HOW TO MEASURE "EXISTENTIAL FITNESS"
A Model for Mapping Answers to "The Big Questions"
How to Measure "Existential Fitness"?
One Model for Mapping answers to The Big Questions
Is there a way to measure “existential fitness”?
We all seem to have a basic sense of what existential fitness is, and isn’t.
We could compare it to physical fitness.
Some people are more physically fit, others less. But how do we know the difference?
"It's common sense!" is a popular answer here.
“Common sense” isn’t always perfect, but it’s often good enough, and then some. A couch potato who lives on the Cheetos-and-whiskey diet for months on end probably isn’t “physically fit.” No army of doctors needed for that.
It can be the same way with existential fitness, or the quality of our basic answers to The Big Questions of life.
We have a sense of it. Some people are just more fit, others less. Some individuals seem to have a decent grasp on reality, and others don't, and there's a wide spectrum.
That said: is there any better yardstick than just a “sense”?
Here’s one possible approach.
One measure is “certainty.”
“How certain are you that your basic beliefs about life are true?”
This is a measure of how certain someone feels in their “core beliefs,” or the basic assumptions of their personal belief system.
Call them “axioms,” “premises,” “fundamental foundations of your life philosophy. Whatever you call them, we all face The Big Questions or basic existential riddles in life. We all answer them, consciously or not, articulated or not. These answers serve as our starting points in the logic of our thinking. They form the foundations of the architecture in our basic “life philosophy.”
So, here we can ask a question:
How certain are we that our answers are true?
At one extreme: “I’m absolutely certain.” (Total certainty.)
At the other: “I’m not certain at all.” (Total uncertainty.)
(Note: This question contains the idea of "truth," which some postmodern nihilists have a hard time with. (Which is to say, they assume the statement "truth doesn’t exist" is true.) This can become a rabbit hole we could dive into, but for the most part, we can just say they'd live more on the "less certain" side.)
So that’s one measure: “degree of certainty.”
Another measure is “openness.”
How open are you when it comes to your basic beliefs about life?
“Openness” roughly refers to being “open-minded” or “close-minded.” Are you open to new, different, or sometimes even opposing ideas? Or do you shut yourself off to them? Are you open to having a dialogue at all?
At one extreme: “I’m totally open to new ideas.” ( Totally open. )
At the other: “I’m totally closed to new ideas.” ( Totally closed. )
This measure of “closed-mindedness” has also been called “beginner’s mind.” It refers to someone who is always ready to learn. The opposite could be described as someone who doesn’t listen (the “closed soul, “amor sui,” “love of self,” or the eternal classic, “pig-headed.”)
We can bring this measure into sharper focus by asking a few more questions. For example:
What are your core beliefs?
What prior assumptions do those core beliefs rest on?
Are you aware of those basic assumptions (or “axioms”)?
Are you willing or able to have a discussion about those assumptions?
Are you willing or able to examine or question them, or consider alternatives?
Or even others:
Are you aware of alternative beliefs that differ from or oppose yours?
Do you understand them thoroughly?
Are you able to articulate them in a way that others who hold them would agree with your description? Can you accurately describe the positions of those who disagree without creating a “straw man,” caricaturing, mind-reading, name-calling, or ad-hominem attacking them?
Are you on guard against circular logic or confirmation bias in your thinking?
Is your outlook falsifiable? (If certain parts of it aren’t true, is there a way to find that out?)
Do you actively try to test, clarify, disprove, and strengthen your ideas?
There are other yardsticks, but as a general rule of thumb, those who would pass these tests could be considered more “open.” Those who wouldn’t, more “closed.”
Now, let’s put these two together.
We now have two measures: “openness” and “certainty.”
We can put them together in a graph like this.
Now we can map out a few landmarks that can designate four basic reference points:
1. Less Certain / More Open
2. Less certain / Less Open
3. More Certain / Less Open
4. More Certain / More Open
Here’s how we can translate this into more everyday terms. We can mark off a few extremes, which can reveal an area on the map where “existential fitness” lies.
1. Very Uncertain / Very Open = “Nihilistic”
2. Very Uncertain / Very Closed = “Skeptical”
3. Very Certain / Very Closed = “Ideological”
4. Very Certain / Very Open = “Existentially Fit”
So, what do each of these mean?
#1 is “Skeptical.”
A highly “skeptical” position is very uncertain and very closed. It uses doubt as a shield that guards against being wrong. In extreme forms, it casts a shadow of doubt on all new or unfamiliar ideas. In this way, it tries to restrict itself to a narrow, safe zone of certainty that is immune to being wrong. It doesn’t “play to win,” so to speak, but to avoid losing, and sometimes it prefers not playing at all. It rarely doubts the strategy of doubting itself. (Mind pretzel alert.) Healthy skepticism is mandatory these days – it’s an intellectual immune system. But as a life strategy, extreme skepticism is a purely defensive maneuver. It is dependent upon there being something else to be skeptical of. In that sense, it’s parasitic. It criticizes and deconstructs, but doesn’t create or build. This is why we don't hear many rally cries around the banner of “my life philosophy is skepticism!”
#2 is “Ideological.”
A highly “ideological” individual is very certain and very closed. An “ideology” can be defined very simply as a group of ideas, especially about life, the world, and ourselves, and how it all works. This can all be harmless enough (again, we all have a philosophy of life.) But an ideology often has a negative connotation. This comes from a set of ideas turning into something like this: “I know what life is all about, and I don’t want or need to hear, see, or learn anything else about it.” Those who think along these lines tend to listen to no one and imagine they know everything. Their thinking might be narrow, but they can sometimes be intellectually nimble, skilled at rationalizing, and able to “explain” everything (or explain everything away.) In their extreme forms, they’re diehard, Kool-Aid drinking fanatics, cult members, and zealots. (To be clear, ideological individuals don’t think of themselves as “ideological.” They just think they “know how it is.” They assume a series of questionable ideas and proceed from there, without ever questioning those basic assumptions.) In this sense, They don't really "think" as much as "rationalize." Most real thinking, at this point, is avoided.
#3 is “Nihilistic.”
A “nihilistic” individual is very open and very uncertain. The basic idea is that “I’m open to everything and certain of nothing.” This often translates as the idea that there is no truth, no purpose, no point to anything – or if there is, nobody knows what “it” is. It’s certain about uncertainty. It’s open to everything, because nothing matters. Or, more accurately: it’s open to everything except the option of being closed. (In other words, it isn’t open-minded about potential benefits of a certain amount of “close-mindedness.”) When it’s high energy, it’s anarchy. (“No limits! Anything goes!”) When it’s low energy, it’s catatonic. (“Nothing is worth doing.”) In adults, it can simulate a kind of purity in regressing back to being “childlike.” Actual children and infants, though, exist in a raw state of being highly open and highly uncertain due to having little life experience. We’re all born clueless, after all. But they’re ripe for learning, and eager to embark on a journey of “figuring it all out.”
#4 is “Existentially Fit.”
An “existentially fit” individual is not overly highly skeptical, ideological, or nihilistic. The basic idea is that “I’ve been around the block a few times. I know some things about life. That said, I don’t claim to know everything.” This position allows room for mystery, uncertainty, paradox, and even the option that it’s wrong about some things – but it's far from being naïve or gullible. It’s open, but it’s armed with a healthy skepticism. It’s able to sniff out baloney and avoid nonsense. The basic idea is to keep an open mind, but not so open that your brain falls out (Walter Kotschnig.) It takes itself seriously to a degree, but it can also laugh at itself. It sees life as an adventure. It has plenty of mystery, but there's also a plot.
When it all goes well, life is a journey from a raw, “childlike” state to one of being “existentially fit.”
So, what can we do with this?
Just one option for having a bit of fun: we could try to figure out our own level of “existential health,” or the health of our friends.
One possible way to do this is to ask our friends (or ourselves) a few questions.
“What do you think about X? Why do you think it? How certain are you about Y? And why do you think that?”
This might sound like an interrogation. But it should be used in good faith, with good motives, as a possible route to great conversation. It often backfires when used as an assault tactic, or as a way of drilling deeper into someone’s core beliefs in order to dissolve them.
(And on that note, it’s usually a good idea to proceed with caution. Not everyone will enjoy this as much as everyone else. It might make some people mad. Take notes from what they did to Socrates. Adjust as needed.)
That said, used properly, in the right spirit, this can lead to some great conversations. And it can sometimes give us a decent gauge of someone’s “fitness” level. Including our own.
Or, there are other ways we could have some fun with this.
We could throw in some advanced math, for example.
(OK, so this might depend on a weird definition of “fun.”)
Just for kicks, let’s mix this up with some highly influential ideas from the world of mathematics.
For example, we could note how “certainty” can parallel “consistency.” Meaning, someone who is ideological often has a “system” of thought. (Hegel, for example, is one grandpappy of systems.) When a system is functional, it’s consistent. Its parts work together in harmony. There’s no contradiction.
In the same way, “openness” might parallel “completeness.” For example: a basketball is a “complete” basketball. But it’s only one part of a basketball game. So, it's also incomplete, in a way: it's only one part of a larger “system” or sports itself, for example. So, a basketball is simultaneously “complete” and “incomplete.” All to say, there are often smaller pieces within larger systems, within even larger systems, ad infinitum. All of which points to this: it’s one thing to break off a tiny piece of the universe and examine only that. (A single basketball, for example.) It’s another to examine the whole of life – or literally, everything in the universe.
Now for the math.
We could look at parallels here to Gödel's Incompleteness Theorems.
The basic idea (as we understand it) is that every formal axiomatic system can be either complete, or consistent, but not both.
Maybe it’s the same with a life philosophy.
This would mean that every system of beliefs can be consistent (like the ideologue), or complete (like the nihilist), but not both. If we try to be either rigidly consistent (ideologue) or rigidly complete (nihilist), we eventually get into trouble.
The resolution, then, would mean following Gödel's advice, and to avoid going too far in either direction.
This would mean a state of “betweenness.” It would mean life is messy. But it’s not ultimately, absolutely messy. Until the buzzer sounds, it may never be perfectly not-messy. And we’re better off when we recognize that. This can help us keep our ability to laugh.
So, maybe existential fitness works roughly like Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorems.
Or, maybe not. (Gödel was only talking about math, after all, not core beliefs about life.)
But that’s something to play with, if geeking out on this kind of thing feels like "play." (And that might make two of us. Onward!)
But there are other ways to play with it.
There’s the "Aesop’s Fables" angle.
Several thousand or so years ago, Aesop told the fable of “The Tree and the Reed.”
Basically, (spoiler alert!) flexible plants bend and survive strong winds, while trees can stand tall and strong, but sometimes, break.
Lao Tzu in the Tao Te Ching made a similar point:
“Men are born soft and supple; dead, they are stiff and hard. Plants are born tender and pliant; dead, they are brittle and dry. Thus whoever is still and inflexible is a disciple of death. Whoever is soft and yielding is a disciple of life.”
Both of these point out hazards in becoming ideological (like the tree, that breaks.)
Nihilism was probably less popular in those days than it is today (possibly due in part to the modern worldview crush.) Aesop and Lao Tzu and the gang focused less on the hazards of nihilism, or infinite flexibility, or standing for nothing. There’s risk in getting blown around by the wind endlessly, too. But they both wrote, after all. That could be seen as an effort to communicate wisdom, which is hardly nihilistic.
A nihilist claims to explain nothing (like the reed), the ideologue often claims to explain everything (like the tree.)
There’s “risk” in both directions. The main risk Aesop was warning us about was in becoming like the tree. The "risk" for the tree is breaking. This would entail someone investing their faith or “identity” into an ideology, and then finding a mistake or contradiction in it.
Fatal flaws in belief systems can cause an entire belief structure to collapse.
This is a true “existential crisis.”
They’re pretty common these days, in (again) the “modern worldview crush.”
When this happens, it can lead to a worldview implosion.
A rigid nihilist, for example, could realize one day that they’re behaving as if they’re “certain about uncertainty.” (“It’s true that there’s no such thing as truth!” Etc. There are several of these.)
Or, a rigid ideology could be built on a contradiction. An old-school Freudian, for example, could suddenly see that he dismisses everyone who disagrees with him as neurotic, repressed, or suffering from [insert disorder here,] which seals him off from all criticism in a perfectly protected, insulated bubble. Or a Marxist could ask, "why does Marxism always seem to be one murder, prison sentence, or famine away from Utopia?" Or a cult member could ask: “If this cult is about finding happiness and truth, why does everyone seem so miserable and deluded?” And so on.
The point is, contradictions can prove fatal to a worldview. And when that happens, a worldview can collapse.
And when there’s nothing to replace a worldview or life philosophy – our basic mental map of the world – the result can be nihilism. Life can suddenly seem meaningless. Angst can run full throttle. Life can suddenly seem absurd. There can seem to be no point to anything.
Nietzsche said the human being is “a rope over an abyss.”
Nihilism is that “abyss.”
To lose a worldview is to fall into that "abyss," at least to some extent.
In this way, ideology and nihilism aren't necessarily opposites, but twins. (Or at least cousins.) When the bubble of a rigid ideology pops, what's left is nihilism.
In this way, the rigid ideologue is always one fatal contradiction away from becoming a nihilist.
This can work in the reverse direction as well. A nihilist (assuming it’s someone who actually lives out his philosophy, or at least tries to) might find the emptiness, chaos, and pointlessness so unbearable that it’s better to plug into something, anything, than to stay like that – even if it’s a wildly incoherent or destructive ideology. They might decide that it’s better to join a cult, even, than that.
In these ways, ideologies and nihilism can complement and feed each other.
They can whipsaw, back and forth, within a single individual. Or within a society.
A modern American joining ISIS or some terrorist group would be an example of this. Soft nihilism in modern America at one extreme might make an ideology at the other extreme seem attractive.
Yet when it's actually time to go face-to-face with the narrow realities of a rigid ideology (“Wait – ISIS won’t let me watch Game of Thrones?”) – romantic illusions can evaporate with a poof.
Then it's back to nihilism.
And if both sides seem crazy, then it’s possible to retreat into extreme skepticism. This means taking the ball and going home, existentially speaking. Better to not think about anything, and just enjoy dinner. “Aren’t these peas delicious?” “A little salty.” “Ah.”
But, what’s a better alternative?
Being existentially fit.
Instead of retreating from The Big Questions and declaring them no-fly, toxic hazard zones at all costs, it means pushing through them, wrestling it out, and emerging, battle-tested but intact, on the other side.
Not easy. But worth the struggle.
In that spirit, it’s a good idea not to take models like these (yes, like the one we're putting out here) too seriously.
Hopefully, some of these wild intellectual roller-coaster rides convey a sense of the “joyful adventure” involved in all this.
It’s a search for truth.
It’s asking Big Questions, and searching for real answers to them.
Kierkegaard loved poking fun at Hegel for coming up with a consistent-and-complete system that explained everything (or so Hegel seemed to think.) After writing roughly eight metric tons of pages, Thomas Aquinas had a spiritual experience, after which he said, “Everything I have written is like chaff to me.”
All to say, models like these can sometimes be useful.
But they seem to work best when they’re handled loosely, with a light touch.
Socrates can be a good role model here.
He asked lots of questions. He thought a lot about things. He was approachable, and open-minded, and kind, friendly, and fair. He was the diametric opposite of a ram-it-down-your-throat, “I know the truth and you don’t” idea-bully.
But he was also tough. He gently exposed nonsense when he came across it. (And he came across it a lot.) He was a skeptic, but he rarely just sneered at ideas or attacked individuals personally. He would grab some ideas, work them over, and pick them clean. And he loved doing it. In this sense, he was far from a nihilist.
He was open. He would talk with anybody, about anything. But his intellectual immune system was as strong as an ox. He was in no danger of joining a cult, falling into nihilism, or subscribing to some fanatical political agenda.
Socrates, it seems, was existentially fit.
So, what can we take away from all this?
If the above is roughly on target, we now have some basic landmarks. These can serve as reference points to guide us across this treacherous terrain we’re all groping our way across.
On the one hand, we can work to avoid nihilism. Nihilism is generally a good state to avoid – something most of us see as self-evident. (Those who disagree on that point probably aren’t reading this. What would be the point, after all?)
On the other hand, we can work to avoid subscribing to a rigid ideology.
This can be easier said than done. We all want to make sense of life. And when we come across a set of ideas that seem to do that, it can sometimes be seductive. These days, we’re almost literally surrounded by sales pitches at every turn. Amid this, it can be easy to just pick a direction, go all-in, and drink the Kool-Aid. This usually entails adopting certain axioms, and never questioning them from then on. All-encompassing, shrink-wrapped belief systems that give people the feeling that “I’ve got life pretty much figured out” are seductive and powerful. They can pull in the uneducated, the most esteemed Harvard professors, and everyone in between.
And it’s easy for this to turn toxic. It’s easy to see anyone who hasn’t drunk our particular flavor of the Kool-Aid as “The Enemy.”
But they might not be an “Enemy” at all. It might just be that they drank a different flavor of Kool-Aid.
There are several antidotes for this.
One key in this is epistemology: how do I know?
It’s good to become aware of own thinking. Surprisingly often, we’re blind to it. That’s the norm, in fact.
The problem in much of this isn’t with being wrong, strictly speaking. The real problem lies with seeing a fragment, and assuming it’s the whole. In psychology, for example: Behaviorism wasn’t wrong, exactly. It just came across a few ideas that worked pretty well, and then tried to apply them to the entire universe. That’s when it ran into trouble. It found a fragment, and imagined it had found the whole.
Most ideologies become a closed loop of circular logic. “I’m smart, and I think X. Therefore, X is true. Therefore, anyone who disagrees is either wrong or bad. How do I know? Because I’m smart, and that’s what I think. (Now, return to Step 1.)”
As Shakespeare said, “I think it so because I think it so.”
“All professors agree on X. “
“Wait! I’m a professor, and I don’t agree on X.”
“OK, you’re fired.”
“You’re no longer a professor. OK, where were we? All professors agree on X…”
It’s easy to create closed loops that validate our thinking.
Confirmation bias is comfortable. Swimming upstream against confirmation bias requires work. This "work" means breaking these loops. Breaking these loops involves potentially admitting to being wrong sometimes.
Admitting we’re wrong, ironically, often leads us closer to being right.
But it requires humility. (Here, epistemology intersects with ethics.)
Humility can be a tough sell these days.
After all, sometimes the truth isn’t always flattering. Confirmation bias preserves self-esteem, while truth often threatens it. And when those conflict, all too often, we choose the self-esteem and toss the truth.
Nietzsche said it well:
“A very popular error: having the courage of one’s convictions;
rather, it is a matter of having the courage for an attack on one’s convictions.”
Self-validating closed loops in our thinking creates blind spots. These blind spots happen all the time, in individuals and societies, personally and professionally, in every area of life.
So what can we do about it?
We can work to uncover and remedy these blind spots.
It's not easy to correct your own blind spots. (After all, if we could see them, they wouldn't be blind spots.)
The remedy, then, seems to be something like this: “Know Thyself.”
But really "knowing thyself" doesn’t happen by itself, apparently. It takes work.
What kind of "work"?
Well, conversation and dialogue, for example, can work wonders. The dynamics described above, for example – digging through core beliefs, questioning them, revising them, trying to figure out ways to improve them – can happen most easily through honest, deep, dialogue.
In olden times, before The Death of God and the modern worldview crush, and before we all got swallowed up by various forms of media, we used to have many more human, face-to-face conversations. And in some ways - not coincidentally, perhaps - we were a lot healthier.
Dialogue involves an exchange, a back-and-forth - an openness, but without being “too” open, or “too” closed. Too open seems to become mutual agreement with no distinctions, too closed becomes friction with no exchange.
There seems to be a similar dynamic with existential fitness. It’s the same kind of engine at the core, whirring and kicking underneath it all, moving things, bumping around, making stuff happen.
It’s a strange mixture of both certainty-and-uncertainty, both knowledge and mystery, “things are this but they’re also that.” It’s a place of paradox, of ambiguity, partly known and partly unknown. It escapes both the stale, smothering stuffiness of the know-it-all and the chaotic, incoherent mayhem of utter chaos.
It’s something in between. It’s between knowledge and mystery.
This “play” isn’t something we can either choose to participate in, or not.
It’s something we’re all, already participating in.
We’re already standing on the playing field.
The only question is whether we realize this, and play fully, to the best of our possible ability – or not. (Or something in between.)