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Michael Ruse is a well known philosopher of biology. He has written extensively on the relationship between science and religion. His latest book is A Meaning to Life (OUP). Seth Hart asked him about it.
Hello Professor Ruse. My first question is about the title of your new book. I notice that you chose the indefinite A for your title rather than The. Why is it called A Meaning to Life rather than The Meaning of Life?
It was my editor at Oxford University Press, Peter Ohlin, who pushed that one: he said, “Mike, you’re not writing a scholarly monograph.” For a scholarly monograph the first two chapters would be devoted to what other people have said on the topic, a little bit like what you’d do in a PhD dissertation. Peter continued, “You worked on Darwin and religion and science for over sixty years. What I’d like is your take on it. Where do you come out on it?” With a meaning, you’re not pretending to speak for everyone, you’re just speaking for yourself. With the sort of ego I have, I replied, “You know, that suits me just fine! As I get to this stage of life [Ruse was born in 1940, Ed], I’m getting sick of talking about other people!” There’s a little more to it than that, but that’s basically why it’s a meaning rather than the meaning.
That leads naturally into my next question. You ultimately say you cannot find an objective meaning to life, but you say there is a subjective meaning, which is grounded in our nature as evolved beings. You give three ways to find this subjective meaning: (1) Family; (2) Morality; and (3) Promoting the life of the mind. How did you get there?
Portrait © Lizzie Ruse
You have to start at the beginning, in my childhood as a Quaker, which I talk about in the book. We were very firmly Christian, but Quakers don’t have ministers or steeplehouses. It’s not that you make it up yourself; but you do have to think it through yourself. I went to a Quaker boarding school as well, and this was tremendously influential on me – although I do joke that having had one headmaster in this life, I’m damned if I want another in the next! The Quaker attitude was always interested in mysticism. They don’t need to be very good at talking about what God is (it’s an apophatic theology – which means you define God by what he is not). Quakers are very good at leading you through things; but in the end, it’s your decision. So at the age of twenty, when my faith started to fade, no one said, “You’re condemned to eternal damnation if you disbelieve.” They just said, “A lot of people do feel that way, and some come back. That’s your decision.” That’s something that has stayed with me.
It sounds as if philosophy drove me to nonbelief. I don’t think that’s true; the two were sufficiently independent. But there was a link. As someone who had, during his childhood, spent time not just believing in things but discussing why one believes in things – in the Second World War the Quakers were pacifists so there was a lot of discussion about this – philosophy was natural to me because I had been doing it all my life! After reading Descartes’s Meditations I thought, “Grown ups actually worry about these things! I’ve worried about these things all my life!” So I think my Quaker background prepared me for philosophy; but I’d deny that my background made me a philosopher, or that philosophy made me lose my faith.
I’ve always been religious, in the sense of religion in the ‘entire absence of theology’, as Thomas Henry Huxley put it. I’ve always felt drawn to that. Most agnostics mean they don’t really care about it, that religion is not a part of their life. But it has been part of my life, and in a liberating way. I was working on Darwin when the Creationist controversy came back into fashion, and now I’ve been working on him for the past forty years. In my third chapter I look into whether science can be used as a substitute for religion. My good friends Ed Wilson and Robert Richards are really into that sort of thing. I was different. I always took courses on existentialism. I remember as a schoolboy coming home from a movie that I really enjoyed immensely. Turns out it was based on one of Sartre’s novels! It wasn’t about waking up one day and saying, “I’m an existentialist.”
As a nonbeliever – not an atheist; I’m not an atheist – it’s led me to think a lot about what sort of meaning one can have in life if you don’t think it’s about joining the Big Fellow in the Sky. I didn’t suddenly think it all up when I started to write this book: it was about putting together different strands from over the years. I’m very close to many Christians and Buddhists, and I find their belief attractive, but not in the sense that would compel me. It’s not so much whether God exists but whether his existence is important, which is a paradoxical position. I wrote a book about five years ago on Darwinism and literature [Darwinism as Religion, 2016], and as I worked through the post-Darwinian era of Victorian England, I found that the preeminent question then was not whether God existed but whether God was relevant. That’s what you find in Thomas Hardy, Emily Dickinson, and George Eliot. This study allowed me to focus on this question of the relevance of belief in God.
Now most Christians – especially in the American South, which is where I live – would consider this question paradoxical to the point of being heretical. It just doesn’t make sense. How could you say it doesn’t matter whether God exists? But I think a significant minority of Christians would understand what I’m saying. You can’t live your life consciously trying to get into heaven. You live your life as you ought to live it, without a view to the afterlife. That’s the position I’m taking. Most of my Christian friends would tell me, “We don’t worry about whether we’re going to do well enough on our tests to get into the heavenly graduate school! We know what we should do, and now we try to live life to the full.” I feel very empathetic to that.
I recently wrote another book, on war [The Problem of War, 2018]. When I grew up in England in the late 1940s and 50s, the First World War stuck out in our minds far more than did the Second. It defined our existence. The books I read in school, and the plays we did, were all about the First World War. The fact that both my great-grandfather and grandfather served in it made it very important to me, so I wrote a book on it for the centenary of the Armistice. In it, I looked at the ‘killer ape’ theory popular in the 1950s, which said that humans are warlike primarily because we evolved from apes that were warlike, and I discovered that, by and large, that’s not believed anymore. We now realize the story is far more complex. Going to war is rather a secondary characteristic of human beings. This brought home to me that humans are social rather than aggressive beings. This comes out in my final chapter of the present book, where I say there is a human nature, and our nature is to be social. But what does it mean to be social? Well, people have sex, have families and then we have communities. Communities involve communication at all levels. You and I are sitting here talking, and we aren’t doing something weird! Art and human creativity are an extension of our sociality. When we’re creative, it is in the context of our sociality. When we write, we write about other human beings. We paint other human beings. Music, too, is very much a social thing. Some people are playing and others listening. They’re all social things. There are things that are natural to human beings; and the way to live your life is to live it as naturally as you can.
Some people may desire more than that, and they often ground it in the concept of an afterlife. You’re suspicious of that in the book. What would you say to someone who finds meaning not just in social interactions, but in the concept of eternal life?
People do that, don’t they? John Cottingham, whom I quote in the book, says exactly that: life is meaningless unless you have a theological substratum.
I grew up with that: that’s the null position if you grow up in a Christian context. This life is transitory. How do you make sense of some people’s lives being cut off short? Some people are born lucky, while others are not. I recently saw Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. I looked at Brad Pitt and said, “No one should be born that beautiful.” Some people are born like that, and others are not. How do you make sense of all this? You make sense of it in a broader context where this life is transitory and we will be judged at the end of it. Then the fact that Anne Frank died at fifteen doesn’t mean she didn’t have a worthwhile life in the eyes of her Creator – especially when one compares it to Adolf Hitler, who lived three times her age.
But what happens if you lose your faith? Do you revert to total hedonism? Eat, drink, and be merry? Go out and grab all you can? That seems to be the philosophy of Donald Trump. Get everything out of life you can. Yet does Trump seem the paradigm of a happy human being? Despite all the time he spends playing golf, anybody who talks and behaves in the way he does – spends so much of his time watching Fox News and sending out frenetic, hateful tweets about it… is this person truly happy? Absolutely not! And we all know people who are not terribly important people, or go-getters like Trump, but when you look at them, you say, “There’s really something about that person” – they’ve got a balanced attitude, take their job seriously, have a good family, and have hobbies.
This idea of meaning sounds very attractive. But what about people who are unlucky enough not to be able to experience a good family, a meaningful career, or have any intellectual stimulation? Can people in such circumstances find another meaning in life?
There’s no question that it’s an unequal world we live in. In America, the top 1% combined make more than the bottom 80% combined. But the world is America on a larger scale! We Westerners have more wealth than the entire rest of the world. I do worry about the current state of the world, especially poverty and the explosion in population, and how this will affect people’s ability to live optimal meaningful lives.
When it comes to morality, I really appreciate that you bite the bullet in denying objective moral values. As you state in the book, “My own opinion is that morality has no justification and can have no such justification” (p.139). With so many different ‘moralities’ competing for prominence, how would you, as a Darwinian existentialist, suggest someone find a meaningful morality?
Although there is a lot of relativism around, as a Darwinian I’d be very surprised if there wasn’t a bottom level reciprocal altruism operative for (almost) everyone. The philosopher John Locke (1632-1704) talked about various cultures that eat their children; but in no society do people have children to fatten themselves up. Every society has various rules about children: incest taboos, and various other things. Also, certain levels of reciprocation must occur, otherwise you’d spend all your time fighting with others and would eventually break down as a human being.
In fact, human evolution has lost the very features that would destroy sociality. We’re not big and strong. We don’t have big teeth. We’re not that fast. The thing that always strikes me is concealed ovulation. So I think that, clearly, the human species has evolved characteristics that imply a certain level of sociality. How that pans out in society will be a function of a lot of different factors.
Also, significant number of moral changes occur, not because of the persuasive power of moral philosophers, but because of the advance of technology. When I was an undergraduate, only about a third of students were female. Now, it’s closer to 60%. Has this occurred because men have been made more sensitive to women’s aspirations? No! It occurred because of the invention of vacuum cleaners and washing machines and so on. Your grandmother would spend most of her days doing work around the house. It was simply what had to be done. Now we have machines that do most of this for us. To give you another example, think of sexual freedom. When I grew up in the 1950s, we were told that even the nicest boys only wanted one thing – which, of course, was true, even though they never got it. By the 1960s, even the nicest girls were out having sex. This didn’t mean morality had collapsed: it meant the pill had been invented! The threat of pregnancy was gone overnight. I think a lot of the abortion controversy in the US and elsewhere will also eventually be sidelined by the availability of morning-after pills. Moral change takes place because of advancing technology. Therefore, I fully expect different cultures, with different technologies, to have different morals and expectations. I’d ask, “What is the level of technological sophistication in this society? Is it a society where women are freed to live lives in ways similar to men, or one where women must do ‘women’s work’, like raising kids and helping with the farming?”
One final question: How do you see this work fitting into your overall corpus?
I don’t want to say that this book is my swan song, but I do feel that, at a certain level, I’m pulling it all together. The last decade has been my most creative. Philosophers are not mathematicians, and I think people working in the humanities need to get older to get the power and confidence of writing that years of heavy-duty study give them, so they can pull back a bit and look at things on a broader level. You’re not writing a dissertation with every book. I’ve mentioned a couple of my previous books; one on literature and one on war. I have found that sort of work on new topics tremendously rewarding. I had a great time writing another on The Gaia Hypothesis (2013) – going out to California and interviewing pagans, although I never got them to take their clothes off. (If you asked me “What are the big failures of your life?”, not being forced to interview pagans stark naked would be one of them.) In my late seventies it became clear that I’d need to retire soon – which I will next year – and that I needed to pull it all together. A good editor can really shape your project. I hadn’t realized how many books there are in philosophy on the meaning of life. My editor said, “I think you have something to say [about meaning], but I’m much more interested in your research and take on things rather than having you speak on what others have had to say.”
I feel very good about my career as it comes to an end. I think writing this book was very valuable, and a good thing. While I don’t want it to be my swan song, if that’s what it turns out to be, I wouldn’t be brokenhearted. I will be brokenhearted if I do not get to see and hear all three of the Mozart/da Ponte operas – The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, and Cosi Fan Tutte – one more time.
• Seth Hart is a PhD student in theology at the University of Durham studying under the Durham Doctoral Studentship and focusing on the language and nature of purpose, function, and meaning in the field of biology.