Traditional Western Existentialism (described here by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy) is the field of philosophy that focuses broadly on freedom, the meaning of existence (if there is any), the meaning and essence of human existence, and often debates the value or necessity of existence while attempting to find a categorical conceptualization of human existence somehow “governed by the norm of authenticity“. This type of philosophy seems to resist plenty of notions and principles in Eastern philosophies that claim to reveal real insight as to the nature and “meaning” of human existence, while also commenting and reflecting on the act of contemplating such a thing.
In Western philosophy, much of what I’ve understood the systems, disciplines, and goals-of-questioning to be are attempts at conceptualizing the phenomena, and noumena in the case of inquiries about human experiences, of reality for intellectual understanding, as if one could not only find the root equation of existence as a physicist, computer programmer, or biologist might, but also accurately describe it with abstracted language that is a factor and subject of the examination.
The problem with this type of examination and contemplation of the human experience, and thus human existence, is that you can only ever describe the subject in terms of the content of the examination; however, there are many things that escape our conceptualization, that are very prevalent within our experience to which we have given names like “birth”, “death”, and “life”. Physical science and psychology (which is, in my view, rightly a combination of conceptual philosophy of mind and neuroscience) has not produced many explanations or descriptions for these phenomena outside of materially accurate descriptions of the process, complete with accurate predictions for future developments or damages but lacking any reliable information regarding the experience of these phenomena. This is moderately surprising to me since life seems to always be readily available for examination in various degrees, and death is necessarily tied to and following life. Studying birth would take more effort since it is a phenomena one needs to be ready for seeing as though once someone or something is born once, it will not likely be physically born again (at least not in a way that is empirically sound). So, science can offer no definition for life, no explanation for what may happen to subjective experience after death, and no explanation of what may be happening to subjective experience before birth.
Since meticulous science is so far inconclusive, if we are to gain any insight in the time being, we ought to not only continue to pursue both intellectual and personal, mystical studies of reality and existence, but to also question whether or not it is possible for the essence of human experience and existence to be intellectually understood. Epistemology is the study of knowledge and justifications for knowledge. It questions things such as what can we know, how does “knowing” work, and whether or not it’s possible to justify any claim of having knowledge. What’s in my opinion often neglected of epistemology is the question of intellectual understanding, whether or not it is possible to know something objectively, without being able to ever conceptualize it for understanding.
This conceptualization is the use of language, and abstraction, to define the phenomenon or noumenon referenced by the language. This system of creating abstractions from reality to describe reality are where Kant specifically critiques the practice of metaphysics for being unable to produce “synthetic a priori propositions“. It is also the greatest flaw of philosophy as an exchangeable and communicative practice, because philosophy itself deals entirely with conceptualizations and descriptions.
It may seem unworthy of note, but it is still quite important to say that experience of existence is essentially closer to the nature of existence than abstract conceptualization of experience is to the nature of existence. Even the words “the nature of existence” refer to a stable and never changing aspect or quality of all reality that relies upon this quality alone for existing.
In this way, acknowledging that our conceptualizations are mere shadows of the reality they describe, we can still gain insight into the myriad of possibilities for which some independent or individual thing can exist, which is a wonderful and extraordinarily useful product of philosophy, both Eastern and Western. We have simultaneously defined the extremes of the conceptualization of existence, with the idea of a written definition, an abstraction which is so faithful in its description of its subject that it reflects the essence of the subject as accurately as the subject itself, and the Ensō, and subject of Zen Buddhist art that symbolizes absolute enlightenment, the universe, and mu (the void), which are respectively much like the concepts of “birth”, “life”, and “death” that I mentioned before. One is an abstraction of experience, the other is more a practice of experience. The essential idea represented by the ensō is better experienced in its being painted than in the viewing of its depiction. In being a practice in which the performer must complete an action without any interference from thought, it seeks to replicate that in existence which we often describe as objective, being so of its own accord rather than by the relation to or necessity of something else as in a dualistic sense of polar comparisons.
With this dualistically polarized views of conceptualization itself, we understand more of the nature of human existence as it appears in human understanding. We know we communicate and interact with the world in terms of our subjective perception, not in totality with a fully unified, non-dualistic perspective, which may suggest that it is only possible for one to independently know truth, and describe non-truth as being like shadows, illusions, and merely abstract concepts piled together.
This has two important implications, in my opinion:
- The essence or truth of life, human existence, death, and reality can only accurately be understood in the experience of it. True knowledge can only be known/understood
- Any intellectualization is like a poem in its use of language, being a reference to another essence, meaning that talk of spirituality is necessarily just as bound to our physical, human existence as our experience is.
I love discussing various ideas about existence, reality, and consciousness with people from various backgrounds who have different perspectives, information, and experiences to offer, but we should always acknowledge that what we say is going on, at least in this form of existence, are only abstract ways of describing the way in which we each can form some representation of our experience. Therefore, any specific words themselves cannot be the truth, unless paradoxically, all words are forms of truth.
Considering the notion that the objects of existence as seen through the subjects of our experience are each individual manifestations of the many possibilities in which something can exist according to the rules of this reality/perspective frame, any expression of existence is true in-itself for being a form of existence, including human expressions of all kinds. This does not mean to morally equate all forms of expression, but to validate their existence, whatever the value may be, for simply existing to be evaluated. In this way, one could symbolically represent the nature of human existence by saying that everything is of the sacred and divine, and plays its role in maintaining the balance of existence, and the ebb and flow of experience through a (seemingly necessarily) abstracting distinction in our understanding.
Another important implication of this is in regards to existential freedom: that any expression that exists is effectively an authentic expression for its actualized existence; also, that we can categorize, conceptualize, and make representations of these expression that do not accurately depict the expression; and, we can either over- or under-value the expression in a subjective evaluation, especially considering the significance of social programming from socialization and personal reflection. Keeping this in mind, to bring together the ideas and knowledge I’ve gained insight to of philosophy, the sciences, personal experience, reflection and meditation, spirituality, and social interaction, I will say that this offers a reliable sense of existential freedom, not necessarily from the inherent validity of existence, rather from the insight that we always exist in regards to a reality. The idea that we can experience the lack of existence implies a contradiction stating that we can experience non-existence. However, I believe this terminology refers most accurately to the non-existence of intellectual concepts (or ideas), creating an experience like the painting of an ensō uninterrupted and lacking interference in its natural expression. This is similar to how some may describe one conceptualization of death, the cessation of everything, even subjective experience, but that sort of thought is criticized by the notion that if experience is to exist or happen at all, there must be something which is experienced.
I would say that this sort of experience is the lack of experientially-based distinctions or abstract concepts projected into perspective, just the unevaluated awareness of everything which can be perceived by the consciousness which must exist perceiving it. So long as this is happening, the consciousness never truly dies, and can exist in forms of existence and perception that we cannot even conceive of intellectually. And consciousness is not existentially attached to the forms it assumes the roles of, but it instead changes frequently into many transformative roles to assume as many expressions and forms of existence as possible for its own purposes. The best purpose we may be able to align our lives with, as individual human beings, is to responsibly handle the changes our consciousness makes while not try to do anything outside of what we would be considered authentic expression; however, this is already what we are made to do, and the process only needs to be optimized. This is why studying and learning from many different expressions of existence, changing focus ourselves over time, is greatly important for better understanding the nature of existence, as it keeps us involved with the flow of existing things automatically. Essentially, it seems like we’re eternally dreaming different dreams for the joy of doing things worth doing. For personal practical application, understand that to know oneself is to be oneself, even with the questions of worth, value, illusions, facades, abstractions, falsities, and misunderstandings, because the emptiness of lies directs consciousness to the fullness of truth.