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Existentialism and Existential Threats: a Fascinating Merging of Human Thought
Kris Notaro   Oct 24, 2012   Ethical Technology  

What happens when you mix Sartre’s Existentialism with Existential Risks? Human responsibility and being true to oneself (not lying to oneself) becomes a center point for experts, “leaders”, intellectuals, and all of rational humanity.

Existentialism is the philosophical and cultural movement which holds that the starting point of philosophical thinking must be the experiences of the individual. Moral and scientific thinking together do not suffice to understand human existence, so a further set of categories, governed by ones own “authenticity”, is necessary to understand human existence. “Authenticity”, in the context of existentialism, is being true to one’s own personality, spirit or character.[1]

Existential Threats/Risks  have the potential to destroy, or drastically restrict, human civilization; could cause human extinction; or even cause the end of Earth. Severe events could cause the extinction of all life on the planet Earth, the destruction of the planet Earth, the annihilation of the solar system, to the annihilation of our galaxy or even the entire universe. Existential risks are distinguished from other forms of risk both by their scope, affecting all of humanity, and severity; destroying or irreversibly crippling the target.[2]

Bad Faith is Sartre’s term for self-deception, the paradoxical state of lying to oneself, involving an impossible attempt at a flight from freedom, responsibility and anguish. Bad faith is an attempt to escape anguish by pretending that on is not free. It also means destructive and oppressive conformity.[3,4]

Responsibility  a particular burden of obligation upon one who is responsible, having a capacity for moral decisions and therefore accountable; capable of rational thought or action.[5]

Rationalism  is the philosophical view that (a) everything in reality is logically consistent with everything else in reality, and (b) the view that this logical consistency can be grasped by the human mind, because (c) the human mind reflects the logical structure of reality.

Existentialism is Humanism is a book written by Sartre in response to negative critics of existentialism such as radical Communists, Catholics, Christians and even intellectuals. Sartre wrote “It is to these various reproaches that I shall endeavour to reply today; that is why I have entitled this brief exposition “Existentialism is a Humanism.” Many may be surprised at the mention of humanism in this connection, but we shall try to see in what sense we understand it. In any case, we can begin by saying that existentialism, in our sense of the word, is a doctrine that does render human life possible; a doctrine, also, which affirms that every truth and every action imply both an environment and a human subjectivity. The essential charge laid against us is, of course, that of over-emphasis upon the evil side of human life.”[6]

Deterministic Excuses, Anguish, Despair and abandonment: “[Humankind] first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world - and defines himself afterwards”. Thus, Sartre rejects what he calls “deterministic excuses” and claims that people must take responsibility for their behavior. Sartre defines anguish as the emotion that people feel once they realize that they’re responsible not just for themselves, but for all humanity. Anguish leads people to realize that their actions guide humanity and allows them to make judgments about others based on their attitude towards freedom. Anguish is also associated with Sartre’s notion of despair, which he defines as optimistic reliance on a set of possibilities that make action possible. The being-for-itself uses despair to embrace freedom and take meaningful action in full acceptance of whatever consequences may arise as a result. He also describes abandonment as the loneliness that atheists feel when they realize that there is no God to prescribe a way of life, no guidance for people on how to live; that we’re abandoned in the sense of being alone in the universe and the arbiters of our own essence. [7]

In an Atheist world where humans do not currently have the burdens of imminent existential risks such as a unfriendly AI, the sun losing “fuel”, total ecosystem collapse, imminent nuclear holocaust, or knowledge of a direct hit from an asteroid, etc, we are indeed left with Sartre’s versions of responsibility, anguish, and Bad Faith.

Therefore, as Sartre pointed out in his lecture and book Existentialism is Humanism, we all do indeed live for each other, in a godless universe where we decide our own responsibility to get along, fix what is broken, and to accept at the moment that “ There is no other universe except the human universe, the universe of human subjectivity. This relation of transcendence as constitutive of [people] (not in the sense that God is transcendent, but in the sense of self-surpassing) with subjectivity (in such a sense that [humans are] not shut up in [themselves] but forever present in a human universe) – it is this that we call existential humanism. This is humanism, because we remind man that there is no legislator but himself and herself; that he/she himself, [herself] thus abandoned, must decide for [themselves]; also because we show that it is not by turning back upon himself/herself, but always by seeking, beyond himself/herself, an aim which is one of liberation or of some particular realisation, that [humans] can realize [themselves] as truly human.”[6]

Once we accept that we live in 2012 where Bad Faith can in actuality be ascribed to the modern human, we must start to be honest with each other and ourselves about true existential risks in which we can fix. We know that we can fix the ozone layer, over population, hunger and poverty, nuclear holocaust, and even perhaps move the orbit of an asteroid to avoid earth.

But we must be honest with ourselves and realize that deterministic excuses, anguish, despair and abandonment can be avoided to a high level of degrees through science and technology. If Sartre wants us to avoid lying to ourselves, we must accept that science can rid the world of abandonment through the understanding of the word “value” and that we can save each other by valuing each other and science.

He might disagree with me about science being the cure for existential dread and anxiety, but it is clear that if we are honest with ourselves and others, that science can in fact bring us together and help us avoid existential risks to humanity. For example if we did the math correctly we would find that factory farms give off too much green house gases, therefore they should be eradicated. Perhaps even nanotech could create a safe ozone fixing machine, or genetic engineering can produce super trees that grow fast, take in massive amounts of CO2 and put out tons of oxygen, etc. If we are to end hunger we need to educate the entire world in how to feed themselves properly or work together to create a sustainable food production. If we want to see the population of the world go down, the math is also clear – good education has a correlation with decreasing population.

The science is there, we are anxious, we are scared, but we are also responsible on a subjective, but universal level. Rationalism (through education) can lead the world’s people away from bad faith and towards real responsibility to diminish existential risks to humanity.

3. Sartre For Beginners. Print.
4. Existentialism For Beginners. Print.

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.


Hear! Hear!

Concerning collective responsibility and progressive democracy..

Finland about to start Crowdsourcing to create new laws

courtesy of

However “informed” democracy is crucial for success!

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