Are we ethically obliged to help North Korea? – Dee

I personally think we do have an obligation to help in cases where we have the knowledge and the power to help. I don’t believe those conditions are met in this case. Helping another sovereign country, particularly a hostile one, with a contrasting ideology, is a tricky proposition. If you send aid, are you propping up a government that is arguably harmful to its own people? If you agitate for social change, are you making things worse? Outside of providing immediate humanitarian aid in the event of a natural disaster, there’s little that can be done without becoming ensnared in politics and controversy. It is entirely unclear to me what “help” means in this situation.

Generally, I find that there are always people close to home who need help. Even in First World countries, there are people who are homeless and hungry. Even in Western Democracies there are people oppressed, unfairly imprisoned, etcetera. There’s a certain arrogance and hypocrisy in us being so quick to assume we can solve other people’s problems when we’ve done so little to solve our own.

Irredeemable Location to Live

Here’s a philosophy of life question for you: I live somewhere unappealing and cannot leave for the next 3-5 months, give or take. Some people are lucky enough to live their lives as a constant adventure; I want to be the same, but I am not so lucky. How does one deal with the reality of curtailed social circles, zero culture, no adventure, and ultimate boredom?

Why are some people living as they should, while many more are not?

From an existentialist point of view, your experience is what you make of it, regardless of circumstances. For a person in the right frame of mind, 3-5 months without external distractions could be a wonderful opportunity. You could: Learn an instrument. Learn a foreign language. Teach yourself programming. Write a book. Study philosophy. Meditate. Come up with a complete plan for the next five years of your life. Build up your strength. Pray and fast, etc.

In short, you could give yourself all the preparation you need to make sure the next phase of your life is a glorious adventure. Conversely, if you’d rather seize the current moment, you could make it your goal to make one good friend, or to ask one beautiful stranger out on a date, or to discover one hidden secret about your unbeloved home.

No matter where you go, you will always take yourself with you. It may be that you are most afraid of spending the time with yourself and discovering who you really are. If you approach this time with imagination and discipline, there will be no excuse for being bored a single minute in the next 3-5 months. I recommend reading Sartre’s *No Exit* for more on this point of view.

Sartre and Hotel California

I have to write about an existentialist philosophy/argument that is in the song Hotel California (the Eagles). The song is my stimuli for my paper, in which I have to oppose two philosophical arguments. Do you know how this song relates to existentialism? – MC

Sartre wrote a famous existentialist play called No Exit. The theme is that three people die, and their afterlife is spent in a room of a generic hotel. What makes the play existentialist is that Sartre guides us to see that each person is avoiding making real choices for his or her own personal reasons. They avoided responsibility for their own choices in life, and now seemed poised to do the same throughout all eternity. They have created their own hell through refusing to acknowledge their existential freedom to shape their own destinies.

Hotel California can be seen as another version of the hotel in No Exit. The hotel is a metaphor for Los Angeles, and the aimless, undirected drifting that people do there. They are distracted by materialism, but fail to make existential choices.

I completely understand your point; that for Sartre that choice would always be there, there is no ‘impossible’ in relation to living authentically, that is is just choice. However, do you feel that in the context of our very modern society that it may be harder? Do you think we may have progressed into a more inauthentic contemporary world? Or a world where authenticity maybe almost valued- in some respects? – Natasha

I’m not convinced that it’s any easier or harder to live authentically now than in any other era. Being “Real” always takes a great deal of willpower. Think of the Inquisition, or of McCarthyism, or the Cultural Revolution. Think of Janucz Korchak and his children singing on the way to the death camps (WWII). It’s hard to claim our own era is more inimical to authenticity than any other.

I do think that one peculiar feature of modern times, however, is the overwhelming prevalence of fake authenticity –where the appearance or the pursuit of what is “authentic” becomes itself a locus of artificiality. That’s probably a side effect of commercialization, wherein “realness” or the convincing illusion of it becomes a commodity that can be profitably monetized.

That said, it’s also worth noting that one can be authentic even when playing a set role –think about any truly great actor.

For these and other reasons, I personally lean away from Sartre’s authentic/bad-faith dichotomy. In my own rendering of existentialism, the key tension is between being true (authentic, as it were) to your own self-identity and being a productive member of a functional larger community –two ends which are each positive in themselves, but which continually and inevitably come into conflict.

As a Christian existentialist, I resolve this tension in a religious context: “Develop your talents, and put them to work in service to others” –a gospel-inspired synthesis of individuality and community.

In regards to Sartre and Heidegger to what extent to do you think it is existentially possible to be ‘authentic’ in our modern society? Do you think it is possible to live in contemporary society without acts of what Sartre deems ‘bad-faith’? – Natasha

From Sartre’s perspective, “is it possible” would the wrong wording. No matter the circumstances or context –i.e. modern society –it is always possible to be authentic or inauthentic. It is always a choice that you are unable to avoid.

What we might rather say is that modern society discourages and punishes authenticity –that being authentic has momentous consequences for both the individual and the surrounding society. Therefore most of us assess the consequences and choose inauthenticity. It is still, however, a choice. You can always be authentic and damn the consequences.

I was thinking about this very question recently. I currently work in a business environment –the height of an inauthentic context. One of my co-workers is leaving the job, and many people are genuinely distressed to see him go, despite the fact that he has made very little effort to win friends during his time here. I think the reason people are affected is because my coworker is an authentic personality –his real self, more or less –even in a context that does not encourage that. It certainly hasn’t made his time here easier, but it does demonstrates Sartre’s contention that authenticity is always available if you choose to embrace it.

Just recently saw the following argument in a logic book: all lions are herbivores all zebras are lions ————– therefore all zebras are herbivores this seems to be logically valid syllogism, but it is disturbing.

I have been reading your site, and there is somewhere you said a conclusion can logical valid but unsound. Is the following argument valid but unsound? I am not sure about what unsound arguments mean? Can you please clarify this for me. – Johnson Mafoko

Yes, that is a valid, unsound argument. The structure is good, but the content is bad. This is the case even though the conclusion is correct.

The way it works is this:

Invalid means the structure is bad. There are no benefits to an invalid argument, the premises have no meaningful connection to the conclusion.

Valid means the structure is good. If an argument is valid, it means the conclusion is at least as good as the premises. So if you put in true premises, you get a true conclusion. However, it doesn’t mean that if you put in false premises you get a false conclusion. In logic, false premises can lead to any conclusion, even when the argument structure is valid.

Sound means that the argument is valid and that the premises are true. A sound argument will guarantee a true conclusion. It is the only type of argument that guarantees a true conclusion.

Please note that only “formal” arguments –the kind of very artificial, highly structured arguments found in logic books and dealing only with unambiguously true or false statements –can be either valid or sound. (Different terms are used for less formal arguments).

I have existentialist leanings and see myself as a humanist. As a Christian I have had a problem reconciling these three philosophies…

…Thank you for making the attempt. I like it. My question
concerns Paul Tillich’s critic of pure existentialism, stating that
our use of language is universal and points to essentialism. He argues
that Christianity is comprises a dynamic between essentialism and
existentialism. You need both. You can’t separate the two. Is it
really possible to state existence proceeds essence when we worship a
universal Christ, historically grounded? Hope you can make sense of my
confused thoughts. – Eric

Here’s the short version of the answer: Christian existentialism must be understood as distinct from the more familiar atheist existentialism of a Sartre or Camus. I would describe it as follows: In (and only in) the context of a relationship with God through Christ, no essential constraints of law, morality or identity are absolutely binding.

So in atheist existentialism, your existential freedom is absolute, but in Christian existentialism, it is your relationship with God that is absolute, and your existential freedom stems from that relationship. You can look at is as a recasting of the classic Christian belief that servitude to Christ is freedom from the world –i.e. “My yoke is easy…”

Hope that helps. My response is original, but heavily influenced by Kierkegaard, particularly “Fear and Trembling”.

Is conscious experience an epiphenomenon of the brain?

Hello,
I would like to find out how you could answer the following question:
Is conscious experience an epiphenomenon of the brain?

I’ve dealt with this question several times before, but I’ll gladly address it again. Epiphenomenalism is the idea that mental phenomena –thoughts, feelings, acts of will –do not cause physical actions, but are only a response to them. I think I have deliberately moved my arm, but in fact my arm moved as a physical reaction to electrical signals in my brain, my thoughts did not cause it, but only observe it.

The motivation behind the development of epiphenomenalism is the difficulty of explaining the connection between the mental and the physical. Even today, there is no known explicit mechanism by which my act of will translates into a motion of my arm.

Yet epiphenomenalism is easy to debunk. It presents itself as an explanation of a mystery in the world, but all it really does is deny that that mystery takes place in the first place. It does not have any positive explanatory value.

The best argument for epiphenomenalism I think, is the argument from fiction. If I read a book, it is possible for me to get so deeply involved in the story that I feel as though it is happening to me in the moment. Even though I the reader do nothing to influence the events of the story, the skill of the writer makes me feel as though I am making the choices that in reality are being made by the character (really by the author).

Yet the metaphor of the book requires that the text has been prewritten, and that the shape of the narrative reflects the will of the author. No random assortment of letters on a page would have the power to create that same illusion of agency. In the same way, no plausible purely physical, unwilled sequence of events has yet be proposed that can explain, for example, why my physical body is sitting here, making motions with my hands that precisely produce this specific email that my mind believes itself to be composing.

Again, let’s say I’m the dictator of a small country. I decree that statues should be erected in my image nationwide, and poems written to commemorate me that should be chiseled into the pedestals. Epiphenomenalism has no explanation for why these statues and specific combinations of words subsequently appear all around the country –if not in response to my dictatorial willing that it should so happen. It’s a bit of a stretch of the imagination to call it a pure physical coincidence. At most, the adherent of epiphenomenalism can claim that all this directed complexity could theoretically spontaneously appear physically through some as yet undiscovered mechanism. Yet all that does is exchange one mystery for another.

The great mass of humanity is obstinately and blindly stuck in a repetitive consumerist dynamic

Q: Thank you for replying. I must say, your goodwill and faith in people is quite admirable.

I agree that a shift towards creative / artistic production is something of great value and represents a positive destiny for human beings. The great problem that we face however, is that there is a significant percentage of the human population that is truly vacuous, inane and can see no benefit in creativity. I do not speak solely about artistic production, as creativity. Any pursuit which requires a person to imagine, plan, develop, strategise and do in order to achieve a goal or actually make something has got to be positive (obviously not so much if that goal involves violence or cruelty). It’s about self determination, and then positive action in a purposeful direction I suppose.

 The great mass of humanity however is obstinately, and blindly stuck in a repetitive consumerist dynamic, that can only be sated with newer, bigger, more.  These are the Philistines. These are the people who litter our beautiful countryside with McDonalds and KFC  refuse, who live for generations on Welfare payments quite proudly, or conversely who stockpile fortunes and steal from hard working creative producers. They are different, but the same, they need each other.

 Some humans are above this dynamic to a certain extent (we all must participate at some level, consciously or not,) and living truthfully. If our consumerist culture hides a search for meaning, well that just confirms my opinion that many people are vacuous and inane. After several centuries of good living standards, one would hope that the lucky amongst us (the Westernised world for want of a better description) would have arrived at a nobler and greater expression of the meaning of our lives.

We haven’t. Instead, we are becoming more spoilt, more spoon fed, more demanding. Everything is false. People “give to charity” from their credit cards, instead of helping their neighbour who may be struggling .

I am being somewhat polemical, as obviously, this is not always true. There are pockets of resistance, which naturally, the dominant culture attempts to subsume, and then mass produce the results to increase profit.

Whilst the majority continues to sleep, and fails to dig beneath the gloss and artifice, the idiocy of human beings will only increase.

I think human beings are deliberately dumb, until they are forced from their ignorance, and then they begin to wise up.

For now, the fact that “good men are doing nothing”, to me, makes us evil.

In answer to your question; What should people spend their time and resources on?

I would say people should spend more time getting their hands dirty growing food, walking  or cycling  to work,  creating community projects, asking serious questions of their municipal councillors, raising funds  instead of demanding funding, refusing to purchase the next big thing, taking a risk, laughing at the deliberately ignorant, being outspoken,  and less time gossiping about The Voice (guilty as charged), purchasing processed foods, spraying Monsanto chemicals all over the countryside, and dumbly believing that what they see and hear on mainstream news is actually anywhere near the truth of the matter.

Whatever happens, I have a feeling that soon enough the truth will be revealed. There will be those who are capable of handling it, and there will be those who simply cannot.

Michaela

A: I wouldn’t say that I see human beings as intrinsically either good or evil, but as capable of manifesting both.  The question then becomes how can the good be promoted (because in my experience, suppressing the evil is counterproductive as an approach).

The chief problem is this.  In the sea of thought, most people are not swimmers.  They need a boat –i.e., a elaborated system of beliefs and structures –to keep them from drowning.  Even when a cultural system is “sinking”, people won’t abandon it unless they feel confident they can transfer to a new boat (another system) that will float.

That’s the current situation with relationship to consumerism.  We all know that boat is sinking, yet in the absence of a workable alternative, people cling ever more desperately to what they know.  Accordingly, my emphasis on the Arts is only partly because of my own love of them –I also think they have the potential to serve as the foundation for a more healthy socioeconomic system.

Why do we continue to evade the truth? …Are we dumb or are we evil?

Everyone in the Western World and beyond knows that we hold the key to personal/societal/cultural/financial transformation. We know that everything we do is wrong. Instead of going out and doing exactly what we should, ie stop spending, stop our vacuous pursuits (Plastic surgery springs to mind), stop supporting imperialistic expansionist ideals, we proceed to have larger, more ostentatious weddings, speak in ever more inane rhetorical loops and ignore more steadfastly all
the blatant signs of truth. (Collapse).

Are we dumb, or are we evil?

Michaela Crompton

I’ve found that any persistent negative behavior generally has some legitimate meaning behind it, no matter how worthless it may seem on the surface.

 In this case, I think that the excesses of our consumerist culture hide a well-disguised search for meaning.  By reducing everything to a fiscal value, we impose an order on the world that gives us (the illusion of) lives that make sense.
To cut to the heart of the matter, people never stop doing wrong things because they learn those things are wrong –they stop doing them only in the case that they learn ways of being that are better.  I think it’s ultimately more effective to make ambitious steps to bring new positive things into the world then to try directly to eliminate the old negative things.  You’ve asked why people don’t “stop spending, stop our vacuous pursuits, stop supporting imperialistic [expansionism], [stop having] larger, more ostentatious weddings, [stop speaking] in ever more inane rhetorical loops and [stop ignoring] more steadfastly all the blatant signs of truth.”  But what do you expect them to start doing once they stop all that?  What, in your estimation, is a valid pursuit?  What speech is substantive, not inane?  What should people expend –if not money –their time and resources on?
This is a real question.  For instance, my current efforts are aimed towards shifting our society away from materialistic consumption, and towards artistic production, because in my view, that represents the positive destiny for human beings.  But there may be other legitimate answers to that question as well.

what is life ? i am not able to understand the things around me. i am not able to define myself, my position.

In the old days, prior to Individuality, your Identity was entirely a function of what slot your community plugged you into.  You might be the Village Idiot, the Village Chief, the Village Medicine Man, the Village Wise Woman or the Village Whore, but there was no question of you taking on a role outside of the roles predetermined by your village (or tribe or clan, etc.).  The invention of the Individual Self was the great innovation of the Western World, and it provided centuries worth of vitality and interest to a world bored with group Identity.  The shift towards the Individual Self reached its extreme with the philosophical movement of Existentialism, which held freely willed individual choices to be the ultimate foundation upon which everything else rests.  Yet the Individual Self can no more thrive on its own than a head can survive without a body.  This is because the Individual Self exists in a constant, unresolvable state of Tension between its Existence and its Desires.

Your Existence consists of all the mundane facts that uniquely specify you as a individual distinguishable from all other individuals.  Are you male or female?  How old are you?  Where do you live?  Are you in good health?  How tall are you?  What race are you?  What do you look like?  Do you have brothers and sisters?  What language do you speak?  What kind of personality do you have?  What are your strengths and what are your weaknesses?  Where are you right now, and what are you doing?

Your Existence makes you who you are, but it comes with challenges.  First, it’s in flux; the “details of you” are always changing.  For example, each day you’re a little older.  If you chop vegetables too recklessly, you might lose a finger and suddenly that becomes a permanent part of your Identity.  Take a class, and you gain a skill.  Get a bump on the head and you lose one.  Even your personality may shift throughout the course of the day, with the passage of a month, with the changing of the seasons, or simply in response to how much sleep you got the night before.

Second, the details of your Individual Existence can –and often do– come into conflict with other major component of your Identity, your Desires.  Your dream is to become a professional basketball player, but you’re 4′ 8″ tall.  You want to have your own biological children, but you’re not sexually attracted to people of the opposite gender.  Being able to drive is an important part of your sense of independence, yet you can no longer see well at night.  In this way, it is not just the facts of our Existences, but also the patterns of our Desires as played out in opposition to those facts, that make us who we are at the Individual level.

In the not-so-uncommon event that you have become somehow alienated from your own Individual Self, there are things that you can do in order to regain your personal connection with your own persona.  One time-honored technique is to pay more attention to your dreams and nightmares.  Another is to do what Jungian psychologists call “shadow work,” in order to identify and come to terms with the darker side of your Individual persona, your repressed and rejected Desires.  Yet these techniques, as powerful as they are, can do but so much; and if we just consider the Individual Self, we are forced to stop here, forever trapped between the Scylla of our Existence and the Charybdis of our Desires.

If we widen our field of vision, however, we see that the key determinant of how we actually experience our Identity lies outside the Individual Self.  It is the Relational Self, the Identity formed within the context of every community to which we belong, that determines how our Individual Self will find its means of Expression.  In other words, the life you live will be given shape by the people around you.  It is true, as the Existentialists claim, that no one can take away your freedom to make your own choices.  You alone are in control of the decisions you make at any given moment.  But those choices and decisions will draw their meaning from the shared behavioral vocabulary of your community.

For example, in the highly structured, conformist environment of Japanese primary schools in the nineties, as simple an act as leaving one’s shoelaces untied marked a student as a rebel, a non-conformist and a subversive, gaining her the admiration of peers and the approbation of teachers throughout the school.  Yet during the same era, the same act of leaving one’s shoelaces untied would at most mark a student in the more relaxed environment of a typical American school as careless.  In order for the same Individual, transplanted from Japan to America, to Express the same Desire to rebel, her behavior would need to be augmented to extreme levels.  She would need piercings in her nose, combat boots on her feet and a bomb in her locker in order to garner a comparable level of shock.

We could also consider the imaginary case of a mother who changes neighborhoods and is amazed at the rapid and disturbing changes her child goes through in response. Perhaps he used to be a polite, straight “A” student with an after-school job. Now he is foul-mouthed, rude, and facing charges for drug dealing and murder.   In truth, her son’s underlying personality is still the same. He has always been ambitious and driven. In his old life, he used manners as a way to get people to do what he wanted, pursued money by working an after-school job, and channeled his ambition into his schoolwork. Now, however, he lives in a world where the rules are different, and has adjusted his behavior accordingly. Manners get him nowhere among his new peers, but bad language brings respect. His old job involved long hours for little pay, but drug dealing makes him wealthy. Doing homework used to put him at the head of the class, but becoming head of a gang requires a reputation for deadliness. His transformation from honor student to murderer may seem like a Jekyll and Hyde narrative about two completely different people, but on closer inspection it is the story of one consistent personality manifesting in two contrasting ways in two contrasting social contexts.

Given that your community has such a strong impact on the life you lead, are there ways to improve your Relational Self?  One answer is that which all our mothers did their best to impress upon us –and for good reason –find a better group of friends.  Do your best to integrate yourself into a community that has the values you wish to live into, accomplishes the things you wish to accomplish, and in general, embodies all the traits you most admire.  That said, this may be more difficult than it sounds.  Sometimes the groups that surround us are inescapable.  Sometimes a better group is difficult to find, and sometimes ties of blood, history or loyalty keep us bound to the group we already have.  It may be difficult to judge a group accurately from the outside, and even if you do find your ideal group, it may be impossible to gain entry to it, or to take on your preferred role within that group.  Thus if we go no further than the Relational Self we can be nothing more than the passive product of our environments.
At this point we’ve seen you tormented at an Individual level by the unbridgeable gap between your Existence and Desires, and compelled at a Relational level into the modes of Expression entailed by the community to which you belong.  Is that all there is to life?  It might be, were there not one final self, a self rejected by the Existentialists and debunked by the Empiricists, a self largely forgotten by the modern age –your Universal Self.

It may be easiest to think of this as your Ideal self, the best possible “you” you could be.  This is a you that thinks like you, looks like you, sounds like you and has every facet of your personality, down to its very core, yet without the selfishness, destructiveness, willfulness, greed, envy and other weaknesses of the you that actually manifests within the world.  But is this Universal You just a dream, illusion or fiction (as claimed by both the Existentialists and the Empiricists) or is it somehow latent inside you, waiting to be brought into the world?

Fortunately, there is a simple, effective and reliable method to draw ever closer to your Universal Self, and to do so, moreover, without giving up your Individual Self in the process.  That method is first to identify your unique gifts and talents; second to develop them to their highest extent; and third to put them to work on the behalf of your community.  If you love music, become the best musician you can be, and then play for those around you.  If you are good with your hands, become a builder, and build homes for the homeless.  If you like to be in charge, develop yourself as a leader, and lead people in a positive direction.
If you apply this method consistently and conscientiously; if you are willing to cycle through the process repeatedly; if you keep strictly to positive initiatives, rather than initiatives that primarily act in opposition to someone else; and if you always interpret “your community” as broadly as possible (i.e. as all of humanity rather than narrowly as in just your own friends and family) you cannot help but move progressively closer to your Universal Self.  Furthermore, in doing so, you will find that embodying your Universal Self not only helps you resolve the Tensions inherent in your Individual Self, it will also help you become your best possible Relational Self, by bringing you into your best possible relationship with those around you.

NEXT WEEK:  Back to Art

How do you define reality and illusions in life?

From the time I was very young, I worried about the question of whether the true nature of Reality was as we perceive it or not.  And if we could be deluded about the nature of Reality itself, what did that mean in terms of our relationships with others, others who might be mere figments of our imaginations?  These questions troubled me for a good twenty-five years, until the answer came to me, fittingly enough, in a dream.

In that dream I was a student at a large, international boarding school.  The students were all gathered in the spacious courtyard when we received the disturbing announcement that the world was coming to an end.  There was a predictable mix of reactions from the amassed crowd –panic, denial, grief and anger.  There was also a untraceable rumor that began to circulate that there was a select group that would be chosen to survive the dissolution of the universe.  As for myself, I took the news quite calmly, perhaps because of my secret conviction that I was among those who would be saved.

Later in the dream, night had fallen, and the outside gardens were quiet, deserted and already beginning to fade at the edges.  There was no one around as I entered, for the last time, the vast, almost limitless mansion that had housed our beloved school for so many generations.  As I climbed up the wide empty staircase, I passed a group of huge circular machines, patiently cleaning and polishing each surface of the ancient building in preparation for its destruction.  I saw no other living creature until at last I made my way up to the roof.  There the air was suddenly full of light, music and laughter as the teachers of the school gathered to hold a last party for those students who still remained.

I could see the teachers for what they were now, something far older, wiser and more powerful than human beings, something angelic, almost divine.  I sought one of them out, a beloved teacher of my own from when I was very young.  She took me aside to a dark and quiet part of the roof and there we spoke under the starless sky.

As we conversed, I realized the rumor had been wrong.  It was true that I would survive the end of the universe, but there would be no group of the elect that would escape with me.  It would be me and me alone.  I also knew somehow that my teacher was as aware of this fact as I was.  Yet –and this was the amazing thing to me –even knowing this, she viewed me and treated me no differently than any of her other students.  I knew that she loved me, but I also knew that she also loved each one of her other many students in the same way, and with the same depth, even though I would go on living, and they would soon dissolve into nothingness.

“What was this all for?” I asked her.  “What did it all mean?”  I wasn’t asking about the end of the world,
but about everything that had come before –the school, the hard work of educating students, the careful cleaning of a building that was destined for destruction, the party thrown for guests whose time was measured in minutes.  What possible significance, meaning or value could any of it have in the face of the end of everything?  “Was any of it real?”

“Love,” she said.  “Love is real.  Love is meaningful. Love will survive.”

At that very moment, a bell tolled and the world faded away, as I awoke to the realization that it had been the truest dream I ever dreamed.  I had been in another world –the world of my dream –and it was also true that it had had a limited lifespan, and that it had come to an end, and that I alone of all its countless inhabitants had survived its apocalypse to journey into another world –the world of my waking life.

More than that, however, I knew also the last words of my teacher were also true –that Love is Real, that Love is meaningful, that Love survives, and that no action undertaken with Love is ever wasted.  And though I knew that the rational, objective part of my mind could call her nothing but a fiction of my subconscious, I knew that she had achieved a portion of Reality though the depth of her Love.  I could still feel its solidity like an embrace.

The experience resolved a problem that had distressed me since childhood –is this world we live in Real?  Or is it a dream or an illusion?  Are the people, things and places around us as solid as they seem?  Or are they as likely to melt away as snow in the heat of the sun?

What I learned is that the objective Reality of our world doesn’t matter.  We are all, in the largest frame of reference, figments of God’s imagination, characters, as it were, in God’s dreams.  There is still validity and Reality to the way we live and the way we treat others, regardless of any objective reckoning of fact and fiction.  The teacher in my dream was Real because of her values and the way she cared about her students.  The same type of Reality is available to you, and to me, be we disembodied brains in vats, figures in someone other person’s dream, or even fictional characters.  And though it was not a part of my dream, I have also come to understand that the converse must also be true –that giving way to cruelty and hatred renders a person as unreal and as insubstantial as the shadowy wraiths and cardboard monsters who haunt our dreams and are so gratefully forgotten with the approach of morning.

Is this statement a tautology: “If there were no opportunities there would be no crimes” ?

It depends on how strictly you want to define the word “tautology”.

A) FORMAL: If you wanted to evaluate it this statement as a formal tautology you would have to rewrite it as a formal statement first. In the form

“IF NOT a THEN NOT b”
(a=opportunities, b=crimes)
it is not a tautology, but in the form

“IF NOT a THEN NOT (a AND b)”
(a=opportunities, b=actions and opportunities + actions=crimes)

it is a tautology, because no possible assignment of a and b makes the statement as a whole false.

B) RHETORICAL
Although, taken literally, it seems to verge on a tautology in a rhetorical sense, you could reasonably argue that it functions rhetorically as a stand-in for the substantive claim “preventing opportunities is the best way to prevent crimes”.

who is the philosopher that said a real philosopher are the ones that question?

You are probably thinking of Socrates. To be exact, he said that the wiser man is the one who knows he knows nothing rather than the person who thinks he knows something (but does not). However, the underlying idea is the same. Socrates is also famous for developing a method of practicing philosophy that consists only of questions without answers (the Socratic Method).

What does Sartre mean by “Existence precedes essence?” What is essence and existence? What makes him conclude this? What further effect does this have on meaning, value, and freedom?

Essence in this case refers to the ancient philosophical idea (most closely associated with Plato) that all things have a predefined, ideal set of characteristics. For instance, the Essence of a chair is that it has four legs, a back, and people sit on it.

However, not everything matches its Essence. You might have a chair with three legs, or a broken back, or that no one sits on. The actual details of a particular chair make up its Existence.

The idea that Existence precedes Essence is that –for human beings –there is no predefined pattern that we must fit into. We live our lives, and that in turn defines what we truly are, not any idealized set of characteristics. This idea is the heart of Sartre’s version of Existentialism.

The implications are that we must create our own meaning, place our own value on our acts, and that our individual freedom is absolute and unbounded.

As a side note, Sartre, although an atheist, gave what I consider to be one of the best ever descriptions of God, as the “Union of Existence and Essence”, meaning that God is the full Existential realization of every perfect, ideal or Essential attribute of God. Sartre, of course, described that as an impossibility, but it is also a good description of what a believer believes God to be.