Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Darwin's Dilemmas: Essence Precedes Existence--Part 1

Biology is defined as, "the science of life". It is the study of "living matter in all its forms and phenomena, especially with reference to origin" (among other things). The theory of evolution in the area of biology is an attempt to explain the origin of diversity in life through descent from a common ancestor, gradually changing over long periods of time.

Philosophy is "investigation of the truths and principles of being, knowledge, or conduct." Contributors to Wikipedia define it as "an attitude to life or way or principle of living whose focus is on resolving the most basic existential questions about the human condition." One school of philosophical thought is known as existentialism, one of whose proponents coined the phrase, "existence precedes essence."

Where do biology and philosophy intersect? What is the correlation between the theory of evolution and the philosophy of existentialism? This connection will be explained in part two of this series. But first, let's look at the philosophy of existentialism.


The dictionary defines the word "essence", philosophically speaking, as "the inward nature, true substance, or constitution of anything, as opposed to what is accidental, phenomenal, illusory, etc." As is said at Wikipedia, essence is "the attribute or set of attributes that make an object or substance what it fundamentally is, and which it has by necessity, and without which it loses its identity." The Catholic Encyclopedia calls it "that whereby a thing is what it is...the radical or ground from which the various properties of a thing emanate and to which they are necessarily referred." Aristotle called it the to ti en einai, a Greek phrase meaning, "the what it was to be."

Yeah, okay, I know. What the heck does all that mean? In programming terms, essence is like a class defined in an assembly, and existence is an instance of that class created at runtime. For those of you who have no programming experience, here's a simple illustration.

There are a variety of different kinds of chairs: dentist's chairs, rocking chairs, dining chairs, reclining chairs, and so on and so forth. Yet, all of these chairs, with all of their differences in nature and in design and in purpose, nonetheless share one common property: that of chairness. They all share "the what it was to be" a chair, which is why we identify them all as chairs. So something's essence is that which it fundamentally is, as distinct from what it happens to be in the here and now, and which all other like objects fundamentally are.

Prior to existentialism, something's essence was viewed as a real thing, that actually exists--albeit metaphysically rather than physically. Also called the ideal, it was believed that a thing's essence was a higher, more fundamental form of existence than that which we experience with our senses. And, it was thought, concrete objects are dependent upon the preexistence of their abstract ideals, without which they could not exist.


Existential thought turned this relationship between essence and existence on its head. In existential thought, for those things which occur naturally, there exists no predetermined, metaphysical ideal or essence; there is merely that which exists. A hammer or chair, by virtue of being created by someone who conceived of it before bringing about its existence, does have a preexisting ideal or essence. But such is not the case for natural things--including mankind itself.

When it comes to natural things, what philosophers had previously called an ideal or essence is, in the existentialist's mind, merely a category imposed upon them by men. There is no essence of birdness; there are simply creatures which are similar enough that people classify them as birds. Thus, existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre coined the phrase, "existence precedes essence."

Existentialism as a philosophy addresses primarily the meaning of what it is to be human. According to existential thought, there is no ultimate meaning to being human. Instead, each individual human person determines his or her own meaning or purpose. There is no actual essence to mankind, no ideal human; there is merely the existence of each individual human person, and the meaning or essence he or she chooses to attribute to him- or herself.


The philosophy of existentialism thus contradicts the Bible which teaches that mankind exists because God conceived of man before creating Him. As it is written:

Then God said, "Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth." God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them" (Genesis 1:26-27).

Scripture teaches that God decided to create man, and naturally the creation of man reflects God's conception of what man is. God conceived of man as being a creature similar to Him in certain ways, and so, the essence of mankind thus having been conceived by God, He created man. Contrary to the claims of existentialism, "essence precedes existence."

Whereas existentialism views people as defining their own essence, the mitzvot (commandments) of the Old Testament are imposed upon man because man's essence is a reflection of God's. As Peter wrote, "like the Holy One who called you, be holy yourselves also in all your behavior; because it is written, 'YOU SHALL BE HOLY, FOR I AM HOLY'" (1 Peter 1:15-16).


That existentalism contradicts scripture is not all that surprising. But what is the link between it and evolution? This will be explained in part two. Stay tuned.

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