My podcast partner hates existentialism. We’ve read Kierkegaard and Heidegger, and it’s gone over like a lead Zeppelin. Not his thing. I get it. But it’s my thing, and I thought I’d write a few paragraphs explaining myself. This will be off the cuff, and I’m not going to take the time to look up references.
In the Summa Theologiae, Aquinas asks whether God exists. It seems not.
Objection 2. Further, it is superfluous to suppose that what can be accounted for by a few principles has been produced by many. But it seems that everything we see in the world can be accounted for by other principles, supposing God did not exist. For all natural things can be reduced to one principle which is nature; and all voluntary things can be reduced to one principle which is human reason, or will. Therefore there is no need to suppose God’s existence.
There isn’t any room for the divine in the scientific worldview. We can always come up with an explanation in terms of prior causes. There’s no explanatory gap, says the objector. I’ve heard this argument from the likes of Dawkins, by the way. Nothing new is there under the sun.
But you might notice the objector rather quickly passing over the problem of the human will. Is it a cause? Is it a cause like the scientific causes? It seems quite different. Socrates says that the will always is ordered toward the good, but is it? I can know the good and choose the bad. I do it somewhat regularly, to my chagrin. There is a chink in the explanatory edifice of The Science. How is it that there is such a thing as spite? The existentialists at their best point out this chink. Kierkegaard points out at length how your ordinary successful life is in fact utter despair. Nietzsche (sort of an existentialist) shows how your conventional morality utterly fails without its support in the divine. Dostoyevsky shows the power of spite, how we can and do choose the evil simply because it’s evil.* Heidegger shows how the ordinary way of being is an inauthentic being-toward-death, doing what everyone else does.
My favorite is Gabriel Marcel. He points out the difference between primary reflection and secondary reflection. The first is the scientific way of breaking everything down into smaller parts, discovering all the causes, and completely destroying that which one studies. Secondary reflection is putting it back together and regarding with awe the mystery of the primary experience. For example, one can study the will and find prior causes for every action that you do, and then you can conclude, perhaps, that you are not actually free. Secondary reflection says "but didn’t I freely engage on that train of thought? How can I freely think about something and conclude that I am not free?"
Existentialism shows the cracks. Its focus on the self’s experience of itself is very helpful in showing how the modern world’s exclusive focus on material and efficient causes doesn’t explain enough. Yes, you could get this straight from Aristotle, but the reader needs to be the sort of being that can actually get Aristotle, and existentialism can help you see why there have to be final causes. Something is rotten in Denmark, and existentialism helps you catch the scent.
* I know that the classic definition of evil in metaphysics is a lack or privation of a good that ought to be there. Spite doesn’t quite map on to this. Maybe more on the problem of evil later.