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The Echoes of Experience

Life propels us forward, but our learning journey is rooted in the past.

  • Writer's picturePatricio Ramal

The Existential Space: Can We Carve Our Own?

The Cosmic Calendar

Three and a half million years ago, our ancestors stood up and parted ways. Once we stood on two feet, our eyes were no longer fixated on the ground. Now, we were free to look up in wonder.

For the longest part of human existence, say the last 40,000 generations, we were wanderers, living in small bands of hunters and gatherers, making tools, controlling fire, and naming things. If we compress the history of the entire universe into one year, called the cosmic calendar, this all happened only within the last hour of the year.

We are but a speck of dust in the Cosmos.

We are so young on the time scale of the universe that we didn't start painting our first pictures until the last 60 seconds of the cosmic year, a mere 30,000 years ago.

And then, around 10,000 years ago, a revolution began in how we lived. Our ancestors learned how to shape their environment, taming wild plants and animals, cultivating land, and settling down.

This changed everything.

For the first time in our history, we had more stuff than we could carry, and we needed a way to keep track of it. It’s now 11:59 and 46 seconds, or about 6,000 years ago that we invented writing. It wasn't long before we started recording more than bushels of grain. Writing allowed us to save and send our thoughts much further in space and time. Tiny markings on a clay tablet became a means to vanquish mortality.

It’s humbling to imagine, but if we think this exact moment is the end of the year in the cosmic calendar, all of recorded history occupies only the last 14 seconds, and every person you've ever heard of lived somewhere there. All those kings and battles, migrations and inventions, wars and loves, everything in the history books happened here, in the last 14 seconds of the Cosmic Calendar.

Moses was born seven seconds ago, Buddha six seconds ago, Jesus five seconds ago, and Mohammed three seconds ago. It was not even two seconds ago that the two halves of the Earth discovered each other. And it was only in the last second of the Cosmic Calendar that we began using science to reveal nature's secrets and laws.

Our history, it seems, is still very, very young.


This passage is an abridged and slightly modified text from the opening episode of Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s TV series, Cosmos. Just that first episode is enough to humble anyone into the insignificance of our existence—one tiny planet in the vast and endless universe.

However, most of us don’t see our existence as insignificant—quite the contrary.

Because we take our existence seriously, finding purpose becomes important to our well-being. Even on the grand scale of things, our existence matters to us. We are present in space and time, even if it's just a minuscule fraction of a millisecond in the cosmic calendar.

In that short existence, day in and day out, we strive to carve out our existential space. As everyone on this journey can probably admit, this is much more complicated than it seems.

Carving the Existential Space

If we think about existential space as all the places we exist between our first and last breath, we can say that our lives equal our existence, our physical presence in the world. According to the definition, existence, as a noun, is the fact or state of living or having objective reality. 

Which begs the question: What is objective reality?

While these questions might escape the ordinary dictionary, they don’t escape philosophy. An entire field of study within philosophy is dedicated to this deceivingly simple question.

The exact definition of existence is one of the most fundamental topics of ontology, the philosophical study of the nature of being, existence, or reality in general. Traditionally listed as a part of the major branch of philosophy known as metaphysics, ontology deals with questions concerning what things or entities exist or can be said to exist and how such things or entities can be grouped, related within a hierarchy, and subdivided according to similarities and differences.

The simple becomes complex when we realize we exist in two dimensions: the physical and the psychological. We have a claim for both. Our needs require a certain physical space to live healthily. However, as conscious beings, we also require a psychological space. It’s easy to delineate the spaces in the physical world, even if we sometimes neglect them.

But the psychological world is different.

Our physical existence is insignificant compared to our psychological existence. No matter how strong or healthy we are, our physique is limited. I would argue that we exist mostly in the psychological world. This is why we search for meaning and are concerned with legacy. This is also why we stay connected and care for each other even if we live in another city or country. We are physically restricted, but it’s impossible to restrict our minds.

Now, that doesn't mean that our minds can't be influenced. Consider the following.

A study done by Solomon Asch called the Conformity Experiment set out to investigate the extent to which social pressure from a majority group could affect a person to conform. Using a line judgment task, Asch put a naive participant in a room with seven stooges. The stooges had agreed in advance what their responses would be when presented with the line task. The real participant did not know this and was led to believe that the other seven were also real participants like themselves.

Each person in the room had to state aloud which comparison line (A, B, or C) was most like the target line. The answer was always obvious. The real participant sat at the end of the row and gave his or her answer last. Asch measured the number of times each participant conformed to the majority view.

To his surprise and mine, on average, about one-third (32%) of the participants in this situation went along and conformed to the incorrect majority. Was it really clear that the answer was incorrect, you may ask?

Well, here is the image.

Solomon Asch's conformity experiment
Which line is the same size?

Or google Solomon Asch's conformity experiment and judge for yourself.

This is only one of many examples of studies on a distinct human behavior called social conformity. So why does the presence of others make some people behave differently? And what does social conformity have to do with existence?

Existence or Coexistence?

They say that no one is an island.

Most of our actions are based on or influenced by personal feelings, tastes, or opinions—what we call the subjective. However, as studies show, we are also influenced by the subjective and even false opinions of others. So, if we need others to thrive in the world, then the issue we need to figure out is not one about existence but coexistence.

These implications are the reason why subjectivity is one of the key topics in existentialism.

As the definition claims, we are not defined by the confines of an objective reality. Much of our existence is subjective. Navigating the world of the subjective is what finding purpose is about. Because our existential space isn’t just physical, there are infinite possibilities for purpose.

However, our mind is not alone in the world. It must accommodate itself with other minds, which are also fighting to exist. Coexisting in this hyper-connected world of endless information, social media, celebrities, and influencers, it’s easy to be caught in the subjectivity of others. Our technology has made our coexistence so intricate and present that it’s become difficult for us to think for ourselves. It is almost impossible to carve our unique existential space in this cacophony.

I think that’s what Jean-Paul Sartre was trying to say when he wrote at the end of his play “No Exit”:

“So this is hell. I’d never have believed it. You remember all we were told about the torture chambers, the fire and brimstone, the “burning marl.” Old wives’ tales! There’s no need for red-hot pokers. Hell is other people!”

There might be some truth to this.

Hell can be other people.

But only if you let them. 


Patricio Ramal

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