in the past or seeing himself in the future. It is only when the moments of his life begin to be organized into behaviour that he can decide and choose. The value of the chosen end is confinned and, reciprocally, the genuineness of the choice is manifested concretely through patience, courage, and fidelity. If I leave behind an act which I have accomplished, it becomes a thing by falling into the past. It is no longer anything but a stupid and opaque fact. In order to prevent this metamorphosis, I must ceaselessly return to it and justify it in the unity of the project in which I am engaged. Setting up the movement of my transcendence requires that I never let it uselessly fall back upon itself, that I prolong it indefinitely. Thus I can not genuinely desire an end today without desiring it through my whole existence, insofar as it is the future of this present moment and insofar as it is the surpassed past of days to come. To will is to engage myself to persevere in my will. This does not mean that I ought not aim at any limited end. I may desire absolutely and forever a revelation of a moment. This means that the value of this provisional end will be confirmed indefinitely. But this living confirmation can not be merely contemplative and verbal. It is carried out in an act. The goal toward which I surpass myself must appear to me as a point of departure toward a new act of surpassing. Thus, a creative freedom develops happily without ever congealing into unjustified facticity. The creator leans upon anterior creations in order to create the possibility of new creations. His present project embraces the past and places confidence in the freedom to come, a confidence which is never disappointed. It discloses being at the end of a further disclosure. At each moment freedom is confirmed through all creation.

However, man does not create the world. He succeeds in disclosing it only through the resistance which the world opposes to him. The will is defined only by raising obstacles, and by the contingency of facticity certain obstacles let themselves be conquered, and others do not. This is what Descartes expressed when he said that the freedom of man is infinite, but his power is limited. How can the presence of these limits be reconciled with the idea of a freedom confirming itself as a unity and an indefinite movement?

In the face of an obstacle which it is impossible to overcome, stubbornness is stupid. If I persist in beating my fist against a stone wall, my freedom exhausts itself in this useless gesture without succeeding in giving itself a content. It debases itself in a vain contingency. Yet, there is hardly a sadder virtue than resignation. It transforms into phantoms and contingent reveries projects which had at the beginning been set up as will and freedom. A young man has hoped for a happy or useful or glorious life. If the man he has become looks upon these miscarried attempts of his adolescence with disillusioned indifference, there they are, forever frozen in the dead past. When an effort fails, one declares bitterly that he has lost time and wasted his powers. The failure condemns that whole part of ourselves which we had engaged in the effort. It was to escape this dilemma that the Stoics preached indifference. We could indeed assert our freedom against all constraint if we agreed to renounce the particularity of our projects. If a door refuses to open, let us accept not opening it and there we are free. But by doing that, one manages only to save an abstract notion of freedom. It is emptied of all content and all truth. The power of man ceases to be limited because it is annulled. It is the particularity of the project which determines the limitation of the power, but it is also what gives the project its content and permits it to be set up. There are people who are filled with such horror at the idea of a defeat that they keep themselves from ever doing anything. But no one would dream of considering this gloomy passivity as the triumph of freedom.

The truth is that in order for my freedom. not to risk coming to grief against the obstacle which its very engagement has raised, in order that it might still pursue its movement in the face of the failure, it must, by giving itself a particular content, aim by means of it at an end which is nothing else but precisely the free movement of existence. Popular opinion is quite right in admiring a man who, having been ruined or having suffered an accident, knows how to gain the upper hand, that is, renew his engagement in the world, thereby strongly asserting the independence of freedom in relation to thing. Thus, when the sick Van Gosh calmly accepted the prospect of a future in which he would be unable to paint any more, there was no sterile resignation. For him painting was a personal way of life and of communication with others which in another form could be continued even in an asylum. The past will be integrated and freedom will be confirmed in a renunciation of this kind. It will be lived in both heartbreak and joy. In heartbreak, because the project is then robbed of its particularity - it sacrifices its flesh and blood. But in joy, since at the moment one releases his hold, he again finds his hands free and ready to stretch out toward a new future. But this act of passing beyond is conceivable only if what the content has in view is not to bar up the future, but, on the contrary, to plan new possibilities. This brings us back by another route to what we had already indicated. My freedom must not seek to trap being but to disclose it. The disclosure is the transition from being to existence. The goal which my freedom aims at is conquering existence across the always inadequate density of being.

However, such salvation is only possible if, despite obstacles and failures, a man preserves the disposal of his future, if the situation opens up more possibilities to him. In case his transcendence is cut off from his goal or there is no longer any hold on objects which might give it a valid content, his spontaneity is dissipated without founding anything. Then he may not justify his existence positively and he feels its contingency with wretched disgust. There is no more obnoxious way to punish a man than to force him to perform acts which make no sense to him, as when one empties and fills the same ditch indefinitely, when one makes soldiers who are being punished march up and down, or when one forces a schoolboy to copy lines. Revolts broke out in Italy in September 1946 because the unemployed were set to breaking pebbles which served no purpose whatever. As is well known, this was also the weakness which ruined the national workshops in 1848. This mystification of useless effort is more intolerable than fatigue. Life imprisonment is the most horrible of punishments because it preserves existence in its pure facticity but forbids it all legitimation. A freedom can not will itself without willing itself as an indefinite movement. It must absolutely reject the constraints which arrest its drive toward itself. This rejection takes on a positive aspect when the constraint is natural. One rejects the illness by curing it. But it again assumes the negative aspect of revolt when the oppressor is a human freedom. One can not deny being: the in-itself is, and negation has no hold over this being, this pure positivity; one does not escape this fullness: a destroyed house is a ruin; a broken chain is scrap iron: one attains only signification and, through it, the for-itself which is projected there; the for-itself carries nothingness in its heart and can be annihilated, whether in the very upsurge of its existence or through the world in which it exists. The prison is repudiated as such when the prisoner escapes. But revolt, insofar as it is pure negative movement, remains abstract. It is fulfilled as freedom only by returning to the positive, that is, by giving itself a content through action, escape, political struggle, revolution. Human transcendence then seeks, with the destruction of the given situation, the whole future which will flow from its victory. It resumes its indefinite rapport with itself. There are limited situations where this return to the positive is impossible, where the future is radically blocked off. Revolt can then be achieved only in the definitive rejection of the imposed situation, in suicide.

It can be seen that, on the one hand, freedom can always save itself, for it is realized as a disclosure of existence through its very failures, and it can again confirm itself by a death freely chosen. But, on the other hand, the situations which it discloses through its project toward itself do not appear as equivalents. It regards as privileged situations those which permit it to realize itself as indefinite movement; that is, it wishes to pass beyond everything which limits its power; and yet, this power is always limited. Thus, just as life is identified with the will-to-live, freedom always appears as a movement of liberation. It is only by prolonging itself through the freedom of others that it manages to surpass death itself and to realize itself as an indefinite unity. Later on we shall see what problems such a relationship raises. For the time being it is enough for us to have established the fact that the words “to will oneself free” have a positive and concrete meaning. If man wishes to save his existence, as only he himself can do, his original spontaneity must be raised to the height of moral freedom by taking itself as an end through the disclosure of a particular content.

But a new question is immediately raised. If man has one and only one way to save his existence, how can he choose not to choose it in all cases? How is a bad willing possible? We meet with this problem in all ethics, since it is precisely the possibility of a perverted willing which gives a meaning to the idea of virtue. We know the answer of Socrates, of Plato, of Spinoza: “No one is willfully bad.” And if Good is a transcendent thing which is more or less foreign to man, one imagines that the mistake can be explained by error. But if one grants that the moral world is the world genuinely willed by man, all possibility of error is eliminated. Moreover, in Kantian ethics, which is at the origin of all ethics of autonomy, it is very difficult to account for an evil will. As the choice of his character which the subject makes is achieved in the intelligible world by a purely rational will, one can not understand how the latter expressly rejects the law which it gives to itself. But this is because Kantism defined man as a pure positivity, and it therefore recognized no other possibility in him than coincidence with himself. We, too, define morality by this adhesion to the self; and this is why we say that man can not positively decide between the negation and the assumption of his freedom, for as soon as he decides, he assumes it. He can not positively will not to be free for such a willing would be self-destructive. Only, unlike Kant, we do not see man as being essentially a positive will. On the contrary, he is first defined as a negativity. He is first at a distance from himself. He can coincide with himself only by agreeing never to rejoin himself. There is within him a perpetual playing with the negative, and he thereby escapes himself, he escapes his freedom. And it is precisely because an evil will is here possible that the words “to will oneself free” have a meaning. Therefore, not only do we assert that the existentialist doctrine permits the elaboration of an ethics, but it even appears- to us as the only philosophy in which an ethics has its place. For, in a metaphysics of transcendence, in the classical sense of the term, evil is reduced to error; and in humanistic philosophies it is impossible to account for it, man being defined as complete in a complete world. Existentialism alone gives - like religions - a real role to evil, and it is this, perhaps, which make its judgments so gloomy. Men do not like to feel themselves in danger. Yet, it is because there are real dangers, real failures and real earthly damnation that words like victory, wisdom, or joy have meaning. Nothing is decided in advance, and it is because man has something to lose and because he can lose that he can also win.

Therefore, in the very condition of man there enters the possibility of not fulfilling this condition. In order to fulfill it he must assume himself as a being who “makes himself a lack of being so that there might be being.” But the trick of dishonesty permits stopping at any moment whatsoever. One may hesitate to make oneself a lack of being, one may withdraw before existence, or one may falsely assert oneself as being, or assert oneself as nothing.. ness. One may realize his freedom only as an abstract independence, or, on the contrary, reject with despair the distance which separates us from being. All errors are possible since man is a negativity, and they are motivated by the anguish he feels in the face of his freedom. Concretely, men slide incoherently from one attitude to another. We shall limit ourselves to describing in their abstract form those which we have just indicated.


Man’s unhappiness, says Descartes, is due to his having first been a child. And indeed the unfortunate choices which most men make can only be explained by the fact that they have taken place on the basis of childhood. The child’s situation is characterized by his finding himself cast into a universe which he has not helped to establish, which has been fashioned without him, and which appears to him as an absolute to which he can only submit. In his eyes, human inventions, words, customs, and values are given facts, as inevitable as the sky and the trees. This means that the world in which he lives is a serious world, since the characteristic of the spirit of seriousness is to consider values as ready-made things. That does not mean that the child himself is serious. On the contrary, he is allowed to play, to expend his existence freely. In his child’s circle he feels that he can passionately pursue and joyfully attain goals which he has set up for himself. But if he fulfills this experience in all tranquillity, it is precisely because the domain open to his subjectivity seems insignificant and puerile in his own eyes. He feels himself happily irresponsible. The real world is that of adults where he is allowed only to respect and obey. The naive victim of the mirage of the for-others, he believes in the being of his parents and teachers. He takes them for the divinities which they vainly try to be and whose appearance they like to borrow before his ingenuous eyes. Rewards, punishments, prizes, words of praise or blame instill in him the conviction that there exist a good and an evil which like a sun and a moon exist as ends in themselves. In his universe of definite and substantial things, beneath the sovereign eyes of grown-up persons, he thinks that he too has < em=”“> in a definite and substantial way. He is a good little boy or a scamp; he enjoys being it. If something deep inside him belies his conviction, he conceals this imperfection. He consoles himself for an inconsistency which he attributes to his young age by pinning his hopes on the future. Later on he too will become a big imposing statue. While waiting, he plays at being, at being a saint, a hero, a guttersnipe. He feels himself like those models whose images are sketched out in his books in broad, unequivocal strokes: explorer, brigand, sister of charity. This game of being serious can take on such an importance in the child’s life that he himself actually becomes serious. We know such children who are caricatures of adults. Even when the joy of existing is strongest, when the child abandons himself to it, he feels himself protected against the risk of existence by the ceiling which human generations have built over his head. And it is by virtue of this that the child’s condition (although it can be unhappy in other respects) is metaphysically privileged. Normally the child escapes the anguish of freedom. He can, if he likes, be recalcitrant, lazy; his whims and his faults concern only him. They do not weigh upon the earth. They can not make a dent in the serene order of a world which existed before him, without him, where he is in a state of security by virtue of his very insignificance. He can do with impunity whatever he likes. He knows that nothing can ever happen through him; everything is already given; his acts engage nothing, not even himself. <>

There are beings whose life slips by in an infantile world because, having been kept in a state of servitude and ignorance, they have no means of breaking the ceiling which is stretched over their heads. Like the child, they can exercise their freedom, but only within this universe which has been set up before them, without them. This is the case, for example, of slaves who have not raised themselves to the consciousness of their slavery. The southern planters were not altogether in the wrong in considering the negroes who docilely submitted to their paternalism as “grown-up children.” To the extent that they respected the world of the whites the situation of the black slaves was exactly an infantile situation. This is also the situation of women in many civilizations; they can only submit to the laws, the gods, the customs, and the truths created by the males. Even today in western countries, among women who have not had in their work an apprenticeship of freedom, there are still many who take shelter in the shadow of men; they adopt without discussion the opinions and values recognized by their husband or their lover, and that allows them to develop childish qualities which are forbidden to adults because they are based on a feeling of irresponsibility. If what is called women’s futility often has so much charm and grace, if it sometimes has a genuinely moving character, it is because it manifests a pure and gratuitous taste for existence, like the games of children; it is the absence of the serious. The unfortunate thing is that in many cases this thoughtlessness, this gaiety, these charming inventions imply a deep complicity with the world of men which they seem so graciously to be contesting, and it is a mistake to be astonished, once the structure which shelters them seems to be in danger, to see sensitive, ingenuous, and lightminded women show themselves harder, more bitter, and even more furious or cruel than their masters. It is then that we discover the difference which distinguishes them from an actual child: the child’s situation is imposed upon him, whereas the woman (I mean the western woman of today) chooses it or at least consents to it. Ignorance and error are facts as inescapable as prison walls. The negro slave of the eighteenth century, the Mohammedan woman enclosed in a harem have no instrument, be it in thought or by astonishment or anger, which permits them to attack the civilization which oppresses them. Their behavior is defined and can be judged only within this given situation, and it is possible that in this situation, limited like every human situation, they realize a perfect assertion of their freedom. But once there appears a possibility of liberation, it is resignation of freedom not to exploit the possibility, a resignation which implies dishonesty and which is a positive fault.

The fact is that it is very rare for the infantile world to maintain itself beyond adolescence. From childhood on, flaws begin to be revealed in it. With astonishment, revolt and disrespect the child little by little asks himself, “Why must I act that way? What good is it? And what will happen if I act in another way?” He discovers his subjectivity; he discovers that of others. And when he arrives at the age of adolescence he begins to vacillate because he notices the contradictions among adults as well as their hesitations and weakness. Men stop appearing as if they were gods, and at the same time the adolescent discovers the human character of the reality about him. Language, customs, ethics, and values have their source in these uncertain creatures. The moment has come when he too is going to be called upon to participate in their operation; his acts weigh upon the earth as much as those of other men. He will have to choose and decide. It is comprehensible that it is hard for him to live this moment of his history, and this is doubtless the deepest reason for the crisis of adolescence; the individual must at last assume his subjectivity.

From one point of view the collapsing of the serious world is a deliverance. Although he was irresponsible, the child also felt himself defenseless before obscure powers which directed the course of things. But whatever the joy of this liberation may be, it is not without great confusion that the adolescent finds himself cast into a world which is no longer ready-made, which has to be made; he is abandoned, unjustified, the prey of a freedom that is no longer chained up by anything. What will he do in the face of this new situation? This is the moment when he decides. If what might be called the natural history of an individual, his affective complexes, etcetera depend above all upon his childhood, it is adolescence which appears as the moment of moral choice. Freedom is then revealed and he must decide upon his attitude in the face of it. Doubtless, this decision can always be reconsidered, but the fact is that conversions are difficult because the world reflects back upon us a choice which is confirmed through this world which it has fashioned. Thus, a more and more rigorous circle is formed from which one is more and more unlikely to escape. Therefore, the misfortune which comes to man as a result of the fact that he was a child is that his freedom was first concealed from him and that all his life he will be nostalgic for the time when he did not know its exigencies.

This misfortune has still another aspect. Moral choice is free, and therefore unforeseeable. The child does not contain the man he will become. Yet, it is always on the basis of what he has been that a man decides upon what he wants to be. He draws the motivations of his moral attitude from within the character which he has given himself and from within the universe which is its correlative. Now, the child set up this character and this universe little by little., without foreseeing its development. He was ignorant of the disturbing aspect of this freedom which he was heedlessly exercising. He tranquilly abandoned himself to whims, laughter, tears, and anger which seemed to him to have no morrow and no danger, and yet which left ineffaceable imprints about him. The drama of original choice is that it goes on moment by moment for an entire lifetime, that it occurs without reason, before any reason, that freedom is there as if it were present only in the form of contingency. This contingency recalls, in a way, the arbitrariness of the grace distributed by God in Calvinistic doctrine. Here too there is a sort of predestination issuing not from an external tyranny but from the operation of the subject itself. Only, we think that man has always a possible recourse to himself. There is no choice so unfortunate that he cannot be saved.

It is in this moment of justification - a moment which extends throughout his whole adult life - that the attitude of man is placed on a moral plane. The contingent spontaneity can not be judged in the name of freedom. Yet a child already arouses sympathy or antipathy. Every man casts himself into the world by making himself a lack of being; he thereby contributes to reinvesting it with human signification. He discloses it. And in this movement even the most outcast sometimes feel the joy of existing. They then manifest existence as a happiness and the world as a source of joy. But it is up to each one to make himself a lack of more or less various, profound, and rich aspects of being. What is called vitality, sensitivity, and intelligence are not ready-made qualities, but a way of casting oneself into the world and of disclosing being. Doubtless, every one casts himself into it on the basis of his physiological possibilities, but the body itself is not a brute fact. It expresses our relationship to the world, and that is why it is an object of sympathy or repulsion. And on the other hand, it determines no behavior. There is vitality only by means of free generosity. Intelligence supposes good will, and, inversely, a man is never stupid if he adapts his language and his behavior to his capacities, and sensitivity is nothing else but the presence which is attentive to the world and to itself. The reward for these spontaneous qualities issues from the fact that they make significances and goals appear in the world. They discover reasons for existing. They confirm us in the pride and joy of our destiny as man. To the extent that they subsist in an individual they still arouse sympathy, even if he has made himself hateful by the meaning which he has given to his life. I have heard it said that at the Nuremberg trial Goering exerted a certain seductive power on his judges because of the vitality which emanated from him.

If we were to try to establish a kind of hierarchy among men, we would put those who are denuded of this living warmth - the tepidity which the Gospel speaks of - on the lowest rung of the ladder. To exist is to make oneself a lack of being; it is to cast oneself into the world. Those who occupy themselves in restraining this original movement can be considered as sub-men. They have eyes and ears, but from their childhood on they make themselves blind and deaf, without love and without desire. This apathy manifests a fundamental fear in the face of existence, in the face of the risks and tensions which it implies. The sub-man rejects this “passion” which is his human condition, the laceration and the failure of that drive toward being which always misses its goal, but which thereby is the very existence which he rejects.

Such a choice immediately confirms itself. just as a bad painter, by a single movement, paints bad paintings and is satisfied with them, whereas in a work of value the artist immediately recognizes the demand of a higher sort of work, in like fashion the original poverty of his project exempts the sub-man from seeking to legitimize it. He discovers around him only an insignificant and dull world. How could this naked world arouse within him any desire to feel, to understand, to live? The less he exists, the less is there reason for him to exist, since these reasons are created only by existing.

Yet, he exists. By the fact of transcending himself he indicates certain goals, he circumscribes certain values. But he at once effaces these uncertain shadows. His whole behavior tends toward an elimination of their ends. By the incoherence of his plans, by his haphazard whims, or by his indifference, he reduces to nothingness the meaning of his surpassing. His acts are never positive choices, only flights. He can not prevent himself from being a presence in the world, but he maintains this presence on the pl e of bare facticity. However, if a man were permitted to be a brute fact, he would merge with the trees and pebbles which are not aware that they exist; we would consider these opaque lives with indifference. But the sub-man arouses contempt, that is, one recognizes him to be responsible for himself at the moment that one accuses him of not willing himself - The fact is that no man is a datum which is passively suffered; the rejection of existence is still another way of existing; nobody can know the peace of the tomb while he is alive. There we have the defeat of the sub-man. He would like to forget himself, to be ignorant of himself, but the nothingness which is at the heart of man is also the consciousness that he has of himself. His negativity is revealed positively as anguish, desire, appeal, laceration, but as for the genuine return to the positive, the sub-man eludes it. He is afraid of engaging himself in a project as he is afraid of being disengaged and thereby of being in a state of danger before the future, in the midst of its possibilities. He is thereby led to take refuge in the ready-made values of the serious world. He will proclaim certain opinions; he will take shelter behind a label; and to hide his indifference he will readily abandon himself to verbal outbursts or even physical violence. One day, a monarchist, the next day, an anarchist, he is more readily anti-semitic, anti-clerical, or anti-republican. Thus, though we have defined him as a denial and a flight, the sub-man is not a harmless creature. He realizes himself in the world as a blind uncontrolled force which anybody can get control of. In lynchings, in pogroms, in all the great bloody movements organized by the fanaticism of seriousness and passion, movements where there is no risk, those who do the actual dirty work are recruited from among the sub-men. That is why every man who wills himself free within a human world fashioned by free men will be so disgusted by the sub-men. Ethics is the triumph of freedom over facticity, and the sub-man feels only the facticity of his existence. Instead of aggrandizing the reign of the human, he opposes his inert resistance to the projects of other men. No project has meaning in the world disclosed by such an existence. Man is defined as a wild flight. The world about him is bare and incoherent. Nothing ever happens; nothing merits desire or effort. The sub-man makes his way across a world deprived of meaning toward a death which merely confirms his long negation of him, self. The only thing revealed in this experience is the absurd facticity of an existence which remains forever unjustified if it has not known how to justify itself. The sub-man experiences the desert of the world in his boredom. And the strange character of a universe with which he has created no bond also arouses fear in him. Weighted down by present events, he is bewildered before the darkness of the future which is haunted by frightful specters, war, sickness, revolution, fascism, bolshevism. The more indistinct these dangers are, the more fearful they become. The sub-man is not very clear about what he has to lose, since he has nothing, but this very uncertainty re-enforces his terror. Indeed, what he fears is that the shock of the unforeseen may remind him of the agonizing consciousness of himself.

Thus, fundamental as a man’s fear in the face of existence may be, though he has chosen from his earliest years to deny his presence in the world, he can not keep himself from existing, he can not efface the agonizing evidence of his freedom. That is why, as we have just seen, in order to get rid of his freedom, he is led to engage it positively. The attitude of the sub-man passes logically over into that of the serious man; he forces himself to submerge his freedom in the content which the latter accepts from society. He loses himself in the object in order to annihilate his subjectivity. This certitude has been described so frequently that it will not be necessary to consider it at length. Hegel has spoken of it ironically. In The Phenomenology of Mind he has shown that the sub-man plays the part of the inessential in the face of the object which is considered as the essential. He suppresses himself to the advantage of the Thing, which, sanctified by respect, appears in the form of a Cause, science, philosophy, revolution, etc. But the truth is that this ruse miscarries, for the Cause can not save the individual insofar as he is a concrete and separate existence. After Hegel, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche also railed at the deceitful stupidity of the serious man and his universe. And Being and Nothingness is in large part a description of the serious man and his universe. The serious man gets rid of his freedom by claiming to subordinate it to values which would be unconditioned. He imagines that the accession to these values likewise permanently confers value upon himself. Shielded with “rights,” he fulfills himself as a being who is escaping from the stress of existence. The serious is not defined by the nature of the ends pursued. A frivolous lady of fashion can have this mentality of the serious as well as an engineer. There is the serious from the moment that freedom denies itself to the advantage of ends which one claims are absolute.

Since all of this is well known, I should like to make only a few remarks in this place. It is easily understood why, of all the attitudes which are not genuine, the latter is the most widespread; because every man was first a child. After having lived under the eyes of the gods, having been given the promise of divinity, one does not readily accept becoming simply a man with all his anxiety and doubt. What is to be done? What is to be believed? Often the young man, who has not, like the sub-man, first rejected existence, so that these questions are not even raised, is nevertheless frightened at having to answer them. After a more or less long crisis, either he turns back toward the world of his parents and teachers or he adheres to the values which are new but seem to him just as sure. Instead of assuming an affectivity which would throw him dangerously beyond himself, he represses it. Liquidation, in its classic form of transference and sublimation, is the passage from the affective to the serious in the propitious shadow of dishonesty. The thing that matters to the serious man is not so much the nature of the object which he prefers to himself, but rather the fact of being able to lose himself in it. So much so, that the movement toward the object is, in fact, through his arbitrary act tile most radical assertion of subjectivity: to believe for belief’s sake, to will for will’s sake is, detaching transcendence from its end, to realize one’s freedom in its empty and absurd form of freedom of indifference.

The serious man’s dishonesty issues from his being obliged ceaselessly to renew the denial of this freedom. He chooses to live in an infantile world, but to the child the values are really given. The serious man must mask the movement by which he gives them to himself, like the mythomaniac who while reading a love-letter pretends to forget that she has sent it to herself. We have already pointed out that certain adults can live in the universe of the serious in all honesty, for example, those who are denied all instruments of escape, those who are enslaved or who are mystified. The less economic and social circumstances allow an individual to act upon the world, the more this world appears to him as given. This is the case of women who inherit a long tradition of sub. mission and of those who are called “the humble.” There is often laziness and timidity in their resignation; their’ honesty is not quite complete; but to the extent that it. exists, their freedom remains available, it is not denied.’ They can, in their situation of ignorant and powerless individuals, know the truth of existence and raise them. selves to a properly moral life. It even happens that they turn the freedom which they have thus won against the very object of their respect; thus, in A Doll’s House, the childlike naivete of the heroine leads her to rebel against the lie of the serious. On the contrary, the man who has the necessary instruments to escape this lie and who does not want to use them consumes his freedom in denying, them. He makes himself serious. He dissimulates his’, subjectivity under the shield of rights which emanate from the ethical universe recognized by him; he is no longer a man, but a father, a boss, a member of the Christian Church or the Communist Party.

If one denies the subjective tension of freedom one is evidently forbidding himself universally to will freedom in an indefinite movement. By virtue of the fact that he’ refuses to recognize that he is freely establishing the, value of the end he sets up, the serious man makes him. self the slave of that end. He forgets that every goal is at the same time a point of departure and that human freedom is the ultimate, the unique end to which man should destine himself. He accords an absolute meaning to the epithet useful, which, in truth, has no more meaning if taken by itself than the words high, low, right, and left. It simply designates a relationship and requires a complement: useful for this or that. The complement itself must be put into question, and, as we shall see later on, the whole problem of action is then raised.

But the serious man puts nothing into question. For the military man, the army is useful; for the colonial administrator, the highway; for the serious revolutionary, the revolution—army, highway, revolution, productions becoming inhuman idols to which one will not hesitate to sacrifice man himself. Therefore, the serious man is dangerous. It is natural that he makes himself a tyrant. Dishonestly ignoring the subjectivity of his choice, he pretends that the unconditioned value of the object is being asserted through him; and by the same token he also ignores the value of the subjectivity and the freedom of others, to such an extent that, sacrificing them to the thing, he persuades himself that what he sacrifices is nothing. The colonial administrator who has raised the highway to the stature of an idol will have no scruple about assuring its construction at the price of a great number of lives of the natives; for, what value has the life of a native who is incompetent, lazy, and clumsy when it comes to building highways? The serious leads to a fanaticism which is as formidable as the fanaticism of passion. It is the fanaticism of the Inquisition which does not hesitate to impose a credo, that is, an internal movement, by means of external constraints. It is the fanaticism of the Vigilantes of America who defend morality by means of lynchings. It is the political fanaticism which empties politics of all human content and imposes the State, not for individuals, but against them.

In order to justify the contradictory, absurd, and outrageous aspects of this kind of behavior, the serious man readily takes refuge in disputing the serious, but it is the serious of others which he disputes, not his own. Thus, the colonial administrator is not unaware of the trick of irony. He contests the importance of the happiness, the comfort, the very life of the native, but he reveres the Highway, the Economy, the French Empire; he reveres himself as a servant of these divinities. Almost all serious men cultivate an expedient levity; we are familiar with the genuine gaiety of Catholics, the fascist “sense of humor.” There are also some who do not even feel the need for such a weapon. They hide from themselves the incoherence of their choice by taking flight. As soon as the Idol is no longer concerned, the serious man slips into the attitude of the sub-man. He keeps himself from existing because he is not capable of existing without a guarantee. Proust observed with astonishment that a great doctor or a great professor often shows himself, outside of his specialty, to be lacking in sensitivity, intelligence, and humanity. The reason for this is that having abdicated his freedom, he has nothing else left but his techniques. In domains where his techniques are not applicable, he either adheres to the most ordinary of values or fulfills himself as a flight. The serious man stubbornly engulfs his, transcendence in the object which bars the horizon and bolts the sky. The rest of the world is a faceless desert. Here again one sees how such a choice is immediately confirmed. If there is being only, for example, in the form of the Army, how could the military man wish for anything else than to multiply barracks and maneuvers? No appeal rises from the abandoned zones where nothing can be reaped because nothing has been sown. As soon as he leaves the staff, the old general becomes dull. That is why the serious man’s life loses all meaning if he finds himself cut off from his ends. Ordinarily, he does not put all his eggs into one basket, but if it happens that a failure or old age ruins all his justifications, then, unless there is a conversion, which is always possible, he no longer has any relief except in flight; ruined, dishonored, this important personage is now only a “has-been.” He joins the sub-man, unless by suicide he once and for all puts an end to the agony of his freedom.

It is in a state of fear that the serious man feels this dependence upon the object; and the first of virtues, in his eyes, is prudence. He escapes the anguish of freedom only to fall into a state of preoccupation, of worry. Everything is a threat to him, since the thing which he has set up as an idol is an externality and is thus in relationship with the whole universe and consequently threatened by the whole universe; and since, despite all precautions, he will never be the master of this exterior world to which he has consented to submit, he will be instantly upset by the uncontrollable course of events.

He will always be saying that he is disappointed, for his wish to have the world harden into a thing is belied by the very movement of life. The future will contest his present successes; his children will disobey him, his win will be opposed by those of strangers; he will be a prey to ill humor and bitterness. His very successes have a taste of ashes, for the serious is one of those ways of trying to realize the impossible synthesis of the in-itself and the foritself. The serious man wills himself to be a god; but he is not one and knows it. He wishes to rid himself of his subjectivity, but it constantly risks being unmasked; it is unmasked. Transcending all goals, reflection wonders, “What’s the use?” There then blazes forth the absurdity of a life which has sought outside of itself the justifications which it alone could give itself. Detached from the freedom which might have genuinely grounded them, all the ends that have been pursued appear arbitrary and useless.

This failure of the serious sometimes brings about a radical disorder. Conscious of being unable to be anything, man then decides to be nothing. We shall call this attitude nihilistic. The nihilist is close to the spirit of seriousness, for instead of realizing his negativity as a living movement, he conceives his annihilation in a substantial way. He wants to be nothing, and this nothing that he dreams of is still another sort of being, the exact Hegelian antithesis of being, a stationary datum. Nihilism is disappointed seriousness which has turned back upon itself. A choice of this kind is not encountered among those who, feeling the joy of existence, assume its gratuity. It appears either at the moment of adolescence, when the individual, seeing his child’s universe flow away, feels the lack which is in his heart, or, later on, when the attempts to fulfill himself as a being have failed; in any case, among men who wish to rid themselves of the anxiety of their freedom by denying the world and themselves. By this rejection, they draw near to the sub-man. The difference is that their withdrawal is not their original movement. At first, they cast themselves into the world, sometimes even with a largeness of spirit. They exist and they know it.

It sometimes happens that, in his state of deception, a man maintains a sort of affection for the serious world; this is how Sartre describes Baudelaire in his study of the poet. Baudelaire felt a burning rancor in regard to the values of his childhood, but this rancor still involved some respect. Scorn alone liberated him. It was necessary for him that the universe which he rejected continue in order for him to detest it and scoff at it; it is the attitude of the demoniacal man as Jouhandeau. has also described him: one stubbornly maintains the values of childhood, of a society, or of a Church in order to be able to trample upon them. The demoniacal man is still very close to the serious; he wants to believe in it; he confirms it by his very revolt; he feels himself as a negation and a freedom, but he does not realize this freedom as a positive liberation.

One can go much further in rejection by occupying himself not in scorning but in annihilating the rejected world and himself along with it. For example, the man who gives himself to a cause which he knows to be lost chooses to merge the world with one of its aspects which carries within it the germ of its ruin, involving himself in this condemned universe and condemning himself with it. Another man devotes his time and energy to an undertaking which was not doomed to failure at the start but which he himself is bent on ruining. Still another rejects each of his projects one after the other, frittering them away in a series of caprices and thereby systematical annulling the ends which he is aiming at. The constant negation of the word by the word, of the act by the act, of art by art was realized by Dadaist incoherence. By following a strict injunction to commit disorder and anarchy, one achieved the abolition of all behavior, and therefore of all ends and of oneself.

But this will to negation is forever belying itself, for it manifests itself as a presence at the very moment that it displays itself. It therefore implies a constant tension, inversely symmetrical with the existential and more painful tension, for if it is true that man is not, it is also true that he exists, and in order to realize his negativity positively he will have to contradict constantly the movement of existence. If one does not resign himself to suicide one slips easily into a more stable attitude than the shrill rejection of nihilism. Surrealism provides us with a historical and concrete example of different possible kinds of evolution. Certain initiates, such as Vache and Crevel, had recourse to the radical solution of suicide. Others destroyed their bodies and ruined their minds by drugs. Other succeeded in a sort of moral suicide; by dint of depopulating the world around them, they found themselves in a desert, with themselves reduced to the level of the sub-man; they no longer try to flee, they are fleeing. There are also some who have again sought out the security of the serious. They have reformed, arbitrarily choosing marriage, politics, or religion as refuges. Even the surrealists who have wanted to remain faithful to themselves have been unable to avoid returning to the positive, to the serious. The negation of aesthetic, spiritual, and moral values has become an ethics; unruliness has become a rule. We have been present at the establishment of a new Church) with its dogmas, its rites, its faithful, its priests, and even its martyrs; today, there is nothing of the destroyer in Breton; he is a pope. And as every assassination of painting is still a painting, a lot of surrealists have found themselves the authors of positive works; their revolt has become the matter on which their career has been built. Finally, some of them, in a genuine return to the positive, have been able to realize their freedom; they have given it a content without disavowing it. They have engaged themselves, without losing themselves, in political action, in intellectual or artistic research, in family or social life.

The attitude of the nihilist can perpetuate itself as such only if it reveals itself as a positivity at its very core. Rejecting his own existence, the nihilist must also reject the existences which confirm it. If he wills himself to be nothing, all mankind must also be annihilated; otherwise, by means of the presence of this world that the Other reveals he meets himself as a presence in the world. But this thirst for destruction immediately takes the form of a desire for power, The taste of nothingness joins the original taste of being whereby every man is first defined; he realizes himself as a being by making himself that by which nothingness comes into the world. Thus, Nazism was both a will for power and a will for suicide at the same time. From a historical point of view, Nazism has many other features besides; in particular, beside the dark romanticism which led Rauschning to entitle his work The Revolution of Nihilism, we also find a gloomy seriousness. The fact is that Nazism was in the service of petit bourgeois seriousness. But it is interesting to note that its ideology did not make this alliance impossible, for the serious often rallies to a partial nihilism, denying everything which is not its object in order to hide from itself the antinomies of action.

A rather pure example of this impassioned nihilism is the well-known case of Drieu la Rochelle. The Empty Suitcase is the testimony of a young man who acutely felt the fact of existing as a lack of being, of not being. This is a genuine experience on the basis of which the only possible salvation is to assume the lack, to side with the man who exists against the idea of a God who does not. On the contrary - a novel like Gilles is proof - Drieu stubbornly persisted in his deception. In his hatred of himself he chose to reject his condition as a man, and this led him to hate all men along with himself. Gilles knows satisfaction only when he fires on Spanish workers and sees the flow of blood which he compares to the redeeming blood of Christ; as if the only salvation by man were the death of other men, whereby perfect negation is achieved. It is natural that this path ended in collaboration, the ruin of a detested world being merged for Drieu with the annulment of himself. An external failure led him to give to his life a conclusion which it called for dialectically: suicide.

The nihilist attitude manifests a certain truth. In this attitude one experiences the ambiguity of the human condition. But the mistake is that it defines man not as the positive existence of a lack, but as a lack at the heart of existence, whereas the truth is that existence is not a lack as such. And if freedom is experienced in this case in the form of rejection, it is not genuinely fulfilled. The nihilist is right in thinking that the world possesses no justification and that he himself is nothing. But he forgets that it is up to him to justify the world and to mat”. himself exist validly. Instead of integrating death into life, he sees in it the only truth of the life which appears to him as a disguised death. However, there is life, and the nihilist knows that he is alive. That’s where his failure lies. He rejects existence without managing to eliminate it. He denies any meaning to his transcendence, and yet he transcends himself. A man who delights in freedom can find an ally in the nihilist because they contest the serious world together, but be also sees in him an enemy insofar as the nihilist is a systematic rejection of the world and m an, and if this rejection ends up in a positive desire destruction, it then establishes a tyranny which freedom must stand up against.

The fundamental fault of the nihilist is that, challenging all given values, he does not find, beyond their ruin, the importance of that universal, absolute end which freedom itself is- It is possible that, even in this failure, a man may nevertheless keep his taste for an existence which he originally felt as a joy. Hoping for no justification, he will nevertheless take delight in living. He will not turn aside from things which he does not believe in. He will seek a pretext in them for a gratuitous display of activity. Such a man is what is generally called an adventurer. He throws himself into his undertakings with zest, into exploration, conquest, war, speculation, love, politics, but he does not attach himself to the end at which he aims; only to his conquest. He likes action for its Own sake. He finds joy in spreading through the world a freedom which remains indifferent to its content. Whether the taste for adventure appears to be based on nihilistic despair or whether it is born directly from the experience of the happy days of childhood, it always implies that freedom is realized as an independence in regard to the serious world and that, on the other hand, the ambiguity of existence is felt not as a lack but in its positive aspect. This attitude dialectically envelops nihilism’s opposition to the serious and the opposition to nihilism by existence as such. But, of course, the concrete history of an individual does not necessarily espouse this dialectic, by virtue of the fact that his condition is wholly present to him at each moment and because his freedom before it is, at every moment, total. From the time of his adolescence a man can define himself as an adventurer. The union of an original, abundant vitality and a reflective scepticism. will particularly lead to this choice.

It is obvious that this choice is very close to a genuinely moral attitude. The adventurer does not propose to be; he deliberately makes himself a lack of being; he aims expressly at existence; though engaged in his undertaking, he is at the same time detached from the goal. Whether he succeeds or fails, he goes right ahead throwing himself into a new enterprise to which he will give himself with the same indifferent ardor. It is not from things that he expects the justification of his choices. Considering such behavior at the moment of its subjectivity, we see that it conforms to the requirements of ethics, and if existentialism were solipsistic, as is generally claimed , it would have to regard the adventurer as its perfect hero.

First of all, it should be noticed that the adventurer’s attitude is not always pure. Behind the appearance of caprice, there are many men who pursue a secret goal in utter seriousness; for example, fortune or glory. They proclaim their scepticism in regard to recognized values. They do not take politics seriously. They thereby allow themselves to be collaborationists in ‘41 and communists in ‘45, and it is true they don’t give a hang about the interests of the French people or the proletariat; they are attached to their career, to their success. This arrivisme is at the very antipodes of the spirit of adventure, because the zest for existence is then never experienced in its gratuity. It also happens that the genuine love for adventure is inextricably mixed with an attachment to the values of the serious. Cortez and the conquistadors served God and the emperor by serving their own pleasure. Adventure can also be shot through with passion. The taste for conquest is often subtly tied up with the taste for possession. Was seduction all that Don Juan liked? Did he not also like women? Or was he not even looking for a woman capable of satisfying him?

But even if we consider adventure in its purity, it appears to us to be satisfying only at a subjective moment, which, in fact, is a quite abstract moment. The adventurer always meets others along the way; the conquistador meets the Indians; the condottiere hacks out a path through blood and ruins; the explorer has comrades about him or soldiers under his orders; every Don Juan is confronted with Elviras. Every undertaking unfolds in a human world and affects men. What distinguishes adventure from a simple game is that the adventurer does not limit himself to asserting his existence in solitary fashion. He asserts it in relationship to other existences. He has to declare himself.

Two attitudes are possible. He can become conscious of the real requirements of his own freedom, which can will itself only by destining itself to an open future, by seeking to extend itself by means of the freedom of others. Therefore, in any case, the freedom of other men must be respected and they must be helped to free themselves. Such a law imposes limits upon action and at the same time immediately gives it a content. Beyond the rejected seriousness is found a genuine seriousness. But the man who acts in this way, whose end is the liberation of himself and others, who forces himself to respect this end through the means which he uses to attain it, no longer deserves the name of adventurer. One would not dream for example, of applying it to a Lawrence, who was so concerned about the lives of his companions and the freedom of others, so tormented by the human problems which all action raises. One is then in the presence of a genuinely free man.

The man we call an adventurer, on the contrary, is one who remains indifferent to the content, that is, to the human meaning of his action, who thinks he can assert his own existence without taking into account that .of others. The fate of Italy mattered very little to the Italian condottiere; the massacres of the Indians meant nothing to Pizarro; Don Juan was unaffected by Elvira’s tears. Indifferent to the ends they set up for themselves, they were still more indifferent to the means of attaining them; they cared only for their pleasure or their glory. This implies that the adventurer shares the nihilist’s contempt for men. And it is by this very contempt that he believes he breaks away from the contemptible condition in which those who do not imitate his pride are stagnating. Thus, nothing prevents him from sacrificing these insignificant beings to his own will for power. He will treat them like instruments; he will destroy them if they get in his way. But meanwhile he appears as an enemy in the eyes of others. His undertaking is not only an individual wager; it is a combat. He can not win the game without making himself a tyrant or a hangman. And as he can not impose this tyranny without help, he is obliged to serve the regime which will allow him to exercise it. He needs money, arms, soldiers, or the support of the police and the laws. It is not a matter of chance, but a dialectical necessity which leads the adventurer to be complacent regarding all regimes which defend the privilege of a class or a party, and more particularly authoritarian regimes and fascism. He needs fortune, leisure, and enjoyment, and he will take these goods as supreme ends in order to be prepared to remain free in regard to any end. Thus, confusing a quite external availability with real freedom, he falls, with a pretext of independence, into the servitude of the object. He will range himself on the side of the regimes which guarantee him his privileges, and he will prefer those which confirm him in his contempt regarding the common herd. He will make himself its accomplice, its servant, or even its valet, alienating a freedom which, in reality, can not confirm itself as such if it does not wear its own face. In order to have wanted to limit it to it. self, in order to have emptied it of all concrete content, he realizes it only as an abstract independence which turns into servitude. He must submit to masters unless he makes himself the supreme master. Favorable circumstances are enough to transform the adventurer into a dictator. He carries the seed of one within him, since he regards mankind as indifferent matter destined to support the game of his existence. But what he then knows is the supreme servitude of tyranny.

Hegel’s criticism of the tyrant is applicable to the adventurer to the extent that he is himself a tyrant, or at the very least an accomplice of the oppressor. No man can save himself alone. Doubtless, in the very heat of an action the adventurer can know a joy which is sufficient unto itself, but once the undertaking is over and has Congealed behind him into a thing, it must, in order to remain alive, be animated anew by a human intention which must transcend it toward the future into recognition or admiration. When he dies, the adventurer will be surrendering his whole life into the hands of men; the only meaning it will have will be the one they confer upon it. He knows this since he talks about himself, often in books. For want of a work, many desire to bequeath their own personality to posterity: at least during their lifetime they need the approval of a few faithful. Forgotten and detested, the adventurer loses the taste for his own existence. Perhaps without his knowing it, it seems so precious to him because of others. It willed itself to be an affirmation, an example to all mankind. Once it falls back upon itself, it becomes futile and unjustified.

Thus, the adventurer devises a sort of moral behavior because he assumes his subjectivity positively. But if he dishonestly refuses to recognize that this subjectivity necessarily transcends itself toward others, he will enclose himself in a false independence which will indeed be servitude. To the free man he will be only a chance ally in whom one can have no confidence; he will easily become an enemy. His fault is believing that one can do something for oneself without others and even against

The passionate man is, in a way, the antithesis of the Adventurer. In him too there is a sketch of the synthesis of freedom and its content. But in the adventurer it is the content which does not succeed in being genuinely fulfilled. Whereas in the passionate man it is subjectivity which fails to fulfill itself genuinely.

What characterizes the passionate man is that he sets up the object as an absolute, not, like the serious man, as a thing detached from himself, but as a thing disclosed by his subjectivity. There are transitions between the serious and passion. A goal which was first willed in the name of the serious can become an object of passion; inversely, a passionate attachment can wither into a serious relationship. But real passion asserts the subjectivity of its involvement. In amorous passion particularly, one does not want the beloved being to be admired objectively; one prefers to think her unknown, unrecognized; the lover thinks that his appropriation of her is greater if he is alone in revealing her worth. That is the genuine thing offered by all passion. The moment of subjectivity therein vividly asserts itself, in its positive form, in a movement toward the object. It is only when passion has been degraded to an organic need that it ceases to choose itself. But as long as it remains alive it does so because subjectivity is animating it; if not pride, at least complacency and obstinacy. At the same time that it is an assumption of this subjectivity, it is also a disclosure of being. It helps populate the world with desirable objects, with exciting meanings. However, in the passions which we shall call maniacal, to distinguish them from the generous passions, freedom does not find its genuine form. The passionate man seeks possession; he seeks to attain being. The failure and the hell which he creates for himself have been described often enough. He causes certain rare treasures to appear in the world, but he also depopulates it. Nothing exists outside of his stubborn project; therefore nothing can induce him to modify his choices. And having involved his whole life with an external object which can continually escape him, he tragically feels his dependence. Even if it does not definitely disappear, the object never gives itself. The passionate man makes himself a lack of being not that there might be being, but in order to be. And he remains at a distance; he is never fulfilled.

That is why though the passionate man inspires a certain admiration, he also inspires a kind of horror at the same time. One admires the pride of a subjectivity which chooses its end without bending itself to any foreign law and the precious brilliance of the object revealed by the force of this assertion. But one also considers the solitude in which this subjectivity encloses itself as injurious. Having withdrawn into an unusual region of the world, seeking not to communicate with other men, this freedom is realized only as a separation. Any conversation, any relationship with the passionate man is impossible. In the eyes of those who desire a communion of freedom, he therefore appears as a stranger, an obstacle. He opposes an opaque resistance to the movement of freedom which wills itself infinite. The passionate man is not only an inert facticity. He too is on the way to tyranny. He knows that his will emanates only from him, but he can nevertheless attempt to impose it upon others. He authorizes himself to do that by a partial nihilism. Only the object of his passion appears real and full to him. All the rest are insignificant. Why not betray, kill, grow violent? It is never nothing that one destroys. The whole universe is perceived only as an ensemble of means or obstacles through which it is a matter of attaining the thing in which one has engaged his being. Not intending his freedom for men, the passionate man does not recognize them as freedoms either. He will not hesitate to treat them as things. If the object of his passion concerns the world in general, this tyranny becomes fanaticism. In all fanatical movements there exists an element of the serious. The values invented by certain men in a passion of hatred, fear, or faith are thought and willed by others as given realities. But there is no serious fanaticism which does not have a passional base, since all adhesion to the serious world is brought about by repressed tendencies and complexes. Thus, maniacal passion represents a damnation for the one who chooses it, and for other men it is one of the forms of separation which disunites freedoms. It leads to struggle and oppression. A man who seeks being far from other men, seeks it against them at the same time that he loses himself.

Yet, a conversion can start within passion itself. The cause of the passionate man’s torment is his distance from the object; but he must accept it instead of trying to eliminate it. It is the condition within which the object is disclosed. The individual will then find his joy in the very wrench which separates him from the being of which he makes himself a lack. Thus, in the letters of Mademoiselle de Lespinasse there is constant passing from grief to the assumption of this grief. The lover describes her tears and her tortures, but she asserts that she loves this unhappiness. It is also a source of delight for her. She likes the other to appear as another through her separation. It pleases her to exalt, by her very suffering, that strange existence which she chooses to set up as worthy of any sacrifice. It is only as something strange, forbidden, as something free, that the other is revealed as an other. And to love him genuinely is to love him in his otherness and in that freedom by which he escapes. Love is then renunciation of all possession, of all confusion. One renounces being in order that there may be that being which one is not. Such generosity, moreover, can not be exercised on behalf of any object whatsoever. One can not love a pure thing in its independence and its separation, for the thing does not have positive independence. If a man prefers the land he has discovered to the possession of this land, a painting or a statue to their material presence, it is insofar as they appear to him as possibilities open to other men. Passion is converted to genuine freedom only if one destines his existence to other existences through the being - whether thing or man - at which he aims, without hoping to entrap it in the destiny of the in-itself.

Thus, we see that no existence can be validly fulfilled if it is limited to itself. It appeals to the existence of others. The idea of such a dependence is frightening, and the separation and multiplicity of existants raises highly disturbing problems. One can understand that men who are aware of the risks and the inevitable element of failure involved in any engagement in the world attempt to fulfill themselves outside of the world. Man is permitted to separate himself from this world by contemplation, to think about it, to create it anew. Some men, instead of building their existence upon the indefinite unfolding of time, propose to assert it in its eternal aspect and to achieve it as an absolute. They hope, thereby, to surmount the ambiguity of their condition. Thus, many intellectuals seek their salvation either in critical thought or creative activity.

We have seen that the serious contradicts itself by the fact that not everything can be taken seriously. It slips into a partial nihilism. But nihilism is unstable. It tends to return to the positive. Critical thought attempts to militate everywhere against all aspects of the serious but without foundering in the anguish of pure negation. It sets up a superior, universal, and timeless value, objective truth. And, correlatively, the critic defines himself positively as the independence of the mind. Crystallizing the negative movement of the criticism of values into a positive reality, he also crystallizes the negativity proper to all mind into a positive presence. Thus, he thinks that he himself escapes all earthly criticism. He does not have to choose between the highway and the native, between America and Russia, between production and freedom. He understands, dominates, and rejects, in the name of total truth, the necessarily partial truths which every human engagement discloses. But ambiguity is at the heart of his very attitude, for the independent man is still a man with his particular situation in the world, and what he defines as objective truth is the object of his own choice. His criticisms fall into the world of particular men. He docs not merely describe. He takes sides. If he does not assume the subjectivity of his judgment, he is inevitably caught in the trap of the serious. Instead of the independent mind he claims to be, he is only the shameful servant of a cause to which he has not chosen to rally.

The artist and the writer force themselves to surmount existence in another way. They attempt to realize it as an absolute. What makes their effort genuine is that they do not propose to attain being. They distinguish themselves thereby from an engineer or a maniac. It is existence which they are trying to pin down and make eternal. The word, the stroke, the very marble indicate the object insofar as it is an absence. Only, in the work of art the lack of being returns to the positive. Time is stopped, clear forms and finished meanings rise up. In this return, existence is confirmed and establishes its own justification. This is what Kant said when he defined art as “a finality without end.” By virtue of the fact that he has thus set up an absolute object, the creator is then tempted to consider himself as absolute. He justifies the world and therefore thinks he has no need of anyone to justify himself. If the work becomes an idol whereby the artist thinks that he is fulfilling himself as being, he is closing himself up in the universe of the serious; he is falling into the illusion which Hegel exposed when he described the race Of “intellectual animals.”

There is no way for a man to escape from this world. It is in this world that - avoiding the pitfalls we have just pointed out - he must realize himself morally. Freedom must project itself toward its own reality through a content whose value it establishes. An end is valid only by a return to the freedom which established it and which willed itself through this end. But this will implies that freedom is not to be engulfed in any goal; neither is it to dissipate itself vainly without aiming at a goal. It is not necessary for the subject to seek to be, but it must desire that there be being. To will oneself free and to will that there be being are one and the same choice, the choice that man makes of himself as a presence in the world. We can neither say that the free man wants freedom in order to desire being, nor that he wants the disclosure of being by freedom. These are two aspects of a single reality. And whichever be the one under consideration, they both imply the bond of each man with all others.

This bond does not immediately reveal itself to every. body. A young man wills himself free. He wills that there be being. This spontaneous liberality which casts him ardently into the world can ally itself to what is commonly called egoism. Often the young man perceives only that aspect of his relationship to others whereby others appear as enemies. In the preface to The Inner Experience Georges Bataille emphasizes very forcefully that each individual wants to be All. He sees in every other man and particularly in those whose existence is asserted with most brilliance, a limit, a condemnation of himself. “Each consciousness,” said Hegel, “seeks the death of the other.” And indeed at every moment others are stealing the whole world away from me. The first movement is to hate them.

But this hatred is naive, and the desire immediately struggles against itself. If I were really everything there would be nothing beside me; the world would be empty. There would be nothing to possess, and I myself would be nothing. If he is reasonable, the young man immediately understands that by taking the world away from me, others also give it to me, since a thing is given to me only by the movement which snatches it from me. To will that there be being is also to will that there be men by and for whom the world is endowed with human significations. One can reveal the world only on a basis revealed by other men. No project can be defined except by its interference with other projects. To make being “be” is to communicate with others by means of being.

This truth is found in another form when we say that freedom can not will itself without aiming at an open future. The ends which it gives itself must be unable to be transcended by any reflection, but only the freedom of other men can extend them beyond our life. I have tried to show in Pyrrhus and Cineas that every man needs the freedom of other men and, in a sense, always wants it, even though he may be a tyrant; the only thing he fails to do is to assume honestly the consequences of such a wish. Only the freedom of others keeps each one of us from hardening in the absurdity of facticity. And if we are to believe the Christian myth of creation, God himself was in agreement on this point with the existentialist doctrine since, in the words of an anti-fascist priest, “He had such respect for man that He created him free.”

Thus, it can be seen to what an extent those people are mistaken - or are lying - who try to make of existentialism a solipsism, like Nietzsche, would exalt the bare will to power. According to this interpretation, as widespread as it is erroneous, the individual, knowing himself and choosing himself as the creator of his own values, would seek to impose them on others. The result would be a conflict of opposed wills enclosed in their solitude. But we have seen that, on the contrary, to the extent that passion, pride, and the spirit of adventure lead to this tyranny and its conflicts, existentialist ethics condemns them; and it does so not in the name of an abstract law, but because, if it is true that every project emanates from subjectivity, it is also true that this subjective movement establishes by itself a surpassing of subjectivity. Man can find a justification of his own existence only in the existence of other men. Now, he needs such a justification; there is no escaping it. Moral anxiety does not come to man from without; he finds within himself the anxious question, “What’s the use?” Or, to put it better, he himself is this urgent interrogation. He flees it only by fleeing himself, and as soon as he exists he answers. It may perhaps be said that it is for himself that he is moral, and that such an attitude is egotistical. But there is no ethics against which this charge, which immediately destroys itself, can not be leveled; for how can I worry about what does not concern me? I concern others and they concern me. There we have an irreducible truth. The me-others relationship is as indissoluble as the subject-object relationship.

At the same time the other charge which is often directed at existentialism also collapses: of being a formal doctrine,, incapable of proposing any content to the freedom which it wants engaged. To will oneself free is also to Will others free. This will is not an abstract formula. It points out to each person concrete action to be achieved. But the others are separate, even opposed, and the man of good will sees concrete and difficult problems arising in his relations with them. It is this positive aspect of morality that we are now going to examine.


  The Aesthetic Attitude

  Thus, every man has to do with other men. The world in which he engages himself is a human world in which each object is penetrated with human meanings. It is a speaking world from which solicitations and appeals rise up. This means that, through this world, each individual can give his freedom a concrete content. He must disclose the world with the purpose of further disclosure and by the same movement try to free men, by means of whom the world takes on meaning. But we shall find here the same objection that we met when we examined the abstract moment of individual ethics. If every man is free, he can not will himself free. Likewise the objection will be raised that lie can will nothing for another since that other is free in all circumstances; men are always disclosing being, in Buchenwald as well as in the blue isles of the Pacific, in hovels as well as in palaces; something is always happening in the world, and in the movement of keeping being at a distance, can one not consider its different transformations with a detached joy, or find reasons for acting? No solution is better or worse than any other.

  We may call this attitude aesthetic because the one who adopts it claims to have no other relation with the world than that of detached contemplation; outside of time, and far from men, he faces history, which he thinks he does not belong to, like a pure beholding; this impersonal version equalizes all situations; it apprehends them only in the indifference of their differences; it excludes any preference.

  Thus, the lover of historical works is present at the birth and the downfall of Athens, Rome, and Byzantium with the same serene passion. The tourist considers the arena of the Coliseum, the Latifundia of Syracuse, the thermal baths, the palaces, the temples, the prisons, and the churches with the same tranquil curiosity: these things, existed, that is enough to satisfy him. Why not also consider with impartial interest those that exist today? One finds this temptation among many Italians who are weighed down by a magical and deceptive past; the present already seems to them like a future past. Wars, civil disputes, invasions and slavery have succeeded one another in their land. Each moment of that tormented. history is contradicted by the following one; and yet in the very midst of this vain agitation there arose domes, statues, bas-reliefs, paintings and palaces which have remained intact through the centuries and which still enchant the men of today. One can imagine an intellectual Florentine being skeptical about the great uncertain movements which are stirring up his country and which will die out as did the seethings of the centuries which have gone by: as he sees it, the important thing is merely to understand the temporary events and through them to cultivate that beauty which perishes not. Many Frenchmen also sought relief in this thought in 1940 and the years which followed. “Let’s try to take the point of view of history,” they said upon learning that the Germans had entered Paris. And during the whole occupation certain intellectuals sought to keep “aloof from the fray” and to consider impartially contingent facts which did not concern them.

  But we note at once that such an attitude appears in moments of discouragement and confusion; in fact, it is a position of withdrawal, a way of fleeing the truth of the present. As concerns the past, this eclecticism is legitimate; we are no longer in a live situation in regard to Athens, Sparta, or Alexandria, and the very idea of a choice has no meaning. But the present is not a potential past; it is the moment of choice and action; we can not avoid living it through a project; and there is no project which is purely contemplative since one always projects himself toward something, toward the future; to put oneself “outside” is still a way of living the inescapable fact that one is inside; those French intellectuals who, in the name of history, poetry, or art, sought to rise above the drama of the age, were willy-nilly its actors more or less explicitly, they were playing the occupier’s game. Likewise, the Italian aesthete, occupied in caressing the marbles and bronzes of Florence, is playing a political role in the life of his country by his very inertia. One can not justify all that is by asserting that everything may equally be the object of contemplation, since man never contemplates: he does.

  It is for the artist and the writer that the problem is raised in a particularly acute and at the same time equivocal manner, for then one seeks to set up the, indifference of human situations not in the name of pure contemplation, but of a definite project: the creator projects toward the work of art a subject which he justifies insofar as it is the matter of this work; any subject may thus be admitted, a massacre as well as a masquerade. This ae

CONCLUSION, pp. 156-159


Is this kind of ethics individualistic or not? Yes, if one means by that that it accords to the individual an absolute value and that it recognizes in him alone the power of laying the foundations of his own existence. It is individualism in the sense in which the wisdom of the ancients, the Christian ethics of salvation, and the Kantian ideal of virtue also merit this name; it is opposed to the totalitarian doctrines which raise up beyond man the mirage of Mankind. But it is not solipsistic, since the individual is defined only by his relationship to the world and to other individuals; he exists only by transcending himself, and his freedom can be achieved only through the freedom of others. He justifies his existence by a movement which, like freedom, springs from his heart but which leads outside of him.

This individualism does not lead to the anarchy of personal whim. Man is free; but he finds his law in his very freedom. First, lie must assume his freedom and not flee it by a constructive movement: one does not exist without doing something; and also by a negative movement which rejects oppression for oneself and others. In construction, as in rejection, it is a matter of reconquering freedom on the contingent facticity of existence, that is, of taking the given, which, at the start, is there without any reason, as something willed by man.

A conquest of this kind is never finished; the contingency remains, and, so that he may assert his will, man is even obliged to stir up in the world the outrage he does not want. But this element of failure is a very condition of his life; one can never dream of eliminating it without immediately dreaming of death. This does not mean that one should consent to failure, but rather one must consent to struggle against it without respite.

Yet, isn’t this battle without victory pure gullibility? It will be argued that this is only a ruse of transcendence projecting before itself a goal which constantly recedes, running after itself on an endless treadmill; to exist for Mankind is to remain where one is, and it fools itself by calling this turbulent stagnation progress; our whole ethics does nothing but encourage it in this lying enterprise since we are asking each one to confirm existence as a value for all others; isn’t it simply a matter of organizing among men a complicity which allows them to substitute a game of illusions for the given world?

We have already attempted to answer this objection. One can formulate it only by placing himself on the grounds of an inhuman and consequently false objectivity; within Mankind men may be fooled; the word “lie” has a meaning by opposition to the truth established by men themselves, but Mankind can not fool itself completely since it is precisely Mankind which creates the criteria of true and false. In Plato, art is mystification because there is the heaven of Ideas; but in the earthly domain all glorification of the earth is true as soon as it is realized. Let men attach value to words, forms, colors, mathematical theorems, physical laws, and athletic prowess; let them accord value to one another in love and friendship, and the objects, the events, and the men immediately have this value; they have it absolutely. It is possible that a man may refuse to love anything on earth; he will prove this refusal and he will carry it out by suicide. If he lives, the reason is that, whatever he may say, there still remains in him some attachment to existence; his life will be commensurate with this attachment; it will justify itself to the extent that it genuinely justifies the world.

This justification, though open upon the entire universe through time and space, will always be finite. Whatever one may do, one never realizes anything but a limited work, like existence itself which tries to establish itself through that work and which death also limits. It is the assertion of our finiteness which doubtless gives the doctrine which we have just evoked its austerity and, in some eyes, its sadness. As soon as one considers a system abstractly and theoretically, one puts himself, in effect, on the plane of the universal, thus, of the infinite. That is why reading the Hegelian system is so comforting. I remember having experienced a great feeling of calm on reading Hegel in the impersonal framework of the Bibliotheque Nationale in August 1940. But once I got into the street again, into my life, out of the system, beneath a real sky, the system was no longer of any use to me: what it had offered me, under a show of the infinite, was the consolations of death; and I again wanted to live in the midst of living men. I think that, inversely, existentialism does not offer to the reader the consolations of an abstract evasion: existentialism proposes no evasion. On the contrary, its ethics is experienced in the truth of life, and it then appears as the only proposition of salvation which one can address to men. Taking on its own account Descartes’ revolt against the evil genius, the pride of the thinking reed in the face of the universe which crushes him, it asserts that, despite his limits, through them, it is up to each one to fulfill his existence as an absolute. Regardless of the staggering dimensions of the world about us, the density of our ignorance, the risks of catastrophes to come, and our individual weakness within the immense collectivity, the fact remains that we are absolutely free today if we choose to will our existence in its finiteness, a finiteness which is open on the infinite. And in fact, any man who has known real loves, real revolts, real desires, and real will knows quite well that he has no need of any outside guarantee to be sure of his goals; their certitude comes from his own drive. There is a very old saying which goes: “Do what you must, come what may.” That amounts to saying in a different way that the result is not external to the good will which fulfills itself in aiming at it. If it came to be that each man did what he must, existence would be saved in each one without there being any need of dreaming of a paradise where all would be reconciled in death.

For my own part I can’t see how the conclusions that pansychism offers are any more satisfying than materialism or any other metaphysical position. Granted, we can never prove the existence of an objective reality independent of our senses, nor can I prove that other minds exist outside my own. But what of it?

We equally cannot prove that the fundamental building blocks of the physical universe possess any kind of mentalistic property whatsoever, so where does that leave us? If I take Occam’s Razor as a viable principle, then multipying the existence of properties I cannot prove seems like a fairly pointless exercise. 

When faced with a large information gap and rational uncertainty most people will tend to rely on their own intuitions, so it seems perfectly understandable that materialism is seen by many athiests and agnostics as a safer default assumption. Where as pansychism, rightly or wrongly, is often seen as a detour into outright mysticism. In the absence of concrete evidence I don’t think its naive for people to adopt positions which are essentially philisophically aesthetic in nature.

Meaning is produced by the brain, increases in dopamine levels make life seem more meaningful (increase your motivation for objectifications relative to sense of self).

@iPan I’m inclined to agree with Axiom here. I doubt that the issue is as black and white as you seem to be claiming. That said, I agree that naïveté plays a role in making nihilist attitudes seem more convincing than they really are. It’s not only that people don’t have the time to pote over these issues: in general they lack the inclination and/or intellectual capacity to do so. (Which is not to say they are more stupid, only that they have a different kind of intelligence.)

@Abolitionist It’s not only about dopamine though. It’s also about the sense, often conveyed by our upbringing, that there should be a more objective basis for meaning than there is, and the disillusionment (and dopamine deficit?) that occurs when we realise that there isn’t.

Peter Wicks ;

How do you qualify the statement that there is no objective basis for meaning?

I mean that there is no absolute law telling us how we should behave, what we should value, what we should find significant, or beautiful, or true, or good. It’s up to us.

@ Peter Wicks

There is what I would call “intellectual evolution”, both mentally and physically. Scientifically, morally, philosophically, politically and physically the mind has been evolving.

The way I see it is that if you are a mind you are something rather than nothing. We should value this somethingness over nothingness. While my above statements cannot be logically defined in an equation I just think they are common sense. Value can only be acquired by a mind, not nothingness, therefore what should we value? We should at the very least value somethingness even if that somethingness is a very complex emergent system with an identity/self/ego/consciousness.

Im not claiming that we should value complex systems over simple ones, what I am saying is that we should value the “I”, “We”, and the somethingness of consciousness.

Peter Wicks ;

I think a universal trait of humanity is that we seek to avoid suffering and death and seek happiness and life.

People may have beliefs about reality - such a an afterlife and thus are willing to die for something - but the underlying behavior is the same.

Also, the sense of self can become merged with something greater than itself - but still the value of life/happiness endures.

Behavioral psychology has done a good job of teasing apart what is essential within human nature.

These unconscious laws that govern our behavior are not up to us at this point in time.


Yes, I think that corresponds quite closely to my own view, the main difference being that I would be a bit more cautious in using the word “should”. That is to say, it makes sense also to me to value somethingness over nothingness, and I think it is the choice that comes most naturally to most of us, once we strip away the various other learned but non evidence-based beliefs.

As you say, statements like this cannot be logically defined in an equation - this was Hume’s key insight of course - but we tend to be happier when we follow such advice. This is the sense in which I could say that such statements are “true”. It’s not that we “should”, in any absolute sense, but if we are to go on living at all (which most of us, most of them time, want to) then it’s what we’re doing in practice anyway. So we might as well make our professed values consistent with our actual behaviour, which tends (on the whole) to involve self-preservation and growth.

By the way this reminds me of previous thoughts I’ve had about what it means to “want” something (which is not dissimilar in meaning from “valuing” something), and I’ve identified at least three meanings: there’s what you think (or say) you want, there’s what you are actively striving for, and there’s what would make you happy if you got it. Often the three are woefully misaligned.


See my response to Kris. I agree that behavioural psychology has done a good job at teasing out what is (currently) essential in human nature, and that there are therefore unconscious laws that, in general at least, govern our behaviour. (There can be exceptions of course.)

I also believe that free will is essentially a matter of perspective. I don’t really see any obvious place for free will (notwithstanding chaos theory and quantum uncertainty) in a purely scientific worldview that seeks to understand the universe in its entirety, and ourselves as part of that wider system. But from the equally valid perspective of ourselves as agent, interacting with the rest of the universe, free will is an essential concept, the existence of which we affirm each time we make a decision.

And from this second perspective, notwithstanding the unconscious laws, we have a choice, as soon as we become aware of those laws, to what extent we want to submit to those laws and to what extent we want to rebel against them. Note also that our unconscious desires and urges are often contradictory and self-defeating. For example, the death wish or urge to self-harm, running in direct opposition to the (usually stronger) survival instinct, cannot be rationalised away as the result of a belief about reality or transcendent sense of self. What is clear is that conscious rebellion against our natural (including social, of course) instincts is likely to increase cognitive dissonance, while “going with the flow” and just trying to put some order into the chaos of conflicting urges and desires seems to be a surer recipe for well-being and successful living. I just don’t think we need to make a “should” out of it.

Axiom says:

“We equally cannot prove that the fundamental building blocks of the physical universe possess any kind of mentalistic property whatsoever, so where does that leave us? If I take Occam’s Razor as a viable principle, then multipying the existence of properties I cannot prove seems like a fairly pointless exercise.”


However, if we cannot demonstrate any part of reality independent from awareness, then doesn’t Occam’s Razor favor, at bare minimum, solipsism?

The first thing we realize, and at least in my mind the origin of cogito ergo sum, is that is impossible by any standard of empiricism to demonstrate any part of existence as being independent from the awareness of the person performing the demonstration.

Demonstration itself implies an awareness on the part of the person doing the demonstration.

So, back to empiricism.



Empiricism is a theory of knowledge that asserts that knowledge comes only or primarily from sensory experience. One of several views of epistemology, the study of human knowledge, along with rationalism, idealism and historicism, empiricism emphasizes the role of experience and evidence, especially sensory perception, in the formation of ideas, over the notion of innate ideas or traditions.[1]
Empiricism in the philosophy of science emphasizes evidence, especially as discovered in experiments. It is a fundamental part of the scientific method that all hypotheses and theories must be tested against observations of the natural world rather than resting solely on a priori reasoning, intuition, or revelation.


So, science is largely based upon empirical evidence (data, etc.) BUT empirical evidence is based upon our senses, or our awareness.

Therefore, the simplest explanation would be solipsism.

Starting at that point (solipsist), in my explorations, I slowly began to branch out until the world seemed more panpsychic than anything else (or, more accurately, if I wanted to put a finer point on it: protopanexperientialist) - which isn’t in contradiction to the fundamental solipsist position at all, it’s just a refinement of it.

Occam’s Razor is powerful because it helps us to explain and predict events, and develop technologies based on our enhanced understanding. It works because it injects some much-needed discipline into our otherwise Baroque tendency to multiply complexity in our explanations, without bothering to check whether such complexity is justified by the evidence. (Think, for example, how creative the ancient Greeks were with their Gods.)

The question that occurs to me, however, is whether Occam’s Razor can be taken too far. Can we become so obsessed with finding the simplest explanation compatible with the available evidence that we actually become LESS capable of explaining and predicting events, and developing new technologies? After all, surely the simplest explanation of all is, “It just is”.

I’m asking this precisely because I can see your point: Occam’s Razor leads you to solipsismand thence to some kind of panpsychism or similar. But in the spirit of the above the question then becomes: what do you DO with such a belief system? How does it help you?

“The question that occurs to me, however, is whether Occam’s Razor can be taken too far. Can we become so obsessed with finding the simplest explanation compatible with the available evidence that we actually become LESS capable of explaining and predicting events, and developing new technologies? After all, surely the simplest explanation of all is, “It just is”.”


Occam’s razor should be appended to the “simplest explanation we have so far!” And used as a tool for progress.

If we apply Greek mythological complexity to the existence and nature of atoms, then their’s was the simplest viewpoint - it is only with hindsight, (empiricism as iPan highlights), that we find we cannot apply Occam’s razor, so here it is invalid and incorrect!

Rather than envisioning and elaborating complexity when it is not there, humans are inclined to lean towards simple answers and solutions. Yet this is merely ignorance of our behalf - the emergence of complexity and diversity in the Universe, first cause, biological evolution, and emergent human intelligence is not so simple to explain at all.

Just because science applies a hypothesis in the tradition of Occam’s razor, does not make it valid or give it authority. In the case of “Big Bang” and first cause, this “something from nothing” attitude is just merely opinion and further speculation.

Panpsychism, rather than being a complex and superfluous hypothesis, seems rational, especially if we contemplate Consciousness as natural phenomenon or effect/affect, and that human phenomenological consciousness is merely the layered complexity of this. But then, I am still applying the simplicity of Occam’s Razor to propose this hypothesis.

Human minds are limited - the “possibility” of an artilect, (God if you will), is not a future impossibility. The possibility of this Universe as created and orchestrated is also not a impossibility, (although I do not necessarily believe this myself).

“Occam’s Razor is powerful because it helps us to explain and predict events, and develop technologies based on our enhanced understanding.”

And another powerful tool is to keep and open mind, otherwise we close ourselves to imagination, that is also a very powerful tool of creativity.

Do you want to keep suffering and dying against your will?

Do you want others to be subjected to this as well?

Do you want to be happier?

cut through the intellectual games with your truth

@Abolitionist No. No. Yes. But where does this get us exactly?

Rather than say that we tend to lean towards simple answers, I would say we have two complementary tendencies: one being to lean towards simple answers, the other to invent complexity. We certainly do envision and elaborate complexity when it is not there, but then we also have the iconoclastic urge to strip away that complexity and look for the simple explanations. Science progresses as a creative tension between the two.

Against this perspective, Occam’s Razor can be seen as a formalisation of this simplifying urge, and as such it is part, but by no means the whole, of the scientific method. The scientific method also requires creative theorising (better known as speculation) and evidence-gathering (both to become aware of new unexplained phenomena and to test our theories).

Certainly Greek mythology is simpler than the standard model, and also as the benefit of being possible for non-mathematicians to understand. The “hindsight” that you refer to is, of course, the acquisition of evidence. But between Greek mythology and the standard model there has been a whole process. Plato was a simplification of the polytheistic worldview, and while Christianity is more complex than Platonism it is still simpler than polytheism.

I agree that panpsychism seems rational as an application of Occam’s Razor, and seems more compatible with evidence than naïve materialism. But still my question remains: how does it help us?

“Since we do not succeed in fleeing it, let us therefore try to look the truth in the face. Let us try to assume our fundamental ambiguity. It is in the knowledge of the genuine conditions of our life that we must draw our strength to live and our reason for acting.”

Yes indeed, this is a philosophy of humanism is it not? The Buddha was a humanist? Is even any religion devoid of humanism? What’s the argument here?

“It was by affirming the irreducible character of ambiguity that Kierkegaard opposed himself to Hegel”

Remind me, is Kierkegaard one of the new romantics who opposed Hegel’s view of the world spirit as greater than the individual, thus rendering the individual as the lesser in value?

“But it is also claimed that existentialism is a philosophy of the absurd and of despair. It encloses man in a sterile anguish, in an empty subjectivity.”

“Man, Sartre tells us, is “a being who makes himself a lack of being in order that there might be being.” That means, first of all, that his passion is not inflicted upon him from without.”

This is no less than Buddhism proposes, the Buddha must surely be recognised as a founding existentialist? Subjectivity is the new norm in contemporary understanding, even for a layman. (A child in their innocence must be offered something more to explain his/her own subjectivity and to nurture greater understanding for and within him/herself, and to question for themselves as to the ontological meaning of existence).

“Does not Sartre declare, in effect, that man is a “useless passion,” that he tries in vain to realize the synthesis of the for-oneself and the in-oneself, to make himself God?”

“Man’s passion is useless; he has no means for becoming tile being that he is not. That too is true. And it is also true that in Being and Nothingness Sartre has insisted above all on the abortive aspect of the human adventure.”

This negativity is not good, nor rational. Nor is this valid in light of the coming techno-logical enterprise and singularity?

“There is an original type of attachment to being which is not the relationship “wanting to be” but rather wanting to disclose being.”

“This means that man, in his vain attempt to be God, makes himself exist as man, and if he is satisfied with this existence, he coincides exactly with himself.”

Very important point - thus if there is no objective God, then God is the measure of man, in the mind of man. God, (the ideal), has thus been established in the image of Man, ( yet this is assuming causation without reference and respect to correlation perhaps? The mystery is still not resolved as to the anguish or whence from the striving for the ideal?)

The notion of perfection has been debated as a priori, and Descartes himself based his rationale of the existence of God of the proposition that the ideal, this notion of perfection, (objectivity), could not arise from the imperfect, (not a view I particularly hold myself), but it does beg the question as to why this notion of the perfect ideal arises - it is not logical that it emerges from subjective viewpoints and worldview? And certainly not by any validation from the senses?

“But it is possible for him to want this tension even with the failure which it involves. His being is lack of being, but this lack has a way of being which is precisely existence.”

In other words pinch me please? Without the pinch I am nothing, (no thing?)

“In Hegelian terms it might be said that we have here a negation of the negation by which the positive is re-established.”

Ha! - I have not comment for this

” When a man projects into an ideal heaven that impossible synthesis of the for-itself and the in-itself that is called God, it is because he wishes the regard of this existing Being to change his existence into being; but if he agrees not to be in order to exist genuinely, he will abandon the dream of an inhuman objectivity.”

Yet this is only one view of immortality as pertaining to man’s completion of himself through transcendence and communion with God in heaven? An objective striving which I would also say is futile. Yet what of this striving for the ideal as a form and expression of human existence, (of Humanism)? And as the solution to angst, (defined through ethical value of love, and of striving for the Universal ethic?). And as the solution to finding existential “meaning” for this subjective notion of spirit, (ego, that we must still embrace as real and manifest, and yet useful)?

It is the ego that strives, not the aggregate of mind - for this we must differentiate the search for truth of meaning of existence, from the truth of meaning of potential, (of existence)?

The striving for the objective, the ideal, is yet another form of suffering expressed through craving and grasping, yet this suffering, (and failure), as described here, is yet still the measure of the value of existence? So what is the difference between those that strive for the objective ideal, (of truth), and those that do not? There seems little weight to this argument?

Yet all needles point to angst as derived from a root cause - identity crises? (who am I? yadda, yadda, yadda).

Subsection - identity crises..

“To attain his truth, man must not attempt to dispel the ambiguity of his being but, on the contrary, accept the task of realizing it. He rejoins himself only to the extent that he agrees to remain at a distance from himself.”

“He will understand that it is not a matter of being right in the eyes of a God, but of being right in his own eyes.”

“It is human existence which makes values spring up in the world on the basis of which it win be able to judge the enterprise in which it will be engaged.”

Indeed, man is yet still more than the sum of his parts? The worldview, the subjectivity of experience and the potential, this is still the measure of man? Man is the measure of all things, (to man?) The positive also defines man and his subjective relationship with existence. To negate and define angst merely in terms of what man cannot be, is not sufficient for uncovering “truth” of ontological meaning?

“Each one has the incomparable taste in his mouth of his own life, and yet each feels himself more insignificant than an insect within the immense collectivity whose limits are one with the earth’s.”

Root cause - identity crises

Sorry.. not more time to reflect and comment on this lengthy treatise at present - work to do!

Rule of thumb, take caution in any thesis and declaration such as “this is true”.



“However, if we cannot demonstrate any part of reality independent from awareness, then doesn’t Occam’s Razor favor, at bare minimum, solipsism?”

Well you may be right here IPan, and I know that you’ve made similar points at and elsewhere, but I just can’t see how solipsism can become a useful starting point to anything. Once you embrace solipsism as a viable position your pretty much stuck there, and ‘branching out’ surely becomes an impossibility. Making your way to pansychism or protopanexperientialism becomes little more than an excercise in a priori conjecture, completely independent of any ‘external’ information. Indeed as soon as we reject empirical findings as unreliable we destroy any chance of ever proving pansychism with evidence, other than our own subjective assumptions.

In regards Occams Razor, like Peter, I think it has been an invaluable conceptual tool which has allowed us to approach difficult issues from a more rigorous angle than would otherwise be the case. Clearly it has its limits. There are undoubtably numerous situations where it is unapplicable or has been an utter hindrance to developing alternative frameworks.

However, overall I think it has been a useful mechanism and a good place to start. Don’t get me wrong, human imagination and creativity is vital, and some of the greatest scientific insights have come from people precisly disdaining of such principles and willing to think outside the box. But as has often been said, too much of an open mind CAN allow your brain to fall out. The constant refining of the distinction between the probable and the improbable has been a core tenant of the scientific quest and it would be strange for us to dismiss it so lightly.

This ties back in to the contention that pansychism is explanitively superior to materialism. The one thing I think materialism has over pansychist theories, despite the reductionist paradigm being based more on philosophy than evidence, is its usefulness in facillitating scientific and technological development. Regardless of our personal opinions, the track record of materialism in quantifying phenomenon has been fairly comprehensive. As Peter has already indicated, the question is what would a pansychist worldview offer humanity that would warrant abandoning a system which for all practical purposes is still functional?

“I agree that panpsychism seems rational as an application of Occam’s Razor, and seems more compatible with evidence than naïve materialism. But still my question remains: how does it help us?”

“As Peter has already indicated, the question is what would a pansychist worldview offer humanity that would warrant abandoning a system which for all practical purposes is still functional?”

Why would panpsychism negate from any thing? The philosophy enhances a view towards materialism and I would go further to say that it enhances and explanation of existence.

Hinduism proposes consciousness as an “Impartial” phenomenon, It is not the eye that sees, it is seeing? Buddhism proposes consciousness as?...


Let’s start with the idea that everything we think may be wrongly meaningless.

OK, somewhere does that get us? Should we stop thinking? Easier said than done, and in any case thinking can be fun.

So let’s not stop thinking, but what then?

One thing we CAN do is to practise techniques aimed at helping us to see our thoughts as separate from ourselves, so that it becomes less traumatic to accept that they may be wrong (or meaningless), and consequently to embrace alternative beliefs. But as Axiom says, we don’t want our brains to leak out: most of us value a degree of consistency and integrity over…well, flip-flopping.

Speaking personally, panpsychism is a relatively new concept for me (not to mention “protopanexperientialism”, which I seem to remember looking up once, but I don’t remember what it was), so maybe I just need to play around with it some more.

As Giulio Prisco has pointed out in reponse to Lincoln Cannon’s “integrate your ideology” article, one can hold two conflicting belief systems that one applies in different circumstances without necessarily trying to reconcile them. The history of science is replete with examples. So perhaps we can embrace panpsychism as a complementary perspective to materialism, without actually abandoning the latter?

Similarly, when we take the many-worlds interpretation of quantum theory seriously we can easily lose our sense that there is one future to which we are heading, and which we can influence. Even if we don’t, we might take a more determinist view (whether based on Calvinist theology or Newtonian/Penrosian realism). And yet that sense that we are heading towards one future (not several), and that we can freely influence (if not always control) that future underpins virtually all our practical (as opposed to theoretical) thinking. And at that practical level, we are most definitely materialist to some degree.

Understanding the interconnectedness of everything and seeing God (or consciousness) in every stone doesn’t help you kill the goat for food.

And in case anyone protests that we shouldn’t be killing goats for food, let me add that a degree of materialistic thinking seems to underpin most ideological (or other) commitments to veganism. If we do it for our health, then it’s because of our materialist conception of cause, effect, and our own biology. If to prevent suffering of sentient beings, surely it is our materialistic conception of what constitutes sentience that makes us assume that a goat can suffer, but not a carrot?

Well, I think that understanding the correct metaphysic and theory of mind may help us on our path to machine consciousness and merging.

“As Giulio Prisco has pointed out in reponse to Lincoln Cannon’s “integrate your ideology” article, one can hold two conflicting belief systems that one applies in different circumstances without necessarily trying to reconcile them. The history of science is replete with examples. So perhaps we can embrace panpsychism as a complementary perspective to materialism, without actually abandoning the latter?”

Just a couple of points here:

1) We don’t necessarily need to call panpsychism a “belief system”. What I’ve been trying to point out, is that using the usual criteria of established science (which is generally empiricism - although it’s not that simple) we reach the logical conclusion that we cannot demonstrate, not even in principle, any reality or part of reality that is independent of our awareness of it, as demonstration intrinsically implies awareness of…...Hence, solipsism, at least logically, is the strongest, most unassailable metaphysical position to take. Now, many people don’t sit well with this, due to it’s implications, but nonetheless, it’s impossible to ignore. I have pointed out that I’ve found ways to extend from fundamental solipsism towards panprotoexperientialism, but that’s another process, and probably another article to comment on: I merely wanted to include the fact that, although solipsism is the strongest position, I have found alternative paths to expand beyond it (but those paths are not naive materialism).

2) The second point is that panpsychism is not antithetical to materialism.

Physicalism and materialism
Reductive physicalism, a form of monism, is incompatible with panpsychism. Materialism, if held to be distinct from physicalism, is compatible with panpsychism insofar as mental properties are attributed to physical matter, which is the only basic substance.

No form of panpsychism attributes full, human-style consciousness to the fundamental constituents of the universe, therefore all versions need a certain amount of emergence—that is, weak emergence, in which more sophisticated versions of basic properties emerge at a higher level. No version of panpsychism requires strong emergence, in which high-level properties do not have any low-level precursors or basis, and instead emerge “from nothing”. Indeed, avoidance of strong emergentism is one of the motivations for panpsychism.


The thrust of my argument is less about contradicting materialism, and more about advancing non-dualism (which includes bringing science/physics/cosmology into the fold of more traditional non-dualism, such as Taoism).

But then I’m wondering how successful panpsychism really is at making non-dualism work. It seems to me that non-dualism, which I’m going to take roughly to mean an emphasis on the interconnectedness of all things. i.e. the fundamental unity of existence, serves the function (at least for some people) of providing a sense of transcendence, why also involves the (essential for scientific and technological progress) ability to transcend compartmentalised thinking. But dualism of various kinds is also essential, since to make sense of the world we also need to be able to divide and categorise, and not only see everything as one big blur.

From the wiki extract quoted by iPan it seems that a key issue here is strong vs weak emergence. My question, in particular as far as consciousness is concerned, is: do we have any particularly good reason to want to reject strong emergence? There seems to be so much evidence of strong emergence all around us (think of crystallisation as an example), that I don’t really see why we shouldn’t embrace it in the case of consciousness as well.

With regard to machine consciousness and merging, my guess is that this will depend more on technical issues than metaphysics. And I’m certainly not saying by this that metaphysics don’t have practical relevance (such as the one I’ve just mentioned: they influence how we see the world, and therefore how we behave), I’m just not sure that the direct effect on technological progress is likely to be that pronounced?

“do we have any particularly good reason to want to reject strong emergence?”

Not only is there no evidence, there can never be any evidence. Strong emergence is unfalsifiable. This is the point I was making about demonstrability: Demonstrating ANY part of reality as independent from awareness is IMPOSSIBLE even in principle, as the act of demonstrating requires an aware demonstrator, thus awareness, at least logically, cannot be extricated from reality.

“With regard to machine consciousness and merging, my guess is that this will depend more on technical issues than metaphysics.”

Panpsychism has led me to the viewpoint that we are more likely to see an emergent hyper intelligence from evolutionary processes (sped up by digital technology), say for example the internet spontaneously gaining sentience (though this is not the only possibility), rather than someone building an AGI from scratch.

Here is a great e-book/website on non-dualism for the more scientifically minded:

Thanks for the links iPan.

I’m not sure why the lack of evidence point applies specifically to strong emergence. I take the point that we can’t demonstrate the existence of reality as separate from awareness - I agree with that - but in practice we do assume it, which is the point I was making earlier, and one of the reasons we assume it is that there seem to be constraints on the extent to which we can control the environment that we perceive, and yet we also seem to be able to influence in some way, and at tmes in quite predictable ways. I think it is this interplay between influence and lack of influence that ultimately gives us the idea that there is a reality independent from our own awareness, even though we cannot demonstrate this. And once we have decided to take this on faith, the evidence seems (to me) to point to strong emergence rather than panpsychism. And if we don’t take it on faith then I don’t really have any evidence for anything. It’s like the idea that the past is useful as a guide to the future: we can’t prove that either, but it’s impossible to intervene effectively in the world (even at the level of getting out of bed in the morning) without assuming this.

On emergent hyper intelligence, I can well believe that ideas such as panpsychism can inspire fresh thinking on such issues, so yes I accept this as a valid answer to my question “how does this idea help you?”. Of course, an idea can be helpful and still be wrong. By the way I’m inclined to agree with you about emergent hyper intelligence, despite not being convinced by panpsychism. I certainly don’t think panpsychism is a logical consequence of believing that emergent hyper intelligence is more likely than “someone building an AGI from scratch”. I think one just has to look at the way technology is going, and understand how delocalised, distributed systems/object emerge once the bandwidth of connection between local intelligences becomes sufficiently wide.


Well, the point is about falsifiability.

Falsifiability or refutability of an assertion, hypothesis or theory is the logical possibility that it can be contradicted by an observation or the outcome of a physical experiment. That something is “falsifiable” does not mean it is false; rather, that if it is false, then some observation or experiment will produce a reproducible result that is in conflict with it.

For example, the assertion that “all swans are white” is falsifiable, because it is empirically verifiable that there are swans that are not white. However, not all statements that are falsifiable in principle are falsifiable in practice.[1] For example, “it will be raining here in one million years” is theoretically falsifiable, but not practically so.

The concept was made popular by Karl Popper, who, in his philosophical criticism of the popular positivist view of the scientific method, concluded that a hypothesis, proposition, or theory talks about the observable only if it is falsifiable.


What I’ve shown is that the claim that any part of reality can be demonstrated independently from awareness is not simply unfalsified at the current time, but in principle cannot be falsified, therefore this claim cannot, even in principle, EVER find any evidence for itself.

As you point out, it is accepted as an article of faith.

Therefore, the claim that reality, or any part of it, is or could be independent of awareness is on par with religion.

That leaves us with solipsism. Personally, I have managed to extend the solipsist view a little further, into panprotoexperientialism, but it took some work to do.

Either way, the point here is about whether some perspective is true or not.

You say:

“And once we have decided to take this on faith,...”

And my retort is: I don’t take things on faith.

So, here’s where we’re at: using our best logic and metaphysics, we have learned that we can never, not even in principle, collect any evidence whatsoever for the materialistic paradigm.

That, at best, we are left with evidence of solipsism, and perhaps by extension some form of panpsychism (since solipsism itself is essentially a kind of panpsychism - everything is “mind”)

You can talk about faith, but if we want to talk about truth, or about evidence and proofs, then this is where we’re at.

If anyone knows of a process that can overcome this, then let me know.

*On emerging intelligences: the reason I think panpsychism points to emergent intelligences, rather than constructed ones, as you say:

“delocalised, distributed systems/object emerge once the bandwidth of connection between local intelligences becomes sufficiently wide”

because it is not necessary to build in subjectivity/consciousness/first person perspective etc.

In other words, nature has already done the very hard part for us, because consciousness (in the panpsychic sense) is already built into the fundamental fabric of spacetime. Because this is already a basic property of everything, all we have to do is evolve it - we don’t need to create it from scratch (as AGI wants to do).

For example:

Enter Siri

Actually, the first generation of intelligent agents is here and her name is Siri.

Siri, what Apple calls their intelligent personal assistant, is very different from the Google app on your smart phone where you ask for directions or a restaurant and it provides search results. While Google search is intelligent and works very well, Siri gives you an actual agent to interact with.

Siri has a woman’s voice; it has a personality; it can even give you some humor. Essentially, it’s an audio avatar. And if we look to the future a little further out, it’s obvious that soon we’ll be able to see Siri’s face (or visual representation) on a smart phone, tablet, computer, or even TV screen.

Of course, Siri was just the beginning. In no time at all we saw an Android version of Siri, and as you already know, there will be many others.

So what makes Siri an UIEA versus the Google app many of you use on your smart phone? Siri and her competitors are linked to a super-computer in the cloud that can tap into all of the world’s databases and news feeds. It has access to increasing amounts of information coming from everywhere. This is about machines talking to machines and sensors all communicating through the internet. In addition, it’s connected to our personal computing devices with access, granted by you, to your calendar, contacts, and more. All the data goes to a super-computer that feeds into our ultra-intelligent agent, which can then give us the actionable knowledge that’s pertinent to us.

@iPan I find your claim that you don’t take things on faith somewhat amusing. We all take things on faith.

As I said in my previous comment, at the very least you have to take on faith the (equally unfalsifiable) claim that the past gives some guide to the future.

After getting up this morning I came downstairs to make myself a cup of coffee. At least I think I did. Strictly speaking I don’t know that. I think I’m typing words in a comment box on my iPad, but strictly speaking I don’t know that. Maybe it really is all a hallucination.

On my (possibly imagined) past experience, if I were to go upstairs and actually get my glasses (which I remember, or perhaps imagine, having bought a few years ago to correct a mild astigmatism) then I’d be able to see more clearly and would be less likely to get a headache as a result of (apparently) writing this comment. But I don’t know that.

If you don’t think you take things on faith, it’s because you lack the imagination to truly doubt.

“As I said in my previous comment, at the very least you have to take on faith the (equally unfalsifiable) claim that the past gives some guide to the future.”

Eternalism is a philosophical approach to the ontological nature of time, which takes the view that all points in time are equally “real”, as opposed to the presentist idea that only the present is real.[1] Modern advocates often take inspiration from the way time is modeled as a dimension in the theory of relativity, giving time a similar ontology to that of space (although the basic idea dates back at least to McTaggart’s B-Theory of time, first published in The Unreality of Time in 1908, only three years after the first paper on relativity). This would mean that time is just another dimension, that future events are “already there”, and that there is no objective flow of time. It is sometimes referred to as the “block time” or “block universe” theory due to its description of space-time as an unchanging four-dimensional “block”,[2] as opposed to the view of the world as a three-dimensional space modulated by the passage of time.

The B-theory of time is a term, given to one of two positions taken by theorists, in the philosophy of time. The labels, A-theory and B-theory, are derived from the analysis of time and change developed by Cambridge philosopher J. M. E. McTaggart in The Unreality of Time, in which events are ordered via a tensed A-series or a tenseless B-series.

Events (or ‘times’), McTaggart observed, may be characterized in two distinct, but related, ways. On the one hand they can be characterized as past, present or future, normally indicated in natural languages such as English by the verbal inflection of tenses or auxiliary adverbial modifiers. Alternatively events may be described as earlier than, simultaneous with, or later than others. Philosophers are divided as to whether the tensed or tenseless mode of expressing temporal fact is fundamental. Those who (like Arthur Prior[1]) take the tensed notions associated with the past, present and future to be the irreducible foundations of temporality and our conceptions of temporal fact, are called A-theorists (or presentists). A-theorists deny that past, present and future are equally real, and maintain that the future is not fixed and determinate like the past. Those who wish to eliminate all talk of past, present and future in favour of a tenseless ordering of events are called B-theorists. B-theorists (such as D.H. Mellor[2] and J.J.C. Smart[3]) believe that the past the present and the future are equally real.
The past, the present and the future feature vary differently in deliberation and reflection. We remember the past and anticipate the future, for example, but not vice versa. B-theorists maintain that the fact that we know much less about the future simply reflects an epistemological difference between the future and the past: the future is no less real than the past; we just know less about it (Mellor 1998). A view was held, for example by Quine and Putnam that physical theories such as special relativity, and latterly Quantum mechanics provide the B-theory with compelling support. [4] [5]
A-theorists on the other hand believe that a satisfactory account of time must acknowledge a fundamental metaphysical difference between past, present and future (Prior 2003). The difference between A-theorists and B-theorists is often described as a dispute about temporal passage or ‘becoming’. B-theorists argue that this notion embodies serious confusion about time, while many A-theorists argue that in rejecting temporal ‘becoming’, B-theorists reject time’s most vital and distinctive characteristic. It is common (though not universal) to identify A-theorists’ views with belief in temporal passage.
It is also common (though not universal) for B-theorists to be four-dimensionalists, that is, to believe that objects are extended in time as well as in space and therefore have temporal as well as spatial parts. This is sometimes called a time-slice ontology (Clark, 1978).
The debate between A-theorists and B-theorists is a continuation of a metaphysical dispute reaching back to the ancient Greek philosophers Heraclitus and Parmenides. Parmenides thought that reality is timeless and unchanging. Heraclitus, in contrast, believed that the world is a process of ceaseless change, flux and decay. Reality for Heraclitus is dynamic and ephemeral. Indeed the world is so fleeting, according to Heraclitus, that it is impossible to step twice into the same river. The metaphysical issues that continue to divide A-theorists and B-theorists concern the reality of the past, the reality of the future, and the ontological status of the present.

iPan, why do you reject faith but accpet “truth, . . . evidence and proofs”?  The scientific method cannot prove itself, and the transcendence which is truth could not be compared in an experiment, because it would be both the subject and outcome of the experiment, which is self-nullifying.  Faith promises a way out of ambiguity, but I think a supernatural end requires a supernatural means.

So for the A-theorist, I really did make myself a cup of coffee after getting up this morning. That is to say that I got out of bed, then headed downstairs, then made myself a cup of coffee. These three events all temporarily precede the drafting of this comment, and are themselves ordered, with the first preceding the second, which in turn precedes the third.

How does the B-theorist handle this? She takes the past, present and future as equally real, but does she deny that it means something to say that these events lie along a temporal chain from earlier to later? What does she aim to achieve by refusing to use tense to describe this idea? And, more pertinently in the context of the point I was trying to make, what effect, if any, does this have on HER morning habits?

Past experience tells me that I tend to feel better and more awake, and also function better, if I make myself a cup of coffee after getting up. It’s a habit that also has its drawbacks, but whether I see it as a good habit or a bad habit my judgement is in one way or another based on a perception of cause and effect. The mere act of getting out of bed is an expression of faith, for example faith in the idea that I will actually succeed in walking to the bathroom. This faith presupposes that the past (“I’ve always succeeded in getting to the bathroom in the past…”) tells me something about the future (” I suppose I will this time as well.”) It makes no difference whether you used tensed or tenseness ways of expressing this idea, or whether you regard the present as more real than the past and future or all three as equally real (for that matter one might also consider parallel universes that lie neither in our past nor in any of our futures as real): you still have to take it on faith. And there is still no evidence, nor can there be any evidence, that this is true. (You got say, “But it always has done in the past”,  but this assumes the very thing it aims to prove).

So, here’s where we’re at: using our best logic and metaphysics, we have learned that we can never, not even in principle, collect any evidence whatsoever either for the materialistic paradigm or for the idea that the past gives some guide to the future. Of course this is not evidence of solipsism (since absence of evidence doesn’t equal evidence of absence), but it does make solipsism the simpler than materialism with its causal relationships between past, present and future. The problem is that solipsism is totally useless in helping us to relate to others and the world around us, and panpsychism - even if for some of us it might inspire fresh thinking about emergent hyper intelligence - doesn’t help that much either. So we are pretty much stuck with materialism and its causal relationships.

And in this tensed, materialistic worldview, actions have consequences, and even one’s choice of worldview has consequences. Panpsychism might increase your faith in emergent hyper intelligence, but it won’t help you to organise your life and achieve your goals, unless your goals somehow require you to promote panpsychism. On the contrary, by making you suspicious of external reality and causal relationships it will tend to decrease your awareness of your ability to intervene effectively in the world, and with decreased awareness becomes decreased effectiveness. You may not actually go insane, but you will certainly be less effective at achieving your goals (assuming you have bothered to define some) than you would be if you just accepted materialism, and its causal relationships,  on faith.

But by all means carry on imagining consciousness in lumps of rock if you really want to.

@Henry Bowers

It’s not about “rejecting faith”, but about putting everything in it’s proper category.

I have no problem with materialists believing in materialism, when they admit that it is in fact a faith based belief system, and do not try to confuse other’s into thinking that their paradigm is in fact objective, when it is not.

@Peter Wicks

Look at this, reality gets stranger and stranger (I think everyone is going to want to read this):

Quantum decision affects results of measurements taken earlier in time

It’s a clever experiment, but I don’t think it really tells us anything that we didn’t already suspect given what we already knew about quantum entanglement. But it certainly could be fascinating to explore the implications: how can this NOT be a case of causality working backwards in time, and of it is, then surely it is only a short step from there towards closed causal trajectories, with all the potential for paradox that we associate with time travel?

Anyway back to faith and materialism, iPan you did seem to be “rejecting faith” when you wrote, “I don’t take things on faith.” And this is precisely the kind of “rejection of faith” that I find untenable. That is not to say that I therefore regard the materialist paradigm as “objective”, except in the sense that it appears to be necessary to assume it in practice. This is basically another way of expressing Samuel Johnson’s “I refute it thus”: one can talk the talk about idealism, solipsism, panpsychism or whatever, but when it comes to actually living, we are all materialists.


I am saying it’s ok for other’s to have “faith”, if that’s what they want, as long as they admit it is faith.

What I can’t stand is when people try to pass their faith off as something more. The materialism paradigm is just one example of a belief system that is nearly always spoken of as if it has greater veracity than other belief systems.

I am not “rejecting faith” in the sense that I am telling others not to have faith. I am simply drawing a boundary, and saying

1) If what your claim is based on is belief, or faith, then admit it is so


2) Do not expect me to adopt your belief system - unless you have something more substantial to go on than faith.


I do “admit”, and indeed gladly so, that my commitment (in particular for practical purposes) commitment to materialism is based, in part, on faith. I also admit that - for the reasons you have stated - it is not based on evidence. I don’t think it conflicts with evidence, but neither is it (or, as you have pointed out, can it be) supported by evidence.

However, it is not based ONLY on faith. It is also based on practical necessity. This is the point I have been trying to get across. I believe that all people that we habitually regard as “sane”, i.e. who are capable of intervening reasonably effectively in the world, including (I suppose) you, are de facto FAPP (or at least FMPP - for most practical purposes) materialists, even if you don’t like to admit it.

@iPan (or anyone)

“more substantial . . . than faith.” I am interested in that as well, since Christianity claims faith is at best a mustard seed.  If ambivalence concerning which faith to endorse, then, is as distressing as the article suggests, I think we could nevertheless be sitting at the doorstep of Theism:  might not theology be the next best vehicle for understanding existence?  Besides any supernatural promise, it would seem to matter who made the promise and whose claim is least contradictory.  Theology does things technology cannot.  In no other dimension of life is it costless to disregard the meaning of a thing; thus the cost of making such an assumption for life itself seems exorbitant.

A good friend, and mentor, of mine, recently wrote: (in response to a recent article about how analytical thinking erodes faith in God)

“as belief and faith in God errode- it should be replaced by rational apprehention of God through the implications of computation- lesson one: the gender is wrong”

What you’re (humorously) describing in my view, iPan, is how analytical thinking could erode one’s faith in Protestantism or fundamentalism, as well it should, but my secular college experience did the opposite for my faith.  While realizing how abjectly helpless I was (am) to resisting sin without supernatural means, in my intellectual endeavors I became ever more reassured that the Catholic monk-saints who had studied philosophical-theological problems in their cells for two millenia were not mud on the wagon wheels, but rather “divine shortcuts” to answers on which I could build my life.  This platform, in turn, seems more promising than the article’s contradictory “meaning” that nothing can have meaning.

Thus, I think some people rightly reject a rejection, such as a heretical version of Christianity, and as Aquinas predicted, they find themselves pursuing only that which has the nature of a contrary, as opposed to that which has the nature of an end.

The happiest people, in my view, are those who are right with God and right with neighbor, though they may suffer extraordinarily.

If beauty is in the eye of the behold, then why not meaning too?

Let me refer you to Nietzsche’s “Superman.”  One in twenty people are a psychopath.  Zen.

Because it leads to redundancy:  “the meaning of meaning is . . .”.  The meaning of beauty isn’t necessarily beautiful.

Meaning is holding to the mean, awaiting the transcendent.  Love welcomes sacrifice.  Aristotle.

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