Existentialism and psychotherapy

Although I studied a variety of therapies in my preparation for a career as a psychotherapist, I never identified exclusively with one approach – gestalt, client-centered, behavioral, psychodynamic – as a descriptor of my style of therapy. I was an eclectic practitioner, but have always considered my therapeutic orientation to be existential.

I respect that there are therapists whose work has a religious foundation, but mine was a secular practice. I validated faith in God and prayer as best I could, with clients who found meaning in their religious beliefs; but if clients asked me to pray with them, I declined. Although I was raised as a Christian, and most of my values are rooted in the Judeo-Christian ethic, I’m an agnostic of the kind that’s very comfortable with saying “I don’t know” when asked about specific religious beliefs. I think that it’s just as arrogant for an atheist to assert sure knowledge that there is no God as it is for a religious person to assert that I’m in error for not believing what they believe. Define God, then we can talk.

I don’t believe that I have the authority to definitively answer questions about religion and am tolerant of  those who claim to “know” that their beliefs are true, as long as they do no harm as a result of religious beliefs. Of course, there’s considerable room for debate about what constitutes harm. (I personally consider any form of indoctrination to be harmful.)  I consider myself an existentialist because existentialism directly addresses morality and personal responsibility, without the excess baggage of sin and redemption and pleasing God. I’ll briefly summarize some of the basic principles of existentialism, as I understand them.

First, existentialism asserts that there’s no universal Meaning “out there” that all right-thinking people can apprehend – as opposed to religions, which assert that there is, i.e. “God’s plan.” To existentialists, concepts like Sin and Redemption and Divine Intercession are constructs based on religious doctrine. They don’t exist in any objective sense. Meaning only exists in the eye of the beholder. Life is absurd, as illustrated by Albert Camus in “The Myth of Sisyphus.”  Sisyphus continues to push the boulder up the hill, despite knowing that it will just roll back down. He persists, despite the absurdity of his efforts, because the act has meaning for him.

Because there are no absolute rules, or Divine rewards or punishments in an afterlife, we are each free to do whatever we want. But the other side of the coin of freedom is responsibility. We’re absolutely responsible for whatever we choose to do, and can choose to behave morally even if we don’t believe in Heaven and Hell. We can choose to live in good faith with others, because of our moral responsibility for all of our actions. Although we can find joy and meaning in authentic relationships, we’re all essentially alone in our lives. (A song sung by Country singer Bill Monroe expresses this as well as anything I’ve read on the subject; “You’ve got to walk that lonesome valley,/ You’ve got to walk it by yourself,/ ‘Cause nobody else can walk it for you./ You’ve got to walk it by yourself.”) We each have to deal with Angst (anxiety) and dread that comes from the knowledge that we will someday cease to exist. Existentialists don’t rely on the comfort of religious promises of eternal life for the faithful, to come to terms with our mortality.

To say that there’s no objective Meaning to existence “out there” isn’t to say that meaning is unimportant. As an existentialist I’m free (like Sisyphus) to find, or create, my own meaning. One of the best-known existential therapists, Viktor Frankl, named his school of psychotherapy logotherapy – from the Greek “logos”: meaning, or reason. (I’ve written about Frankl in previous posts. I’ve recommended his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, to more clients over the years than any other book.) Although I didn’t practice logotherapy, per se, I’ve worked with many therapy clients to help them find or create meaning in their lives. It can be a life-or-death matter with people who are suicidal.

I initially saw existentialism as grim and forbidding: if there’s no extrinsic Meaning to existence, then all we can do is to sweat along with Sisyphus, acting as if there was meaning to our lives. But now I see the richness of choice, where I once saw austerity. Existentialism gave me a philosophical context for the I-Thou encounters of psychotherapy. We all have a need for our lives to mean something; but we needn’t rely on “God’s plan,” as taught by this or that religion, or on promises of eternal life, to find meaning in our lives.

If you want to learn more about existentialism and the colorful characters (Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, as well as Camus, Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty) who formulated its principles, I recommend Sarah Bakewell’s highly-readable At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being and Apricot Cocktails. I’d never have guessed that phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty was good at dancing the Jitterbug.

Tools for philosophy

Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote, “Philosophy is not a theory, but an activity.” There are five essential branches of philosophical inquiry: Metaphysics  is the study of existence; Epistemology is the study of knowledge; Ethics is the study of proper action; Politics is the study of force in human affairs; and Esthetics is the study of art/beauty. You don’t need a college degree, or formal training, to engage in serious philosophical dialogue. Anyone who speculates about why innocents suffer while the greedy thrive is a philosopher. Anyone who questions dogma is a philosopher. Anyone who thinks for herself and explores alternatives to the conventional wisdom is a philosopher.

Philosophizing can happen in living rooms and on the street. When people seriously debate about abortion or capital punishment or taxation, they’re engaging in the activity of philosophy. As a philosopher you’re not obligated to come up with final answers or solutions, only to ask pertinent questions and make reasonable assertions. Philosophy isn’t a contest. It’s been called an interesting extended conversation that’s been going on for a long time. You needn’t identify yourself with any established “school of thought” (stoicism, Platonism, existentialism, etc.), but can be eclectic in your reasoning. I think of myself as a guerrilla ontologist, which I wrote about in two prior posts on “Agnosticism and certainty.”

One way  you can recognize that you’re talking to a philosopher is when you hear him say, “Define your terms.” It’s a basic tool that philosophers use. When someone asks me if I believe in God, my likely response is, “Define God.” Then we can talk. Real dialogue requires that we understand one another’s definitions of words, because most words don’t have absolute meanings. Another basic tool that philosophers use is formal logic, but that’s too complex a subject to get into here. Yet another is the three-step syllogism, such as the classic example: 1. All men are mortal. 2. I am a man. 3. Therefore, I am mortal.

Another helpful philosophical tool is the thought experiment. It’s a tool for changing your perspective, examining your values, or thinking outside the box of your preconceptions about an issue. It usually takes the form of a “what if ______?” question, followed by a question about what you would or could or should do in that situation. A classic example of a thought experiment is, “If your mother and your wife were both drowning and you could only save one of them, which one would you save, and why?”

Another classic thought experiment is the runaway streetcar scenario. What if you saw that a runaway streetcar was about to mow down five people in its path, and you were standing by a rail switch that would re-route the streetcar to a track where only one person would be killed. Would you throw the switch? Would your decision be different if  the five were strangers to you, and you knew and cared about the one person who would die because of your decision to throw the switch?

Under what circumstances you might kill someone is also a values question posed by the thought experiment: if you could go back in time and had the opportunity to kill Hitler before he rose to power, would you? What if he was only a baby? Thought experiments like these help you to examine your values. Examination of ones values (sometimes called values clarification) is a specific process: what do you value over what? Do you believe in absolute values? Certain Republicans have cast themselves as “values voters,” as if they held a copyright on values. Everyone has values, from the Pope to a Mafia don like Tony Soprano. We all value this over that when it comes down to making practical or moral decisions. I don’t believe that any ultimate authority exists, when it comes to what we understand as being real, or just. That’s one reason I consider myself to be a guerrilla ontologist.

Another helpful philosophical tool for English speakers who want to better understand the role of language in our thinking is E-Prime. E-Prime (which I wrote about in my post, “It’s only Monday if you think it is”) is English that omits all forms of “is.” Nobody suggests that E-Prime should replace English, but it’s a tool for understanding what “is” is in our thinking. The Aristotelean “is-of-equivalency” posits subjective things as objective things, creating an either/or dichotomy that need not apply. If an apple “is” sweet, it cannot be tart or sour. If one person in a room says that it’s hot and another says it’s not, one of them has to be wrong. If “is” is omitted, and one person says “I feel hot” and another says “I don’t,” there’s no conflict. Wars are fought over where, precisely, the border “is.”

Formulating sentences in E-Prime is an exercise in the activity of philosophy. It helps to make you aware of how language affects your worldview and your judgment. Here are some examples of English sentences and their E-Prime translations:  “He is a liar” becomes “He lies a lot.” “She is very pretty” becomes either “I find her very pretty” or “I’m attracted to her.” (That she “is” very pretty can be disputed; the two E-Prime alternatives cannot.) “He is the smartest man in the room” becomes “His intellect impresses me.” “Look! There’s a UFO” becomes “I can’t identify that flying object.”

The use of E-Prime eliminates subjective bias, or what I call the objectification of subjective experience. Try writing, or copying someone else’s writing, in E-Prime and see what you learn. I think that your philosophy will benefit from the activity. I describe this blog as a psychology blog, “with a side of philosophy.” More about the traps of language in my next post.

 

Agnosticism and certainty, Part 2

In philosophy, ontology is the study of being or existence. A relevant subject of inquiry within this major branch of metaphysics is the meaning of life. Many philosophers have tackled the question of life’s meaning, under the assumption that life must mean something. Religions provide maps for life’s meaning: you’re here to obey and serve God – however defined by Holy Scripture. Those who aren’t traditionally religious have to look in other directions to discover life’s meaning(s).

One of the central tenets of existentialism suggests that every philosopher who has attempted to identify the meaning of life has been on a wild goose chase. Existentialism posits that there is no objective meaning “out there” for us to apprehend and comprehend. If we apprehend meaning in our lives, it’s a meaning that we’ve created and superimposed on an intrinsically meaningless and absurd world.

As a young man I studied both existentialism and zen Buddhism. I was drawn to both philosophies, as their study made me look at the world in new ways. But, having abandoned the comfort of religious certainty, I initially saw a bleakness in both philosophies. In a world without intrinsic meaning, you have to grit your teeth and, like Sisyphus, just keep on truckin’, as if  there were meaning in your persistence.

I no longer perceive the bleakness I once saw in existentialism and zen. Reading books – fiction and non-fiction – by Robert Anton Wilson (RAW) helped me to think my way through my existential dilemma. I eventually reasoned  that if you’re not wedded to a philosophy that provides meaning to your life, that frees you to find/create your own meanings. Play with it! This is my understanding of what guerrilla ontology means. My life is  an endless Grail Quest for knowledge, and that journey provides all of the meaning I need to keep on sweating with Sisyphus.

RAW introduced me to the principle :”The map is not the territory,” which I’ve written about in a previous post. Nobody’s mental map  (we all have them) is identical to what it depicts, and yet we often confuse the two. Wilson wrote that “all ideas are partly true, partly false, and partly meaningless – including this one.” He coined the term guerrilla ontology to describe “the basic technique of all my books. . . . an attempt to break down conditioned associations – to look at the world in a new way, with many models (maps) and no one model elevated to The Truth. . . . My goal is to try to get people into a state of generalized agnosticism – not agnosticism about God alone, but agnosticism about everything.” Sometimes he purposefully and effectively used words to create cognitive dissonance, knowing a little initial confusion (fnord) can provoke you to think in new ways.

Wilson also introduced me to the concept of reality tunnels, saying that we all live in one at any given time. Reality tunnels are our circumstance- and culture-bound , lived -in mental constructs (maps) of what the world is and how we should behave. Irish Catholic reality tunnels differ in some significant ways from Italian Catholic reality tunnels. There are Inuit  reality tunnels, gypsy reality tunnels, suburban family reality tunnels, Sumo wrestler reality tunnels, etc. One can switch reality tunnels one or more times in one’s lifetime, if one’s life circumstances change. An Amish boy raised in a rural Amish community, shunned because he was gay, is likely to live in a significantly different reality tunnel after a year of living in Greenwich Village. I grew up in a military reality tunnel, but at age 25 I moved to a post-hippie psychology graduate school reality tunnel, with totally different customs and rules. The point is that we are all co-creators of our respective realities.

RAW made fun of the whole notion of “normality.” The Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP) offered money to anyone who could prove e.s.p. or another psychic phenomenon. Wilson ridiculed them by establishing the Committee for the Surrealistic Investigation of Claims of the Normal (CSICON) and offering a reward to anyone who could establish the existence of a normal day, a normal dog, a normal sunset, etc.

Wilson was a friend of LSD guru Timothy Leary and a spiritual heir  to the legacy of the Merry Pranksters. His thinking was broad and deep; but he often used humor as a teaching tool and never took himself too seriously. He remains, through his writing, my primary role model for universal agnosticism. You can learn more about him at rawilson.com. (The site has some great links.) If you want to read something by him, there’s no better starting point than the Illuminatus! trilogy, which I still consider the ultimate conspiracy novel. I’ve read it at least three times, and plan to read it again sometime. If you want to check out his non-fiction, I recommend The Cosmic Trigger or Right Where You Are Sitting Now.

Agnosticism and certainty, Part 1

I’ve described this blog as a psychology blog, with a side of philosophy. Epistemology is the branch of philosophy that explores the nature of knowledge, and how we know what we know. When it comes to religion, what true believers (whether Christian, Muslim, whatever) often claim to know, I see as beliefs, because they can’t be proven to non-believers. Faith is an important thing, and I respect people of faith on the whole. But, to me, faith in a belief is different than true knowledge. You may want to read my previous philosophical post, “It’s only Monday if you think it is,” for added context.

I was “properly churched” by my Christian parents throughout my childhood, but it didn’t take. I went through a brief spell of arrogant atheism as a young man, where I was convinced that people of faith were simply not thinking as rigorously as I was. But I was humbled when I read John Milton’s Paradise Lost and realized that people smarter than me believe in God. When I call myself an agnostic, I simply mean that there are a lot of things I don’t know. I tend to distrust the words of anyone who claims to know things that can’t be proven, such as the existence of an afterlife. I’m not just agnostic in religious matters, I’m agnostic about a lot of things – even some  of the claims made regarding science.

Just as I find it arrogant for a true believer in this or that religion to tell me that they know what I need to believe in, I also find it arrogant for an atheist to assert personal knowledge that God doesn’t exist. If I ask a believer for the source of their authority, they’re likely to refer me to a book that they believe has all the answers. If I ask atheists how they know for certain that God is simply a myth, they’re likely to claim that people of faith have all been indoctrinated, and that there’s no hard evidence to support their beliefs. I’ve heard an atheist claim that agnostics are just atheists who lack conviction, but I’m living proof to the contrary. I’m strongly convinced of a lot of things. But I’m also very comfortable with saying “I don’t know.” It’s a whole different philosophical frame than religious or anti-religious convictions.

Confucius wrote, “Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance.” Voltaire  wrote, “Doubt is not a very agreeable state, but certainty is a ridiculous one.” The Buddha is said to have said, “Doubt everything and find your own light.” I’m intelligent, well-educated and well-read, but what I know is finite, and always will be. What I don’t know is vast, endless. I believe, with Confucius, that this attitude is the beginning of  wisdom. It’s what I described in a story in a previous post as continually “emptying the cup,” so that it can be re-filled. I’ve become very comfortable with ambiguity, shades of gray.

I think that a lot of people confuse opinion and fact. I try to rigorously organize my beliefs in this manner: what I know I know (my knowledge), what I think I know (my opinions), and what I don’t know (my vast ignorance). Instead of thinking dualistically – either this is true or that is true – I tend to  think in terms of probabilities. It’s highly probable to the point of almost-certainty that the sun will rise tomorrow. It’s highly improbable (to me) that Jesus arose from the dead after three days and ascended into the heavens. But I don’t have the authority to claim sure knowledge

Back to epistemology: there’s no absolute definition of knowledge. St. Augustine wrote, “Man must know in order that he may believe; he must believe in order that he may know.” We all believe in premises (i.e. there is/may be/ isn’t a God),upon which we establish our values and opinions. Nobody can justly claim absolute authority for their belief system, although many try to. I believe in the merits of the scientific method, but I also believe that science has its limits. I’ve known scientists to whom science is a religion. I believe that science is a finely-ground lens that’s very good at examining some things – but not everything. Science can’t tell us what life is, or consciousness. It’s a branch of philosophy, as is metaphysics. Each has its own appropriate subjects for study and its own methodologies of exploration.

The key to certainty in the study of epistemology is authority. I know of nobody who has the authority to tell me what I should believe about matters metaphysical or theological – although, as a philosopher, I might be up for a discussion. When someone asks me if I believe in God, my usual response is “Define God.” All I’m saying here is that this is part of my personal philosophy; I’m not suggesting that everyone should (God forbid!) think like me.

I’ll conclude this post with a few introductory words about one of my favorite twentieth century philosophers, Robert Anton Wilson. He’s best known for his fictional  Illuminatus! trilogy (which he co-wrote with Robert Shea), but wrote many non-fiction books of philosophy and satire as well. He’s the funniest philosopher I know of. Reading Wilson reassured me that there are other universal agnostics out there, and taught me everything I know about guerrilla ontology. More about that in my next post.