Date of Publishing:
February 3, 2024

René Magritte, The Art of Living (1967), Accessed 01.02.2024.

Alfred Hitchcock, Vertigo (1958), Accessed 01.02.2024.

No Mind’s Land

Iseult Grandjean

Do You Believe in Life after Love?

As a 17-year-old, the famous Mad Men line “You haven’t felt it because it doesn’t exist. What you call love was invented by men like me... to sell nylons” made my head spin in a delicious way. So tragic, so beautiful. Of course, now as then, it’s proper for an existentialist to blasély annihilate cherished concepts while sucking on slim cigarettes. Yet the existentialists – the 2nd wave ones – didn’t know how much they were still deluded. Yes, they didn’t believe in God –1st wave existentialism took care of that –, they didn’t believe in morals. Albert Camus would have even agreed with the 21st century absurdist philosopher Samantha Jones from Sex and the City who iconically said “I don’t believe in the Republican party or the Democratic party. I just believe in parties”. But not only did the hedonistic (s)existentialists still believe in love or parties. They believed in free will.

Don’t Worry, Be: Neuro-Anxiety

The more we learn about the inner workings of human behavior, the more our unwavering belief in free will gets contested: Do we really have it? Or are we just animals, products of chance evolution and lifelong slaves to bio- and neurochemical processes? Today, some philosophers argue that “even as science yields the truth about human nature it also disenchants” (Caruso and Flanagan 2017: i) – and that scientific progress came at an existential cost.

Existentialist philosophy grapples with questions of the meaning (lessness) of life. The reason why it’s often seen as bleak – other than its origins lying in the gloom of Northern Europe –, is because it breaks with reassuring ideas we have of the world and ourselves: Three waves of existentialism correspond to different ‘grounding projects’ (Caruso and Flanagan 2017: i)humans developed as a response to the dizzying void. Each wave shatters another shard of the mirror in which we try to see ourselves, creating ever more anxiety.

The first wave happened in the 19th century, with the famous death of God. Religion, the grounding project par excellence, started to crumble when Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky, and of course Nietzsche expressed some doubt about God’s omniscience. The second one flooded Europe in the mid-20th century as a response to the Second World War, when the Holocaust broke the illusion that humanity’s morality is built upon, if not God, a shared vision of goodness.Instead, Jean-Paul Sartre’s concept of radical freedom placed responsibility on individual shoulders: In a world devoid of meaning, all we could rely on was ourselves. But now, in the complicated 21st century, philosophers Gregg D. Caruso and Owen Flanagan declare, we have become awash with a third wave of existentialism: Neuroexistentialism.

Neuroscience, the science of the brain and the (central) nervous system, claims that there is no tangible ‘self’ to rely on; no mind that is outside, let alone steered by the brain. Rather they are the very same thing: “[T]he mind is the brain” (Caruso and Flanagan 2017: 5). In their collection of essays titled Neuroexistentialism: Meaning, Morals, and Purpose in the Age ofNeuroscience (2017), Caruso and Flanagan gather philosophers, neuroscientists, and even legal scholars to examine what this new state of mind means for our meaning and morality:

“We are gregarious social animals who evolved by descent from other animals, and who are possessed of all sort of utterly contingent dispositions and features that result from having evolved as such an animal. Our fate is the fate of other animals” (Caruso and Flanagan2017: ii).

Whether you call it more spiritually a ‘soul’, or simply ‘free will’: Neuroexistentialism rejects it.The advance of science works like a final fist to the mirror; making clear that we are not somehigher beings, neither civilized nor chosen, but rather just meat with some chemicals shootingthrough it. Nothing more nor less than a whale or a worm. Naturally, this makes us nervous.

Soul Control

In Being and Nothingness (1943), Sean-Paul Sartre defined his concept of ‘being-for-itself’ which basically means that we are not unconscious beings confronted with determined facts(that would be ‘being-in-itself’), but constantly creating our own. This was free will. Even Sartre had a strong sense of dizziness. But his Nausea (1938) results from realizing the contingency of existence, and coming to terms with the fact that as we are in full control of our lives, we also bear total responsibility: “Vertigo is anguish to the extent that I am afraid not of falling over, but of throwing myself over” (Sartre 1943/1956: 65). His was the vertigo of freedom. Ours is the dizziness of surrender.

In medical terms, vertigo is commonly “caused by a problem with the nerves in the inner earth at control balance” (Mayo Clinic). In Neuroexistentialism, vertigo is “caused by the denial that morality, well-being, and life’s meaning have anything outside the natural world to shore themup” (Caruso and Flanagan 2017: 12).

So, ultimately, vertigo is about control. When spinning on the playground, dizziness can beenjoyable, even delicious. The whirling dervishes don’t get dizzy: That’s because the Sufimystics move in a very specific, controlled way and with half-open eyes as to blur the worldaround. Also, they avoid certain foods and only whirl on empty stomachs. When out of control,on the other hand, vertigo becomes unbearable, even lethal: In Hitchcock’s eponymous movie(1958), several fall to their deaths before detective Ferguson can finally conquer his fear.

Still from Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958)

In 1997, Tom Wolfe wrote in an article for The Independent with the catchy title ‘Sorry, ButYour Soul Just Died’ about how new discoveries in neuroscience will challenge previousdualistic perceptions of human nature. In his review of the Neuroexistentialism anthology,Thomas W. Clark refers to (neuro-)existentialism as a “seeking [of] some sort of post-soulequilibrium” (Clark 2018: 45). We have given up on what Clark calls “soul control” (Clark 2013:248) – the belief that there is some immaterial self, “a little uncaused causer” (Caruso andFlanagan 2017: 10) which controls our actions. After the death of God, then, the death of theSoul.

Dizzy with Heat

“[F]or most ordinary folk”, Caruso and Flanagan confess, “the idea that humans are animals and that the mind is the brain is destabilizing and disenchanting, quite possibly nauseating, a source of dread, fear and trembling, sickness unto death even” (Caruso and Flanagan 2017:6). Neuroexistentialism unhinges the maybe most precious idea of modernity: the belief that, while we may live in a chaotic world, we are at least in full control of ourselves.

In the end, the three waves of existentialism, as waves do, are all about blurring borders: The border between nature und nurture, the skin and the soul, the soul and the self. In a warming world, floods submerge our previously defined landscapes. Fossil fueled heat is melting icesheets and ideas. In Melissa Broder’s novel Death Valley (2023), the narrator who lost her way while trying to find a hallucinogenic cactus in the Californian desert gets “[d]izzy with heat”(Broder 2023: 113). This is heat syncope, an illness marked by sudden spells of dizziness, fainting, and nausea as a result of overheating.

Not least the changing weather makes us realize that we are not separated from ourenvironment, but part of it; Neuroexistentialism, the realization that we don’t have a non-physical mind (let alone soul) and that we are nothing beyond our hardware, can have a similardestabilizing effect. We are animals, dizzy and sweating. But once we learn to let go andembrace our animal states, the hot-white blank page of dizziness can also be a space ofpossibility, a re-source for re-orientation: Where to go from here? Anywhere.


Broder, Melissa (2023): Death Valley. New York: Scribner.

Caruso, Gregg D.; Flanagan, Owen (eds.) (2017): Neuroexistentialism: Meaning, Morals, and Purpose in the Age of Neuroscience. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Clark, Thomas W. (2013): ‘Experience and Autonomy: Why Consciousness Does and Doesn’tMatter’, in Caruso, Gregg D. (ed.), Exploring the Illusion of Free Will and Moral Responsibility. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 239 – 254.

Clark, Thomas W. (2018): ‘Book Review: Gregg D. Caruso and Owen Flanagan, Neuroexistentialism: Meaning, Morals, and Purpose in the Age of Neuroscience (OxfordUniversity Press)’, Science, Religion, and Culture, Vol. 5, Issue 1, 45 – 50.

Sartre, Jean-Paul (1943/1956): Being and Nothingness: An Essay in Phenomenological Ontology. Translated by Hazel E. Barnes. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Wolfe, Tom (1997): ‘Sorry, But Your Soul Just Died’, The Independent, 02 February. Accessed 01.02.2024.