I have been feeling the existential dread peaking through my curtains at night lately. It almost feels like a gigantic kraken passing by my tiny mouse window and looking inside to find only a pitiful scene. At any point it could smash my reality into oblivion or choose to ignore my singular insignificant existence.
So I started looking as to what other people had said about some big questions: why are we here, how are we here and what am I. I got pretty sidetracked with some historic hijinks and gossip like the cafe club that Isaac Newton was a part of before his whole “gravity exists and I can prove it” revelation. There is much to look for when trying to find answers to big questions and I am no big philosopher to get close to answer them, maybe just conscious enough to wonder about them. Thus, I started with a concept I was familiar with, René Descartes’ famous quote “I think, there I am” or ergo cogito ergo sum for anyone who knows latin.
The questions Descartes proposed is basically the same one proposed in the Matrix, how do we know anything is real. This has been explored by other famous thinkers but the Descartes summarized it in this beautiful, concise and misinterpreted phrase. Descartes philosophy of skepticism dealt more in the how than the why and that leaves many questions open for interpretation like “Is anything from a reality we don’t know it exists worth it.” The translation in English makes it seem that because I have thoughts I exist. The whole idea began as a thought experiment for Descartes thinking what is real in comparison to a dream. When you are in a dream you can talk, you can see things, you can invent other people interacting with you, what is the difference? We can’t trust our senses because they can easily be confused by dream-like illusions. Experiences are basically information and now we can understand the science of how the brain stores this information, our own memories are easily altered like a can of Bud Light melting away inside the forgotten fire pit of a college party house.
Literature followed suit using this question to build stories around it. One of my favorite classical examples of this is the Spanish play by Pedro Calderon de la Barca titled Life is a Dream. The title is self-explanatory but the story showcases this ; the story is about an imprisoned prince whose father decides to give him a chance at ruling the kingdom. So to test the prince’s poise and morality he is put to sleep so the king can move him from his prison to the kingdom’s castle. When the prince wakes up, he believes he is merely in a dream and thus proceeds to enjoy the perks of being a king. His greedy and capricious attitude proved he wasn’t fit for the crown so the king imprisoned him again in his sleep. One of the most memorable scenes of this play was the soliloquy the prince performs wondering about the meaning of his life in contrast to the dream he had, thus stating that if such a vivid dream was possible then life could be no more than another dream. The realization leads to him becoming better, knowing that in his life he would still prefer to be ethical and honorable, even if life was just an illusion.
This privilege of consciousness can be burdensome because humans are the only animal to doubt our own existence. Doubt is the very essence of what Descartes describes as the foundation of our existence. The original excerpt in French made more emphasis in this idea that doubting means we can think, and that means we exist. The Spanish play explores a situation of someone accepting his doubt of reality, if everything could be a dream then might as well be authentic. We can’t fully understand everything the universe has to offer and thinking that everything could just be a lie makes everything seem meaningless. There are many types of existential anxiety and thinking about questions many philosophers have proposed can keep your head in the clouds while the world moves around you. An article by Arlin Cuncic from VerywellMind talks more about what an existential crisis is and how to overcome the anxiety it brings. The thought is very common to the point where it becomes parodied by shows and movies but it brings many important questions we should be asking ourselves.
To think about the vastness out there beyond our blue ceiling and our place in all of this quantum clutter, to wonder, doubt and dread is part of what being conscious is. Humans are complex individuals, unique in this planet and we don’t even understand why we are that way. There is a world of things out there and maybe the reality we see is just as fleeting as any dream could be. Yet those who have tried to answer these questions have not left us with messages of paranoia or hopelessness, but of something beyond that. Descartes concluded that the Christian God put us here as conscious thinking individuals who are meant to doubt and exist and because of that we should trust reality. Calderon de la Barca used the prince’s monologue to portray a semblance of hope underneath the meaningless of an unsure life. Beyond everything there is something and as humans we are only a bit of something on a bit something bigger. Thinking about big questions is what makes us interesting but those dreadful answers should never stop our progress and our hope for tomorrow.
Cartesian Skepticism Crash Course: https://youtu.be/MLKrmw906TM
Life is a Dream full play: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/2587/2587-h/2587-h.htm
VerywellMind article: https://www.verywellmind.com/coping-with-existential-anxiety-4163485