“A Meaning to Life,” Reply to Ruse

My last post expressed my effusive praise for Michael Ruse’s new book, A Meaning to Life. 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 here echo those of various thinkers including Aristotle, Sartre, Barnes, Taylor, Hare, Singer, Thomson, Rachels, Frankl, Belshaw, Thagard, and Critchley.

  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 seems to have 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.

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, political stability, etc. than it is for the millions who don’t have these things. I had many advantages and I’m guessing Ruse did too. I’m guessing Ruse would agree with this. 

7. Hope

I am in agreement with Ruse that we can never know intellectually whether life has a meaning or not. Again, I would suggest that a reasonable kind of hope that life has meaning might help here. As James Fitzjames Stephens taught me long ago:

We stand on a mountain pass in the midst of whirling snow and blinding mist, through which we get glimpses now and then of paths which may be deceptive. If we stand still we shall be frozen to death. If we take the wrong road we shall be dashed to pieces. We do not certainly know whether there is any right one. What must we do? ‘Be strong and of a good courage.’ Act for the best, hope for the best, and take what comes … If death ends all, we cannot meet death better.

Still, of any proposed solutions about life and meaning, we can always ask whether it’s enough. But then, what would count as enough? The problem is that nothing is enough if we expect definitive answers to our questions about life and meaning. If our expectations are too high they will be dashed. Questions about meaning simply don’t allow for the precision of mathematics or physics—the best we can do is to adumbrate. But if there is a voluntary component here, if we have a modicum of free will, then why not be optimistic? This isn’t an answer, but having hope helps us to live well.

Of course, some will still not be satisfied. They imagine that Apollo lives on Mt. Olympus and gives life meaning or they accept some other childish nonsense. Many prefer having the void as purpose rather than being devoid of purpose. They are so forlorn that the bromides of popular religion, philosophy, and politics appeal to them.

But if we accept our ignorance in this infinite and to us mostly unknown universe and if we reject illusory nonsense, then we can begin to better understand how we might play a meaningful part in a cosmic drama that leads, hopefully, onward toward higher levels of being and consciousness. We may really be as links in that golden chain.

So let us reject pain, suffering, death, and destruction and try to create a better and more meaningful reality. We must grow up and take our destiny into our own hands. For we are responsible for the truth and lies, the beauty and the ugliness, the love and the hate. And we can find meaning in life by playing our small role in making life increasing meaningful. Surveying our long past and indefinite future I’ll end by echoing the poetry of the great biologist Julian Huxley:

I turn the handle and the story starts:
Reel after reel is all astronomy,
Till life, enkindled in a niche of sky,
Leaps on the stage to play a million parts.

Life leaves the slime and through the oceans darts;
She conquers earth, and raises wings to fly;
Then spirit blooms, and learns how not to die,
Nesting beyond the grave in others’ hearts.

I turn the handle; other men like me
Have made the film; and now I sit and look
In quiet, privileged like Divinity
To read the roaring world as in a book.

If this thy past, where shall thy future climb,
O Spirit, built of Elements and Time!

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