The Limits of Existentialism


One notion often associated with existentialism is the nihilist assumption that we live in a meaningless universe. This gets coupled with the idea that life has whatever meaning we assign it. A Christian assumption would be that the universe was created by God the creator. The Creator would have had his own purpose in giving rise to physical and mental reality. My favorite candidate for God’s purpose is that, knowing his true nature to be love, he sought to make this love manifest. The purpose of human existence is thus to learn to love in all circumstances. Our destiny is to live a moral life or suffer the consequences. All failure to love will meet with pain. In our search for happiness, we must grow and develop. Striving for happiness is reaching for perfection. The One gives rise to the Many and the Many strives to finds its Maker. Order is created out of disorder. Cosmic dust gives rise to stars which create planets and the miracle of life emerges. Dust becomes conscious, perhaps embodying a very low grade consciousness already, what Whitehead called ‘prehension.’ We see electrons behaving differently when being observed and when not being observed. The purpose of life is to strive for the perfection of our Maker. To suffer, grow and develop – becoming the perfect embodiment of love as is the Father.


Other characteristics of God, perhaps, to violate via negativa, are creativity, playfulness, humor, openness, caring, compassion and joy; maybe sorrow. Appropriate emotions of the created will include wonder, respect and awe. Hatred, disdain, contempt, disgust, ostracism, scapegoating, including the scapegoating of supposed scapegoaters, misery and depression, are human emotions and tendencies that are counter-productive to the human endeavor.

The meaning of life is best viewed from the perspective of the deathbed.

The Sartre-style existentialist claims to know that we live in a meaningless, Godless, universe with no moral structure. This is a very despairing perspective. Depression, nihilism and suicide would seem to be appropriate responses to this scenario.

Sartre instead claims to find this situation liberating. We have the freedom to decide what meaning the universe has, since it has no pre-given meaning of its own. But this kind of freedom would imply that all meanings are equal. There can be no question of being right or wrong, no better or worse. You can’t be closer or further away from the truth, when it comes to meaning, because there is no meaning.

Oddly, the existentialist often subscribes to the notion of determinism; the denial of freedom. The underground man in Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground complains that modern science pictures man as the keys on a piano pressed by an external source. A perfected science and psychology will find man to be perfectly predictable in his rational egoism. The underground man expresses his intention to act in a totally self-destructive manner if this is what it takes to assert his independence from a science-generated determinism, just to regain his freedom. This has led some people to assert that Dostoevsky himself was an existentialist. This delusion is only possible if one completely misunderstands what Dostoevsky was doing. The underground man is a seething pool of resentment. He is not a model. He is not to be admired. He is sick and the exact nature of his sickness is made clear in part two of Notes from Underground which is precisely the part omitted in existentialist sampler texts such as Walter Kaufman’s Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre. The underground man sees in the Other a god. He desires the being of this Other. His hatred for Zverkov and for the officer combines a desire to merge and be one with them along with the bitterest attacks and resentment stemming from this thwarted love. As René Girard points out, what confuses the critics is that Dostoevsky is obviously sympathetic with this desire not to be a key on a keyboard pressed by an other – objective, scientific forces. Me, too. But that only involves rejecting determinism and the fantasy of scientific omniscience. Reading anyone from Nassim Nicholas Taleb to William James should dispel the latter.

Regarding determinism I have written much. To summarize a few points, if determinism is true, then we have no choice whether to agree with it or not, how to live our lives, or anything else. If determinism is true then love doesn’t exist because love can’t exist without freedom. We can’t assign meaning to our lives because this assigning is not ‘we,’ but objective, immutable forces.

To me, the classic incoherent existentialist pose is to announce one’s agreement that determinism is true and that life is meaningless and to shake one’s fist at the universe as a whole in defiance. I strongly suspect that this fist shaking is supposed to excite the admiration of one’s audience. Look at him! How bravely he acts in the face of what should be despair. He will assign life his own meaning; except, of course, this makes no sense. If all my thoughts and actions are determined, then my fist shaking is also determined. My ‘rejection,’ is determined and not a matter of free will.

The existentialist sees freedom in the death of God. Without God, the universe has no God-given meaning. Life has no predetermined meaning, so Man gets to give it his own. One has to overlook, just for some minimal concession to making any kind of sense, the existentialist’s acceptance of determinism.

The existentialist sees a vacuum where once was a God and seeks to fill the void with himself. He will give the universe the meaning he assigns it. The existentialist gets to play God. But just for himself. He’ll be his own God.

If existentialism is so confused and so delusory, why does anyone succumb to it? Like many other philosophical stances, it contains a grain of truth. The grain is that free will does exist – implicitly assumed but often explicitly denied by the existentialist. We are free to believe whatever we want about the meaning of life, including bumper sticker absurdities like ‘He who dies with the most toys wins.’ We can decide the purpose of life is to spread misery and destruction and anything else we choose.

But, I would argue, this freedom includes the freedom to be wrong. If there is no fact of the matter regarding the meaning of life. If there is no fact of the matter concerning value; if morality is not real; if values have no objective existence, then our decisions about the meaning of life are meaningless and arbitrary. Better and worse don’t exist.

It’s only in the context of moral realism, for instance, that we can determine that the existentialist who decides that the meaning of life is to kill as many innocent people as possible, is making a serious mistake.

With regard to Wilber’s four quadrants, the existentialist focuses on the subjective quadrant. There is objective reality. There is inter-objective reality – the social. There is inter-objective reality – the cultural. Language is a cultural artefact. It is communal in nature and so are the meanings of words. The choices we make are the choices available to us. The choices we are capable of thinking of. The choices that are socially available to us from the models we are familiar with. There is a physical and cultural and metaphysical reality. How we choose to think about these realities is influenced by those realities and we in turn can exert a little bit of influence back. While our circumstances are largely given, how we choose to think about them is up to us within a particular context. Certain possibilities are closed off for social or cultural reasons. We can’t be Daniel Boone anymore, a Native American hunter, or a builder of Egyptian pyramids.


I once had an officemate who hated the notion that life had meaning. Thinking that the endpoint was some kind of moral perfection, even though moral perfection is scarcely conceivable, he found oppressive. But to say that life has meaning is in some respects just admitting that there are physical and metaphysical realities that exist regardless of how we think of them. If God exists and God created the universe, then the universe IS one way and not another. The only way to avoid this state of affairs is for God to fail to create reality at all. And even if God did not create the universe, the universe STILL just IS one way and not another if the universe exists. Either objective value exists, regardless of our personal opinions on the subject, or not.

Another aspect of truth that the existentialist may be tapping into is our state of doubt and uncertainty about the nature of objective value and meaning. We are in the situation of having to make our best guess, including whether to accept certain religious directives or not. Where they are wrong is in thinking you can’t be wrong! And, in fact, the fact that we can be wrong regarding the meaning of life is what makes trying to determine this meaning meaningful.

Existentialism tends to be particularly attractive to young people because they are in the process of establishing their identities as separate from their parents. In this context, existentialism certainly makes one’s apparent range of choices seem as wide as possible. However, by denying the existence of any metaphysical realities underlying these choices, existentialism implies a nihilism and meaningless to the search, leading to the pathology of cynicism, closing you off to the world before one has even had the chance to experience it.

The idea of Wilber’s quadrants is to encourage one to focus on more than just one’s favorite quadrant. The quadrants are to act as a corrective; substituting more complete truths for partial truths. It’s not a question of abandoning one’s favorite quadrant, but of supplementing it with considerations one might otherwise be tempted to ignore. Partial truths can turn into big lies. Biological reductionism is the result of looking just at the upper right quadrant. Social constructionism focuses exclusively on the lower left. Existentialists tend to ignore both. It’s not life that is necessarily absurd, but their own inadequate perspective.

Richard-Cocks2Richard Cocks teaches philosophy with key interests in ethics, metaphysics and consciousness from Platonic, Christian and Buddhist perspectives, with an especial interest in canonical works of Western Civ.

7 Replies to “The Limits of Existentialism”

  1. […] A God for an Existentialist Please? […]

  2. This article was a really interesting read for me. I’ve thoroughly explored these existential concepts for years and reached a lot of conclusions recently. It was refreshing to see an analysis coming from an outside perspective. I had a lot of thoughts as I read, and I figured some might be worth sharing.

    I believe meaning and morality are subjective. I believe that free will does not exist. So yes, I am absolutely the type of person you are describing, and yes, these existential realizations have been empowering for me. However, your conclusion that having an existential/ nihilistic outlook provides an inadequate perspective on life is inaccurate, at least in my case. Certain people who adopt this outlook cloud totally fall into the mental traps you describe, but it is not the outlook itself that causes this. Falling into these traps is entirely dependent on the individual.

    For instance, meaning and morality are subjective. You bring up the existentialist who decides that the meaning of life is to kill as many innocent people as possible. Well in an objective sense, he is not morally wrong, but obviously if everyone adopted this behavior, mankind wouldn’t be around for very long. While subjective concepts might not be true in an absolute sense, they are still relevant to my life. The survival of humanity seems like a basic concept that I should care about. My life depends on it. Since meaning and morality are subjective, I can freely assign them to this concept and apply it to how I live. The difference between me and the mass murderer existentialist is that I have allowed myself to value a subjective concept even though I know there is no absolute truth behind it. I define my reality in a way the betters my life and the lives of others around me.

    Free will is another big concept. The way I see it, we act the way we do because we are who we are. Our identities define the decisions we make. We don’t possess some supreme decision making capacity divorced from the qualities that define us. One could take this information and fall into hopelessness, but there are other ways to handle it. If I want to enjoy my life, and the decisions which determine my happiness are defined by my identity, then I must expand my perspective to include as many things as possible and allow it to shape my identity. You say that this life outlook, provides inadequate perspective, but for me it provides the desire to gain more perspective. The lack of free will is a wake-up call. Instead of relying on some nonexistent internal compass to guide me, I realize that I am just a human being largely defined by the experiences I have had. My current perspective could be flawed and the only way to correct it is to get outside of myself.

    This outlook is empowering to me, not because I get to play God. I have no interest in stroking my ego. I care about truth and living a fulfilling life. That’s it. Now that I have found a few grains of truth in this subjective world, I am using them to improve my life.

    Anyway, I just wanted to provide some thoughts from the nihilistic perspective.

    Thanks for writing this article. I think anyone exploring these existential concepts could really benefit from reading it.

  3. I find the idea that we can somehow live life without experiancing it to be something of a leading conclusion. You really want to say “Praise the lord of love and light” but instead you end up saying something along the lines of “existentialism is not very satisfying by itself and gets in the way of experiencing all the satisfying things”

    You seem to want to reject the immediate access people have to their own sensations, to their information about the world that they can deduce and reports of other peoples sensations, and I just don’t see how you can do that without saying or being committed to saying something along the lines of Existentialism is a disease akin to depression.

    I think perhaps a pathology of cynicism would be a help to you in this, because you would have to pin down whether cynical people are naturally sabotaging themselves (aka are actually pathological) or just realistic about their prospects and the prospects for the meanings and structures they use in daily life.

  4. Emiliano Heyns says: Reply

    What kind of nonsense strawman is this? “Oddly, the existentialist often subscribes to the notion of determinism; the denial of freedom.” and then proceed to dismiss existentialism because of the company a subset of its proponents keep? The questions of the existence of God, the existence of meaning in the universe and determinism do perhaps have overlapping interests but are clearly distinct questions nonetheless, and should be examined as such. If your conclusion that existentialism + determinism is confused, this says *nothing* about either as of yet. Refresh your Quine.

  5. Thomas F. Bertonneau says: Reply

    Andrew Nack writes: “We act the way we do because we are who we are”; and “our identities define the decisions we make.” These are neither explanations nor even descriptions of anything. They are tautologies in which two terms bounce back and forth, exchanging places forever and consequently never getting anywhere. It is implicit in Richard Cocks’ argument that tautological pendulation is exactly where someone must end up who begins with the premise of determinism, or, as Nack puts it, that everything is “entirely dependent on the individual.”

    Notmyname writes: “I find the idea that we can somehow live life without [experiencing] it to be something of a leading conclusion.” However, Professor Cocks never argues this; he argues the opposite – that it is impossible to live life without experiencing it whole remarking at the same time that the modern strand of Existentialism, typified by Sartre’s Existentialism, accepts a materialistic reductionism that in no way differentiates itself from crude determinism. The conclusion that determinism excludes consciousness and that it therefore also excludes free will and any notion of meaning is an inescapable one.

    Emiliano Heyns writes that the Professor has articulated his argument around a “nonsense straw man,” but as the responses to Nack and Notmyname show, the Professor’s logic is sound whereas the “logic” of those who deny consciousness, free will, and meaning is irreparably flawed.

    1. Hey Thomas. I can definitely see how my simple statement of, “We act the way we do because we are who we are,” appears to be tautological. For the sake of simplicity I reduced my explanation to state that did not include any of my reasoning behind it. I’ll provide some more information regarding this.

      Free will comes down to the point of making a decision. With free will, the will has the power to make a decision independent of external forces. The issue here is that the information relevant to making any decision comes from within the mind associated with the will. You could see this mind as material, a brain. Or you could see it as partially or completely divorced from the material realm. It really doesn’t matter. The mind still has properties that define it, and these properties provide the will with the necessary information to reach a decision. When I use the term, properties, I refer to memories, tendencies, desires, and everything that makes a person who they are. In essence, the identity of a person cannot be reduced to a fundamental idea. It is a complex one composed of these properties.

      For example, let’s look at a few hypothetical properties.

      -I am addicted to marijuana.

      -I am upset with the negative effects this addiction is having on my life.

      Now a let’s look at a hypothetical situation using these properties. I am deciding whether or not to smoke marijuana tonight. My addiction is a force that compels me to smoke. My dissatisfaction with the effect this drug is having on my life is a force that compels me not to smoke. My will is the decider. If my addiction overpowers my dissatisfaction, then I smoke. If the reverse is true, then I don’t smoke. What effect does my will have on this decision? It does not supply the forces. It is simply the capacity to pick the strongest force. Research into the nature of consciousness does indicate that one of the basic functions of consciousness is too disambiguate in a mind filled with a wide variety of sometimes conflicting information. It is basically a mediator.

      I hypothesize that the illusion of free will stems from the fact that we can’t consciously comprehend every property of our mind. We don’t know precisely where the forces of our mind come from, so we wrap them up in this abstract concept of will. But what is will other than the capacity to make a decision? Also, since the properties of our identity make up who we are, we feel their forces coming from within ourselves. These forces are included in our concept of our identity and do not feel external. But free will isn’t a matter of forces external to the self. It is a matter of forces external to will, which is merely a single concept within the entire concept of identity.

      So when I say, “We act the way we do because we are who we are,” it is my way of summing up this entire concept in a single sentence. I’m curious to hear your thoughts this line of reasoning.

  6. Thanks for reading the article and responding, Andrew. In reply to your second comment, I would say that you have set up what’s called the self-sealing fallacy. With statements of fact, one can describe a possible circumstance where the fact would be wrong. Husein Bolt is currently the fastest 100 meter sprinter in the world. This is a fact. It would be wrong if someone else were the fastest. You have indicated that determinism is true and free will is false. Under what counterfactual circumstance would you consider free will to be true? If your answer is, none, then you are postulating a tautology and not a fact. Real facts allow of counterfactual possibilities, whereas statements like ‘All bachelors are unmarried men’ admit of no exceptions and are thus tautologies.

    When you say “The mind still has properties that define it, and these properties provide the will with the necessary information to reach a decision. When I use the term, properties, I refer to memories, tendencies, desires, and everything that makes a person who they are,” you seem to be saying that because I have a mind with certain properties I don’t have free will. If the fact that I am some way and not another means I don’t have free will, under what hypothetical conditions would free will in fact exist? If none – then, as I say, we are in the land of tautologies, not facts.

    Will is not merely responding to the stronger force. Will is at times amenable to reason and logic, not merely force. In fact, so-called will power often involves resisting strong urges for rational reasons.Consciousness is necessary to improvise when rule-following is inadequate, that’s why pre-programmed deterministic machines are not properly intelligent. The machine can only follow the rule but because life is unpredictable at times, consciousness is necessary. That, it seems, is the reason consciousness exists. Some of our actions are rule-following and pre-programmed and some respond to novelty and our response is likewise novel. If we apply Ken Wilber’s four quadrants to human consciousness, then there is a biological component; hormones, brain function and the like. A social component – we live within some set of facts about society that are measurable. A cultural component which is intersubjective, that includes the language we use to think and the meanings of words. And finally, our personal take on the subject at hand and we make our decision sometimes actively rejecting and resisting the other three quadrants. Sometimes, for example, when I drink coffee (biological quadrant) it makes me emotionally over-reactive. I try to take this into account.

    Social constructivists may say that our ideas concerning men and women, for example, are cultural constructs. We just make them up and they are simply invented by a culture with no basis in reality. We are victims of these inventions. Yet the person saying this clearly has other ideas. She has her OWN idea about what it means to be a woman and thus her ideas are not merely cultural constructs as she claims. She is wishing to be an exception to her own rule. In fact, being male or female is partly biological, partly social (what jobs are available) and partly cultural (what does it mean to be male or female) and partly one’s own idiosyncratic take on the matter. Free will exists here in the so-called subjective quadrant. You are evaluating my argument with a biological response, drawing on ideas derived from culture but if you are not free to rationally evaluate my arguments on their merits, then no one is talking with nobody. This is a pointless exercise in rule-governed behavior.

    In reply to your first comment, we fundamentally disagree about morality. If the psychopathic killer is not morally wrong, then morality doesn’t exist. If you actually thought that, that would make you a psychopath too. Someone on reddit called me a psychopath for believing that goodness actually exists and wanting to impose my morality on the world. Actually, many psychopaths/sociopaths think that morality does not exist and that when we seem to be caring about the well-being of other people we are just pretending, just like them.

    When you say “I define my reality in a way the betters my life and the lives of others around me,” you are actually claiming to be a morally good person, but condoning the evil of the psychopath is evil. The people who made up the nonsense about moral relativism never intended you to tolerate evil. Moral relativists consider it wrong to rank one moral perspective as better than another. But by thinking not ranking is better than ranking, they are still ranking, thus they contradict themselves. The more they despise ranking, the more categorically they are rejecting their own edict.

    To Notmyname, I concur with Thomas Bertonneau. I am expressly worried about people rejecting experiences through an excess of cynicism. I think cynicism is a self-fulfilling prophecy and that it is thus self-sabotaging as you mention. I don’t want people rejecting their access to the world or their own sensations. That sounds terrible. I met some cynical teenagers when I was little and have used them as my anti-role models ever since! Wonder, curiosity and finding people you can rely on sounds much more appealing. Cynicism and disillusionment is an understandable reaction to the hardships of life but are probably a temptation best avoided.

    To Emiliano Heyns, I am criticizing a version of Existentialism that involves all three things you mention as its defining characteristics. If you take away the Existentialist’s rejection of God, a belief in determinism and the notion that life has whatever meaning we assign it, then I’m out of objections. A universe created by God with a God-assigned meaning in which we have free will – if that is someone’s Existentialist position, Kierkegaard perhaps, then I have no quarrel with that person. I can refute determinism all by itself, but I can’t do everything at once in one short essay.

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