Existence and Essence: Determinants of Free Will

June 4, 2012

The fundamental doctrine of existentialism holds that existence precedes essence. Jean-Paul Sartre illustrates this idea in “Existentialism is a Humanism” by an analogy of an artisan who creates a book or paper-knife. The artisan has in his mind a conception of what he will create before he creates it. Anytime a person decides to create something, he has in his mind a conception of what that thing’s essence will be and then brings it into existence. For the thing he creates, essence precedes existence. Typically people think of God as a “supernatural artisan” who envisions what he will create as the essence of each individual man and woman and then brings them into existence.

Existentialism argues that Man is a case of existence preceding essence. In Sartre’s words, “man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world – and defines himself afterwards.” The resulting belief is empowering. It places all responsibility for who you are on you. No longer can you blame any other thing for what you are but yourself. With such responsibility comes freedom, as you can define yourself and thereby truly call it yours. For if you create a chair and feel a sense that it is yours in a way, that’s because you envisioned the chair’s essence and brought it into being. However, when you look at some other object outside yourself you presumably don’t feel the same connection. If it isn’t true that you define yourself, then you would experience the same alienation. If  one’s essence precedes her existence–if she is not responsible for who she is–she can’t call herself her self.You cannot claim a connection the way you feel with something you make if what you are is predetermined; you have as much control over what your essence is as you do a tin can lying on the road. You realize you are as removed from yourself as a foreign object.

To hold to my belief that I define who I am and am not predetermined, in short, to maintain my belief in free will, it’s natural to want to believe existence precedes essence. To believe I first exist and then define myself afterwards is of critical, yet there is a problem.

If you say that “you create your self,” you refer to two different yous. The second “you” is the product of the first–your self is created by you. You can define what you are by what you make yourself to be, but then you beg the question of the origins of the “you” that made you who you are. I would like to believe that existence precedes essence but when I say I define myself the myself’s existence can be explained by the I, but the I is left unexplained. This leads backwards to the question of first choice. It’s easy to state that the you who makes a decision is a sum of your past decisions, but as you first began making choices, before having a history and an easily identifiable self, what made those first choices? There was a you that made certain decisions. Why did it make those and not others?  You can change who you are if you have strong enough will. You can adopt characteristics and drop others. You can choose to do something because it is what you want. But that doesn’t solve the problem. The question remains unanswered; you decide to take on certain characteristics and react to an experience a certain way, but why did you make that one decision and not another?

The question about whether our existence precedes our essence or vice versa is ultimately a question of how much freedom we have, or if we have any free will at all. The truth of free will seems as easy to take for granted as consciousness. You can choose to continue reading this blog or you could choose to get up and go running. No doubt you can decide. But what determines why you make one choice and not the other? Your answer has everything to do with what you believe a human being is and how he comes into being. I don’t believe identity is predetermined by genes and experiences; yet if God preconceived the person I would be I’m not much better off in free will. It appears necessary that to make decisions in the beginning I must have been a certain way to have made them, and thus what I was must have been preconceived. The person I am now as a result of the history of my development determines how I use my agency, therefore, if the former was determined in the beginning so was my will. My best hope is that possessing agency is more complicated than that. Perhaps other factors help one determine his identity.


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