Sartre, God and Man

Existentialism is nothing else but an attempt to draw the full conclusions from a consistently atheistic position. Existentialism is not atheist in the sense that it would exhaust itself in demonstrations of the non-existence of God. It declares, rather, that even if God existed that would make no difference from its point of view. Not that we believe God does exist, but we think that the real problem is not that of His existence what man needs is to find himself again and to understand that nothing can save him from himself, not even a valid proof of the existence of God.

Jean-Paul Sartre, Existence as Humanism

Sartres standpoint in his essay Existence as Humanism is a simple and straightforward one. Existentialism is indeed an attempt to draw the full conclusions from a consistently atheistic position, or as he puts it elsewhere, an attempt to draw the consequences from the non-existence of God. But the question is how do we know that God  an infinite and perfect consciousness, as Sartre vaguely defines Him or It in the same essay  does not exist for sure It is in fact rather likely for cosmologists or quantum physicists to stumble upon something similar to an infinite consciousness or intelligence in the near future as they explore deeper into the nature of reality. Let us suppose that God is discovered on a scientific basis one day  would existentialism be invalidated then Sartres answer is no. Existentialism would still be an authentic response to human condition whether God existed or not, it would not matter. There might seem to be a contradiction here, but there is really none. As we may notice in the paragraph quoted above, Sartre says that existentialism is not a philosophical, scientific or metaphysical endeavor to prove or disprove Gods existence existentialism does not bother itself with theoretical matters. French existentialism is somewhat like American pragmatism, in that it is more focused on practical consequences and implications rather than in the abstract Truth. In effect, Sartre is simply saying that existentialism (that is to say, his school or brand of existentialism) assumes that God does not exist, but if one day God were proven to exist, the existential condition or nature of man as interpreted by existentialism would still remain the same, as long as God does not actively interfere in matters relating to human existence. To reiterate existentialism believes that God does not exist and therefore he cannot intervene in human affairs and therefore man is on his own but even if God does exist, as long as he does not intervene in human affairs, man is still on his own, and therefore for all practical purposes it does not matter whether God existed or not. However, if God existed and suddenly began to get a lot more interested in human affairs than he had ever been  then existentialism would be invalid, and Christianity or Judaism or some such religious philosophy would be valid. Because with the interference of God, man would no longer be condemned to be free, to use Sartres trademark phrase perhaps man would then be blessed to be a prisoner instead.

Sartre makes a big claim in his essay in the absence of God, man is the only thing in existence that comes closest to God. What makes man a man in Sartres philosophy is what makes God a God in standard religious or mystical philosophies.
Atheistic existentialism, of which I am a representative, declares with greater consistency that if God does not exist there is at least one being whose existence comes before its essence, a being which exists before it can be defined by any conception of it. That being is man

Let us examine closely what Sartre is saying here. Let us begin by conceiving an Absolute Being, or rather the Absolute Being. It would be difficult to attribute any anthropomorphic or other quality to such being, although it is done commonly. For example, we can say God is just, God is compassionate and so on, but these are more or less human projections. Or, at a more philosophical level we can consider God to be infinite and eternal or omnipotent and omniscient and so on. However, even these attributes seem more like aids for our understanding the Absolute than qualities of the Absolute Being per se. The problem here is that the Absolute is so vast and infinite that even to call it vast and infinite would appear like a limitation any quality limits or constrains the nature of God, whereas God by definition is beyond all limitations and dualities. That is the reason mystics have hit upon the term Isness to describe God. There is no attribute or quality here, just pure isness of existence  though this in itself could be seen as a quality and therefore some mystics have even considered God to beyond existence and nonexistence. God is simply our concept of the absolute, boundless existence. In the language of philosophy or existentialism, God could be defined as a being whose existence precedes essence. If God is, then God IS  the other attributes of the nature of Godhead constituting Its essence are secondary. Now Sartre is saying that we do not whether God exists or not, it is basically an agnostic standpoint rather than an atheist point of view which usually vehemently denies the existence of God. Sartre does not try to combat metaphysics as a deleterious undertaking. He simply notes in a Kantian manner that it raises questions we cannot answer (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2004). So, Sartre is not denying God, he is simply saying that he does not believe in the existence of God. Perhaps just a matter of personal inclination. But the existence of nonexistence of God is not the real issue, as he says in the quote at the beginning of this essay. Even if God existed, His or Its existence is as good as nonexistence man must come to terms with existence all by himself.

We can resolve the apparent contradiction in Sartres statements about God in another way too. It is true that Sartre says existentialism arises only because God does not exist. Here he means the God according to the traditional religious conception, the creator God, When we think of God as the creator, we are thinking of him, most of the time, as a supernal artisan  God the potter, God the watchmaker and so on, he who made everything (including man) in existence according to some plan and purpose. To Sartre and most other philosophers, such a God is nothing more than an outcome of childish fantasies. Only when give up such juvenile concepts can we contemplate human existence in a serious and mature way. Therefore existentialism requires that all such delusory, comforting beliefs in a God who is sitting in the heaven and watching everything below be left behind. Christianity believes in such a God, and in his essay one of the main things Sartre is trying to do is to contrast existentialism with Christianity. Since there were some popular Catholic existentialists such as Gabriel Marcel, Sartre is trying to distinguish his position from theirs. To Sartre, existentialism could only begin when beliefs in the conventional type of God are abandoned. But then there is still the possibility of the existence of philosophers or the scientists God, generally known as the Truth. Sartre is not refuting the existence of this God of infinite consciousness he is simply saying that even if such Absolute Being existed, mans nature would still remain as existentialism sees it. The philosophers God is more likely to be an It rather than He, indifferent to human existence, at least for practical purposes. Sartres standpoint in the essay is based on a central notion, which is that in man existence precedes essence. For this to be true, the Christian God should not exist, because then man becomes a created object given the qualities that God provided him. But the philosophers God may exist, because regardless of the existence of this abstract God, mans existence can still precede his essence.

That the Christian God should not exist is a precondition of existentialism. However, it is only a necessary but not sufficient condition for the precedence of existence over essence to be true in connection with man. As it turns out, ironically, where Sartre seems to be contradicting himself, he is in fact rather straightforward, but where he appears straight to the point, he is incredibly confused. Existence precedes essence in case of God, there is not much of a difficulty in conceiving this, but to assert that existence precedes essence in man is simply nonsense. To understand the absurdity of Sartres claim, we must first clearly distinguish between the meanings of these two propositions, essence precedes existence and existence precedes essence.

Sartre gives the example of a knife, a simple everyday object where essence precedes existence. That is to say, a knife is created to serve certain purpose, and if it is not able to do the task it is meant for it is no more a knife. The case with a human being is totally opposite. Man first exists, and he is free do whatever he wants with himself
Thus, there is no human nature, because there is no God to have a conception of it. Man simply is. Man is nothing else but that which he makes himself. That is the first principle of existentialism.

 The utter fallacy of Sartres argument can be clearly seen if we take the example of a couple of other everyday objects. Like a knife, a typewriter too is mass-produced, according to a predetermined model. So a typewriter is clearly an instance of essence preceding existence. Now let us take a very high power computer. This computer is as much mass-produced and made according to a preexisting model as a simple typewriter, here too essence precedes existence. However, whereas a typewriter can do only one thing in a fairly rigid manner, a computer can do a million things in a flexible style. A typewriter is like a primitive animal, a one-dimensional creature. A powerful computer, on the other hand, is like a human being, a multidimensional entity.

An existentialist like Sartre would easily make the claim that in the case of typewriter, essence precedes existence, and in the case of the computer, existence precedes essence. But this is patently wrong. A computer is also made on a pre-existing model, as much as a typewriter is. The existence of a computer is also based on the premise of essence preceding existence as much as that of any manufactured object. Only, the specific nature of tasks it is going to perform depends on the software loaded into it, and on other ways it is programmed. The computer cannot just do absolutely anything, it has its limitations. Human beings too have their limitations, but within these limitations they have an immense choice and freedom to determine what they are going to do and what they are going to be. Simply because it has a huge capacity a computer does not become God, nor does man.

Existence preceding essence would imply that humans are nothing by themselves, that whatever they want to make of themselves they have to strive to become that. Sartre and other existentialists seem to be completely unfamiliar with any basic concepts of psychology. In fact if existentialism were true, there cannot exist any subject called human psychology. Because, according to Sartre, there is nothing like pre-existing human nature.

What Sartre says makes no sense at all. If there is no human nature, then what are all psychologists studying and exploring Human beings have proclivities, potentials, based on a certain core structure of human nature. But this notion Sartre rejects as being old and outmoded, belonging to the days of Voltaire and Kant. Man indeed has much freedom, but Sartre equates this to absolute freedom. However, the simple fact is that there is absolute freedom nowhere in the universe, there simply cannot be. It is physically and logically impossible. Sartres notion not only goes against the very existence of psychology, but also goes against the most central concept of physics, namely the law of cause and effect. Further, Sartres first principle of existentialism goes against a cornerstone principle of biology that man has evolved from animals  and hence there is bound to be a great degree of commonality between men and other animals.

In Sartres philosophy, the human condition is characterized by groundlessness and radical freedom (Onof, 2010). Perhaps, we can justifiably apply the attribute of radical freedom to human condition, but it would be nonsensical to use the word groundlessness in this context or in fact in any other context except one. The word groundlessness could be applied only to the ground of all being, that is to say, God.

Whether God exists or not, however, one thing is clear that Sartres man does not exist, or exists only in the poetic imagination of the existentialists. Sartres groundless man is as juvenile and absurd as the God of Christians sitting on a throne in the sky.


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