Sunday, April 6, 2014

God, Nothingness, and Chess

I think this blog is fast (or not-so-fast, considering how little I post these days) becoming an everything-else-except-yoga blog. First, I haven't been posting as much. And when I do post, my posts seem to have less and less to do with yoga, and more to do with, well, everything else. But what do I do? Life flows like a river, and I don't have too much control over how the river meanders on its course. So the only thing to do here is to, well, go with the flow.

Among the everything else that has been occupying my life, philosophy is one of them. Why? Well, I don't know, maybe because I happen to teach it? :-) And since philosophy and philosophical issues seem to be permeating my life, I suppose I'll talk about these here.

I've been reading a lot of Sartre's Being and Nothingness lately, mainly because I'm teaching Existentialism this semester. As I mentioned in this post, a quick-and-dirty way of summing up Sartre's view would be: "Existence precedes Essence." As one of the key philosophers in the existentialist movement, Sartre holds that we humans are born or "thrown" into this world. And once we are thrown into this world, we are then saddled with the absolute freedom and absolute responsibility for defining who and what we are. Thus, unlike man-made objects like chairs and tables, which came into this world with a predefined purpose or essence, we humans came into this world first, and then are forced to create and define our own essences or purposes. And human life is such that we always have to make life choices, and these life choices are such that in making them, we continually recreate ourselves. Thus, to be human is to continually and endlessly create our own essences and purposes.

But in order for this process of continual self-creation to be possible, there also needs to be a parallel process of self-negation or self-destruction. Why? Because self-negation or self-destruction introduces a nothingness into our lives, and this nothingness is necessary as the empty space within which we can then have room to create our new selves through our life choices. Without this nothingness, continual self-creation would not be possible. Thus, Sartre goes on to stress that this nothingness is the very condition for any possibility of being, or creation. Hence his famous saying: "Human being is the being through which nothingness comes into the world."   

But if we originally and continually create ourselves through our continual self-negation, then there would be no space and no need for God. The traditional Judeo-Christian conception of God holds that God is a self-creating being, a being that creates itself from its own nothingness. But as we can see from everything that I just said above, this conception also turns out to be a perfect description of human being as the being through which nothingness comes into the world. Thus, if there really has to be a God, then we are Gods! We are our own Gods! (Yay!...)


I suppose I might owe you an apology for subjecting you to an unsolicited lecture on Existentialism. But there is some method to all this madness. I'm actually preparing you for a personal story. For some reason, I have recently been encountering quite a few people in my environment who have been asking me if I believe in God. I'm not sure why this is so; maybe I look like the sort who is in need of some salvation. In any case, some of these well-meaning people are Muslim students from the middle east (there is a sizable contingent of middle-eastern students on my campus). Some are also good Christian folk from the local community.

Which is probably not all that surprising, considering that this is Idaho. What is somewhat surprising is the way this question pops up sometimes. Yesterday, for instance, I was playing chess with this guy at the local Starbucks. Somewhere in the middle of our second game, he suddenly asked me if I believed in the Almighty. I'm still not quite sure why it would occur to him to ask me this question in the middle of a chess game; a game which he was, by the way, losing quite badly. Maybe he thought that my superior chess prowess might be the result of divine intervention. Or maybe he thought that invoking divine authority might cause me to succumb to a bout of Christian charity, and be merciful to him in his darkest hour on the chessboard.

I, of course, honestly answered no to his question. Upon hearing my reply, he paused for a moment, and then said, "I have noticed that many college professors do not believe in God. Well, to each his own, I guess." I smiled and left it at that. If this were a more appropriate occasion, I might have gone on to subject him to the above lecture on the Existentialist view of (non)God. But I suspect that that probably wouldn't have gone down well. Besides, who wants to be subject to a lecture on Existentialism in the middle of a losing chess game?


But all these well-meaning recent inquiries about the state of my belief in the Almighty have also led me to ponder another issue. It occurs to me that many people divide the world into two halves: Those who believe in God or some kind of all-powerful creator, and those who don't. I think this is a very unimaginative and impoverished--not to mention divisive and polarizing--way of seeing people and the universe in which we live. And it's not only Muslims and good Christian folk who see the world in this way. Atheists and many supposedly free-thinkers do this too.

But then again, maybe we don't just do this with belief in God. Maybe we do this with many other things too. For instance, somebody else might see the world in terms of whether one is a Republican or Democrat, or whether one practices Ashtanga yoga or some other non-Ashtanga form of yoga. It is all too easy to see and understand the world in such ready-made divisions, isn't it?   

What am I getting at here? I don't know, probably nothing in particular. After all, what good is a blog for, if not as a space for going on and on (and on) about everything and nothing in particular?


  1. carrying on from yesterday.....when I stopped being so into yoga, and took up crossfit, a lot of my work associates confessed to me that they experience most yoga people as being stuck up and closed minded. Many actually rolled their eyes when talking about yoga people. I have to admit I was kind of shocked at the depth of their disdain and wondered if this was how I came across at the height of my yoga enthusiasm. Now that I'm into crossfit I wonder the same thing about my crossfit enthusiasm. At the moment my younger son is the harshest critic, but my retort is that we're all just doing it for FUN, FUN, FUN. At least I am :) It's hard to argue with that.

  2. Lovely and edifying to read this, Nobel. I remember being 19 and reading B&N for the first time on a Saturday after work in a ravine below the public library. It was one of the first spring days my first year in Oregon. I remember feeling very thrown into the world-- so alienated by that. And so elated. We were not allowed to read commentary in my philosophy program (only the great works, no commentary... interesting to think how that may predict my rejection of published commentaries on ashtanga when I found the practice 5 years later). But I cheated that day and read Hazel Barnes' introduction to the edition I was reading. I still remember it. Brilliant. I walked back to the dorm that evening with a kind of hole in my head. In a good way. Same as your students now.

    Do keep writing, Nobel. When ashtanga blogs turn from asana commentary to life practice, that is where the practice itself shines. No need to talk about it at all.

    1. Always such a treat to hear from you, ovo. I'm generally not an advocate of reading commentaries either. But B&N may be a notable exception. I actually reread Barnes's introduction lately, and I must say that it really helped me to situate a lot of the things that he was saying.

      The very first semester I read Sartre and Heidegger, I had a very interesting night when I had trouble going to sleep, and felt this hole in my heart, not head :-) But I suppose it works differently for different people :-)

  3. dear Nobel

    what is surprising is that Sartre's viewpoints seem aligned with Buddhism, at least the nothingness part. Buddhism is practical because it serves everyone, regardless of their views on theism. i'm happy to be theistic but have met Buddhist who weren't. one i met was an atheistic spiritual teacher. somehow i could not accept spiritual direction from an atheist (seems contradictory doesn't it?). aligned with what you are saying, i think in Buddhism we can conceive that we are all Buddhas, and there were many Buddhas before Buddha.

    life is quite existentialist and in line with Sartre's views, but when i studied philosophy i never cared much for it, as at that time i was in my deep first fervor experiences of spirituality. but look out of a plane while flying. the feeling is existentialist, as you are detached from the world you live in.

    cheers, A

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  5. Do you ever wonder if any of your students or colleagues know about or ever read your blog? Nice to read about what happens to you in Idaho again.

  6. Thank you for a great post! It really struck a cord in me. I've been recently going through difficulties keeping up my ashtanga practice and I find this self-creation/self-destruction idea to describe my current situation perfectly.
    I should probably take up Being and Nothingness. I studied cultural theory in college and had a fair share of philosophy but somehow never ended up in an Existentialism class.

  7. The chess game was an important moment. Perhaps one day you shall both become great saints.