Review of “A Meaning to Life” by Michael Ruse

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Michael Ruse (1940 – ) is a philosopher of science who specializes in the philosophy of biology, the relationship between science and religion, the creation-evolution controversy, and the demarcation problem within science. His most recent work, A Meaning to Life, is one volume in the Philosophy in Action series from Oxford University Press. (I have read many of his books through the years—he is an especially erudite scholar.)

The first chapter, entitled “The Unraveling of Belief,” explains (roughly) how the medieval Christian worldview slowly unraveled—primarily because of the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Scientific Revolution, especially Darwinism—and the implications of this unraveling for considerations about the meaning of life,

In the world of the struggle for existence and natural selection, everything, including us humans, is simply the product of the blind forces of nature—no rhyme, no reason, no meaning or Meaning. Forget about eternal bliss and that sort of thing. You are not going to get it down here, and you are not going to get it up there. Truly, in the words of Camus, nigh a century later, life is absurd. (53)

But is this conclusion drawn too hastily? The rest of the book tries to answer this question.

The second chapter, “Has Religion Really Lost The Answer?” explores the extent to which religion can survive the scientific onslaught and still provide meaning. Consider first some questions science hasn’t so far sufficiently answered: 1) why is there something rather than nothing? 2) why be moral? 3) why are we consciousness? 4) what is the meaning of life?

Now Christianity does answer such questions—God, God, God, and God—but the problem is that it takes faith to believe all this, a faith Ruse lacks. Why? He offers a number of reasons especially: 1) the existence of evil; 2) the problem of different faiths (it’s unlikely that yours is the true one); and 3) the irreconcilability of the Greek and Jewish conceptions of God ( the former being abstract, outside of space and time, while the latter is personal.)

Buddhism, to take a different religion, also answers these questions. It says that life has meaning because of the possibility of attaining nirvana. But the issue here, as it was for Christianity, is whether religious claims are true. And Ruse simply doesn’t believe in Nirvana or reincarnation. As for those who insist that non-believers believe anyway and are doomed if they don’t, Ruse says, “Don’t be so condescending—and dangerous. That kind of thinking led to the Inquisition. Darwinism opened the void. Religion doesn’t fill it.” (96)

Chapter 3, “Darwinism As Religion,” asks whether Darwinism itself provides answers to questions about life’s meaning. Can an evolutionary worldview give us an objective meaning of life? Can it show us how to live? Or can it at least give us subjective meaning? Ruse is skeptical of Darwinism as religion despite the efforts of thinkers like Herbert Spencer, T. H. Huxley, Julian Huxley, and E. O. Wilson. They all emphasize progress as central to life’s meaning but Ruse is skeptical of claims about progress.

The argument connecting progress and evolution is straightforward. Evolution is progressive and over time creates more meaning. As a part of this process, we should try to steer evolution toward higher and more meaningful states of being and consciousness. But here Ruse reaffirms his skepticism. “Regular religion can’t do the job, so make up a naturalistic religion of your own. Neither approach takes the Darwinian revolution as seriously as it should … Darwinian thinking takes meaning out of the world.” (131)

So we are on our own after all. How then to avoid despair?

The final chapter, “Darwinian Existentialism,” attempts to present a naturalistic, subjectivist answer to the question of life’s meaning from a Darwinian perspective. The relevant insight from existentialism is that we must create our own meaning. And for Ruse, this search must be informed by an evolutionarily view of our biological and social nature. So what is a meaningful life in a Darwinian world? It is, as Aristotle argued, to live in accord with our human nature. And this implies that we create meaning through our family life, our moral life, fulfilling work, art, literature, music, and in the life of the mind.

But what if we still long for the big Meaning that religion promised? “As one who was brought up intensely religious, I would be a liar if I denied that there is always that lingering trace of sadness at hope extinguished.” (161) But do we really want the promises of religion? To be continually reincarnated or spend an eternity sitting on a cloud playing the harp. Ruse thinks not. But, you might object, surely eternity is better than that. Ruse replies that we simply have no idea of how to visualize what eternity could be like.

Where does this leave Ruse?

… I can give you a good Darwinian account of Meaning in terms of our evolved human nature. This is not a weak substitute. This is the real thing. I have worked hard in my life to do what I do—raise five children, teach for over forty years, write more books than it is decent to count. I have found it immensely satisfying. I see no reason to expect anything beyond this. From an eternity of oblivion. To an eternity of oblivion. Everlasting dreamless sleep, without the need to get up in the middle of it to go to the bathroom. Absurd if you will, although I would not call it this. In the end, … I am an agnostic. I just don’t know whether life has any … Ultimate Meaning. (169)

In support of his agnosticism Ruse quotes J. B. S. Haldane, “My own suspicion is that the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.” And Ruse concludes with some advice, “There may be something more. There may not. Don’t spend your life agonizing about this or letting people manipulate you with false promises. Think for yourself … Life here and now can be fun and rewarding, deeply meaningful.” (170)

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Postscript

Let me express my sincere appreciation to Professor Ruse for this carefully and conscientiously crafted as well as deeply personal work. I enjoyed the book immensely.

Now I would now like to comment on Ruse’s counsel that we can create and enjoy meaning in life despite the yearning for some non-existent salvific narrative—religious or scientific.  Ruse’s thoughts on this echo those of various thinkers including Aristotle, Sartre, Barnes, Taylor, Hare, Singer, Thomson, Rachels, Frankl, Belshaw, Thagard, and Critchley. Here are a few brief thoughts.

  1. A Meaningful Life

I would argue that certain universal human goods provide the deepest fulfillment and meaning. These goods include knowledge, friendship, health, skill, love, autonomy, fulfilling work, and aesthetic enjoyment. Such goods benefit us independently of whether we desire them because they fulfill our biological, psychological, and social nature. The idea that good, happy, and meaningful lives involve universal human goods goes back at least to Aristotle. I think Ruse would agree with me thus far. 

2. Is This Enough?

But should we be satisfied with the meaning available in life or should we want more? On the one hand, if our desire for meaning is too limited we will be too easily satisfied with our lives and the state of the world. On the other hand, if our desire for meaning is too great we will be too easily dissatisfied with our lives and the state of the world. So we should be content enough to experience the meaning life offers while discontent enough to want there to be more. I admit, though, the difficulty in balancing our outrage at suffering, injustice, and meaninglessness with a healthy dose of equanimity, acceptance, and serenity. We should then be grateful to be the kinds of beings who can live meaningful lives. If that is all life can give, we should be satisfied. Ruse thinks we should be satisfied. 

3. Death

The reason we might still be dissatisfied is that we die. Now many intellectuals claim that death is really good for us because immortality would be boring, hopeless, or meaningless. (Ruse suggests as much.) But people who say such things either really want to die or they deceive themselves. I think it’s generally the latter—they adapt their preferences to what seems inescapable. Happy, healthy people almost never want to die and are despondent upon receiving a death sentence. People cry at the funerals of their loved ones, accepting death only because they think it’s inevitable. I doubt they would be so accepting if they thought death avoidable.

So here’s our situation. After all the books and knowledge, memories and dreams, cares and concerns, effort and struggle, voices and places and faces, then suddenly … nothing. Is that really desirable? No, it isn’t. Death is bad. Death should be optional. Ruse has a more negative view of immortality and a more positive view of death than I do. 

4. Transhumanism

Transhumanism is an intellectual movement that aims to transform and improve the human condition by developing and making available sophisticated technologies to greatly enhance human intellectual, physiological, and moral functioning. Transhumanism is based on the idea that humanity in its current form represents an early phase of its evolutionary development. A common transhumanist thesis is that human beings may eventually transform themselves into beings with such greatly expanded abilities that they will have become godlike or posthuman. Notably, this includes defeating the limitation imposed by death.

Like Ruse, I don’t believe in any religious conception of an afterlife yet I would argue that transhumanism provides a realistic possibility of defeating death and potentially giving life more meaning. Transhumanism offers a salvific narrative grounded in science and technology, something Ruse doesn’t address. I’ll admit to being skeptical about whether this potential future will be actualized—Ruse may be right that Murphy’s law generally prevails. But at least we have some non-supernatural reason to hope that the future will be more meaningful than the present. I’m not sure how familiar Ruse is or what he thinks of transhumanism. (Update. I have since found out it doesn’t appeal to him.)

5. Cosmic Evolution

Ruse also mostly dismisses the idea of evolutionary progress, especially along the lines of thinkers like Julian Huxley and E.O. Wilson. While I hesitate to enter into a debate on this topic with a world-class authority on such matters as Ruse, perhaps transhumanism might shed a different light on this as well.

Think of it this way. If the big bang could expand to become a universe almost a hundred billion light-years across, if some of the atoms in stars could become us, and if unconscious random genetic evolution and environmental selection could give rise to conscious beings, then surely our (possible) transhuman descendants can direct cosmic evolution toward more perfect forms of being and consciousness. Or perhaps the universe is consciously doing this itself, as some panpsychists suggest.

Consider this cosmic vision. In our imagination, we exist as links in a golden chain leading onward and upward toward higher levels of being, consciousness, truth, beauty, goodness, justice, joy, love, and meaning—perhaps even to their apex. We dream that our descendants will gradually transform and perfect their moral and intellectual natures, make themselves immortal, and bring about a fully meaningful reality. And if all this comes true then there is a meaning of life. Now I understand this is a highly speculative, mystical conception of the future—one I’m skeptical of myself—but it is at least plausible. Ruse is skeptical of notions of progressive cosmic evolution. 

6. Contentment is Easier for College Professors

Ruse is thankful for the good life he has lived and doesn’t expect more from life than it now offers. He certainly doesn’t desire or entertain any ideas about personal immortality. I commend him for living, as E.D. Klemke put it, “without appeal.” But note that it is easier to be content if you’ve had access to quality health care, good education, clean water and good food, political stability, fulfilling work, etc. than it is for the millions who don’t have these things. I’ve had many advantages and I’m sure Ruse did too. I’m guessing Ruse would agree with what I write here. 

Again I’d like to thank Professor Ruse for his contribution to the meaning of life literature.

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2 thoughts on “Review of “A Meaning to Life” by Michael Ruse

  1. I respect Mr Ruse, he sounds like a thoroughly decent chap, but writing a book titled “A Meaning To Life” and ending it with the words…
    “In the end, though, I am an agnostic. I just don’t know whether life has any … Ultimate Meaning. ”
    Four hundred years after “…the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Scientific Revolution—especially Darwinism” supposedly killed ff religion, i s this really the best the Western liberal intellectual tradition can come up with? “I just don’t know.” It’s almost as bad as 42 – you expect people to listen to us when we talk about climate change and social injustice, but we don’t even kow if there’s any reason to being alive. It’s shameful, you philosophers only had one job to do – no, I’m kidding, but I do also see how anyone who subscribes to Creationism and Fundamentalist Christianity (or Islam or any other) absolutist belief system is not exactly going to be quaking in their boots when faced by this kind of – what can we call it – lack of enthusiasm, lack of any convincing argument against them – the Lion’s Roar, people! Come On Team! C minus – could do better. Looks like I’m going to have to write my own book…

  2. He ultimately believes that we give life subjective meaning through our relationships and productive work but doesn’t know if there is an objective meaning. He knows this isn’t satisfactory for those who want more, but its the best he can do and remain intellectually honest. Thanks for your comments.

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