Friday, June 21Royal Holloway's offical student publication, est. 1986

Are we really here? What is existence? My existential journey…

Lately it’s been tough dealing with a difficult virus, an incompetent government and yet another lockdown. However, the relative isolation has led me to a certain amount of introspection, soul-searching, philosophy, and self-help books. I wouldn’t say that I have undergone an existential ‘crisis’ so to speak, but rather simply an existential realisation – my conclusions may seem bleak to begin with, but thankfully they did not lead to a crisis and should instead be thought of as a message of hope.

My journey began with skepticism. This concept is difficult to explain fully, but a good place to start is René Descartes’ Meditations. One of his theories is that there is an evil demon of ‘utmost power and cunning [who] has employed all his energies in order to deceive’ (René Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy). The idea is that there is doubt in your surroundings, and this evil demon has created this ‘false’ world around us. Famously, Descartes came to the conclusion of ‘cogito ergo sum’, (‘I think therefore I am’) – although the world you perceive around you may be an illusion, your thoughts, and only your thoughts, are something you know to empirically exist, and therefore you can be sure that your consciousness exists in some respect.

This led me to a renowned derivation of Cartesian philosophy, the ‘brain in a vat/tank’ theory. Our existence could simply be a brain in a vat, connected to wires that send electrical signals to the brain to allow a completely imagined reality – something similar to the Matrix. The thought experiment is used to break down our perceptions of reality, and again uphold ideas of skepticism. The most disheartening and frustrating thing is that we cannot truly know whether we are living in a simulation or not.

YouTube is a treasure trove for these sorts of educational videos that break down philosophical concepts etc. and a valuable companion for me is ‘The School of Life’ channel, which has plenty of videos on philosophers and these thought experiments. Another great channel for my existential journey is ‘Kurzgesagt’: a science-based channel that mostly deals with theories about the universe and hypothetical scenarios, their unique selling point being the beautifully animated videos and educational format.

It was whilst binging through Kurzgesagt’s videos that my journey turned to the scientific, with one video scaling up the size of our universe (truly unimaginable), and another zooming into the very basic building blocks of everything: quarks. The sheer size of space and our tiny insignificance is often a cause of existentialism – because of course, when you consider this, why should anything matter? So what if I eat an extra brownie? In the grand scale of things our existence is finite, and our lives are ultimately meaningless. The universe has been around for 13.8 billion years, and the earliest humans came into existence only 7 million years ago –  that’s 0.05% of the universe’s lifespan; we are honestly such small fry in this huge world. It was at this point that my existentialism was verging on crisis. If we are so insignificant then what is the point in anything? Surely absolutely nothing matters? On average, someone is ‘forgotten’ 60 years after their death, as in no one living will have coexisted with you after this point. And to top all this off – this tiny insignificant existence could be a simulation, so we could be living in an imagined reality  never to have the truth of this world revealed. Gut-wrenching.

This is now leading to nihilism – the belief that everything is meaningless and that all morality and religion are simply societal concepts that don’t hold any true meaning. Another philosopher to weigh in on this is Nietzsche. The values that we hold ourselves to are not absolute, they are simply human creations, and through analysis of these we can break down the meaning behind the values – such as survival and growth of our species. Nietzsche is often used as an advocate for nihilism, however, it can be argued that he beat a path to a more optimistic existence. His concept of an ‘Übermensch’, realised in his play Thus Spake Zarathustra, aids this, as Nietzsche argues that we can make our own values individually, follow these values and with this awareness of life’s meaninglessness, create our own meaning to our lives. Although there is no absolute meaning to existence, that doesn’t mean that we can’t create our own meaning, and through this lead happy and fulfilled lives. If you pick ‘good’ values to live by, then you can hope to lead a happy life, and let’s face it, in our threescore years and ten on this earth, isn’t our true aim to achieve happiness?My journey is still ongoing, and I hope that this has sparked a philosophical debate with your own realities. Lockdown and the pandemic have created a bleak environment these days, but remember, this too shall pass. As discussed, life is so transitory, so short and so meaningless, so why not enjoy ourselves whilst we’re here? Sure, we’re insignificant in the grand scheme of things, but no one is going to be around to see the grand scheme of things – live in the present, appreciate our beautiful world and make your own meaning and destiny. Life is only meaningless if you make it so. Find what you care about and make that your meaning of life.