Darwinian existentialism: The history — and evolution — of the meaning of life

Michael Ruse in Alternet:

As the French novelist Albert Camus said, life is “absurd,” without meaning. This was not the opinion of folk in the Middle Ages.  A very nice young Christian and I have recently edited a history of atheism.  We had a devil of a job – to use a phrase – finding people to write on that period.  In the West, Christianity filled the gaps and gave life full meaning.  The claims about our Creator God and his son Jesus Christ, combined with the rituals and extended beliefs, especially about the Virgin Mary, meant that everyone’s life, to use a cliché from prince to pauper, made good sense. The promises of happiness in the eternal hereafter were cherished and appreciated by everyone and the expectations put on a godly person made for a functioning society.

Then, thanks to the three Rs, it all started to crumble. First the Renaissance, introducing people to the non-believers of the past. Even the great Plato and Aristotle had little place for a Creator God.  Then the Reformation tore into established beliefs such as the importance of the Virgin Mary. Worse, the religious schism suggested there was no one settled answer.  Finally, the (Scientific) Revolution, showed that this plant of ours, Earth, is not the center of the universe but a mere speck in the whole infinite system. This system works according to unbreakable laws – no miracles – and God became, in the words of a distinguished historian, a “retired engineer.” There was still the problem of organisms, whose intricate design surely had to mean something.  Blind law just leads to rust and decay.  And yet, organisms defy this.  If a clever technician set out to make an instrument for spotting things at great distances, the eye of the hawk is built exactly as one would predict. There had to be a reason.  As the telescope had a telescope designer, so the eye surely pointed to The Great Optician in the Sky. Along came Charles Darwin with his theory of evolution.  He showed, through his mechanism of natural selection – the survival of the fittest – how blind law could indeed explain the eye. Thanks to population pressures, there is an ongoing struggle for existence, or more importantly struggle for reproduction.   Simply, those organisms with better proto-eyes did better in this struggle, and over time there was general improvement.  The hawks with keener sighthad more babies!  They were “naturally selected.”

…That is the secret, the recipe, for a meaningful life in this Darwinian world.  First, family and the love and security that that brings.  Then society, whether it be going to school, shopping at the supermarket, or simply having a few drinks with friends, and sometimes strangers.  Third, the life of the mind. Shakespeare’s creative works are about people and their relationships – happy (Twelfth Night), sad (Romeo and Juliet), complex (Hamlet), doomed (Macbeth), triumphant (Henry V).  This is the life of meaning.  Take life for what it is.  Enjoy it to the full, realizing that the secret of true happiness is being fully human, taking from and giving to others.  And stop worrying about the future.  There may be one. There may not.  There is a now.

More here.