This paper is a feedback to a young man that presents with what the writer judged existential depression. The young man did not find any earthly activity meaningful and therefore did not really want to do anything. He felt that life in body is a waste of time, ennui, since ultimately we shall all die. The paper seeks ways to motivate the young man to live fully in the face of the existential realities he described. The larger aim of the paper is to postulate how human beings can cope with their meaningless and purposeless existence.
COPING WITH EXISTENTIAL DEPRESSION
Ozodi Thomas Osuji
A woman talked to me about her son. The son is in his twenties and a college graduate (in philosophy). She said that he does not seem to have any motivation to go and do something with himself (such as go to graduate school....she has graduate degrees) and or seek appropriate work, and that he simply wants to be home and loaf about doing nothing. Lately, he was talking about joining the military and wanting to go fight for his country (she suspected that he wanted to go die a heroic death). She could not understand why such a bright young man does not want to go do something with his life.
I talked with the young man. He is quite athletic; in fact, he was a track star while in high school and college (he runs regularly and says that he feels good while running, having control over his body...running is a means of escaping from thinking about existential meaninglessness).
He told me that beginning from his mid teenage years he gradually came to the conclusion that life on earth is meaningless and purposeless; that he was good in the sciences and thought about doing what his grandfather did, go to medical school, and study medicine but that the more he thought about what medical doctors do the more he did not feel like doing so. As he saw it, medical doctors treat people and heal their physical illnesses and thus prolong their lives. He does not see the point in doing that since, sooner or later (give one hundred years), people would die. Thus, all medical doctors and society in general is doing is postponing the inevitable. Why not let people die now instead of prolonging their meaningless existence, dragging it out only for them to die.
He went on to tell me that he is up to snuff on cosmology and astrophysics and its views on the universe. The universe will eventually expand to a point where it would lose heat and the galaxies and stars would die from heat loss (cold death). Everything would return to the elements that make them up, so why bother?
The elements (there are 92 naturally occurring elements, such as hydrogen, helium, carbon, oxygen, iron, nitrogen, potassium, magnesium, sulfur, phosphorus, uranium, gold, diamond etc. and about fourteen laboratory, artificially created elements that live and die within seconds) would decay to the particles that compose them (protons, neutrons sand electrons).
The particles, in time, would decay into the photons that make them up (protons and neutrons would first decay to quarks and then quarks to photons).
The photons would then decay to whatever it is they came from during the big bang heat and explosion that produced them and began their race to combine into quarks then to protons, neutrons and nuclei and then to atoms and eventually to stars and planets.
The planets in time would die. Our planet is orbiting a medium sized star, the sun. In about five billion years the sun would die. Before it dies it would exhaust its hydrogen fuel and is no longer able to fuse hydrogen to helium. It would begin fusing helium to carbon, then to oxygen and when the process gets to iron it no longer would have sufficient heat to fuse elements heavier than iron and would expand and eventually throw off its outer regions and the core would become a white dwarf and eventually lose heat and die.
Before the sun dies, it would expand and incorporate its nearest planets, Mercury and Venus, increase its heat and dry all liquids on earth and thus destroy biological life on earth. Astrophysicists tell us that in about two billion years the sun's dying process would begin and the earth would become dry and eventually become too hot to support biological life. When the sun dies the earth would become a cold piece of rock in space and eventually split apart and in time return to atoms which would return to particles which would return to photons and which would return to the putative nothing from whence it came.
In trillions of years the universe is scheduled to die a cold death (not big crunch) and we shall die with it. If that is the case what is the point of working to improve the world and people when they are programmed to die and the world and universe they live on would die?
Even if multiverses exist and eventually we are able to tunnel our way, wormhole our way to other universes and live there but as long as we live in bodies we shall eventually die. Those who are born in bodies, and live in bodies must die. They die and return to oblivion and finitude from which they putatively came from. Thus, it is all pointless, this young man feels.
The young man has no psychological energy to go do anything to improve his life and the world and just mops around.
He presents with mild depression (according to DSM four, dysthymic depression), not clinical depression. Clearly, he feels that life is not worth living, has lost some interests in the activities of daily living but does not have major depression (he still grooms himself, eats, engages in sports, and has friends...activities stopped by those who are clinically depressed). I do not see him as clinically depressed and needing medications. My diagnosis is that he has existential depression: he sees life as pointless (I am aware that DSM IV does not have a category called existential depression).
The young man has two siblings, a younger brother and an older sister. I talked to both. Both have a similar problem and responded to it differently. The younger brother, a college student, responded to it with radical politics (he is leaning towards socialism). The older sister responded to it by dropping out of college and not paying attention to society. She checked out of the rat race but in isolation fancies herself better than other people (she has some delusional self-concept and while not a paranoid personality could be seen as trending towards it). Their father has similar existential angst. In effect, the problem runs in their family.
Obviously these folk's biological constitution and social experience disposed them to respond in this particular manner. We can spend enormous amount of time trying to understand their unique biological constitution, especially their brain in an effort to understand why they perceive life as meaningless. But such effort is really a waste of time. Why? It is a waste of time because every human being, up to a point, perceives life as meaningless. This young man and his family members, as it were, merely exaggerated what obtains in most people.
There is a biological substratum to our behaviors and personalities but in as much as existential depression is found in most people, albeit in different degrees, and masked in so-called normal persons, it would help us to try to understand the phenomenon psychologically and philosophically without engaging in the biological reductionism that currently holds some neuroscientists in thrall. Of course, it is necessary to study the structure of the neurons and the brain but to the best of my knowledge the resultant knowledge has not helped us heal any one of his neurosis or psychosis. Loading folk's bodies with psychotropic medications, as psychiatrists are currently doing, has not proved more therapeutic than talk based psychotherapy. We have no option but to struggle to understand our selves rather than dull our thinking with psychiatric medications.
As I talked to this bright young man I recognized that he reminded me of me. When I was a teenager I was exposed to war and saw people killed. I saw loads of dead and decaying bodies lying all over the place. I assumed that I had post-traumatic stress disorder from this exposure to death. I was engrossed with thinking about the meaning of human existence. I responded to my psychological distress by going to school, completing secondary schooling and then going to university and did not stop until I completed the doctorate degree. I was driven to understand why people did what they did. I could not not read; in fact, reading was a means of escaping from thinking about the ugly reality of man, the fact that we are born and will die and decay.
In other words, I, too, had existential depression but masked it. I masked it with ceaseless activities. More importantly, I covered it up by seeking ideals.
I am an idealist. This means that I rejected what is and aspire after what could be, what is better. I rejected my human body (which I could picture dead and decaying, as the dead bodies I saw during the war) and sought an idealized self. I rejected other people's bodies and seek to see them in idealized bodies. I rejected the world as it is and seek an idealized version of it. I posited ideals for everything in the world, people and things; I then use my mentally constructed ideals to judge real people and of course find them not good enough. I have not found any human being that measure up to my ideal standards. I find all people and things not good enough relative to my mentally constructed ideals of how they should become. The result is living in disappointment and frustration with our imperfect reality.
I had compulsive pursuit of ideals and perfection. (Those who develop paranoia are really people who rejected their real selves and the real world and seek an alternative ideal self and world; they identify with their mentally constructed ideal selves and ideal world. As long as these folks seek to become their idealized selves they do not have to think about their imperfect real selves, the human reality. Idealism is a mask over ugly reality. Delusion disorder is at the extreme end of idealism; delusion disorder is effort to reject ugly reality and cover it up with a mentally constructed ideal reality; the paranoid person identifies with an ideal self that he is, in fact, not, a self he wished that he is; he presents the idealized self to the world to relate to and if the people collude with him and validate that false self he feels okay, if not he feels demeaned and quarrels with people. The paranoid person is aware of how his self, his ego has no importance at all and his life has no meaning at all. He then seeks ego importance and a meaningful world. He is trying to mask his underlying depressed self-view and perception that his life and life in general is meaningless, purposeless, valueless and worthless; life in body is exercise in futility. William Meisner had similar thinking regarding the etiology of paranoia, the fact that it is a mask over an underlying depressed self-view. See his books, Paranoid Process, and Psychotherapy and the Paranoid Process, both published by Aronson, New York)
So, what is the solution for this young man's problem? How do we motivate him to find interest in the activities of living and go do something with his life?
First, we must accept that his conclusions that life is pointless, meaningless and purposeless are the conclusion of existentialist writers such as Jean Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Jasper, Heidegger etc. We must validate his perception of reality for it is correct; we do not need to sugar coat life and tell him that he is wrong.
Existentialists accept their perception and try living with the reality of a meaningless life. They figure out what they are good at doing and throw their lives to doing it, twenty four- seven. They try to do the best with the abilities that they have. They are realistic; they figure out what they have aptitude at and enjoy doing, go train for it and do it. In doing what they like doing, as it were, they do not have the time to think about how miserable existence is.
When one is engrossed doing the type of work one likes to do one forgets time. One can actually get lost for weeks reading good books etc. and not thinking about how meaningless life is. That is one way to deal with one's existential angst, ones perception of the absurdity of existence etc.
Some persons deal with the absurdity of being an intelligent mind in an animal body, a god that will die and rot, by throwing themselves into religion and spirituality. In America we find perfectly rational and well educated persons throw themselves into what seems irrational religion and as long as they are fundamentalist religionists do not think about the absurdity of existence.
Whereas one feels existentially unimportant, religion can make one feel important. In fact, one of the functions of religion is to give human beings a sense of importance. When people recognize their existential lack of importance, belief in an all-powerful, eternal god can give one a sense of being like that god hence powerful and immortal. Religion plays into our egos need to seem important.
Metaphysical religions, such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Zen, A course in miracles etc., can help some persons shrink their egos down, so that they come to accept what those spiritual paths call our real selves: egoless unified spirit self. (We shall return to this subject when we deal with meditation.)
Some persons respond to their existential angsts and depression with suicide. Clearly, suicide is not the right solution to the problem. Suicide runs away from a perceived problem; what seems the right approach to a problem is to understand it and try to solve it, in as much as it can be solved and live with aspects of it that cannot be changed.
This paper will try to understand existential depression and seek ways to cope with it without denying it with religious or psychological mumbo jumbo or escaping from it via suicide. This paper returns us to the adult function of thinking about our human problems rather than escaping from them via scientific reductionisms; it returns us to philosophy, the habit of mature minds.
I should say that whereas I had worked as a psychotherapist for over twenty years before I gave that up that I am not approaching this problem from a solely psychological perspective. Human beings are more than their psychologies and bodies; they are complex creatures that can only be understood from many perspectives (religious, psychological, philosophical, and biological and others). One of the saddest events of the twentieth century was to give psychologists the impression that only they have the capacity to understand human beings. No one profession has the lock on understanding human nature and the human condition.
I am not relating to this young man as a psychotherapist but as a fellow human being trying to help him understand his existential condition; a condition that happens to be mine and the condition of just about every human being who cares to think about his life seriously and not mask it with the various suiting palliatives that the gatekeepers of society give folks to use in seeing themselves.
How can I help this young man? Let us see. He saw me reading a book (Jared Diamond: Guns, Germs and Steel. New York W. W. Norton, 2003) and asked me about it. I told him to go read it and let us talk about it. He said that he had tried reading it in the past but did not complete it. I asked why he did not. What he said gave me insight into the state of his mind.
He said that the book gave an excellent description of how societies and civilizations were the products of their environment, that the thesis of the book is that what we generally call great civilizations were not due to the uniqueness of the people who founded them but to certain environmental advantages that they had; and that those we generally refer to as primitive people were so because of certain environmental disadvantages they had. For example, the Australian aborigines did not have animals that they could domesticate, nor did they have plants that they could use to form settled agricultural society hence were, more or less, condemned to being a hunter gatherer people; that is, live a sort of life style which to most of us living in modern America seem primitive. He went on to tell me a lot about the book, all correct and I then asked him what he found problematic about the book.
He said that the book is in line with science, that it describes the empirical behavior of people and described the operations of the environment. Science, he said, deals with the world of the here and now, the perceptual universe and that that is the problem. The world of space, time and matter, he said, is not enough; it is that world that gives him the impression that we are nothing and do not matter. He wants to transcend that world; he seeks knowledge that enables him see that human beings are more than their bodies; that people are not just animals that eat and defecate, live and die and that is all there is to them.
If all people are is animals, as science tells us, we might as well quickly come up with nuclear devices that can be exploded and end the existence of people on planet earth for there is no point in them living; there is no use in producing children to come and suffer what human beings suffer only to die. Life is pain and then you die. What a bummer!
There is no point in the whole suffering human beings are subjected to and we ought to end it, if we could. (If this discussion was talking about ending his personal life, a mental health professional could realistically suspect suicidal thinking and plans, and request that he be placed in a hospital against his will; that he be involuntarily hospitalized to prevent him from committing suicide; in our society we are allowed to hospitalize folks against their wills if they meet certain conditions, such as being mentally ill and as a result could kill themselves, or kill other persons or are unable to take care of their selves; in hospitals psychiatrist would fill his body with anti-depressants such as Prozac, Paxil, and Zoloft and make money for pharmaceutical companies. Well, he is talking about the entire human population not existing; he is not talking about snuffing out his life. He is not about to kill himself; he is just nonchalant and not interested in working to maintain a life he believes has no value and worth, a life that would die like other animals die; he wants a reason to live for.)
If it can be shown that life transcends our bodies and that our sufferings are not in vain then we are talking and he would listen. He understands science and it is not enough for him. He is searching for something more than science, something to give him meaning.
Science dos not give us meaning; in fact, science tells us that we came from nothing and, as such, are nothing; as science sees it, we are just another variety of biological organisms that evolution evolved and die and that is it.
Are we just our bodies; did our brains produce our minds, as epiphenomenalism says, or do we have consciousness outside our bodies? Are we more than our bodies, this young man wants to know?
These are serious questions and I certainly do not pretend to have the answers to them but I can try to seek answers to them. We are talking life and death issues here. This young man is seeking answers to enable him live and we must attempt to help him come up with those answers rather than pretend that the stuff science is churning out answers our existential questions; they do not.
SCIENCE AND ITS LIMITATIONS
The current epistemology of the West is science, or, precisely the scientific method. This is a methodological approach to phenomena that stresses observation, experimentation, verification, replication, refutation and falsification. An idea is accepted if it can be verified and replicated by anyone who follows the scientific method. For example, the molecule called water is composed of two atoms of hydrogen and one atom of oxygen. Anyone can verify this reality in a laboratory; therefore, we are not talking speculation but facts. Science accepts ideas that can be verified by anyone who seeks to verify them, regardless of where the person lives on earth, indeed, in the universe.
The West had not always operated on the scientific method. Although the Greeks did play with science a bit (Democritus even talked about the atom being the most indivisible part of nature) the idea of science took off in the sixteenth century. That is to say that science as we now know it is less than five hundred years old!
In 1543, the polish monk, Nicolas Copernicus, wrote a book saying that the earth is not the center of the universe. In 1609 Galileo used his telescope to prove Copernicus correct; he demonstrated empirically that the sun is the center of the solar system and that some planets orbited around it. With his telescope he also looked at the surface of the moon and showed that it was rocky, not a ball of fire, as folks had said that it was.
For all intents and purposes, Galileo is regarded as the first person in modern times to start the scientific methodological approach to phenomena. Francis Bacon did write books talking about the need to embrace only verifiable ideas but it was Galileo that actually began practicing the scientific method.
In 1687 Isaac Newton continued the scientific method by positing his three laws of motion and his theory of gravitation. Newtonian mechanics became the fulcrum of Western physics until the twentieth century when Albert Einstein's Special and General relativity modified Newton's gravitation by showing that space and time are one variable and that space is curved.
After Newton folks like Harvey, Robert Boyle, John Dalton, Young, Michael Faraday, James Clark Maxwell, Darwin, Pasteur, Bozeman, J.J. Thompson, Max Plank, Marie and Pierre Curie, Albert Einstein, Neil's Bohr, Schrodinger, Heisenberg, Pauli, Dirac, Born, Flaming, Eddingtron, Friedman, Lemaitre, Chadwick, Lise Meitner, Otto Hahn, Enrico Fermi, Robert Oppenheimer, Gamow, Hoyle, Pauline, Watson and Crick, Murray Gell-Mann, Wheeler, Aspect and so on established science on an empirical footing.
Today when we talk about science we talk about that methodological approach to figuring out what is knowledge, epistemology, that accepts only ideas that have been tested and found to be true in the empirical world we live in; other ideas are dismissed as mere opinions (heuristic, may be, but not knowledge).
We now know that matter is made of atoms; that there are at least 92 types of atoms (as shown on the chemical table); we know that each atom is made of a nucleus with a certain number of protons and neutrons in it and electrons circling the nucleus. The lightest atom, element, is hydrogen with one proton in its nucleus, and an electron circling it. Helium has two protons and two neutrons in its nucleus and two electrons circling it, and so on down the periodic table.
We know that protons and neutrons are made of quarks; we know that quarks are made of photons. We know that electrons are made of photons.
We know that photons are particles of light and that they are pure energy without mass but transform themselves into mass when they become electrons, protons and neutrons. Pure energy transforms itself into matter and matter can reconvert to energy, as Einstein's famous equation: E=Mc2 tells us.
Science has told us a lot about the origin and future of the universe. In summary it goes like this. Thirteen point seven (13.7) billion years ago, contemporary cosmology teaches us, nothingness compressed itself into something. Out of nothing something appeared; what that something is we do not know. That something is said to be as small as a particle (that is, smaller than an atom). It is said to be very dense. Whatever it was it got infinitely hot (heat energy is introduced) and exploded. In its explosion light particles were formed (Light energy is introduced). The explosion invented space and time and into that space was poured in the just invented particles of light; space, time and photons expanded at a speed greater than the speed of light, Alan Gutt's inflation hypothesis teaches. (The movement of matter invented mechanical energy; the Big Bang explosion apparently was done in sound hence invented sound energy).
The Big Bang produced particles of light, photons; those combined to form sub-atomic particles called quarks. Quarks combined to form protons and neutrons (apparently, photons formed electrons directly without the intermediacy of quarks). Protons and neutrons combined to form nuclei of the lightest atoms, hydrogen and helium. All these were done within a second!
Electrons were eventually captured by nuclei; electrons circled nuclei to form atoms (beginning with the lightest atoms, hydrogen, helium etc.).
The laws of physics suggest that the Big Bang should have produced equal number of particles of matter and particles of anti-matter (such as anti-electrons, positrons; anti-protons, anti-neutrons, anti-atoms, anti-hydrogen etc.); matter and anti-matter should have attacked each other and annihilated each other, and returned matter to pure energy (radiation) and thus ended the nascent universe from coming into existence. Apparently, this expected event was averted by an accident whereby for every billion particles of anti-matter invented one billion and one particles of matter were invented, thus when matter and anti-matter attacked each other some matter survived to continue the evolution of the material universe.
Science talks a lot about accidents; it explains the coming into being of new phenomenon as a result of accidents, randomness and chance. This causal approach to phenomena seems useful for it prevents the tendency of mankind to attribute new occurrences to the agency of God.
God is probably the invention of our imaginations. We made God in our image and turned around and said that God created us in his image. Having posited what we call God we said that God did this or did that. There is no empirical evidence that God exists or that he did anything in this world. Thus, one accepts science's tendency to attribute the origin of what we cannot yet account for to accident. One, however, believes that in time we shall be able to explain those things without attributing them to chance.
Many of the accidents currently attributed to what is generally referred to as anthropoid principle may have different explanations. The anthropoid principle holds that it seems that the universe had the specific purpose of inventing a universe that produced human beings. In other words, the universe is teleological; it had a goal of producing human beings. This kind of gives human beings the impression that they are special for it means that the universe was specifically designed to produce them.
Some of the accidental occurrences that made the existence of human beings possible include the presence of more matter than anti-matter; the fact that the early universe expanded at a speed greater than the speed of light, 186, 000 miles per second, to prevent the collapse of the universe unto itself hence averting the existence of the universe; the asymmetry that occurred when the cloud of emergent hydrogen gas produced spaces between itself and the clumps of gases was pulled by gravity into themselves and in their cores nuclear fusion started (ignition); that is, hydrogen atoms fused to form helium atoms, and stars are born.
Nucleosynthesis inside stars produces new elements, elements all the way to iron where it apparently stops for the heat required to produce heavier elements does not exist inside stars. In addition to producing new elements nuclear synthesis produces heat and light, energy that work its way from the interior of stars to their surface and finally escape. The heat and light that reaches us on planet earth from the sun (taking eight minutes to traverse the 93 million miles separating us from the sun) helps make life possible on planet earth.
The early death of the original massive stars, death in supernovae, produced sufficient heat to fuse elements heavier than iron, such as uranium, gold, diamond; elements that eventually accreted to form planets and planets that produced plants and animals, human beings included. The eventual production of an atmosphere on planet earth with less carbon dioxide and more oxygen made it possible for animals to evolve on planet earth.
In the 1990s it was accepted that the universe appears to be expanding at a rapid rate; the question was: what is causing this massive expansion and what is preventing the galaxies from flying apart. Scientists posited the existence of dark matter and dark energy.
It is now said that twenty three percent of the universe is made of dark matter and that seventy three percent of the universe is made of dark energy. Dark matter helps gravity in keeping the galaxies where they are and prevent them from collapsing into each other while dark energy is responsible for the rapid expansion of the universe.
The implication of dark matter and dark energy is that ninety six percent of the universe is made of stuff that we do not yet understand; only four percent of matter and energy is visible to us. So what is that 96% part of the universe that we do not understand? Is that dark stuff playing a role in the existence of human beings existence?
400, 000 years after the Big Bang, the universe of plasma (cloud of unattached nuclei, electrons and photons) cooled down somewhat. In cooling down electrons were able to attach to nuclei and thus formed the first atoms, hydrogen and helium. Thus, the universe became a cloud of hydrogen, helium and lithium.
Apparently, initially this gaseous cloud was symmetric; that is, was the same everywhere and there was no space in it. Eventually, however, asymmetry occurred: space emerged between clumps of gas. With space between clumps of gas gravity came into play. Gravity pulled the emergent clumps of hydrogen unto themselves until they ignited into stars. Stars are nuclear factories where hydrogen is fused into helium and thus produce heat and light energy.
Apparently, the original stars were massive in size. Those massive stars quickly burned out their hydrogen; they did so in millions, not billions of years. They expanded and exploded in supernovae. During the explosion incredible heat is generated and that leads to the invention of heavier than iron elements. The elements are showered into space.
In time the elements showered into space accrete to form smaller sized stars (such as our sun, a medium sized star) and the planets.
It is said that our sun was formed four and half billion years ago and that its nine planets were formed at the same time.
Planet earth, apparently, came into being when clouds of gas and dust were accreted. Initially, a small rock like object was formed (called planetismal). This small rock attracted other rocks and debris floating in space. Gravity kept on pulling matter to the emergent planet until it grew to the size we now know it to be.
The original planet earth was very hot. But, apparently, comets carrying dust and frozen water kept on striking the hot earth and in time cooled off its surface and produced the waters we now have on earth. The earth's surface is covered by 70% water.
Gravity pulled heavier elements into the inside of the earth. Thus, the core of the earth is made of solid iron and nickel; the outer core is made of molten iron and nickel and above that is a viscous rocky mantle. On top of the mantle is the earth's crust, the part we live on.
The earth is covered by an atmosphere with many layers, an atmosphere that gradually tapers into cold space. In the atmosphere are many gases including nitrogen, oxygen, carbon etc. and those make the existence of biological organisms possible on earth.
On earth and in space atoms combined to form molecules (water, for example, is a molecule made of two atoms of hydrogen and one atom of oxygen). In time molecules combined to form the basis of biological organisms.
Human beings evolved from atoms and did so over a long period of time. The current estimate is that human beings began to evolve apart from gorillas and chimpanzees about seven million years ago. Homo erectus was discernible 2 million years ago. About fifty thousand years ago what is now called