The concept of essence is so fundamental to how we view our individual existence that it not only affects our understanding of how we came into the world and how we will leave it, it also affects how we order and live our lives. How we arrived at this divide requires a look at the historical development of ideas concerning our experience of reality.
First, to be as clear as possible about what I mean by essence and existence, let us consider the following definitions:
a property or group of properties of something without which it would not exist or be what it is.
the fact or state of living or having objective reality.Google Definitions
In short, my essence is “what I am” and my existence is “that I am.” In traditional philosophical terms, existence is the instantiation of essence. This means that my essence (me, the author of this writing) or your essence (the reader) actually exists, in contrast to the general idea of essence without reference to a particular person. In this view, existence was essentially meaningless without reference to essence. And if we accept these ideas as true, we could infer that essence precedes existence. (See Existentialism).
During the Enlightenment, and beginning with René Descartes, a 17th century French philosopher, mathematician, and scientist, ideas about essence and existence began to change. Descartes developed a powerful philosophical idea that we now call “The Cogito” or “I think, therefore I am.” (In Latin the full phrase is: Cogito, ergo sum).
Many people today credit this philosophical insight as the beginning of the end of faith in God, but it was never Descartes’ intent to undermine faith. His intent was to develop a “science” of philosophy that began with no presuppositions. That means a philosophy that would start with ideas or facts that we are absolutely certain we know are true and build up to a proof of the existence of God.
Famously, Descartes puts forward a very simple candidate as the “first item of knowledge.” The candidate is suggested by methodical doubt – by the very effort at thinking all my thoughts might be mistaken. Early in the Second Meditation, Descartes has his meditator observe:
I have convinced myself that there is absolutely nothing in the world, no sky, no earth, no minds, no bodies. Does it now follow that I too do not exist? No: if I convinced myself of something then I certainly existed. But there is a deceiver of supreme power and cunning who is deliberately and constantly deceiving me. In that case I too undoubtedly exist, if he is deceiving me; and let him deceive me as much as he can, he will never bring it about that I am nothing so long as I think that I am something. So after considering everything very thoroughly, I must finally conclude that this proposition, I am, I exist, is necessarily true whenever it is put forward by me or conceived in my mind. (AT 7:25, CSM 2:16f)
As the canonical formulation has it, I think therefore I am (Latin: cogito ergo sum; French: je pense, donc je suis) – a formulation does not expressly appear in the Meditations. Descartes regards the ‘cogito’ (as it is often referred to) as the “first and most certain of all to occur to anyone who philosophizes in an orderly way” (Prin. 1:7, AT8a:7, CSM 1:195).]Descartes’ Epistemology
Descartes began his argument with the idea that we can doubt everything we know, but we could still find certainty in our own existence, the “I am.” It was not his intent to replace the authority of God with the authority of our minds, however to begin a philosophy with the single proposition that the only reality we can be certain of begins with what “I” experience was bound to lead to the cultivation of a thought process in which human beings would begin to accept less and less of Reality. Anything that could not modeled by mathematics or expressed in scientific language would be winnowed out as “unreal”. It would become more difficult to accept those things that are inexpressible in scientific language as “real.”
As I have discussed in an earlier post, Mind Maps and the Beach, our mental maps of reality can appear to our minds to be more real than the actual reality that exists in and around us. To put it another way, many now think, with a feeling of certainty, as opposed to knowing a reality of God existence or non-existence. In fact, it is not uncommon to find a belief that our relationship to a Creator Force is now inverted: God did not create us, but we create God (as a projection of the human mind’s imagination).
In what looks like a proto-existential move, Descartes rejected the traditional essential definitions of man in favor of a radical, first-person reflection on his own existence, the “I am.” Nevertheless, he quickly reinstated the old model by characterizing his existence as that of a substance determined by an essential property, “thinking.”Existentialism, 2. “Existence Precedes Essence”
Before Descartes, our ability to think was considered to be a product of our essence. What Descartes did was to open a door to a thought process that eventually equated our minds with our essence. Jumping ahead to the year 1945, Jean-Paul Sartre, another French philosopher, an Existentialist, introduced the three-word phrase “Existence precedes essence.” This phrase completed the intellectual transition from Traditional philosophy to our modern understanding of essence and existence.
What is Existentialism? It is actually a lot of different ideas about existence, but this is a good summary:
“Classical existentialism is … the theory that existence precedes essence,” that is, “there is no such thing as human nature” in an Aristotelian sense. A “person does not have an inbuilt set of values that they are inherently structured to pursue. Rather, the values that shape a person’s behavior result from the choices they have made” (2018: 4). In contrast to other entities, whose essential properties are fixed by the kind of entities they are, what is essential to a human being—what makes her who she is—is not fixed by her type but by what she makes of herself, who she becomes. The fundamental contribution of existential thought lies in the idea that one’s identity is constituted neither by nature nor by culture, since to “exist” is precisely to constitute such an identity.Existentialism, 2. “Existence Precedes Essence”
What this means essentially is that we are what we think and do – and nothing more. All that is left of us after we die is the legacy or work that we leave behind – and even this is debated as “essence” as it is no longer a part of our actual existence. To me, this is a grim and stunted view of reality, but a predictable trajectory given the starting point of this particular philosophy’s origin.
Soul, Spirit – and the Mind
Before I began looking into this question of essence in relation to existence, it never occurred to me to think about these two words separately. I thought that “what I am” and “that I am” could not be different ideas. It never occurred to me to consider when or in what order they came to be. And this is probably because philosophy is no longer taught in higher education as a core subject. There is an idea in psychiatry called “blindness blindness” where a blind person is not aware that he is blind. I often find myself thinking how often we think we understand a subject, but have no real knowledge of its foundations at all – not even to understand what those foundations exist.
In any event, on the other side of life, divergent ideas in our culture about essence and existence after death are often discussed. Atheists believe that our essence ends when our physical existence ends. A Christian, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, or any other person with a belief about an afterlife, believe that our essence is preserved and that we continue to exist after our physical existence ends. So, in thinking about death and whether we believe in an afterlife – or not – will also affect the way we understand what our essence is and how it has changed over time. And to show how this is so, we need to consider the definitions of three words: Spirit, Soul, and Mind:
1. the nonphysical part of a person which is the seat of emotions and character; the soul
1. the spiritual or immaterial part of a human being or animal, regarded as immortal.
1. the element of a person that enables them to be aware of the world and their experiences, to think, and to feel; the faculty of consciousness and thought.Google definitions
[Note: While Google is a resource many people use today and can be a powerful tool, it can be limiting as well. If one is interested in the development of language, it is always instructive to look up common words from different editions of various dictionaries to see how they have changed over time. But, for our purposes here I am using these common definitions to show how people can read the same words and end up with entirely interpretations of them.]
For atheists, the mind of a person is his essence produced by the brain/body. “Spirit and “soul” are considered archaic or poetic synonyms for “mind.” The spirit might also refer to the mental health, emotional state, or personality of an individual, but all these things are associated with the mind and body of the individual. For the atheist, the mind itself is a product of the brain and nervous system. We are biological machines which think. And while there is division among atheists about whether the mind is material or non-material, they generally agree that when the body dies, the mind dies as well. I say, generally, because there are atheists, who are open to the idea of a person’s existence in some form after death, but these involve physical processes such as evolution, or preserving the mind in a computer. In addition, atheists reject that some entity outside of the natural world, such as God, the Cosmic Mind, or other supernatural force is the source of a person’s essence. They believe that the brain/body creates the person’s essence which is in line with “Existence precedes Essence.”
For those who believe a person’s essence is his/her soul or spirit, this essence is something that is different than the individual’s mind. Many, but not all believe the soul is preserved after death. And among those who believe this, they do not all agree on how much (if any part) of the mind is preserved with the soul.
The debate over God’s existence and from there, the deep political divides in Western Culture, seem to me to be symptoms of the mental structure produced from our understanding of what it means “to be.” While it might appear there is some commonality between those who believe in “souls” and those who believe the mind might survive death (by some physical process), the differences in origin, composition, and destination of one’s essence are very great, and in fact, opposed to each other.
My question to you, the reader, is this: Is it true (Reality with a capital R) that our essence is nothing more than the work of our physical bodies or is this simply another belief system (mental map) that human beings have developed. In other words, is our modern view of essence based on a culturally conditioned belief system? Because, if it is not based on Reality, then it is a mental construction of a false reality. And that thought, in turn, might be a hopeful thought for our future.