The Existential Maze: Values, Meaning and The Absurd
  • Last updated on 19th Jul 2023

Note: This is based on a draft I wrote back in 2018, while “coming to terms with the world” in my mid-20s, but I never actually published it. My views are still the same, but I disliked the style of the writing. So this is a heavily revised, and I believe, significantly improved version of the draft I have been sitting on for a long time.

In this post, I summarize my thoughts and views on multiple connected topics living in the realm of philosophy. Nothing said here is new or original in any way, but it is a personal conclusion of my own journey through the maze many others have walked through at some point of their lives, on a personal years-long quest of finding satisfying answers.

Narratives Everywhere, Yet Not a Drop of Meaning

Existing is usually a messy and busy process. Most living beings, including humans, must spend most of their time making sure that their basic needs are met, because if nothing else, we are hard-wired for survival. For most, there simply is not enough room to stand still, reflect, and ponder the “big questions”.

We often ask “why” assuming that there must be a clear and correct answer, because we are conditioned to expect that – when we were children, the whole world was packaged up for us into some neat, straight-forward narrative that we were spoon-fed since we can remember. We all start out with a very simplified black-and-white world view, but ideally, over the course of our life, the picture is refined and enhanced by more and more shades of grey, and possibly colors and shapes we could not comprehend or see before.

For the most part, the following things are all different variations of the same: education, nudging, praise and condemnation, propaganda and indoctrination. All socialization and cultivation can be considered as various types of mental programming we are subjected to throughout all of our lives - the main difference between the methods is mostly in who is doing it, to whose benefit, whether it is voluntary or not, and the intensity and type of force that is applied to achieve the desired result. A human society is held together using a combination of these methods. Ideally, with the goal to create cohesion, harmony, and a common ground for the benefit and flourishing of everyone. Grand narratives and ideas provide meaning and purpose, as well as values to orient our actions in some (hopefully) fruitful and beneficial direction.

In a rare moment of stillness and introspection, we occasionally dare to ask a “big” philosophical question with personal relevance, such as:

  • why do I exist? (metaphysics)
  • what defines me? (ontology)
  • how should I live? (ethics)
  • what is the purpose of it all? (teleology)

There are answers abound to all the “whys” and “hows” that come with the human condition. Every society has a densely weaved net of narratives to catch a lost soul who got sucked into these “scary” issues, and often this poor soul is happily pacified with the answers provided by (depending on the society and person):

  • their culture
  • their religion
  • their government
  • their favorite YouTube guru
  • their favorite best-selling “life philosophy” book

Someone will quickly tell us what to do and what not to do. Someone will eagerly tell us that these guys are good, and those are bad. The bad ones are those who do X. Well, the good guys also do X, but this is something completely different. In general, doing X is pretty bad. It is bad, because it leads to Y. Why Y is considered bad? Because (pick one ultimate discussion-killing argument):

  • since ancient times Y is considered to be bad, in any culture, so it must be true!
  • brave people gave their life to make sure you never have to experience Y!
  • every sane person can feel that doing Y is wrong!
  • the almighty says so in the holy writing, it is not for us to understand!
  • how dare you even ask this question?
  • it is obvious! Are you stupid?

A whole marketplace of narratives to lure all those thirsty for clear answers, claiming to provide a solid ground under your feet, orientation and comfort in the chaotic maze that is existence, and bring them back on track.

At least on some track. But where is that track going? If you do not think for yourself, others will do the thinking for you, and it often will not be with your interests in mind. So sadly, many narratives are dishonest and are based on emotional manipulation, instead of solid and convincing arguments. As many people are unable or unwilling to distinguish reasonable (i.e. coherent, reasoning-based) from unreasonable (i.e. irrational or unfounded) narratives or views, this is a massive problem. But I digress – this is not a post about lack of (education on) critical thinking skills, or the dangers of populism, fundamentalism, conspiracies and cults.

For some time I have been diving into and exploring branches of philosophy concerned with issues like the ones metioned above. I was reading (and trying to understand) SEP articles and trying to find a satisfying answer to the quarter-life crisis questions that were haunting me at that time, such as:

  • A human life is short – what is a life well lived?
  • Who and what deserves how much of my empathy and compassion?
  • Am I a good-enough person?

all of which points into the very wide territory of ethics, and often intersecting with metaphysics. Once I already dug deep into ethics, I also wanted to finally better understand emotionally and morally loaded political issues such as:

  • who and why decided about what is considered “basic human rights”?
  • who and why decided what kind of war is “just” and what kind of war is not?
  • who and why defines a conflict faction as “good rebels” or “bad terrorists”?

For both kinds of questions, both the personal existential kind as well as the higher-level and political kind, after lots of reading and running in circles, the result was a creeping and silent acceptance of the truth that is rarely said out loud, because it is inconvenient, scary, or often both.

The Truth about Values

The uncomfortable truth is simple, but hard to digest. To truly accept it, is to finally let go, and give up any further “existential search”. The very human nature revolts against accepting the fact that

all conceptions of value, meaning and purpose, without any exceptions,

are either evolved (and therefore not absolute or objective),

or artificially crafted (and therefore have an agenda).

It is so hard to accept this because everyone wants to be validated in their actions, to rest assured that there is a nice reference measure stick to check against, even if it is mostly invisible. Everyone wants to feel good about achievements and choices, their life and lifestyle.

Most people might find this stance intuitively appalling, maybe even accuse me of nihilism, but in fact, nothing could be further from the truth. I did not change or abandon any of my actual views on anything. I do have a strong moral intuition of what is good and what is bad. What I was looking for was some justification and approval for my already existing views, from some more “objective” point of view, which is not yet another personal or popular opinion. What I realized over time was that I was looking for a mirage.

It started to dawn on me that foundations of ethics are almost as shaky and arbitrary as theological attempts at proving the existence of god. While it seemed dubious to me from the start, I found it increasingly difficult to take moral realism seriously as a view1. Any school of ethics - deontological or teleological or anything else, once taken to the extreme, suffers from certain edge cases that are either very counter-intuitive or undesirable. But if a system of rules can consistently produce absurd consequences, this cannot be a solid foundation to rely on.

If there was at least a system of ethics comparably solid to Newtonian mechanics – in its scope, explanatory power and practicality – I might have a different opinion. But as it stands, all I have seen are various concepts and ideas, all with some good arguments and some very weak spots. As I learned, philosophy is really bad at providing an answer to anything, but it is often good at suggesting many possible answers, and ask many more even more complicated questions.2

The Value of Truths

I am not an ethical nihilist (i.e. the view “ethics is not real in the same way physics is, so it does not matter”). Nihilism is an infantile, black-and-white point of view, akin to the emotional and rebellious teenager who took the first step – deconstructing a concept – but not the second – which is rebuilding something new from the ashes. Some discover and accept the emptiness of the world, but never learn to move past the discovered void – these are in danger of either becoming depressed or turn into horrible and cynical people. Some are too scared or too lost, and hurry back into the safety of their familiar narratives, if they can – these are in danger of becoming narrow-minded conservative people, because they need to hold on tightly to their stories. Otherwise, they fear, they (and the world) would fall back into the abyss. But there are other ways forward and out of this hole, though.

I hold the pragmatic view of moral fictionalism (i.e. “ethics are a useful fiction, so let’s continue to pretend it is real”). While all ethics is constructed, it exists because it helped human societies to survive longer and better, so it is useful to invent categories such as good and bad, and strongly associate them with emotions. All unwritten rules, views and judgements, beliefs and tradition, are a huge cultural achievement and cultural heritage of humanity. These mechanisms help to organize large groups of people and help us create what we call “civilization”. Some rules and judgements are eventually codified into actual written and enforced law, when we consider them important and uncontroversial enough. In fact, I consider written law to be “solidification of values”, like water turning to ice.

For certain situations and actions there exists an almost universal consensus on what is “right and wrong” or “good and bad”. Most will agree that stealing and damaging property, hurting and killing people is bad. Yet, the real world is mostly a place of grey moral ambiguity. Situations are often too complex to have a clear, unquestionable judgement. The ambiguity is very handy for the people playing the game of big politics. While national politics in “civilized countries” is governed by law, international politics is, by necessity, a mostly hypocritical and amoral game of chess and utility maximization (ideally - for the benefit of a society, or worse - for its ruling class or elite), where “values” are weaponized, shaped, turned and twisted into the shape needed to (de-)mobilize people.

But even though I ultimately think that values are ultimately relative, it does not change anything about the fact that I can and do feel strongly about my values, and still believe that there are principles to live by, and if needed, worth to risk dying for. But what does my emotional attachment to value judgements ultimately express? Of course nothing but a personal preference. And I grant everyone the right to judge others and their actions based on their values, because that is what values are for – expressing our desires on how we want to live as a society and trying to instill those values into others.

The red line is crossed if the values or narratives of others unreasonably endanger or restrict my own freedom. But this exactly is what a pluralistic and democratic society is – a system to enable the free expression of others, while at the same time protecting opposing groups from each other. A free society with liberal values is in no way natural or obviously superior – people holding these views must promote, fight and defend this world view, or be crushed by more aggressive value systems. But this is essentially what Karl Popper argued for in his famous “The Open Society and Its Enemies”3.

Relativism Requires Rational Reasoning

Even though I reject any notion of fully objective or unquestionably correct ethical views, and thus qualify as a certain kind of “moral relativist”, certainly there are ideologies and societies that I believe to be abhorrent. There are also societies that I can respect, but I would not want to live by their rules and prefer not to live in such a society. Within the wide spectrum spanning from liberal to conservative views on a multitude of social dimensions there are many ways to organize a society which (I can imagine) can be stable, functional and make the members overall content with their lives, even if their principles and ideas of life and happiness might not align with mine.

By not being able to express that something is “objectively” bad, nothing of actual significance is lost. It is rather just consequent application of Ockham’s razor to ethical reasoning. In practice, what is moral is defined by those with either the better marketing or the bigger weapons anyway. Appealing to a higher, metaphysical and unquestionable authority, or some truth of ineffable nature does not change any human social dynamics, because humans do not even agree on what in fact such a truth or authority would look like – making the whole “ultimate argument” circular. Pushing the foundational justifications into the metaphysical, spiritual or emotional territory is simply bad and lazy argumentation (or actually, lack thereof).

Yes, maybe I cannot say that “fascism is objectively wrong” because I don’t believe in objective morality, but do I need to? Just like atheists can live ethical lives, I can also rationally come to the conclusion and argue that, for various reasons and according to many reasonable metrics, fascism is a pretty bad ideology. Or that murdering people is not a smart thing to generally allow. At least, assuming that we can agree that the goal is to build a flourishing and sustainable society. Giving up any pretense about having some “moral high-ground” (secular, spiritual or otherwise) just means being honest, open and transparent. It simply means not resorting to cheap tricks whenever we have no convincing justification for our strong opinion.

If everyone would be transparent about their deepest unfounded beliefs, the “ethical axioms” and “value preferences” they derive all their judgements from, then we could have an actual discussion about values, and maybe, sometimes, even convince each other. Ethics is just politics with different means, and politics is about arguments, compromises, and finding a mutually acceptable common ground. We have an innate ability for empathy and reason - this is all we have, and it is all we need. Our moral intuitions neither have to come from some ephemeral “out there”, nor do there needs to be just one “correct” answer.

I think that very much of what I strongly believe to be “good” can be justified and argued for mostly based on empirical processes and rational considerations, instead of hiding behind a lazy semi-spiritual and emotionally loaded veil. If there is any objectivity at all in social values and morality, then it is the objectivity of having the facts – scientific and historical – on your side, and this is the solid foundation on which different views should compete.

The Evolution of Meaning

Values and meaning are closely related. We usually experience events and actions as meaningful if they are positive according to the value system we and our social environment is using. If what we do is valued by others and considered to be good (a good deed, or good work), we get praise and validation, which makes our actions feel meaningful to us. Thus, meaning makes us feel good.

Just as I believe that morality is a useful by-product of the evolution of human societies, the same can be said about any concept of meaning. Meaning exists only inside of some semantic framework. This framework can be given either implicitly by the consensus of the surrounding society, or explicitly by religious and non-religious belief and value systems. But all these are dynamically created and maintained. The continuous battle between the so-called political left and right, between liberalism and conservativism, is in the end nothing else but a continuous feedback loop for the adjustment of the mutation rate of the value system a society runs on.

While tradition (“we always did it like this!”) is a useful vehicle to retain successful patterns, it can lead into dead ends. If the conditions change, the old patterns don’t fit anymore and lead the society into a dysfunctional state. So we need the forces of progress (“enough is enough, we need change!”) that try to update and adjust the inertial course of a society, but not too violently, as a new untested path might also lead into a bad direction. A good balance of these two forces is what makes a successful society, i.e. ideally one where happiness and welfare are increasing.

We modify, abandon or introduce values in societies all the time. There are many examples that even on the time scale of just one generation the values can shift quite dramatically. Religious beliefs also adjust and adapt in the same way. Clearly, no religion is now the same as a thousand years ago (only fundamentalist sects like to pretend that they are). All societies, just like living things, struggle for survival and need to adapt their shared beliefs and practices to an ever-changing environment.

With this evolutionary picture in mind, I think it becomes clear that having more than one kind of society is probably a good idea. Just like it is good for a population to have a diverse gene pool, some societies and values work better than others for a given set of social and environmental circumstances. Both politics and ethics can be very context-dependent affairs, so it is quite helpful to have more than one possible answer (and thus, (re)action) available at a time, at least if looking from the point of view of all humanity.4

Dealing with the Absurdity of the Human Condition

We live inside the matrix of the values we hold on to, which infuses our actions with meaning and guides our actions like a force field. The quest for “purpose” is then essentially just asking the same questions as before, but on a longer time scale – such as a whole human life. Most of us crave for purpose and meaning in our lives.

  • In retrospect, it provides justification: “What I did was good and right”
  • In the outlook, it provides motivation: “I want to do what is good and right”

Yet, on closer inspection, the whole notion of “purpose”, as typically understood, is presupposing a lot of metaphysical baggage. Looking for your true purpose sounds very much like looking for your one true love – naive romantic and idealistic ideas from grand social narratives we are used to hear over and over.

Yet, at least to the best of our scientific knowledge, we are not existing for any specific reason or purpose. We just randomly happened to be here, and the world likewise just happened to be in the condition we find it in, however unsatisfying this may be. Not only are we here without a reason, it also does not matter what we do with our life, and it can end just as suddenly and unexpectedly as it started. It happens all the time – people have accidents or get sick and, sadly, die. Even if there ever was a point to our experiences, we have no way to know, and only time will tell whether we, our actions and our very being, actually left any lasting mark on the world.

Some bitter irony is hidden in the fact that many mediocre and unremarkable people will be remembered for a long time, while many truly exceptional people will be quickly forgotten. We never get to see the whole effect our life had on the world – the sum of the myriad little ways how we affected our environment and others, in good and in bad ways. Life is this: popping into existence, doing and feeling some things, then vanishing back into oblivion. Was it good, did we succeed? This is only up to us to decide. This is existentialism in a nutshell. In Sartres words: “existence comes before essence” – as all meaning is constructed, the only meaning and purpose that should matter to us, the essence of our being, is the one we define for ourselves.

There is the central notion of the absurd in the work of Albert Camus. The absurd is manifested in the futile and almost comical human drive to search for meaning in an uncaring and indifferent universe. The absurd is experienced whenever our inner universe of narratives and meaning violently clashes with the chaotic and often cruel world.

Camus thought that there are three main ways to deal with the absurdity of existence, the aching and unfillable hole of meaning: (actual) suicide, philosophical suicide or rebellion. What he calls philosophical suicide is choosing to accept some belief system as real, quickly shove all uncomfortable truths and the absurd under a rug, and never look there again, i.e. delude yourself, consciously or unconsciously. Clearly, this is unacceptable for a thinking human being. Camus instead argues for a life where one accepts and embraces the absurdity of the human condition.

The absurdist attitude can be summarized as: never forget that whatever we do has only subjective meaning to ourselves and people around us – but as we are here anyway, you can as well choose to enjoy the process. The act of rebellion in this context is to reject (actual or philosophical) suicide and continue to live, and even create our own, authentic and personal meaning, while laughing in the face of the cold universe. To me, this seems to be the most brutally honest and at the same time life-affirming stance.

Once we accept the world on its terms, we can realize ourselves on our own terms. Only free of all delusions we are truly free – and can live our most authentic life. There is no unquestionable authority to dictate our path, no story we have to follow. Within the physical and circumstantial constraints we find ourselves in, we always have the freedom to do as we think is right, as long as we are true to ourselves and are ready to deal with the consequences. It means following rules that we believe to be reasonable, and rebelling against rules we believe to be unreasonable. It means following a path of our own choosing, and consciously adopt or reject narratives and values we live by. So the existentialist answer to purpose and meaning would probably be: A life well lived is an authentic and lucid life, lived fully on its own terms. I think that Sartre, Camus and also Nietzsche probably could agree on that.5

There is an interesting essay about the absurd by Thomas Nagel. He says that it emerges from the fact that we can always mentally “take a step back” from our current frame of reference and by “zooming out” sufficiently far you eventually must arrive at such vast dimensions that whatever you do bears no significance, hence our ability of “zooming out” from any level produces this feeling. So effectively, the feeling of the absurd comes from our cognitive ability to abstract from the immediacy and concreteness of our experience. To diminish this peculiar psychological effect, he suggests to face the absurd with self-irony, instead of the “heroic spite” that Camus proposed. We should not take ourselves and our life too seriously, because the absurd experience comes up whenever the universe (and sometimes even ourselves) undermines our subjective and pumped-up feeling of our significance. In other words – while Camus prefers to embrace and try to enjoy the experienced “drama”, Nagel advises us to minimize it in the first place. I think that in the end, it does not matter – everyone must find their own unique way to resolve tensions between the objective outer world and the subjective inner world.6

Concluding this post with a nice image – the world is an intricate dance, orchestrated by all the known and unknown rules governing the universe. We barely understand any of it, many questions could be forever unanswerable, and the right answers unknowable. So all we can ever do is watch attentively, admire the beauty of its unfolding, and try to take a few steps ourselves. For no specific reason, we received a very special ticket to this huge spectacle. If the seat and view we have are enjoyable, then maybe we should be grateful that we have the opportunity to watch and participate in this grand eternal dance for a brief and fleeting moment that we call life.


I do see how one could try to argue from a utilitarian perspective that, given the way people are, it could be beneficial to claim and pretend that moral truths are objectively “real” (and thus be dishonest, “for the greater good”), but this is a different thing altogether.


In fact, that is not too different from how science works.


This is actually a book I have on my reading list, among many others.


Notice how this essentially an argument for diversity (i.e. a “liberal value”) based on evolutionary dynamics, even though any forms of Darwinism are usually associated with right-wing movements.


Even though they would disagree on the details, such as the precise meaning of “authentic”, “lucid” and “own terms”. But a person truly living by this spirit will find their own meaning(s), and would never just accept and do what some philosopher once said anyway.


As for me, over the years I definitely moved on from the Camus-esque pathos of experiencing life and the world, toward a more calm attitude intermixed with mild self-deprecating irony. Maybe that, at last, is really “growing up”.