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The Meaning of Life

David Cowles

Jun 1, 2023

“In the absence of God, or any transcendent reality, the meaning of life can only be death, oblivion, the total absence of meaning, 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 and alive today. In 2019, he published A Meaning to Life

I just spent two enjoyable days exploring Ruse’s take on evolution in general, natural selection in particular, and on the boosters and critics of both. His book begins auspiciously: “You are born. You live. Then you die.”

Unfortunately, it’s all downhill from there. In fact, it isn’t until page 158 (out of 171 pages), that we even get to the meat of his subject: meaning

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 as an insert in a Chinese fortune cookie. Then we write an entire book leading up to and commenting on the flash

According to Ruse, 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.”

Disappointed, but not surprised, “it’s my own damn fault” (Margaritaville), I should have listened to Nietzsche; I’m always sorry when I don’t.

Ruse was born in Birmingham, England. He earned his undergraduate degree and his doctorate at the University of Bristol. Since then, he has four honorary doctorates and published more than two dozen books and articles. Ruse 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 the mind as his three logoi. Thankfully, he defined each: Lizzie, giving, and Dickens.

I’m happy for Michael, but hasn’t he totally missed the point? An eternity without Lizzie, Friends, or Dickens is exactly what he does have to look forward to, as do all the rest of us, now…at the hour of our deaths.

Unlike most ‘secular seekers,’ Ruse even 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 postmortem

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

“In light of near certain oblivion, is there any way for rational people to salvage a modicum of happiness in their lives?” Ruse concludes that there is, and he lays out his not-so-very revolutionary recipe: 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 proposes in My Dinner with Andre.

I would describe all of these folks, Ruse included, as ‘accommodationists.’ In the absence of God, or any transcendent reality, the meaning of life can only be death, oblivion, the total absence of meaning, the Absurd. 

Is there any way to ‘make peace’ with such a fate? Is there any way to extract anything of value from a world that is apparently ‘value neutral’? 

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

Are you getting nervous? Do you sense what’s coming? Are you afraid I’m going to ask you to say the “G word”? Relax, the G-word is optional. What is 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. Like a Hebrew Iliad, The Boof of Job recounts in painful detail a mud wrestling match between God and his servant, Job. First, Job battles God’s self-selected proxies; then God tags-in.

For millennia, Job has stumped commentators. After 40-plus chapters, it seems like we should know who won. But the text is ambiguous. Most commentators, wrongly in my view, give God the victory on points, but others, myself included, have Job winning in a TKO.  

The reason for the confusion is that neither God nor Job wins outright, or perhaps they both do. In my mind, Job gets the trophy, but God gets a ‘nice participation ribbon;’ others may view it differently.

The real winner is…wait for it: Justice! In Job, Justice wins out, even over God. But Justice is a transcendent value. You can’t buy a cup of Justice at Starbucks; you can’t get Justice out of a vending machine. Justice isn’t like that. It’s a force that shapes events and a yardstick by which we measure those events.

It is Justice, Truth, and Beauty (JTB) that give meaning to life. But JTB is not directly found in the world. These values transcend the spatio-temporal world (STW) we inhabit. They are universal and eternal; they apply in all places, at all times, in this universe or in any other possible universe. They are the glue of Being. 

These are the very values that Nietzsche bravely foreswore, and these are the same values that the accommodationists imagine they can somehow tease out of the STW. 

At various points in this quick read, Ruse describes himself as an evolutionist, a Darwinian, a skeptic, a non-believer, an agnostic and a proponent of Panpsychism. 

IMHO, Ruse made a few mistakes in his effort to find a meaning to life. First, he wrote a book on ‘meaning’ that had nothing whatsoever to do with meaning; that’s a problem. But he also made a critical error regarding Sartre and his 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. 

Ruse disputes 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.

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’s written in our genes. But our genes are not us, nor are we our genes! 

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

We are a product of our DNA; so is a tree. In fact, we share about 70% of our DNA with some trees. Now, we certainly 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 and neither is a tree. We both stand behind the experiences that genes, bodies and minds mediate for us. In Sartre’s terms, we are the Neant (nothingness) that gives Etre (being) the possibility of meaning.


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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