Understanding nothingness; A guide to existentialism

Updated July 11, 2018

As Nietzsche so elegantly put it, “God is dead.” The lack of belief in any form of God opens up the door to the entire existentialist canon of thought because it opens the door to nothingness in all forms. Many commentators define existentialism through a belief in Sartre’s “existence precedes essence,” but looking through atheistic eyes is vital to understand the general philosophy. Existentialism is hard to define and understand in a sense, but if you’re guided through the “awakening” process – the moment of realisation (like K’s arrest in Kafka’s “The Trial”) – the movement snaps into focus.

“I am always impressed by the frisson in my class when students realize that there’s a sense in which Sartre is right: they could, right now, get up, leave the classroom, drop out of school, and go live as beach bums in a perpetually warm climate.”

Gary Gutting – Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame

Living without a god

Regardless of your reason for learning about existentialism, you have to consider the implications of a lack of a divine deity of any description. Gods give life some form of meaning. They fill the nothingness of the universe with a kindly paternal figure that is responsible for our existence. Without this pacifying father, troublesome questions sound out of the abyss. What is the purpose of existence? What should I do with my life? Without a god, consciousness isn’t eternal. Life becomes finite, a snapshot of brightness in the infinite darkness of the universe. The prospect of death becomes synonymous with confronting nothingness head on.

Existentialists generally refer to this feeling as “abandonment.” Kierkegaard is widely considered the father of existentialism, but he did claim to believe in God. However, it could be argued that his work reflects someone struggling to come to terms with his own scepticism in the deeply religious early 19th century. Steven Earnshaw, lecturer and author of “Existentialism: A Guide for the Perplexed,” describes much of Kierkegaard’s work as “a critique and running commentary on his Christian faith and his relationship with Christianity,” and describes him as having “wrestled” with his faith.

The majority of existentialists have a deeply atheist perspective, which drives their contemplation of their existence. Nietzsche is the most ardent, believing that Christianity diminishes man by bestowing him with a “slave morality,” and by proclaiming God’s death he intended to signify the end of this decadent and thoughtless following. More recent existentialists merely accept that God doesn’t exist as a given, but the key point is that the nothingness of death renders life completely pointless. All human endeavours have no deeper significance or meaning whatsoever.

The question of morals

Religious texts lose their moral weight. In fact, the entire idea of morals starts to present an issue. How, in a godless universe, could you denounce one act as morally reprehensible and venerate another? With no barometer against which to measure right or wrong, the existentialist sees morals and all laws as created out of nothingness. The fact that society imposes them is of little consequence; they must by definition be meaningless. Which authority could possible decree that something was wrong? Humans have created our own rules, so one individual’s version is no more inherently “correct” than anybody else’s. We essentially become our own Gods. In Nietzsche’s words, “Now there danceth a God in me.”

This lack of firm morals manifests itself in many ways throughout existentialist literature. The most notable example is murder. In Camus’ “The Outsider,” Meursault murders an Arab without emotion on a beach, and in Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment,” Raskolnikov kills an old money-lender. This isn’t to say murder is acceptable, it is merely to acknowledge that there is no concrete way to declare it isn’t acceptable.

Dealing with freedom

Existentialists face a pointless life with no clearly defined morals except for ones forcibly imposed on you by people without absolute authority. Spending your life in a drab, monotone office closes off an entire world of possibilities, and with the finitude of existence staring you in the face, every decision counts. All you have to base your decision on is nothingness. We make consistent leaps into the darkness, and are expected to do this every single day. No course of action is more valid, intrinsically, than any other, so why not switch off your computer, sell all of your possessions and live out your dream, no matter how absurd?

You haven’t done that because it’s never feels that simple in practice. Existentialism could lead you to explore the world of possibilities, but we’re so constrained by society’s “obligations” that it doesn’t seem possible. Also, whatever your dream life is, it’s also intrinsically meaningless and fraught with uncertainty. Camus’ “The Myth of Sisyphus” shows the dilemma of modern existence perfectly. Sisyphus is sentenced to eternity rolling a large boulder up a hill only to have it roll back down again. Camus casts him as an “absurd hero” because he acknowledges the pointlessness of his task and still continues. As Karin Fry, Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Wisconsin puts it, “the absurd hero acknowledges that life has no inherent meaning, but nonetheless continues to live.”

Understanding being

Existentialists such as Heidegger and Sartre devote considerable time to understanding “being.” What defines who you are? Society pushes you to behave a certain way, so how can you possibly be sure you are acting as your “authentic” self? Sartre’s concepts of “being-in-itself” and “being-for-itself” help illustrate the human condition.

The being-in-itself is the ideal state. A dog, for example, likes attention, eating, sleeping and chasing things because it is a dog. It never wonders why it wants to chase, it just “does.” The being-for-itself struggles because it tries to identify its intrinsic properties (the things that define who you are), but by being able to consider itself in that way is aware that it can change those properties at any time.

The quest for “authenticity” is a desire to achieve “being-in-itself-for-itself,” a synergy of these two states which removes the abyss separating them. This abyss is created because by being able to change the properties which identify the self, we know that our identity is based on nothingness. Being-in-itself-for-itself can never be achieved, but if you don’t try you’ll become “inauthentic” and experience the accompanying anxiety. Being an existentialist is being in a perpetual state of “becoming.”

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About the Author

Lee Johnson has written for various publications and websites since 2005, covering science, music and a wide range of topics. He studies physics at the Open University, with a particular interest in quantum physics and cosmology. He's based in the UK and drinks too much tea.