Is Existentialism Deterministic?

In “The Myth of Sisyphus”, Albert Camus argues that Sisyphus, the hero of the absurd, is happy in his supposed punishment to eternally push a boulder up a hill. He reasons that in order for the punishment to be real, Sisyphus must be conscious of his own condition. Since Sisyphus continues to press on regardless of the futility of his task, Camus reasons that Sisyphus must therefore be content with his fate. “[A]ll is well” (20) and Sisyphus can find fulfillment in the endless task of rolling the boulder up the hill and watching it fall back down. He is therefore happy.

According to Camus, “If there is a personal fate, there is no higher destiny, or at least there is, but one which [the absurd man] concludes is inevitable and despicable” (20). The crux of the existentialist viewpoint as endorsed by “The Myth of Sisyphus” is that life is full of random violence, the most brutal of which being the inevitability of death. We are therefore free from any obligation to any societal constraints or illusions imposed upon us, since the inevitability of death means that none of it matters. This seems to result in the conclusion that people freed by existentialism can now act out their own lives with a free will as radical subjects. As Camus writes in The Stranger from the perspective of Meursault, “I had lived my life one way and I could just as well have lived it another. I had done this and I hadn’t done that. I hadn’t done this thing but I had done another. And so?…Nothing, nothing mattered, and I knew why” (121). An absurd hero controls their own fate.

Determinism, or the idea that all things that have and will happen are inevitable consequences of the ‘initial event’, seems to be clearly incompatible with the concept of ‘radical subjectivism’. Free will is defined in this blogpost as the inverse of determinism, that each person is ultimately free to act outside of the influence of their environment. This idea is clearly expressed in Baron d’Holbach’s article “We Are Completely Determined”, in which he explains that if science is to be accepted as being fundamentally true, then free will can be concluded as an illusion made up by our minds to provide the veneer of control. According to d’Holbach, “Man’s life is a line that nature commands him to describe upon the surface of the earth, without his ever being able to swerve from it.” Free will is an illusion created by the complexity of the mind, where one is “unable to unravel all these motions…and supposes himself a free agent.”

The structure of this argument is curiously similar to those made by existentialists to destroy societal notions, but it would seem a lack of free will would contradict the idea that once one was free from societal notions, they could now be master of their own fate – under the doctrine of determinism, that person was always going to become an existentialist, and the actions they take now as a ‘radical subjectivist’ were already predetermined by the fundamental laws of the universe.

To resolve this seeming contradiction, there must be one of two conclusions made about determinism and free will:

  • The world is deterministic and our belief in free will is an illusion. However, this illusion is acceptable as a substitute for real free will in our actions as individuals.
  • The world is not completely deterministic.

The first conclusion would be unacceptable to any self-respecting illusion-breaker. If existentialism and its conclusions about the human condition are taken as a fact, in a deterministic world, we still do not really control our fates. The second conclusion is exceedingly difficult to prove, but its existence as the only other option means that if we are to understand Camus as being correct and Sisyphus to be happy, then d’Holbach must be wrong. Existence precedes essence and necessitates freedom of will.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s