I've always toyed with philosophy but never really got into it. I know the basic ideas of the basic schools but never got past the freshman intro course level. However, lately I've been doing some independent thinking about the meaning of human existence, I guess you could say. Much of my conclusions stem from my training as a student of the natural sciences (although I am also philosophically skeptical of the scientific method).

Basically I have come to the belief that there is no free will, that knowledge is impossible (although I think there is some "truth", but it is improbable that we will ever find it, and if we do we most certainly won't know that we have found it), and that human existence has no inherent meaning. Now a natural question is, how is a person like me, who believes these things supposed to go on about their lives? What is a person to do without resorting to nihilism? I'm sure that there are philosophers that have attempted to tackle this problem? Can anyone point me in the direction of some texts relevant to this question? Thanks!

  • Are you looking for philosophers you would enjoy reading because they agree with your outlook or are you looking for philosophers who touch on this whether they agree with you or not? – virmaior Jun 15 '16 at 1:45
  • See Albert Camus. See also here. – Mauro ALLEGRANZA Jun 15 '16 at 7:41
  • @virmaior: Whether they agree or not. I'd like to be challenged on these beliefs. – Peter Jun 15 '16 at 16:30
  • You might find this question relevant: philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/8407/… I almost marked it as a duplicate, but it doesn't cover free will. – Chris Sunami Jun 15 '16 at 17:33
  • Read "Quantum Physics and Ultimate Reality: Mystical Writings of Great Physicists" editor Michael Green – Swami Vishwananda Jun 16 '16 at 9:13

How to proceed in a world with no inherent, external meaning is the central question of the philosophical movement we call Existentialism. Different "flavors" of it are often termed "Christian" (Kierkegaard, Dostoyevsky, Marcel), "atheistic humanist" (Sartre, de Beauvoir), "absurdist" (Camus) and "nihilist" (Nietzsche). (It's worth noting that, perhaps because of the existentialist contempt of labels, none of these thinkers would likely have embraced either the title "existentialist" or the secondary modifier applied to them --Nietzsche, for example, considered himself anti-nihilist.)

Existentialism, however, does not deny the existence of free will. For a Sartrean, for example, all that can really be said to exist is free will.

For the closest attempt at a direct answer to the problem that shares your assumptions, I would try Camus. His The Plague is a stunning fictional exploration of a group of people struggling to survive in a world of arbitrary fate and meaningless doom. If you prefer to be challenged in your assumptions, I would go with Kierkegaard instead (or possibly Ecclesiastes).

  • 1
    Thanks! From what I've read on Camus, it does seems like he asks very similar questions. However, to me it seems that there is some sleight of hand in his work, because he departs from what one might call a skeptical position only to arrive at certain normative conclusions. Isn't that somewhat contradictory? – Peter Jun 16 '16 at 14:57
  • @PeterFronček Most existentialism requires a certain level of tolerance for paradox and contradiction. Arguably, Camus' position is that you soldier on without any defensible justification for it. – Chris Sunami Jun 20 '16 at 15:49

It may be dense, and discussion is usually a very productive tool is engaging philosophy, but here are some good references that may help start you out.

Immanuel Kant begins transcendentalism which may be argued is a precursor to existentialism.

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel discusses Idealism and addresses the subject and object dualism. This sets the foundation for existentialism

Fredrick Nietzsche discussed Nihilism, and Determinism.

David Hume discusses human nature, which can related to engaging your determinism views

Martin Heidegger also discusses human nature from an alternative perspective.

I will try and revisit when I have some time to list some specific references for you.


Read some Richard Rorty. Maybe start with Contingency, Irony and Solidarity, or Philosphy and Social Hope. Tracts from which even a skeptical, postmodern, anti-realist, nihilist can squeeze meaning/purpose/hope. Moreover, he will introduce you to many of the the other philosophers mentioned in the other answers to your question. (Aside: Note that his "magnum opus" is Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature.)


I have never seen such a string of words! Skeptic, determinist, existentialist nihilist. You may be able to survive any one of these maladies, but as a combination it is particularly deadly. This is a philosophical emergency. You are already a nihilist.

Put all this in brackets to cast outside the area of being, this area label "chaos". Then you create an area of being with what is left. Being not as appearance that science generally deals with, but being you convey as human being. In other words, above mere things, you can give those things a superabundance of being. None of this is original to me but to Mircea Eliade in his "The Myth of the Eternal Return".

This book really completes Being and Time as Heidegger never could do. Once being is conveyed then you can establish an eternal return, even if it's only the seasons of the year.

The criticism of such eternal returns is that it can act to maintain the status quo, but if this wards off chaos it may be worth it as long as it does not get too rigid.

It's hard to be skeptical of this. If you are IT you are the God, go do it, maybe some other Gods will join you. Of course if you start hearing voices or anything like that, pull back a little bit, take a break you know.


I can't find a relationship between an understanding of natural sciences and the rejection of free will. Maybe there's something you're not saying.

Perhaps you feel that meaning comes to humans from an external, maybe even a divine source. Naturalism challenges this notion because it challenges the divine, by accepting reason as the source of knowledge.

I have never had such a conflict. I understand the meaning of life to come from within. Watch a mother embrace her child. Watch a doctor care for a patient. Watch a hunter kill and eat a deer. Watch a naturalist catalogue a new species. Watch yourself take a shower. Each and every human act has meaning, some greater some lesser, but it's always there. Everything you do has a purpose, as you struggle to thrive in a chaotic world largely beyond your control.

I could never understand why so many people need to look outside themselves for purpose. To me, we are overflowing with purpose.

The only people without purpose are those who do nothing because they are afraid. You gotta get out there and grab life with both hands and give it a good shake. You'll be so busy making decisions you won't have time to wonder if you have any purpose.

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