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Descartes' fundamental truth (cogito, ergo sum) would help me accept without any doubt that I do exist. So, I accept that I do exist without any doubt.

But there's another truth that --for me-- seem a consequence of Descartes' truth: the instinct of survival. I do exist, and I seem to try to keep such existence, to persist along time. It can be expressed as this: I exist in order to exist, or I live in order for my species to continue existing, or I live in order to persist.

The fact is that I seem to try to keep such existence. If I should decide, rationally or instinctively, there is no doubt that I want to exist. Things seem to follow the same rule: I cannot easily break life or rocks, or atoms. I drink a lot of water, eat fiber, follow moral, legal rules, etc. Clearly, I really do want to exist.

I'm not asking if my understanding is correct. I want to know if there's some philosophical approach that would explain (or rebate) the instinct of survival, or the tendency of things to keep existing. There should be an explanation to this yearning. Is there any?

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    One may note that organizations such as companies, churches, gangs, etc. tend to display such self-preserving behavior, even in the absence of a collective agreement by its members. I'm don't know if this has been studied anywhere, but such a case study, or similar, may be illuminating. – christo183 Jan 30 at 9:44
  • "I exist in order to exist" and "I live in order for my species to continue existing" seem to be very different, where would the "species" come from in the Cartesian solipsism of I? Also, Descartes was not looking for an explanation of "I am", just an assurance, so your analogy is unclear, explanations, like evolutionary ones, are empirical, not phenomenal. As for assurances, something like Schopenhauer's will to live comes to mind, or the Existenz of existentialists, but both repudiate Cartesian assimilation of "yearnings" to "truths". – Conifold Jan 30 at 10:13
  • If you haven't read Dawkins' 'The Selfish Gene' might be worth your time. It's science... Rather than philosophy proper.. but it's essentially dealing with this question. However @christo183 above has just burst my opinions on this wide open. My initial thoughts on that... Is that corporations are just a kind of human tribe... And so Dawkins still applies. – Richard Jan 30 at 11:13
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    Schopenhauer takes this as a central fact. After him, Nietzsche refines it to reflect the wish is not just to exist, but to have control over one's world to some degree, either individually or as part of a collective. (People do die of purposelessness. Some lives are worse than death. But the kind that end in suicide or surrender do not seem to be about suffering, but about pointlessness.) But philosophies like Buddhism and Taoism or their Western versions in the Stoic/ Epicureand/Eleatic/Cynical directions do not see this as a necessary thing, or a philosophically valuable position. – jobermark Feb 1 at 22:42
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    Also, Descartes 'cogito' is an answer to Augustine's 'Dubito ergo sum.' If we had no doubts about the good will of the universe (the existence of God for Augustine), by this notion, we might not have an instinct toward survival. We might accept the value of whatever happened with equanimity in complete trust. Some versions of Existential Psychotherapy retain this principle in the form: The will to survive is the fear of change. – jobermark Feb 1 at 22:54
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Descartes 'I', which exists is not his body. The self-referential term refers (or so he supposes) to an immaterial - thinking, non-extended - substance. There is nothing he can do to preserve the existence of this substance. There is a lot he can do to preserve his bodily existence.

The philosopher who comes to most readily to mind as regards self-preservation is Spinoza. In Ethics, III, proposition 6, Spinoza states : 'Each thing, in so far as it is in itself, endeavours to persevere in its being'* (Unaquaeque res, quantumin se est, in suo persevare conatur).

There are always multiple strands of assumption behind Spinoza's statements and they can't be disentangled here. But perhaps the key idea is that no particular thing can have any determinateness or individuality unless it has some power of self-maintenance, some capacity to be active in relation to other things and not merely a passive recipient or subject of effects.

Its character and individuality depends on its necessarily limited power of self-maintenance; it can be distinguished as a unitary thing with a recognizable constancy of character in so far as, although a system of parts, it succeeds in maintaining its own characteristic coherence and balance of parts. (Stuart Hampshire, Spinoza, Harmondsworth : Penguin, 1970: 77.)

*tr. Spinoza, Ethics, ed. & tr. G.H.R. Parkinson, Oxford : OUP, 2000: 171.

This is clearly a compressed answer but there is unfortunately no space to explore the full background to Spinoza's position on self-perseverance. Hampshire's book, despite its age, retains a good deal of value and you could do worse than to start with this.

  • The problem here is rocks for example. A rock is a thing. But I can think of no situation in which it will continue to be a rock.. and not say.. become a pebble. But I like the undeniable logic of this. – Richard Jan 30 at 11:22
  • @Richard50: the fact that things tend to persist in time does not mean that things do persist in time, or that things persist forever. Dinosaurs are extinct. Pizzas vanish. Some rocks become pebbles, others grow (and therefore can reproduce; not a joke: if a rock normally grows due to adherence of external mineral particles, it is enough for it to break in two parts; and parts ("children"?) having the same chemical properties can follow a similar process!). – RodolfoAP Jan 30 at 12:31
  • @RodolfoAP Yes.. Even humans cease to exist as a 'thing' given time. But humans will actively try to prevent that, rocks don't. I've had another thought, which is maybe due to my lack of knowledge of Ontology. Spinoza's argument is essentially that the 'definition' of a 'thing' is what makes the 'thing' persist. That we have a noun for 'rock' is what makes rocks, and what keeps them being a rock. But that's a human construct, not a universal property. I know Ontology is inextricably linked to nouns, but would a bacteria, recognise a 'rock' as a thing? – Richard Jan 30 at 13:09
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I want to know if there's some philosophical approach that would explain (or rebate) the instinct of survival, or the tendency of things to keep existing. There should be an explanation to this yearning. Is there any?

The question was about instinct of survival, instinct wiki stipulates that

"Any behavior is instinctive if it is performed without being based upon prior experience (that is, in the absence of learning), and is therefore an expression of innate biological factors. "

So biology and more specifically evolution theory should hold the answers to that question. There are many misunderstandings around evolution theory. For instance the instinct of survival isnt the same as the tendency of things to keep existing.

Such phrasing:

I exist in order to exist, or I live in order for my species to continue existing, or I live in order to persist

could easily lead you into thinking in terms of purpose. But nature and evolution have no purpose.

The best books on the matter of evolution are the ones from Stephen Jay Gould. They are a collection of essays detailing the harduous buildup of evolution theory and the many pitfalls scientists met along the way. They easily classify as epistemology and philosophy. Once you can think about evolution straight, the issues of purpose & survival are easily dealt with.

  • I was tempted to add a disclaimer to anti-causality activists: causality, time, sequence, consequence, purpose, ergo, sum, philosophy (and your introduced evolution) etc. are all at the same level: rational. This terminology is not valid in quantum mechanics, but it is valid in philosophy. Purpose is one of the types of relationships that understanding is based upon. – RodolfoAP Jan 31 at 4:37
  • Regarding evolution theory, it describes the persistence mechanism (how), but it does not propose the reason (why), because it is scientific knowledge, not a philosophical proposal. Moreover, since we can't make a precise distinction between living and non-living entities (rocks can reproduce), we can't say that the evolution theory cannot follow the same rules as the persistence and evolution of matter. – RodolfoAP Jan 31 at 4:45
  • @RodolfoAP, by understanding the "how", you will understand the "why" or more precisely, the lack thereof. By understanding how survival instinct came to be, you will understand it's "purpose" or lack thereof. As for rocks they have nothing in common with survival. You specifically asked that your assumptions not be validated, trouble with that is that you are going in the wrong direction. – Manu de Hanoi Jan 31 at 5:54
  • As far as I know biology has no explanation for the will to survive. It depends on consciousness so is not an area of research available to sensory empiricism. Related to this is the manner in which evolution leads to an increase in complexity even though becoming more complex makes an organism more likely to break,. Stuart Kaufman presents this evolving complexity as a major issue in biology and suggests it is a very deep and profound problem. – PeterJ Jan 31 at 10:51
  • @PeterJ of course biology doesnt have any explanation for the will to survive.... because it doesnt exist. If however you were to look for the fear of death, you may see the hormones involved in fight or flight for exemple are known. – Manu de Hanoi Jan 31 at 12:15
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In Derrida's The Postcard, To Speculate--on "Freud", he refers to the Life Drive. This is the primal instinct that forms in every life form, and is so basic as to be deeply unconscious.

Derrida arrives at the Life Drive through a development of Freud's Death Drive and ends up relating it to Nietzsche's Will to Power.

All three are aspects of the basic survival instinct in various levels of depth, from the instinct of a seed to grow, to the instinct for a mind to solve problems and gain mastery of its environment.

More details here: https://philosophy.stackexchange.com/a/41100/5154

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Interesting question and answers. I agree with Manu de Hanoi that survival is hard-wired into our biology via evolution. However, I don't think I'd characterize evolutionary theory as philosophy, therefore, I'd answer your question NO.

It's interesting to note that much philosophical discourse governs questions related to killing other people and suicide. Is it OK to kill other people and, if so, under what conditions?

But it's hard to understand why philosophers would ponder the "need" to survive. They may ask WHY we exist, HOW life began and maybe even explore the meaning of life.

Descartes said "I think, therefore I am." We could almost paraphrase that - "We exist, therefore we survive."

On the other hand, people who are in great pain may wish to end their lives. Philosophers may then ask why such people should continue to live.

Your question makes more sense (to me) in this context. This type of question appears to lie primarily in the domain of religion, though it's also a common question in health care (e.g. people being kept alive artificially).

Similarly, if we want to focus on the survival of our species, then we face a paradox: our survival is jeopardized by our sheer numbers. This is another special context that has generated some philosophical discourse, though I can't cite any specific references.

  • 1) Descartes asserts existence, not persistence; 2) One of my own answers to the question is that we want to persist because we experience continuous pleasure (epicureanism). That would explain suicide. 3} Regarding overpopulation, it is the normal mechanism of nature. Overpopulation causes the appearance of predators to balance the ecosystem or discard overpopulators. We're not the only species that will go extinct. Just nature in action. – RodolfoAP Jan 31 at 4:58
  • 4) religion accepts unsustained belief. Not philosophy. That's what I ask for. – RodolfoAP Jan 31 at 5:04
  • @RodolfoAP - Item 4 is a generalisation.from the religion you know. If you studied it as a general phenomena you;d know this generalisation is incorrect. Be careful you don't throw the baby out with the bathwater. – PeterJ Jan 31 at 13:07
  • @RodolfoAP - "Overpopulation . . . is the normal mechanism of nature." So is survival. – David Blomstrom Jan 31 at 23:10
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Schopenhauer takes this as a central fact -- that life craves life and cultivates life. After him, Nietzsche refines it to reflect the wish is not just to exist, but to have control over one's world to some degree, either individually or as part of a collective. (People do die of purposelessness. Some lives are worse than death. But the kind that end in suicide or surrender do not seem to be about suffering, but about pointlessness, fear of being destructive, or other unsurpassed shame.)

But philosophies like Buddhism and Taoism or their Western versions based in the influence of the "pre-Socratics" influenced by the Stoic, Epicurean, Eleatic, or Cynical schools do not see this as a necessary thing, or a philosophically valuable position. We have no proof that this is necessary, good, or natural, only that we constantly observe it.

Descartes 'cogito' is a response, in form at least, to Augustine's 'Dubito ergo sum.' One aspect of this latter notion is that if we had no doubts about the good will of the universe (the existence of God for Augustine) we might not have an instinct toward survival. We might achieve the Stoic or Buddhist ideal and accept the value of whatever happened with equanimity, in complete trust. (Quakers put this in a Biblical context reconciling two directives that seem to be at odds as a way of becoming like little children while still having put away childish things. They opposed both striving and frivolity.)

A more modern version of this same thought flows through some versions of Existential Psychotherapy in the form "The will to survive is the fear of change". We are willing to risk things in proportion to how sure we can be that the result will be worthwhile. If we have total trust, we can willingly risk everything we know, and we do not need to cling to existence. Without a fear of change, we could ideally see our existence as just another fact. Then we could set aside the fear of death and act based on a broader perspective.

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