The first question to be faced is whether thereissuch a thing as a specific problem of human existence. There are problems of survival, of security, of procreation and of power. These are challenges of living that humans share with all other creatures.

Homo sapiens, however, exhibits a distinctive aspect to his life, conceived by Aristotle as ametaphysical need to knowthat is of a different order from the problems he shares with the rest of the animal kingdom. This need or problem was formulated by the painter Gauguin in three questions:
Why am I here?
What must I do?
What can I hope for?
These questions encompass the specific problem of human existence; they may be fused into the single question, “What is the meaning of my life?”

Immediately, it must be acknowledged that not all individuals are troubled with this problem to the same degree. In fact, it may be confidently asserted that it is a pressing problem for only a small minority. The vast majority of individuals only dimly recognize a problem of existence that distinguishes them from other types of living creatures.

The distinctive metaphysical problem of human existence has always been the concern of the few. This type of intellectualism elitism has often been adopted by philosophically-minded thinkers seeking to comprehend their isolation in the world.

The many who do not feel this problem can be separated into three categories: utilitarian materialists, religious believers and those committed to scientific values. The materialists are by far the largest group of those who are largely oblivious to the metaphysical problem of existence. These are the practical members of society who are responsive to the material problems of daily living. They judge their success in life by their accomplishments in thehic et nuncof social existence. Intimations of mortality may be troublesome at times but, by and large, they are not transformed into awareness of the specifically human problem of existence.

Religious believers are those for whom the problem of existence has been answered by a religious faith. For Christians, the adherence to traditional Christian beliefs and practices answers the question of the meaning of their life. Religious believers may be materialists as well in the sense that this term is defined above but with the additional dimension of a metaphysical element expressed as a relationship to God or some surrogate figure. The nineteenth century conviction that the age of science would do away with religious dogma has not turned out to be correct. Religious institutions are flourishing at the dawn of the twenty-first century.

Finally, we come to those who do not recognize a metaphysical problem of existence because they espouse a scientific or scholarly way of thought. These are the scientific specialists, scholars,Gelehrten, and all like-minded types who have dominated philosophy for the past two centuries. For them, the problem of existence has become a matter of cognitive science to be answered through analysis of the brain-mind problem, using techniques borrowed from neurophysiology, linguistics and computer science. The problem itself is not recognized as such because all mental processes are believed – as an act of faith – to be a matter of biology. These types may be labelled as “materialists of the mind” since their one article of faith is that all phenomena, mental or otherwise, are ultimately material in nature and subject to analytic investigation.

The difficulty with the approach to the problem of human existence through cognitive science is that it is never elaborated in a meaningful manner. The principal requirement necessary is to recognize its metaphysical nature.

The history of civilization has shown that there is a metaphysical need running through humanity like a recurrent symphonic chord. There exists a state of mind, more precisely, a state of consciousness in which this need is embedded. No satisfaction is to be found in materialist explanations, no matter how much they may be padded with ethical theories. Yet the question of consciousness today is dominated by cognitive scientists whose only concern is to analyze it and explain how it is possible.

Laborious dissections of thought (e.g. W. Quine, R. Rorty), analogous to producing aGray’s Anatomy of the mind, are put forth as advances in its understanding. Cognitive scientists would like to show how consciousness is exclusively a phenomenon of the brain, thus establishing it within the framework of the materialist worldview. But by now, it is evident that this will never happen – as William James predicted over a century ago in his Principles of Psychology.While consciousness is being recently more regarded as a phenomenon in its own right (e.g. J. Searle), the approach to it is still analytic and value-free.

Richard Schain
May 2003