Recensions et comptes rendusPhilosophie

Michael Ruse, A Meaning to Life (Philosophy in Action). Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2019, 216 p., 17,7 × 13,4 cm, ISBN 978-0-19093-322-7

  • Matthew Allen Newland

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  • Matthew Allen Newland
    Adjunct Faculty, Humanities Department, State University of New York at Jefferson

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Cover of Volume 74, Number 1, January–April 2022, pp. 1-159, Science et Esprit

Part of the reason for reviewing this book was personal: my 2008 Master’s thesis, God Is Human, made extensive use of Michael Ruse’s 2000 book, Can a Darwinian Be a Christian? As a result, Ruse’s thoughts shaped my arguments over the course of my research. An atheist, Ruse nonetheless shows a good, impressively nuanced appreciation for the Christian understanding of humankind’s Creation, and our place in the world (contrasted with writers such as Richard Dawkins, Ruse’s thought is free from exaggeration or misunderstood misrepresentation). Therefore, it was of interest to “check in” on Ruse, especially since his book continues to focus on ideas of great interest to me (namely evolution, human nature, and the links between them). This volume, A Meaning to Life, is a part of Oxford University’s Philosophy in Action series, and Ruse writes in a personal way, reflecting as much on his own experience as the philosophical ideas that have shaped his understanding of the world. His search for a meaning of life is a surprisingly brief response to such a tremendous question (just 216 pages, with the actual text ending on page 171). Yet Ruse’s words are the result of years of reading and wondering about these questions (e.g., of the possibility of God’s existence, nature’s process, and what counts as a meaningful life). Ruse neatly and concisely sums up his thoughts over the course of four compact, yet deep, chapters. This review will briefly summarize each chapter/discussion, which will then be followed by my thoughts on Ruse’s answer to the question of the meaning of life. In Chapter 1, Ruse discusses “the unraveling of belief,” and how the certainty of the Classical and Medieval worlds was gradually eaten away, and demolished, by the “three R’s”: the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the (scientific) Revolution (pp. 16-17). The last was especially devastating, with Darwinism serving as the final straw: there is no divine hand guiding history or granting humankind’s place of prominence—only the blind forces of nature. Hence, any importance we might have imagined for ourselves, or our own individual lives, is mistaken. Or so it would seem. Rather than accept this, give up the question, and end his book, Ruse decides to consider, one last time, whether the meaning promised by religion still has something to offer. Chapter 2, then, discusses how/whether religion can survive the challenge posed by contemporary scientific discoveries about us and our world, and Darwinism, in particular. It is in Chapter 2 that Ruse’s thoughts become especially personal, as he discusses his own lack of religious faith, his abandonment of Christianity as a young man, and a few of the reasons why he left his faith behind. While Christianity does offer answers to the mysteries which thinkers everywhere have always contemplated (“Why is there something, rather than nothing?”; “Why should we be ‘good’?,” etc.), Ruse does not find the answers (or the likelihood of Christianity being “true”) convincing. For example, Ruse is (very personally) discouraged by realities such as the problem of evil, and ideas such as the atonement (Christ dying as a sacrifice), a notion which Ruse finds “repellant” (p. 50). Philosophically, Ruse finds the sheer number of religions to be found in the world problematic (especially since geography and circumstance, rather than any objective truth, influence one’s religious beliefs more than anything else), and he is unconvinced by Christian philosophy’s fusion of Jewish beliefs and Greek ideas (as he finds the two incompatible: the personal God of Judaism cannot be reconciled, let alone identified, with the abstract God of Greek philosophy). Ruse then considers an alternatively religious worldview, …