An Existential Slap Across the Face: Dean Rickles, PhD, on the Essence of Life’s Meaning

Dr. Chris E. Stout
8 min readJul 1, 2023

Death might seem to render pointless all of our attempts to create a meaningful life. But Professor Dean Rickles argues that only constraints―and death is the ultimate constraint―make our actions meaningful. In order for us to live full lives, Dean believes it is the finiteness and shortness of life that brings meaning. In this episode we explore how this insight is the key to making the most of the time that we do have.

Dr. Dean Rickles is a Professor of History and Philosophy of Modern Physics at The University of Sydney. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Leeds, under the supervision of Steven French, with a thesis on conceptual issues in quantum gravity. His postdoctoral fellowship was at the University of Calgary and was split between health sciences and philosophy, on the application of complex systems theory to population health. He joined the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at The University of Sydney in 2007, receiving a 5-year ARC Australian Research Fellowship in 2008 and a 4-year ARC Future Fellowship in 2014.

He is also the Co-Director of the Sydney Centre for Time, an Advisor for The Lifeboat Foundation, and Co-leads a Templeton Foundation-funded interdisciplinary project on the flow of time. His primary research focus is the history and philosophy of modern physics, particularly quantum gravity and spacetime physics.

Dean’s authored dozens of peer-reviewed articles along with a number of books including Covered with Deep Mist: The Development of Quantum Gravity, The Philosophy of Physics, A Brief History of String Theory, and Symmetry, Structure, and Spacetime.

He coedited Information and Interaction: Eddington, Wheeler, and the Limits of Knowledge, The Structural Foundations of Quantum Gravity, Structural Realism: Structure, Object, and Causality, and Thinking about Science, Reflecting on Art: Bringing Aesthetics and Philosophy of Science Together.

He edited The Ashgate Companion to Contemporary Philosophy of Physics, wrote the Foreword to On Dialogue (a Routledge Great Minds volume), and most recently wrote Life Is Short: An Appropriately Brief Guide to Making It More Meaningful published by Princeton University Press, which we’ll do…