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The Meaning of Life

David Cowles

Apr 15, 2024

“In the absence of God, or any transcendent reality, the meaning of life can only be death, oblivion, and the total absence of meaning – aka the Absurd.”

I am a sucker for any book written by an avowed ‘non-believer’ who claims to have found a meaning to life that does not require God…or any transcendent reality. 

Friedrich Nietzsche (c. 1880) ‘proved’ that no such meaning is possible; but that doesn’t stop me from following-up on every credible claim to the contrary. I’m like the Patent Office clerk assigned to evaluate Perpetual Motion Machines!

For example, I followed breadcrumbs left by A. J. Ayer and Albert Camus…right into the witch’s oven. Recently, I was persuaded to try again. Michael Ruse is a philosopher, born in 1940; in 2019, he published A Meaning to Life

I just spent two enjoyable evenings exploring Ruse’s take on evolution in general, natural selection in particular, and on the boosters and critics of both. His book begins inauspiciously enough: “You are born. You live. Then you die.” But believe it or not, it’s all downhill from there! In fact, it isn’t until page 158 (out of 171 pages), that we even get to the subject of meaning

No judgment! This is how we all write today. We experience a blast of insight – a meme that would be at home on a billboard or a bumper sticker or in a Chinese fortune cookie. Then we write an entire book leading up to and celebrating that insight. “Hooray for me! I own a Magee!” (1950’s advertising slogan)

According to Ruse (spoiler alert), three things give life meaning:

  • Family: “An eternity without Lizzie (spouse) is too awful to contemplate.”

  • Friends: “…The only truly happy person is the person giving to others.”

  • Mind: “I cannot imagine a life without Charles Dickens.”

I’m disappointed, but not surprised. I should have listened to Nietzsche; I’m always sorry when I don’t listen to Nietzsche.

Ruse was born in Birmingham, England. He earned his undergraduate degree and his doctorate at the University of Bristol. He has 4 honorary doctorates and published more than two dozen books and articles. He taught at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada for 35 years, and after that at Florida State University where he is currently a full professor. 

But back to the meaning of life. Ruse cites family, friends, and mind as his three logoi. I’m happy for Michael; but hasn’t he totally missed the point? An eternity without Lizzie, friends, or Dickens is just exactly what he does have to look forward to, as do all the rest of us. If these are the things that give life meaning, then Hello! 

Unlike most ‘secular seekers’, Ruse seems to allow the possibility that he might in some way be conscious of his loss. He talks of a residual consciousness which he likens to “dreamless sleep”, perhaps thinking of Eliot’s “patient etherized upon a table.” If this was intended to help, it didn’t work. I am with Hamlet on this: nothing is more terrifying than the thought that consciousness might somehow persist post mortem

Turns out, Ruse’s 2019 book has absolutely nothing to do with finding life’s meaning; it answers a very different question:

In the light of certain oblivion, is there any way for rational human beings to salvage a modicum of ‘happiness’ in their lives? Ruse concludes that there is, and he lays out his not so very revolutionary recipe; of course, it’s ‘Family, Friends and the Life of the Mind’. Come to think of it, that’s exactly what Ayer and Camus did (above). It’s also what Wally Shawn’s character proposes in My Dinner with Andre.

What’s this thing between philosophers and ‘happiness’ anyway? People are unhappy! Maybe, God forbid, even you. Deal with it! Not all people all the time, but most people some of the time and some people most of the time. And if someone is not unhappy at this particular moment, it doesn’t mean that they are deliriously happy either. Truth is, most of us are guided by other concerns (needs, duties, responsibilities, urges, etc.); happiness barely enters in.

After 25, who has time to worry about being happy? Most of us would trade ‘happiness’ for ‘satisfaction’. Of course, satisfaction can make us happy, but that insight threatens to turn Ruse’s proposition into a tautology: ‘I am happy because whatever I choose to do I do because it makes me happy’.

But what if happiness is my ‘ultimate concern’ (Paul Tillich meets J. S. Mill)? Am I entitled to make the purpose of my life be my own personal happiness - happiness that perfumes portions of an 85 year life span, and then evaporates, unremembered, at least according to the Standard Model of Ontology?

Fleeting happiness is a poor substitute for eternal Value. Is Ruse channeling Gatsby: ‘Living well is the best revenge’? But what if I made the happiness of others the purpose of my life? Better? I suppose, but now haven’t I just kicked the can down the road? If my happiness is not a valid purpose, is someone else’s?

Thought experiment: On my way home from work I swing by my favorite French bakery to pick up a warm baguette to enjoy with my dinner. As I leave the shop, I see someone obviously homeless and hungry on the sidewalk. What should I do? Proceed home and eat hearty (makes me happy); give my unfortunate friend passes to a local cinema (makes him happy…maybe); or give him my baguette (meets his needs…and perhaps secondarily makes one or both of us happy in the process)? 

In the absence of God, or any transcendent reality, the meaning of life can only be death, oblivion, and the total absence of meaning – aka the Absurd. Then the meaning of life is that it has no meaning and the meaning of ‘anything’ is literally ‘nothing’. 

That makes more sense than might seem. A can mean B only if A ≠ B and  B; the only thing not equal to anything is nothing. Is there any way to ‘make peace’ with such a fate? Is there any way to extract value from a world that is apparently value free

Nietzsche thought he had resolved this question once and for all. His argument is elegant and, I believe, irrefutable: There is only this world, B; there is no other. A can ‘mean’ B only if A ≠ B and  B. But if B is the whole world and there is no other, then can Ǝ no such A; therefore, Ǝ only B and its elements and therefore B can have no meaning.

Are you getting nervous? Are you afraid I’m going to ask you to say the ‘G word’? Relax, the G-word is optional. What’s not optional is the ‘T word’ – Transcendence. 

In Genesis, Jacob wrestles with God, mano a mano. But The Book of Job takes a different tack. Job recounts in painful detail a contest of minds between God and his ‘servant’. First, Job battles God’s self-selected proxies (so-called ‘comforters’); then God himself tags-in!

For millennia, the Book of Job has stumped commentators. After 40-plus chapters, it seems like we should know who won the argument. But the text is ambiguous. After page upon page of soaring rhetoric and intricate argument, the author decides to get cute with the verdict. But maybe that was the point? Like some sort of avant-garde 20th century novel, the ending is left up to the reader.

Most commentators, wrongly in my view, give God the victory on points; others, myself included, have Job winning by TKO. Job gets the trophy, but God gets a nice ‘participation ribbon’. In the story, God huffs and puffs about how great he is, but what really makes God great in this story is that he agrees to participate in the legal process and abide by the verdict…whatever that might be.

Is this God acknowledging his own Higher Power, Value (e.g. Justice)? Is this recognition a precursor to Incarnation? The omnipotent God becoming a helpless infant, a suffering servant, a human sacrifice. 

So, the real winner here is Justice! In Job, Justice triumphs, even over God’s will. But Justice is a transcendent value (lie quiet, Nietzsche). You can’t buy a cup of Justice at Starbucks; nor can you use Justice to pay for your latte. Justice is not fungible. 

Like gravity, Justice shapes events, but it’s also a yardstick by which we measure and judge those events. It’s non-linear, i.e. recursive. Justice evaluates the world…and then it evaluates itself. It recapitulates God’s creative process in Genesis: “Let there be…saw that it was good.”

It is Values (e.g. Justice, Truth, and Beauty - ‘JTB’) that give meaning to life. But these values are not a function of the spatiotemporal world (STW). Values are universal and eternal; they apply in all places, at all times, in this universe or in any possible universe. STW is made up of events, related to one another via shared qualia (values). Values are general, related to one another via shared events (Proust).

Values have no home in STW…and so they are at home everywhere in STW. They are logically prior to any ‘when’; they form the logos, the glue between beings that ultimately constitutes Being itself. 

JTB are values that the noble Nietzsche foresaw but that accommodationists imagine they can tease out of STW. IMAHO, Ruse made mistakes in his effort to find meaning. First, he wrote a book about ‘meaning’ that had nothing whatsoever to do with meaning; that’s a bit of a bother. But he also made a critical error regarding Sartre’s doctrine of human nature.

According to Sartre, there is no human nature beyond the non-thetic, non-essential, existentialist exclamation: “I am (and therefore I am free); I am free (and therefore I am).” Being and Freedom are synonymous. Descartes on steroids!

It stands to reason, doesn’t it: if you’re not free, what are you? Perhaps you’re inert; your actions have no consequences IRL. Or perhaps you are just mechanically executing the will of others. In either case, you can lay no claim to Being

To bastardize Gregory Bateson, ‘Being is a difference that makes a difference’. In these scenarios, either you are not different, or you make no difference. Either way, you fail…loser! BTW, this is the paradox of determinism. If everything is determined, then nothing is…or only one thing is (the initial state). Everything else is just a mechanical unfurling of that one thing.

In light of this, determinists who are revolted by the notion of a world created and influenced by an all-powerful deity might want to give their position a bit of a rethink. 

Ruse disputes all this. He believes that human beings do have a specific, identifiable nature. For example, he says that our desire to give to others is part of that nature. In this, he falls prey to what Alfred North Whitehead called, The Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness. Of course, there is such a thing as ‘human nature’ and yes, it includes an eleemosynary component, and yes, it’s written in our genes. But our genes are not us

Our genes are part of the objective, material world we inherit and inhabit. That world is mediated to us through our genes, our senses, our bodies, our brains, none of which is us. 

We are a product of our DNA; so is a tree. In fact, we share more than half of our DNA with trees. Of course, we experience the world differently than a tree does and ultimately that different experience is a function, at least in part, of our different DNA. 

That said, we are not DNA, nor is a tree. We permeate the experiences that genes, bodies and minds mediate, not as passive observers or mechanical operators, but as perpetually active negators. We selectively negate what is in order to bring about what might yet be. In Sartre’s terms we are the Neant (nothingness) that gives Etre (being) meaning. 

While Etre is many faceted (like Parmenides’ Doxa), Neant is simple, featureless (like Aletheia); it haunts you and me and Sherwood Forest. It’s neither one nor many: not ‘one’ in contrast to many nor ‘many’ in contract to one. It’s simple; it simply is. And so it is in you just as it is in me and just as it is in every sentient being. Neant is no respecter of species.

Meaning defines a relationship between two distinct entities. The signifier cannot be coincident with the signified, nor can it be an element of the signified. What ‘means’ must transcend what is ‘meant’; otherwise the phenomenon of meaning is impossible. If Life is to have meaning, we must search for it, not ‘among the living’ but in eternity.


David Cowles is the founder and editor-in-chief of Aletheia Today Magazine. He lives with his family in Massachusetts where he studies and writes about philosophy, science, theology, and scripture. He can be reached at


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