22 September 2010

Being and Mental Illness: Does neuroscience undermine existentialism?

Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.

- Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness

Freedom. Authenticity. Responsibility. Choice. These concepts form the basis of existentialist philosophy, one that challenges and provokes because it denies people their excuses for the (perhaps disappointing) quality of their lives. While acknowledging the limits, constraints and contingencies that affect the number and type of choices available to a person, existentialist ethics nonetheless declares this axiom: you may not have chosen what type of vehicle to travel in, or its condition, but you are the driver. The journey and the destination are your unavoidable responsibility.

Existentialist philosophers like Sartre, Martin Heidegger and Simone de Beauvoir conceded that physical, social, cultural and geographical conditions – what they called ‘facticity’ – impose limitations on and can even shape the nature of an individual’s choices, in word or deed. But Sartre insisted that even with this intractable facticity within which a person makes choices, she is still ultimately free to make choices, and is thus also ultimately responsible for them. To reject such responsibility is to display what Sartre called ‘bad faith’ – to be inauthentic and self-deceptive.

As expected, existentialism is reluctant to accept determinist ideas that remove responsibility from individuals. The very concept of factors external to a person playing a causative role in her choices refutes the freedom and autonomy that existentialism champions. But existentialism – as formulated in the 20th century – lacks the input of recent discoveries in the neuroscientific fields of neurobiology, cognitive science, computational neuroscience, neurolinguistics, neurology, psychiatry and evolutionary psychology. Scientists in these disciplines are learning a lot about how physical and chemical changes in parts of the brain can either cause or prevent certain behaviors in people. And this deterministic occurrence is apparent in cases of degenerative brain diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, mental pathologies like bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, and severe brain trauma or injury.

The vital question is this: is a person existentially responsible for all her (apparently) free actions if she suffers from Tourette’s syndrome? Or Huntington’s disease? Or autism? An existentialist would perhaps be hard pressed to define the extent of this person’s responsibility for her freedom. Her mental illness may be regarded as a facticity of her condition and thus taken into account when judging her level of personal responsibility, but unless one knows all the neurological facts about this person’s illness, one cannot say with any certainty as to what extent she is being authentic – in a Sartrean sense – or not.

It is not even necessary for a person to suffer from a neurological disease or pathology in order for her existential freedom to be in doubt. If one accepts that consciousness is tied to the physical brain (dualism still survives among both philosophers and the masses, but regarding the mind-body issue I am persuaded by the naturalist arguments), then each one of us is to some extent at the mercy of electrochemical actions in our brain that are largely out of our conscious control. Contrary to the declarations of existentialists like Sartre, we are not entirely free, and thus not responsible for everything we do.

Am I saying that free will does not exist? That personal responsibility is simply a mirage? No, I am not. What I am arguing is that the complicated ideas of the existentialist thinkers fail to take into consideration the neuroscientific aspects of ‘being’. I am contending that all those pages of often dense language and self-indulgent jargon conceal a gaping epistemic hole (Freudian psychoanalysis also suffers from this paucity of solid scientific evidence to back up its grandiose claims). It is this glaring lack that compromises the validity of existentialist ideas on individual freedom and responsibility. My own inclination is towards a compatibilist understanding of free will; we do have free will, but we are also affected by deterministic factors inherent in our neurobiology. The current evidence suggests that this is the intellectually honest position to take on the subject of personal freedom and responsibility, for it avoids the unsubstantiated certainty of both idealism and materialism.

In answer to the question posed by this essay’s title, yes, I do think that the claims put forth by the existentialists regarding the human condition are weakened by the findings of neuroscience. While there is merit in existentialism’s call for self-responsibility and self-creation of one’s values and meaning in life, it exaggerates the level of individual freedom we possess. Furthermore, existentialism’s aspirations to universality are foiled by the fact that its bold proclamations clearly do not apply to people afflicted with neurological disease, mental disorders or behavioral problems in general, since they are neither entirely free agents nor completely responsible for their actions. Ironically, the facticity defined by Sartre and his fellow existentialists includes the deterministic neuroscience that emasculates their ideas about personal freedom and responsibility.



  1. Awesome article! Sums up what I was pondering about existentialism perfectly!

  2. Some people are destined to never leave the cave and will always stare at the shadows dancing on the walls. If someone doesn't have the capacity to even think at that level then they are regarded basically as a child or animal with less a level of consciousnesses to worry about such luxuries as existentialism. We live in a Christian society with slave morality that makes pitiful attributes a virtue and this drags everyone down. Who knows what heights we might attain if most people in society had a more existentialist outlook