Jean-Paul Sartre was a 20th century philosopher remembered for his three-word summary of existentialism’s central claim: “Existence precedes essence.”
Sartre declared the traditional philosophic notion of meaning before living defunct.
An object, say a mechanical pencil, is made for a specific function — to write. In this way, the essence, or primary purpose, of the pencil comes before its actual existence.
But say I don’t use the pencil to write, and instead I use it every morning to stir my coffee. For this particular pencil, its essence has become coffee stirring. This primary purpose did not exist before the pencil itself. The pencil was not created to stir my coffee, and yet it does so quite nicely.
In this way, my determination to use the pencil in a manner not originally intended by its creator means the existence of the thing itself precedes its essence.
The immutable future, if immutable it is, is not an obstacle to free will. For a predetermined outcome to eliminate choice, it must first be set in a way that raises the awareness of the actor inside a system. When the actor lacks this knowledge, an immutable future does not preclude him from free decision making.
In fact, this is the only trait that can possibly allow for free will in a universe where matter and time are not infinite.
Existence precedes essence, but it also coincides with essence. A theoretical outside observer could watch a deterministic universe and see a preordained essence coexisting with existence, while those inside the system see nothing of the sort. From their perspective, existence precedes essence, and the system is utterly, hopelessly free.
The withheld knowledge of the outside observer grants insiders the ability to make decisions freely. But the hidden truth is existence and essence exist simultaneously, because time is merely an illusion.
How can this knowledge help us live better lives?
First, consider Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard’s belief that freedom of choice produces anxiety. The ability of an agent to perform an illogical act, and his acknowledgement of that ability, specifically, is to blame for this. And the level of anxiety increases in conjunction with the stakes of the decision to be made.
Second, if existence coincides with essence, decisions are not single events but ongoing characteristics of both ourselves and the universe.
As a river runs through the land, it becomes a different river each day. The reason we still see it as the same river, even though the water molecules are constantly being replaced by others from upstream, is due to our psychological reliance on object permanence.
People change in a similar manner, with new cells replacing dead ones and the entire matter of the body in constant flux. We’re rivers, too.
In these cases, the river is still the same river from day to day, and a person is still the same person, because of characteristic continuity.
This is how we ought to think of physical events — unchangeable facts of the world, not possibilities that just happened to occur.
An immutable future eliminates alternative realities. What is meant to happen does happen, and there was never any doubt about it to the theoretical outside observer. The doubt is ours, the insiders, alone.
In practice, we can use this knowledge to minimize regret, and eliminate Kierkegaardian anxiety. Why beat yourself up over something that was never meant to play out in any other way?
Knowledge of this truth can foster a positive attitude. We all make mistakes. They cannot be avoided, but they can, and should, be reckoned with. ■