Common Issues for Philosophical Counseling

Rationality of Existence

This issue is paramount because we are all rational beings; thus, we are rationally aware of ourselves as well as the people and things around us. Because of this state of rational awareness, we must make sense of everything we are experiencing. If we do not, then we are alienated from ourselves and the world in which we live. 

Meaning and Purpose in Life

Meaning and purpose in our lives are derived from coherent placement within the context of a larger whole.

Think, for example, that you are playing a game of chess. Within this context, if the other person moves a chess piece in accordance with the rules of a chess game, then this act has meaning. It has this meaning because it "fits" within the larger context of the game of chess.

If, however, the other person throws a chess piece across the room, then this act has no meaning. It has no meaning because it cannot be placed within the larger context of the game of chess. That is, it does not "fit."

The act may, of course, have meaning in a larger context. If we were to step back and look at things from a broader perspective, then possibly we would see that the other person was losing. He thus became frustrated, so he threw a chess piece across the room.

The important point is that, in order for anything to have meaning or purpose, it must have a coherent placement within the context of a larger whole. It must "fit." 

When we begin to think about meaning and purpose in relation to our lives, an unavoidable fact emerges, namely, the "larger whole" that is relevant for all of us is the metaphysical framework in which we exist. No personal meaning can be derived apart from this underlying structure in which we find ourselves. If I am a rat in a maze with cognitive functioning abilities, then I may think I have a meaningful life as I follow a trail of food or some other stimulus path. But if this trail leads to my being killed in a trap or falling over a precipice to my death, then my "meaning" or "purpose" in life was, in fact, very different than what I thought. 

In short: I was living in delusion. 

The important point is that the underlying structure of being (or "ontology") in which we exist will always matter, and no one is in a position where he or she can "manufacture" personal meaning apart from this larger metaphysical context. Any meaningful purpose in our lives derives from how we "fit" in this larger context in which we find ourselves (despite what our Existentialist friends might think). Once again, we must "fit" into what is there.

This is why we see young people with almost pathological drives to be members of gangs or "in crowds." They have a deep need for a sense of belonging. They desire to be a part of it all. They yearn to "fit in."

This need in each of us goes deep - to our very core. And no participation in a certain gang or clique can remedy it on the level that it must be addressed. It is an ontological insecurity, an ontological dependence. Therefore, we need an ontological remedy - one that provides a sense of belonging and a "fitting in" on the fundamental level of being. Nothing less will suffice.

I (or anyone) am ushered into this experience of belonging as I confess my desperate need of a Savior. My need of a Savior is made apparent to me as I honestly acknowledge that my natural tendency is not to treat others as I want to be treated myself. Rather, my natural tendency is to be grasping, acquisitive, self-absorbed, hard-hearted and arrogant (regardless of how I may posture myself to others). This natural bent toward conceited egoism (along with all the self-destructive tendencies that it entails) drives me to the unavoidable truth that I am "misaligned" with the source (or "ground") of being.

When I confess my need of a Savior, I experience a "new birth" (John 3:3), and I am born into the family of God. I experience a deep sense of belonging since I now have coherent placement in the larger context of God's creation. I am no longer alienated from my Father and my God. I am no longer "misaligned" with His essence. Rather, I now "fit" into what is there. My Father in Christ inspires me to walk in a path that is in alignment with His perfect will for me, and this brings increasing satisfaction, fulfillment and peace rather than dissatisfaction, non-fulfilment and alienation.

"I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly" (John 10:10).

"By this we know that we abide in Him and He in us, because He has given us of His Spirit" (1 John 4:13).

Human Freedom

I remember thinking extensively about human freedom during one period in my life. Do you know what I came up with? Simply this: human freedom is the capacity to choose in accordance with the dictates of reason.

In other words, it is the capacity to choose what makes sense.

Think about it: Is a person genuinely free if he or she chooses something that makes no sense?

One might respond by saying, “Human freedom is the capacity to choose what we want. It has nothing to do with reason.”

It is tempting to think this way, but consider this: some of my greatest regrets are because I wanted things at certain times – and thus chose them – but I realized too late that this was not an expression of freedom at all but, rather, an expression of bondage.

Why would anyone choose something that makes no sense? And why would anyone consider such a choice to be an expression of freedom?

Surely, we are rational beings, and, as such, we must make sense of things. This is how we survive. If someone chooses something that is completely unreasonable, then, clearly, this person is in bondage to a dangerous irrational force.

In short: he is held fast by a power that makes no sense.

Let's look at a simple example: if I know that eating a meal consisting of two double cheeseburgers, large fries, a super-sized carbonated soft drink and a quart of ice cream is bad for my health - but I choose to eat this for lunch each day anyway - is this an expression of freedom?

I could say, "I chose to eat this meal for lunch each day because I wanted it – so, yes, it was an expression of freedom."

But as I look back on such experiences in the wisdom of later years, would I not rather say that these were experiences of bondage to appetites or impulses that made no sense?

I hope you see the relevant point. It is this: the bottom line is reason. The bottom line is what makes sense. This is why God says, “Come, let us reason together” (Isaiah 1:18). This is also why He places the facts of Christ’s life and death before us (as well as the facts of our sinful condition) prior to expecting any response of faith.

To summarize: there is an obvious rationality to existence, and this is the only context in which we can sensibly talk about freedom. Acts of volition (that is,  choices) do not spring from a vacuum. Rather, they spring from the content of our hearts. If our choices result from desires that overpower our beliefs regarding what makes sense, then, clearly, our hearts are in bondage. These desires of our hearts may be rooted in all sorts of unconscious needs and insecurities (this, I take it, goes without saying). Nevertheless, the bottom line regarding human freedom is reason and reason alone.

This "bottom line" of reason with regard to human freedom points unavoidably to our need of a Savior. Why? Because we really are - all of us - in bondage to a power that makes no sense. Simple honesty brings us to the point where we are forced to acknowledge that we are self-centered egoists who are always in a functional mode of "me first." And this mode of "me first" leads to selfish, indulgent ways that put us on a path of self-destruction. But even if we are able to "contain" these self-destructive tendencies through rigid self-control or laser-focused busyness, we are still painfully aware of our need of redemption. Why? Because a conscience that is not hardened through continual violation bears witness to how our state of self-absorption keeps us from helping those in need as we should. 

We may succeed in posturing ourselves as non-egocentric, but convincing others (and even ourselves) does not change us into something we are not. The desperate necessity in each of our lives is to confess our great need of Christ and be born into the family of God. Only this results in a caring heart that brings joy and fulfillment. And only this results in human freedom.

"A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you" (Ezekiel 36:26).

"You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free" (John 8:32)

"If the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed" (John 8:36). 

Personal Identity

Issues such as free will (discussed above) require an examination of personal identity. This is so because the only way I can truly understand what it is to be free is to first understand what it is to be the person I am.

Have you ever thought about issues relating to personal identity? Have you ever thought about who you are on the deepest level? I’m sure you have. 

Many are forced to do this when they go through a painful ordeal such as a divorce or a mid-life crisis.

What each of us must realize when thinking about personal identity is that there is a level to our personhood that is more fundamental than the level of our desires - and this is the level of rational awareness. In other words, I am not merely a being who desires certain things. Rather, I am a being who is consciously aware of having such desires.

In short, I do not live at the level of stimulus and response – as, for example, a laboratory rat does. If a rat is stimulated, it will respond in predictable ways.  This is the level of a rat's existence - the level of stimulus and response.

But I do not live at this level of stimulus and response. Rather, I live at the level of conscious awareness. When I am stimulated, I do not merely respond in predictable ways. On the contrary, I am consciously aware of being stimulated, so I am consciously aware of whether or not I will  respond. 

This level of conscious awareness is more fundamental to my identity than the level of desire. It is a "transcendent" level that allows me to "step back" and critically evaluate my feelings, my desires, my fears, my insecurities - all of that.

The recognition of this truth is vital when considering areas such as human freedom, for an individual can make no sense of this freedom without first making sense of personal identity. This is so because acting with "free will" implies, at the very least, that a person is acting freely as the person he or she is with no external constraint or coercion. Therefore, to understand what it means to be a morally free person, one must first understand what it means to be a person.

If I asked you point blank, “Who are you?" - what would you say?

If someone had asked me this question at a time when I was very depressed, I probably would have responded by saying something like, “Well, I frequently desire to eat a lot of food, and I often act on this desire, so I must be a glutton.”

It may be true that I frequently desire to eat more food than is healthful for me, and it may also be true that I frequently act on these desires. If I say, “I am a glutton,” however, then I identify myself with these desires. This implies that I am “going with the flow” of them and welcoming their indulgent fulfillment whenever I experience them.

But this may not be the case. 

If I acknowledge these desires on the level of rational awareness and renounce them by saying something like, “Hey, I don’t want to do this; it doesn’t make sense – it’s killing me!” then, I am by no means a glutton (although I may be in bondage to gluttonous desires).

The point is this: conscious awareness comprises both a subject and an object level of awareness, and our identity is grounded – not at the object level of stimulation and response – but, rather, at the subject level of being consciously aware of stimulation and response.

Since personal identity (the “I” or ego) is grounded at this transcendent subject level of conscious awareness, it is at this level that we must define human freedom. This is why I mentioned in the prior section that human freedom is the capacity to choose in accordance with the dictates of reason. In other words, human freedom is the capacity to choose in harmony with our rational awareness because this is the level that defines our being. This is the level where personal identity resides.

One’s core identity will never be found on the object level - that is, the level of feeling and desire. Furthermore, any identification on this level can drive a person to great discouragement - even to despair.

We all have feelings. We all have desires. These feelings and desires are grounded in our needs. And these needs are grounded in our state of non-self-sufficiency - that is, they are grounded in our state of "ontological deficiency."

In short, we are beings characterized by lack, not fullness. 

One of the problems of our “misaligned” (i.e., sinful) nature is that we are naturally prone to project our needs laterally to other people or things in an attempt to find fulfillment rather than to direct them upward to the level of transcendence and sufficiency that we find in God.

The acknowledgment of this tendency, I would say, brings us to the heart of the issue, and it will inevitably drive us to confess our need of salvation through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

"Our sufficiency is from God" (2 Corinthians 3:5). 

Fundamental Structure of Being

We must understand the rock-bottom level of being so we can align the direction of our lives to accommodate this foundational structure or "ontology." In short, we must "fit" into what is fundamentally there. We are a smaller part of a larger whole, and we must live accordingly. If we do not, then we are doomed to a life of frustration and despair. There is simply no way around this brute fact of existence, and any attempt to live in defiance of it will ultimately result in eternal loss.

Christian thought accepts the foundational reality of an infinite, personal God - the great I AM. Personality, as well as the fulfillment of personal desires, thus have meaning because they "fit" into the reality of what is fundamentally there. For this reason, all our personal hopes and aspirations for experiences of love, intimacy and purposeful fulfillment have legitimate grounding in the metaphysical framework of our existence. 

Buddhism and Hinduism (and other hybrid forms of westernized eastern thought) promote a completely different ontology. The ultimate reality in these schools of thought is impersonal mind. Proponents of these philosophies contend that many of the problems we encounter in life are due to the fact that we consider ourselves to be personal entities that are separate and distinct from the ultimate impersonal reality. This fixation upon personality and the fulfillment of personal desire is, according to these philosophies, the underlying cause of our frustrations and agitations in life. 

All the multiplicity as well as the material nature that we observe in the universe is simply a delusion according to this line of thinking, and the experience of personality itself is, in many ways, the ultimate delusion.  

I do not think anyone can apply this philosophy in a consistent way and yet remain functionally sane in our world, yet threads of this eastern thought are rampant in western society. 

Western materialism promotes yet another ontology, namely, impersonal matter in motion. As with eastern thought, there is no way that personal beings like ourselves can find a coherent "fit" within this metaphysical framework. All personal hopes and aspirations reduce to various forms of self-delusion, for we are ultimately eddies in the material stream of life with no true autonomy as self-conscious entities.

Truly, it is only a biblical framework that gives our lives meaning as personal beings. This is the only fundamental structure in which we coherently "fit."

"In the day that God created man, He made him in the likeness of God. He created them male and female, and blessed them and called them Mankind in the day they were created" (Genesis 5:1, 2).

Additional Issues for Philosophical Counseling

The Problem of Evil

People often ask, “How can there be a God when there is so much evil in the world?” But these same people would have no basis for calling anything in the world “evil” unless they had an objective basis for doing so. Without this objective basis, they would merely be expressing a subjective opinion – nothing more.

In short, without an objective basis for ethical judgment, we are lost in a sea of moral relativism.

So the mere statement of this problem presupposes an objective, agreed-upon set of values because, if this were not true, then there would be no basis for calling this issue a problem of  "evil."

Also, since any objective set of values requires some sort of metaphysical grounding, the mere statement of this problem implies an objective misalignment between the level at which we live (that is, the level at which there is perceived evil) and the level that is fundamentally there.  

In other words, legitimate ethical value judgments presuppose the reality of something like sin. Otherwise, such judgments would be merely arbitrary, and we would be left with a determinism of one sort or another that would provide no grounding for a distinction between what ought to be in relation to what is. 

Misalignment of Being

As noted in the above section, there is a fundamental misalignment of being in this world. Whether one refers to this misalignment as “sin” (Christianity), “dukkha” (Buddhism), or anything else, it is undeniably there. Any attempt to live life apart from an acknowledgment and accommodation of this truth will result in a flight from the self and reality. The end result will be a deep sense of unresolved guilt - a state in which one's misalignment of being becomes a true "rupture" of being).

Love and Need

This area can easily cause problems for need-motivated beings like ourselves because love entails a doing for the other for the other's sake, while need entails a doing for the other for my sake. The resolution of this issue (both conceptually and emotionally) necessitates the acknowledgment of a transcendent  structure of being that provides the only legitimate basis for other-regarding impulses and action. 

Falling in love is an "attunement" to this other-regarding reality, and this represents the means by which God attempts to intrude upon our endeavored autonomy - an autonomy that leads only to dissatisfaction and despair. 

Reconciling Oneself to the Past

This can be a painful struggle for many of us, and the reason is obvious: none of us can change the past. For this reason, if we are not reconciled to it, then this alienation will surely cause serious problems in our lives. The only way to truly resolve this issue is to understand the necessity of the ground of our being - the great I AM.

Being unto Death

This is the reality of our existence in this world, and, at some point, this reality must be faced with honesty. A philosopher such as Heidegger strongly emphasizes this state of being, and any failure to acknowledge this personal reality results in a flight from the self as well as a failure to live life with genuine authenticity.

Truly, each of us desperately needs the hopeful "Being unto Life" that God provides for us in Christ.

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