How in general should I address topics in which the consequences are scary, while maintaining intellectual integrity? …Aren’t philosophers ever in the dilemma of compromising intellectual integrity versus becoming crazy?

This is a rare case where I agree with David Hume, one of my least favorite philosophers. As philosophers (or scientists) we are entrusted with the task of theorizing about the world and to trying to understand it to the best of our abilities. But we should never allow the gaps in our theories to destroy the fabric of our everyday lives.

Human comprehension is limited and subject to flaws, and our best and most sure statements about the nature of the world are doubtlessly inadequate approximations. The irreconcilable results that stem from our favored theories, therefore, are more profitably viewed as indications of problems in the theories or in our understandings of those theories, than as indications of flaws in the nature of the universe itself. In my view, intellectual integrity is more honored than endangered by an honest admission of the limitations on intellectual apprehension –with the caveat that we are then honor-bound to keep working to improve our theories to the point where they do work in the world we live in.

My argumentation for my version of Epiphenomenalism is that if it had been not true, free willed actions would influence the movement of atoms, and the laws of physics & chemistry would not work when it comes to the human body. However, they do work. It does not mean (like some people wrongly think) that the mental states are illusions, but the fact that they are causal is an illusion. I agree that epi…ism has to give an explanation how is consciousness created, and how exactly the illusion o

Your argument contains a fallacy. You are assuming that mental agency, if true, would operate indiscriminately –or at the least, indiscriminately within the confines of the body. In other words, if I concentrate, I should be able to dissolve my hand into its component atoms as easily as I can raise it or lower it, and no one should ever suffer from paralysis, etcetera.

This does not necessarily follow from the idea that mental agency might exist. For example, I can construct a scenario that would account for the given data without leading to that situation.

In general, events on a subatomic level do not create visible effects on the world, because subatomic particles are so tiny an numerous that their effects never aggregate to the point where it becomes a macroscopic causal agent. Even an occurrence as momentous as the decay of a radioactive atom will generally pass unnoticed by the world.

Yet it is possible to create circumstances under which even that single atom’s fate can have an outsized impact. For instance, the decay of a single atom in an armed nuclear bomb creates an explosive chain reaction. Similarly, a Geiger counter, which is designed to measure the decay of single atoms, can be attached to an apparatus that responds to the atom’s decay in a macroscopic way –by killing a cat, in Schr0dinger’s famous example, or less violently, by playing a recorded song, or raising a mechanical arm.

We would call the decay of the atom the causal agent of the death of the cat or the raising of the arm, but that would not imply that the range of agency of the atom was unlimited. The decay of the atom could only create a tightly defined range of macroscopic effects predetermined by the nature of the apparatus.

In theory, human agency could follow an analogous pattern, with the brain taking the place of the Geiger counter and the body being the apparatus that translates the subatomic event into a macroscopic action. In your version of Epiphenomenalism, you admit mental processes, so let us further theorize that a mental process somehow localized in the brain could create subatomic events of the type the brain was optimized to detect. The end result would be that the mental process would indeed have macroscopic agency, but only though the well-defined channels created by the combined apparatus of the body and the brain.

I’m not claiming that this is in fact the mechanism at work, but it demonstrates the inadvisability of supporting a belief in Epiphenomenalism through the argument you outlined.

ntI believe that epiphenomenalism is true. (Mental causation is unscientific). I also believe that if it is true, then there is no basis for morality. (You cannot blame physical causes… ) How should I explore this and similar questions – not compromising NEITHER intellectual honesty nor sanity?

Let’s clarify our terms here. Epiphenomenalism is the belief that mental experiences of choice and freely willed action are basically illusions. They are the accidental side effects of purely physical events and cannot be the source of any action or event. In other words, I may believe that I am choosing to type these words now appearing on the screen, but in fact, the words are being created by a complex set of physical/chemical reactions –I merely think that I have the freedom to type whatever I wish.

It would be a mistake to call this view scientific in the first place; since it rejects, without adequate explanation, a large pool of data –that being your own subjective experience of mental agency. It may be true that you cannot prove that the people you see around you are not cleverly designed automata that merely appear to have internal mental states. I feel safe in assuming, however, that you do experience yourself as possessing both consciousness and will. Before rejecting that experience, you would need a theory that adequately explains why certain configurations of atoms (people) appear to behave as though they have mental states, and furthermore why you personally experience some phenomena, such as the movement of your arms and legs as under your control, and others, such as the weather or the movements of other human beings, as impervious to your will (in other words: if your sense of agency is an illusion, and you are merely an observer of all things, then why does that feeling of control or perception of agency extend only to some of the many things you observe?).

Epiphenomenalism provides no such explanation, rather, it amounts to a blanket statement of belief (or rather, disbelief) on the subject of mental agency. In fact, the situation is even worse, since if epiphenomenalism were true, it could not be proved in any meaningful sense, give that the demonstration of proof would be (in that case) as empty as any other mental illusion.

Given this, one practical solution to your dilemma would be to adopt a version of Pascal’s wager, as follows: If, on the one hand, epiphenomenalism is true, then your beliefs and actions will be determined by events beyond your control. In that situation, your decision to believe in epiphenomenalism and behave accordingly will be equally as meaningless and predetermined as your decision to reject epiphenomenalism. On the other hand, if epiphenomenalism is untrue, or simply flawed in ways we do not currently understand, then your decisions and actions do have validity, and potentially make a significant difference in the world. Therefore, you are justified in acting and behaving as though epiphenomenalism is false –if you can! –no matter what the true state of affairs.

Although epiphenomenalism is a relatively new philosophical position, it raises issues similar to those faced by anyone who believes that the universe is deterministic in one way or another, whether that be because the physical trajectories of the subatomic particles are held to be predictable and unalterable, or because the story of life is held to have been prewritten in indelible ink in God’s diary. In each scenario, however, my answer would be the same. Whether or not we live in a way that is fated, the only option that makes sense is to live as though our freedoms of choice were momentous and absolute.

My sense, however, is that your real question is how to reconcile your belief that we live in a fundamentally physical universe with your sense that mental or metaphysical entities such as values and ideals do make a difference, I would suggest that you look into “Emergentism,”  the idea that irreducibly complex behaviors can arise from simple foundations –as in the mathematical phenomenon of fractal geometry. From that standpoint, it is reasonable to hypothesize that a mental phenomenon such as consciousness might emerge from a purely physical ground, yet not be reducible to something understandable in a purely physical framework; and even that a higher-order pattern (consciousness) could influence a lower-order pattern (physical matter) through the kinds of complex feedback loops that are ubiquitous in chaotic and emergent systems (rather than through “mysterious energy”
or whatever other non-scientific channel of causation you fear embracing mental states would commit you to).

Furthermore, if we take ourselves to be patterns of emergent complexity, there is in fact an underlying foundation for morality that attaches to that conception, to the effect that some choices –the ones that allow us to live in harmony with other complex patterns –are positive in that they increase the amount of complex order in the world, while others –the ones that destroy –are negative.

Hi. If something is objectively true, does it have to fall within the realm of science, and does the fact that something does not fall within the realm of science prove its relativism? (Examples – art and ethics)

This is a great question. Unfortunately, the answer is surprisingly controversial and complex:

The first challenge is figuring out what “objectively true” means. Most –but not all!– people believe there is a universe “out there” that has characteristics which are independent of any particular person’s observations or perceptions. This is a position generally known in philosophy as “Realism.”

To find out if you are a “Realist”, try this thought experiment: Imagine you personally do not exist, and furthermore that other people don’t exist, and in fact, that there is no intelligent life in the universe. Do things such as stars and planets still exist? Does a proton still have the same mass? Does water on earth still freeze at zero degrees Celsius? If you think so, you are a Realist.

The majority of people, even if they aren’t sure that the things that exist actually have the forms and the nature that we think they do, believe that something exists objectively –which is to say, independent of any given subject. Unfortunately, this is impossible to “prove”, given that each of us is imprisoned, so to speak, inside our own experience. There is no way for me to show incontrovertibly that there is anything independent of my own personal experience.

In addition, Realism by itself doesn’t actually tell us as much as you might think –it says something exists beyond our perceptions, but not what that something is. If, however, you believe that the world is more-or-less the way it appears to be, then you are not just a Realist, you are a “Naturalist”, or a “Realist about Perceptions”. In other words, you think the familiar world of trees, sky, earth, stars, moon, sun, etcetera, exists generally the way it seems to.

This seems like a natural (no pun intended) step, but it runs into some problems. One is that it is vulnerable to the possibility explored in the “Matrix” movies that your perception of the world and all its objects are generated by causes quite different than the seeming ones –in the case of the Matrix, a computer, in the case of Descartes’ similar hypothesis, an malicious demon. It may seem far-fetched, but it gains plausibility when we think of how easily our perceptions can be shifted –a set of rose-colored glasses makes everything look pink, just as being told that a student is smart can change our perceptions of his or her classwork.

This leads us at long last to the starting point of your question. In general, scientists replace “Naive Naturalism”, the thought that the world is just as we perceive it, with “Scientific Naturalism”. In scientific naturalism, it is accepted that objects may have a “real existence” very different from our perceptions –for instance, who would guess that fire and water are both made of the exact same building blocks of electrons, protons and neutrons? The claim is made, however, that objective reality relates to our perceptions of it in orderly, rule-governed and consistent ways, and that those relationships can be discovered through the use of the scientific method.

The scientific method is not the only way of discovering truths or “Truths” about the world, but it does have many practical advantages, including the fact that the things it discovers are, by definition, reliable (they will work the same way each time) and fit into a general schema that fits together with all the other scientific truths.

If we take your question at face value, “If something is objectively true, does it have to fall within the realm of science?” the answer is no. Assuming we take a Realist stance, and agree that there ARE things that are objectively true out there, it is clear that some of those true things will be outside the realm of what science can tell us now –whether or not there is intelligent life on other planets, for example –and even that some of it might forever be outside the realm of what science can demonstrate.

I think what you really mean, however, is “does a proposition have to be tested by the scientific method in order to be a valid and reliable piece of knowledge?” That’s not a question that itself has an objective or uncontroversial answer. For example, we might say that there could be other methods –substantially different from our current science –that would give reliable answers. Would we consider those methods “scientific” because they were reliable? In that case, all we mean by “scientific” is “reliable”. But we can’t disprove that other such methods might exist –after all, much of what we consider as good science today would have been alien to scientists of the past.

Another counterclaim is that there are other non-methodical sources of truth. A religious person (such as myself) might be comfortable with the claim that religious revelation provides a source of truths that are equally or exceedingly “objective” as the truths verified by science, while a non-religious person would reject that claim.

As far as the second part of your question, what about things such as art and ethics? Are they intrinsically relativist, which is to say, are they irreducibly dependent on subjective and personal beliefs or characteristics that do not generalize?

On the one hand, we should keep in mind the fact that it might be possible that a “science” of art or ethics could be someday created, which is to say, that we could figure out ways to make statements about those fields that are as testable and reliable as those about fields such as physics and chemistry. In my opinion, however, that would first require not just a different understanding of art and ethics, but also a different understanding of science. Previous attempts to make a science out of such things have generally focused on reducing them to purely material terms, and have not resulted in any notable successes.

This brings up a final issue raised by your question. Do we live in a universe where everything is best explained in purely material terms –i.e. as the extended ramifications of the trajectories of protons, electrons, neutrons and other particles, or even in a universe where everything is capable of being explained in such terms? There are quite a large number of people who would endorse not merely the second statement but also to the first (please notice the differences!). But it should be made clear, such a statement is essentially a declaration of faith. It is not an independently provable proposition, and it is capable of being wrong.

Let me thus rephrase your questions: “Given the current state of human knowledge, is the scientific method the only widely accepted, internally consistent, controllable and reliable way of constructing new knowledge; and do fields such as art and ethics currently fall outside the realm of what science has thus far proven itself to be capable of considering successfully?” The answer to that question is a highly qualified “yes”.

how should you behave on the internet

This is as much a practical question as a philosophical one, and from that perspective, I would say this: Remember that nearly everything you post on the internet is archived and searchable, including email, so try not to put anything out there that you wouldn’t want people to be able to connect to you ten years from now. I think we all forget that rule from time to time, but we do so at our own risk.

Other than that I think people should try to conduct themselves on the internet with some version of the same standards they would apply in person. The internet is an opportunity to create a new persona, but you should try to make it a better persona, not a worse one. Be kind and helpful to those you encounter, even the “newbies,” treat others with graciousness and politeness, strive to accomplish good things and avoid negative ones. No one meets those standards all the time, of course, but that’s an ideal to strive for. When you look back at your old posts a year from now, you’ll be happier to see a compilation of witty and appropriate comments than a record of flame wars, random trolling, and pictures of your butt.

Is there a Philosopher that states about making the world a better place?

Thanks for your question. In many ways, you could say that “making the world a better place” was the explicit or implied aim of a large majority of philosophers throughout history; from Plato to Confucius to Marx to Singer. The big disagreements, of course, come from different ideas of what a “better world” would look like, and how we could get there.

For Plato, the better world is the one that is more in line with the “Ideal of Perfect Goodness”, and where people make rational decisions in accordance with timeless ideals. For Confucius, a better world is one where people act virtuously, according to the traditions of their ancestors. For Marx, the better world is the result of the revolution of the proletariat, while (Peter) Singer believes that we should act in ways that maximize the happiness of all life forms, including humans and animals alike.

From my point of view, the key problem we need to solve as human beings is the tension between living as fully realized individuals, and living in ways that will support best interests of humanity as a whole. If we can solve that problem, I believe we will also be able to resolve problems such as the self-destructive practice of war and the ongoing destruction of our natural environment, both of which are aggravated by our consumerist culture.

Three human acts/choices that are illegal but not immoral

Thanks for your question.

The tricky part about answering this question is that we generally consider there to be a certain morality that automatically attaches to following the law. In general, the argument is that the rule of law is a necessary (or at the least, a beneficial) thing for humanity as a whole, given that we are social creatures and must live with each other. Thus, breaking a law, no matter what it is, carries some sense of immorality, since it weakens that structure we all live within. To be technical, therefore, we should require that our illegal acts be not merely morally neutral, but that they should have enough moral value to outweigh the moral costs of illegality.

The first, and most important answer is civil disobedience –the breaking of a law that is itself immoral and unjust. Paradigmatic examples from the recent past include violations of the laws of segregation in the American South or the laws of apartheid in South Africa. Illegal strikes and protests can also come under this categorization, when they stand in opposition to practices that are cruelly exploitative or harmful.

If we set aside the objection that breaking the law is immoral in itself, there are many practices which are illegal, but are arguably not immoral in of themselves. For example, to drink (any) alcohol at age eighteen is illegal in the United States, yet (unless you believe alcohol drinking to be intrinsically immoral) it is not immoral outside of its illegality. The putative justification for the law is that eighteen-year-olds are not mature enough to drink safely and responsibly –if eighteen-year-olds drank exclusively in moderation, the law would lose its moral justification.

A final category of illegal-but-not-immoral actions is the breaking of laws which are themselves ridiculous or meaningless. For example, the internet tells me that Idaho state law makes it illegal for a man to give his sweetheart a box of candy weighing less than fifty pounds. Laws of this nature are generally ignored by common consent. The argument here is that actually following such laws would be of greater damage to the rule of law than to break them.

What does R.M. Hare mean by ought?

In general, the philosophical distinction between “is” and “ought” is between statements of plain fact, such as “the apple is red”, and statements that endorse a course of action, such as “you should eat that apple”. For R.M. Hare, moral statements –the ones that that belong in the “ought” category –needed to be accompanied by action. In other words if I say “I ought to give money to the poor” then that statement should be accompanied by my actually giving money to the poor.

Hare’s “oughts” are closely related to Immanuel Kant’s “categorical imperative”, which is the idea that a moral rule is a rule that I believe should be true universally, a rule that would make the world a better place if everyone followed it (including myself).

I hope this helps. I am far from being an expert on Hare, but there is a good article on him on Wikipedia:

whats wrong with you when you hate everyone?

Hating everyone generally means you are not happy with some aspect of yourself, and/or there is something negative in your life or world that you feel powerless to change. This is a common feeling among teenagers (as shown in the book The Catcher in the Rye), but it can also affect people of other ages, particularly during times of transition. It is often accompanied or replaced by a sense of being unreal, or that everything around you is fake. From an existential point of view there are two main ways to attack this problem:

  1. You can try to figure out what it is in your own life or self-image that is bothering you and either come to terms with it or figure out a way to change it. Remember, it is not possible to change everyone else, but it is always possible to change yourself.
  2. You can pick one or more people and try to behave in a loving way towards them, even if you hate them. Emotions often follow actions, so if you behave as if you like someone for long enough, it may become true.

Travel to new and different places or taking up new activities can also be helpful in this situation. It doesn’t solve anything, but it can help you identify what problems you are carrying with you as opposed to what problems are caused by the people around you.

Can you give me the questions that philosophers ask?

That’s actually a very interesting question. It’s what might be called a “Meta”-question, a question about the questioning process. There are actually logic problems where the correct way to proceed is to ask a meta-question.

For instance…

Suppose you are faced with two brothers, one of whom always lies, and one of whom always tells the truth. Further suppose you have only one allowed question, you can only ask one brother, and you don’t know which is which. What is the proper question to ask in order to get a sure answer as to which door leads to a treasure, and which leads to doom?

Answer that meta-question properly, and you’ll get the treasure.
The right answer is to pick either brother and ask “If I asked your brother, which door would he tell me to open?” (another meta-question). Whatever answer you get, do the opposite. The reason is that you’re effectively routing the question through both brothers this way, which ensures you’ll get one truth and one lie, leaving you with a dependably wrong answer.

Unfortunately, in regards to your query, the question is more interesting than the answer. The current trend in philosophy is to ask a very narrow question, generally about some fine shade of meaning, and to explore the answer at great length. In particular, people have a tendency to seize upon some small weakness of a previous philosopher, and exploit it for the purposes of academic publishing.

However, if you want the questions historically considered by philosophers, or conversely, had you asked, what questions do I think philosophers should ask, the answers would be:

What is the meaning of life? What is the nature of existence? What does it mean to be a good person? What is truth? What is beauty? Toward what ends does the universe strive?

Jedi Philosophy

For many people, the main appeal of George Lucas’ “Star Wars” movies is the “Jedi Way,” the philosophy/religion that guides the mystical Jedi knights. But where does this philosophy come from, and does it hold up under scrutiny?

At root, the Jedi Way is a synthesis of three Eastern religions or philosophies, with an overlay of courtly behavior drawn from the medieval knights of Europe.

The most important source for the Jedi Way is Taoism, an ancient Chinese philosophy whose name is generally translated as “the Way” or as “the Way of Nature.” The two main goals of Taoism are to achieve balance and to exist in harmony with nature (and with all living beings). There is no deity as such in Taoism, which conceptualizes ultimate reality as a primal energy. This energy is expressed in the world in the form of two equal and opposing forces, the “yin” or passive female force, and the “yang” or active male force. These forces are neither good nor evil, and what is desirable is that they be in balance at all times.

The tension between yin and yang creates “qi” (pronounced “chee” and sometimes transliterated as “chi”) or life energy. Qi is found in all things, but particularly living creatures. The manipulation of qi is at the root of many traditional Chinese practices including acupuncture, feng shui and tai chi. According to legend, command of qi flow (as practiced by “qigong” masters) brings many mystical powers similar to those of the Jedi, such as the ability to move objects with the mind. In the movies, the name of Jedi Master “Qui-Gon Jin” is probably a deliberate reference to “qi gong.”

(Since Taoism is more of a philosophy than a religion, it is often combined together with religious beliefs from other traditions, such as Buddhism or Christianity.)

The second major source of the Jedi Way is Buddhism, specifically Zen, a variant found largely in Japan. As with most forms of Buddhism, Zen preaches “non-attachment,” the letting go of emotional bonds to people, places and things. The ultimate goal is to reach a selfless state of dispassionate compassion for all living things. Like the Jedi knights, Buddhist monks are ascetic and celibate. Zen monks are known, at least in the popular imagination, for developing a particular ability or craft to the point where it can be practiced with no conscious effort and nearly superhuman skill.

The third major source for the Jedi worldview is Zoroastrianism, an ancient Persian religion which viewed the world as an eternal battlefield between the forces of good and evil. Although Zoroastrianism has only small pockets of practitioners left in the modern world, it was a major influence on many other philosophies and religions. Echoes of it are present in many places, including the way many modern Christians conceptualize the devil as a force opposite and nearly equal to God.

Finally, the Jedi philosophy is overlaid with a code of chivalry based on that practiced by the medieval knights of Europe, who operated by a code of ethics including strict rules for combat, high standards of courtesy, warrior virtues such as honor, loyalty and bravery and a veneration of courtly love. The knightly facet of the Jedi is exemplified in the movies by their preference for the “elegant” light sabers as opposed to the “barbaric” blasters.

The remarkable synthesis Lucas achieved in placing together these disparate elements has proved compelling for more than one generation of viewers. However, as a workable philosophy it has major flaws.

The first and most subtle of these is the conflict between Taoism and Buddhism. Although often linked in real life, Taoism and Buddhism do not always line up. In the first chapter of the “Tao Te Ching” (the chief text of Taoism) it says “let go of desires in order to observe the source, but allow yourself desires in order to observe the manifestations.” This indicates that both “attachment” and “nonattachment” are seen as having value in Taoism, as opposed to Buddhism. In addition, the Buddhist seeks to transcend the world and earthly existence, whereas the Taoist seeks to be fully integrated into the world as a part of nature and natural existence. In the movies, this becomes an issue in the way that the Jedi Council is aloof and independent from politics, yet simultaneously also deeply involved in the galactic political landscape.

The second conflict is between Taoism and Zoroastrianism. There is no “good” and “evil” in Taoism, only balance and imbalance. Neither Yin nor Yang is preferable, and both are necessary, as apposed to Zoroastrianism, where the ultimate goal is the triumph of good and the eradication of evil. This disconnect shows up as a major plot point in the second series of movies (I, II & III), where the prophecy of “balance in the Force” may possibly mean the rise of evil.

The third conflict is between Buddhism and Zoroastrianism. Again, the concept of a fight between good and evil is somewhat alien to Buddhism. A fallen Buddhist would not be an equal and opposite force to a good Buddhist, but simply someone who had become too caught up in the illusions and the material temptations of the ordinary world. A person of this sort might be cruel, venal and selfish, but would not be expected to have any particular spiritual power. This creates a paradox in the movies, in that the Jedi draw power from controlling their emotions, but the Sith draw power from their inability to control their emotions. In addition it creates another instance of cognitive dissonance as the wise and dispassionate Jedi choose over and over again to resolve their problems through violence.

The final conflict is between Buddhism and chivalry. Buddhism preaches non-attachment, but one of the key characteristics of the medieval knights was passionate attachment. Loyalty to one’s lord and to one’s comrades-in-arms was among the highest virtues, and a courtly, romantic (and theoretically chaste) love between a knight and his lady was celebrated as an ideal. Also, in as much as chivalry stems from Christianity, it carries the idea of love as a powerful redemptive force.

This disconnect creates some of the most powerful paradoxes in the movies. In the first series (IV, V & VI) Yoda and Obi-Wan counsel control of emotions, and warn Luke against the dangers of his affection for his friends, and his unreasonable love for his father. Yet it is Luke’s decision to ignore this seemingly wise advice that provides most of the high points of the first series. In the end, Luke is proven right when his ill-advised love for his father finally uncovers the good left in Darth Vader, and brings about the final end to the Sith. Therefore, love is ultimately shown to be even more powerful than the light side of the Force (which failed to conquer its counterpart in all five chronologically previous movies).

Conversely, the second series suffers from taking its doctrine of non-attachment too seriously. The Jedi Council consequently comes across as cold and uncaring –a fact which drives Anakin into the more hot-blooded arms of the Dark Side. In addition, this set of movies is in the strange position of positing love as the enemy. Although Anakin clearly has psychotic tendencies, the movie insists on blaming his moments of indiscriminate slaughter on his “love” for his mother and his wife. Even Obi-Wan’s platonic love for his padawan does nothing except cloud his judgment.

It is this too-fully-realized disdain for emotion that, more than anything else, makes the second series inferior to the first.

Kierkegaard’s Narrative

“Kierkegaard’s Narrative” is an existential humanist plot outline named after the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. In general, it runs as follows: An aimless young man drifts through life, obsessed with aesthetics, and seeking sexual fulfillment with a series of women, yet never making substantive choices or real commitments. The climax of the story is the protagonist’s decision to commit to a single woman, and to enter into marriage.

The raw source material for this plotline is found in Kierkegaard’s books “Either/Or,” “Fear and Trembling,” and “Repetition,” in which he takes on the persona of various first-person narrators, and describes their experiences. Among the characters described are:

  1. “the Aesthete” who is obsessed with art and aesthetic experience
  2. “the Seducer” who falls deeply in love with a woman and pursues her heatedly until he gets her, and then discards her for a new conquest
  3. “the Repeater,” who is caught up in past experiences, and the doomed hope of recreating them

These characters are contrasted to a fourth, the “Married Man” who lives an existence that seems ordinary and mundane from the outside, but that is rich and fully lived on the inside.

Walker Percy was probably the first to weave these distinct personas together into a single coherent plotline. In his book “The Moviegoer,” he traces the evolution of a protagonist who spends most of the book as an aesthete, a seducer and a “repeater,” and who finishes it on the verge of becoming Kierkegaard’s “Knight of Faith” –the married man. (Percy also introduces an additional element, possibly also inspired by Kierkegaard, the death of a person close to the protagonist as a counterpoint to the protagonist’s desire to fully embrace life.) This book was widely admired, and the plotline passed into popular culture, where it has been the foundation of a number of well-regarded books and movies.

  1. Adaptation (Charlie Kaufman, directed by Spike Jonze)

    The clever joke of this movie is the way it combines experimentalism and conventionality, a union that also happens to fit neatly into the Kierkegaardian model.

    Protagonist: Charlie Kaufman

    Aesthetic Preoccupation: Screenwriting

    Affairs: Susan’s affair with John

    Repetition: Charlie tries to recreate the experience of Susan Orlean’s original book

    Death: Charlie’s twin brother

    Existential Humanist Act: Charlie throws himself into the screenplay –literally –and confesses his love for a female friend.

  2. American Beauty (Alan Ball, directed by Sam Mendes)

    The significance of the protagonist’s last choice in this movie is it represents his one selfless act of maturity and existential responsibility.

    Protagonist: Lester Burnham

    Aesthetic Preoccupation: Marijuana

    Affairs: Fantasizes about seducing his daughter’s nubile friend.

    Repetition: Tries to recapture his lost youth.

    Death: Lester (the protagonist)

    Existential Humanist Act: Chooses to not seduce the young girl

  3. Garden State (Zach Braff)

    Clearly in the same mold, although there’s a sense that the protagonist’s aimlessness comes less from his own choices, and more from his over-controlling father’s drug prescriptions.

    Protagonist: Andrew Largeman

    Aesthetic Preoccupation: Acting, psychotropic drugs

    Affairs: Makes out with some girls at a party

    Repetition: Returns to his old town

    Death: Protagonist’s mother

    Existential Humanist Act: Abandons his L.A. life for a girl he’s fallen in love with.

  4. Graduate, The (Charles Webb)

    This work makes the subversive suggestion that Benjamin’s proposal to Elaine is just another aimless, meaningless choice.

    Protagonist: Benjamin Braddock

    Aesthetic Preoccupation: Art was Mrs. Robinson’s major in college

    Affairs: With Mrs. Robinson

    Repetition: Returns home after school, tries to revisit his relationship with Elaine

    Death: N/A

    Existential Humanist Act: Elaine’s choice to follow Ben despite having just married another man.

  5. Harold and Maude (Colin Higgins, directed by Hal Ashby)

    This is an surprisingly sentimental movie for a comedy about suicide –a fact explained by the movie’s existential humanist heart.

    Protagonist: Harold

    Aesthetic Preoccupation: Suicide

    Affairs: Harold goes on a series of blind dates arranged by his mother.

    Repetition: Harold’s phony suicides are an attempt to recreate a single experience of emotional response from his mother.

    Death: Maude

    Existential Humanist Act: Harold’s proposal to Maude

  6. High Fidelity (Nick Hornby)

    A popular book and movie of modern times which fits the model almost exactly.

    Protagonist: Rob Gordon

    Aesthetic Preoccupation: Old records

    Affairs: A series of failed relationships

    Repetition: Looking up his old girlfriends

    Death: His girlfriend’s father

    Existential Humanist Act: Proposes to his longtime girlfriend

  7. Moviegoer, The (Walker Percy)

    The model for the genre, it features long passages directly inspired by Kierkegaard

    Protagonist: Binx Bolling

    Aesthetic Preoccupation: Movies

    Affairs: With a string of secretaries

    Repetition: Returning to an old moviehouse

    Death: Protagonist’s half-brother

    Existential Humanist Act: Marries his step-cousin.

  8. Sideways (Jim Taylor and Alexander Payne (director))

    Like American Beauty, this movie shifts the narrative into midlife.

    Protagonist: Miles Raymond

    Aesthetic Preoccupation: Wine and writing

    Affairs: Jack’s affairs with various women.

    Repetition: Miles tries to regain the affection of his ex-wife.

    Death: Miles’ book “dies” (is rejected by the publisher) and he “kills” his treasured bottle of vintage wine.

    Existential Humanist Act: Miles pursues a relationship with a pretty waitress named Maya, even at the price of distancing himself from the hedonism represented by Jack.

  9. Truman Show, The (Andrew Niccol, directed by Peter Weir)

    This movie externalizes the existentialism by creating a world whose purpose is to trap and immobilize the protagonist. Significantly, his existential act is to leave a loveless sham of a marriage, and not to commit to it.

    Protagonist: Truman Burbank

    Aesthetic Preoccupation: Truman’s entire life is an aesthetic/entertainment experience, although he doesn’t know it.

    Affairs: Married to a paid actress

    Repetition: Lives a repetitious life, and constantly returns to memories of a past relationship.

    Death: The faked death of Truman’s “father” –another symbol of the inauthenticity of Truman’s life.

    Existential Humanist Act: Goes in search of his “true love.”

History of Humanism

Humanism has reemerged in many different times and places, each time with a unique “flavor”.

  1. Original Humanism

    Many (but not all) traditional cultures were havens for the original form of humanism, which focuses on heroic virtues, and the sensory fabric of human existence. In such a culture, virtue is often discussed, but there are rarely any written codes of behavior.

    1. African Humanism (? – present): This form of humanism still survives in the more rural areas of Africa. It features:
      • an emphasis on family, communal responsibility and hospitality
      • a warrior code focused around bravery
      • an immersion in polyrhythmic music and dance.


    2. Native American Humanism (? – ca.1800):This form of humanism was largely lost in the cataclysmic destruction of traditional Native American life. It featured:
      • a warrior code of loyalty, honor, courage and fraternity
      • a sensitivity to the life cycles and natural rhythms that form the foundation for human life
      • an anthropomorphic conception of the universe.


    3. Heroic Greek Humanism (ca.1200-750 B.C.): Greeks of the Heroic Age had a highly developed warrior code, centered around the concept of arete or human excellence. Components of this included courage, loyalty, generosity, mercy, dignity, decency, honor, stoicism and strength.
    4. African American Humanism (ca. 1850 – 1980):This form of humanism is a uniquely modern version of original humanism. Created from the bedrock of African Humanism, it took form under conditions of extreme oppression (which often give birth the purest expressions of humanism). Although it was a vital shaping influence on America and American culture, it has been pushed towards extinction by a rising tide of materialism. It features:
      • An emphasis on family, community and hospitality
      • A code of fraternity and sorority
      • A personal and humanist form of worship
      • A strong and pervasive emphasis on the arts, particularly music and dance; also oral and written literature, and the visual arts (almost always with a human-centered perspective)
      • An emphasis on sensory experience and life-cycle events.
  2. Classical Humanism

    Classical humanism is distinguished by emphases on philosophy, written codes of virtues and ethics, and the creation of a body of literature and art. It often looks back to a prior age of heroism. It is generally the philosophy of a privileged aristocracy.(The term, as we use it here, describes a type of humanism, and is not exactly contiguous with the Classical Era)

    1. Chou Dynasty (Chinese) Humanism (ca. 1200-200 B.C.):Philosophy has always been crucial to Chinese identity. In the first period of Chinese Humanism, two major schools of thought were developed:
    2. Taoism, the way of virtue. This was a highly mystical and metaphysical look at the basic nature of the universe. It advocated a system of virtue based on harmony with nature. Although too abstract to be truly humanist, the Taoist metaphysics established the foundation for the development of Chinese medicine.
    3. Confucianism, a very different look at virtues and ethics. Confucianism was profoundly humanist, composed (as it was) of hundreds of detailed precepts on the subject of human existence and the social order. Structure, propriety and ritual were the guiding concepts of Confucianism. Like Taoism, Confucianism looked to nature for guidance.
  3. Classical Greek and Hellenistic Humanism (ca.500-30 B.C.):The classical period in Greece, and the Greek-influenced period that directly followed, was the wellspring for philosophy and art in Western Civilization. It featured:
    • Human-centered sculpture and painting, in a increasingly natural and realistic style.
    • A fascination with mathematics and geometry, leading to advances in architecture.
    • The development of the art of drama, and the creation of great works of theater.
    • Writings on the subject of virtue and excellence.
    • The three greatest Western philosophers, and their philosophies:
      1. Socrates: He used paradox and discourse to rid students of preconceptions, and give them a radically different perspective on life. Socrates was very concerned with virtue, but disavowed the codification of the same.
      2. Plato: He developed a mystical and metaphysical view of the universe. The profound truths he uncovered could be applied to any situation. He was to have a profound influence on the later development of Christian theology.
      3. Aristotle: He was concerned with the minute details of human life and the social order. He believed that Divine order was embodied in the physical world, and discoverable though investigation. His “physicalized metaphysics” became the foundation for Western Science.
  4. The Humanism of the Roman Empire (ca. 30 B.C. – 200 A.D.): This period was largely an extension of trends begun by the Greeks. The philosophy, art and literature was all patterned after that of the Greeks. Through the agency of the Romans, Greek humanism was spread to many far corners of the ancient world.
  5. Renaissance Humanism

    Renaissance Humanism generally draws strongly from a classical tradition. It is less concerned with philosophy, and more concerned with the production of great art, music and theater, and with advances in science. It is self-consciously humanist and human-centered. It is often the lifestyle of an intellectual elite.

    1. Islamic Renaissance Humanism (ca. 800-1200 A.D.):Although largely forgotten in the West, the Islamic Renaissance played a crucial historical role. It kept the legacy of Greece and Rome alive, and brought insights of the East to the West. Key elements included:
      • the development of a body of poetry that was simultaneously sensual and mystical
      • the genesis of the rich philosophical tradition of Sufism
      • great advances in mathematics, including the creation of Arabic numerals.


    2. Italian Renaissance Humanism (ca. 1300-1550): The word “humanism” was coined in reference to this period. It was a period of amazing achievements in art and science, producing scores of great writers, painters, and sculptors. Like the Islamic Renaissance, it paid homage to Classical Greece and Rome, rescuing the myths, literature and philosophy of that period from the obscurity in which it languished during the medieval period.
    3. Harlem Renaissance Humanism (ca. 1920-1930): Although brief, this period produced many of the greatest talents in African-American literature (particularly poetry). Instead of referencing Greece and Rome, Harlem Renaissance writers “rediscovered” a semi-mythical version of African Humanism, particularly as seen through the eyes of Senegal’s negritude movement.Aimed at the so-called “Talented Tenth” of the black population, Harlem Renaissance humanism became tainted by accusations of elitism (as was true for many other versions of humanism).
  6. Modern Humanism

    1. Secular Humanism: The best-known modern humanism, secular humanism denies or devalues the existence of a deity, in order to focus attention firmly on the accomplishments of humanity. However, a criticism of the movement is that it focuses more on opposing religion than on supporting humanism.
    2. Religious Humanism: Typically religious humanism is a celebrates human achievement and potential, and concerns itself with human affairs, yet without denying the primacy of God. This category includes Christian Humanism, Jewish Humanism and Islamic Humanism, as well as humanist versions of other religions. This was once an important movement in religion, but has since been eclipsed by the twin rise of secular humanism and anti-humanist versions of religion.