This question is based on the assumption that the information on Wikipedia on existential nihilism is correct.

I mean to question the validity the following text, quote:

Existential nihilism is the philosophical theory that our life has no intrinsic meaning or value. With respect to the universe, existential nihilism suggests that a single human or even the entire human species is insignificant, without purpose and unlikely to change in the totality of existence.

In particular the 2nd sentence:

With respect to the universe, existential nihilism suggests that a single human or even the entire human species is insignificant, without purpose and unlikely to change in the totality of existence.

With the first sentence I agree:

Existential nihilism is the philosophical theory that our life has no intrinsic meaning or value.

Let me first explain why I agree with the first sentence; I think meaning, value and purpose are subjective. In the literal sense: it requires a mind to exist. A mind that performs equations and information processing. So just living, without performing evaluations whether something is of value to you, someone else, an organism, the world, whatever, doesn't intrinsically have meaning.
To state a simple example: when I walk by a bill of €50, but I do not notice it, it has no value to me. Only when I see it, can I start performing the evaluation of what it is and what it means to me. To make it more clear: if I would not have any money at all anymore, and I haven't had any food for weeks, this €50 could mean the difference between life and death because I could buy food.

So on to the second part, which I question the validity of:

existential nihilism suggests that a single human or even the entire human species is insignificant

This cannot be stated as objectively true, as it also requires a mind to perform the evaluation of significance. Hence it requires a mind for the outcome to exist. Hence it cannot be suggested as fact whether the human species is insignificant or not, from the perspective of the universe, as the universe is incapable of performing such an evaluation, assuming the universe has no mind of its own. So if one would pose the question "what does a human mean for the universe?", than that question is actually invalid in my opinion. It is functionally not even possible to execute, because the universe cannot execute it. If the question is executed anyway, than it would be executed by a mind of a person, falsely concluding that a human is insignificant for the universe.

So is the conclusion correct that existential nihilism draws the false conclusion that humanity is insignificant?

  • 1
    I don't see the contradiction. "Insignificant" does not mean having a negative value or even a value of zero, but having no significance at all. This definition is consistent within nihilism, for which humanity has no value but in the eyes of humans. If there is no mind external to humanity to evaluate its significance, it has indeed no significance, and can be said to be "insignificant".
    – armand
    Dec 19, 2020 at 10:52
  • 2
    Assuming the universe has no mind of its own, and "meaning value and purpose" require a mind there are none of those "with respect to the universe". "Insignificance" is just a synonym for that, "without purpose". This is perfectly valid and no "evaluations" from any mind are required. Here is an analogy: to have fire we need to have fuel and we need it to react with oxygen, but if there is no fuel there is no fire regardless of availability of oxygen.
    – Conifold
    Dec 19, 2020 at 10:52
  • @mikedeklerk I have been stuck (maybe a knowledge gap for me?) on this idea too. I agree the second sentence does not look correct. The correct burden of proof would be to word "insignificance", their is no significance, not that life is insignificant.. and to say "unlikely to change" has no basis (how could we empirically verify a change of significance or purpose) ....--- The reason i struggle with my personal opposition to the second sentence is I do not understand where that leaves position on purpose.. in other words I can say what i know is wrong but not whats correct
    – Noah
    Dec 19, 2020 at 11:10
  • To understand it, I would recommend to read Camus short novel La Femme adultère, where the heroine experience an insight, when looking at stars at night in the desert, how much universe is indifferent to us (each personally) and what is an acute feeling to choose to live, knowing that truth.
    – ttnphns
    Jan 22, 2021 at 10:10

2 Answers 2


The inference from the first statement you cite to the second is not formally defined and can be viewed in various ways.

For example, if one "human life" has zero value, then no matter how many human lives we add up, all the way to the entire species, the collective value remains zero. However, the terms "intrinsic" and "meaning" and "suggests" all rescue the statement from such preposterous mechanics.

I think you are quite right, if I understand you. Meaning and value are generally relational terms and few philosophers today, I believe, would accord them some "intrinsic" status. One can state as an existentialist proposition that human lives have no "intrinsic" or essential value. But the shortcoming of an existential materialism or nihilism is that it has no grounds for universalizing such a claim.

Only a nihilistic idealism, or solipsism, might. If I can be mentally certain, cogito ergo nihil, that I have no value to "myself" and recognize that all experience and reasoning is in the end organized by "my mind," then perhaps I can arrive at the conclusion of universal meaninglessness via these dismal contortions.

This is the old paradox of a brain within the universe that is itself within a brain. A scientist can point to the material, quantitative vastness of the universe and the quantitatively speck-like appearance of human life within it. But, my goodness, what a gloriously meaningful thing that the scientist can organize and certify all this universality within her brain!


Of course a being has a local, contextual, subjective sense of their own significance. Existential nihilism is denying the idea of an objective, transcendental significance. We implicitly hold presence in the shared intersubjective space, to be 'real', and 'objective', and presence in all the intersubjective spaces we can imagine, to be transcendentally true or necessary.

I support the argument nihilism is not a positive assertion as an argument, but 'something that happens' to people, along the lines of Durkheim's idea of anomie. Existential nihilism is the null hypothesis, the sceptical default, and arguments against it need to reconcile with how our intuitions and assumptions about transcendental or universal values clearly don't make sense, and mislead us. They only express our mental parochialism, in regards to other ways to experience reality, using an argument by incredulity.

You make a familiar mistake in approaching nihilism as a positive hypothesis. It is not. Consider that if as well as being only local, personal or communal, a persons sense of what is significant can change in an instant, then by it there can be no timeless significance, it is purely changeable, and the word only a placeholder with no fixed or fixable content. The meaning shifts to being purely an opinion.

XKCD amended to include Nihilists

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