Humanity's Existential Angst
Facing the uncertainty of our future
In the middle of the night, I woke up in a sweat. A car honked outside the window, rushing to be somewhere in the city beyond. Lying in bed, I felt the weight of the future descend on me—the rush of the impending days, weeks, months, and years ahead. At thirty-one years old, despite sometimes still feeling like a fresh college graduate, it seemed a realization hit me all at once: I'm an adult.
Upon further contemplation, I grasped this as an episode of existential angst, a feeling examined through the philosophy of existentialism. As the greats in this field said, we are not born with a purpose; the universe gives us nothing, there is no meaning to *waves hand* all of this. Jean Paul-Sartre so eloquently summed it up with his quote, "Existence precedes essence." All we can do is live to find our own meaning. As I slept in an anxious maze, the existentialists seemed to haunt me in my dreams, shouting that I was free, that I must find my purpose.
I haven't found it yet, but I'm writing my way into it, one word at a time.
This episode helped me reflect not just on my own life but our collective one, the sum of humanity. The feeling of an uncertain future is not just something an individual can experience. Consider the current state of our species, and it appears that we are trapped in a similar anxiety. Carl Jung's idea of the collective unconscious says that we all hold symbols and ideas inherently in our minds. Is it possible that it can evolve and that new symbols can swim through the cracks of consciousness? In this newsletter, I've written quite a bit about the future and its potential collapse, the fact that humanity sits on a pendulum that can swing toward peril or prosperity. This state of being, this pressure to succeed, is not going to stand by in stillness. Consider these facts:
Truth is now subjective, anything and everything, including scientific facts, are open to distortion, and it's almost impossible to convince someone of your opinion if they are entrenched in their own.
The world is burning in front of our eyes, and yet we remain unable to coalesce behind a true solution to save the planet.
Artificial intelligence, nuclear arsenals, biological weapons, and more put our global safety at significant risk.
Homosapiens have been around for a few hundred thousand years. We've lived in the industrialized world for only a few hundred. The modern smartphone is only a little over a decade old. Technology accelerates, kind of like how time seems to move faster as we each get older. Humanity, whether we like it or not, is at the cusp of true adulthood. We stand at the edge of a cliff, and we can either fly into the stars or fall to our doom. Like children, we've learned many valuable lessons in our time on this Earth. What is right and what is wrong. The value of freedom, equality, and truth. It's now imperative that we take those lessons to ensure we cross this threshold of uncertainty into a potential future of overwhelming good.
Yet, foraging into an unknown future is difficult for an individual; one cannot imagine how a society can push forward in a similar war, especially when the stakes are so high. So is there a medicine we can prescribe humanity? Is it philosophical debate? Education? Technological advancement? The solution is likely a combination of all of these and more.
It's a lot to ask each individual to navigate the anxiety of their own life and the anxiety of our species. But that's what we all must do if we want to ensure a future for our descendants. Humanity has been around a long time and has accomplished so much, but I don't believe we've found our purpose yet.
We need to be adults before we can.
Since its release last year, I've been fascinated by GPT-3, an AI natural language program. After my recent newsletter summarizing the best examples of GPT-3 in action, I've decided to experiment with a new newsletter feature. After inputting my above essay into the program Sudowrite (which uses GPT-3), it spit out the following:
I awoke. The sun blared in the sky, feeding my wayward hopes that maybe the future, no matter how hazy, was still filled with possibility. This felt like a victory, an existential win, one that helped me through the rest of that day. The existentialists had gone. The anxiety had subsided. All was well in the world. I didn't know where I was going. I didn't know what I was doing. I didn’t know if I was failing or succeeding. All I knew was that I was living my life and trying to get it right.
🧠Bonus Brain Bits🧠
Existential Angst Continued
This essay by Samuel Alexander is an excellent complement to my essay above. Instead of using the analogy of adulthood, Samuel explores if our society can be diagnosed with insanity. He uses the Parable of the Poisoned Well, ideas from Michel Foucault, and more to convince the reader on the dangers of his “existential diagnosis.”
Visualizing SEP is “an interactive visualization and search engine for exploring the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy…” This is very cool, as I’m a big fan of emerging tools that help you visualize networked thoughts, such as with Roam Research.
A Little History of Philosophy
I recently finished this book from Nigel Warburton, and I must say it is a great introduction to the core philosophers and their ideas in history. I can’t wait to dig more into specific areas like metaphysics and ethics. Expect more on these topics in the future.
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Photo by Tim Hüfner