Kurt Baier “The Meaning of Life”

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Kurt Baier (1917 – 2010) was an Austrian moral philosopher who received his DPhil at Oxford in 1952. He spent most of his career at the University of Pittsburgh, authored the influential, The Moral Point of View: A Rational Basis of Ethics, and was one of the most important moral philosophers of the second half of the twentieth century.

In his 1957 lecture, “The Meaning of Life,” Baier claims that Tolstoy’s crisis of meaning would have been incomprehensible to medieval Christians who thought themselves the center of the cosmic drama, and for whom the meaning of life was to gain eternal bliss. However, the modern scientific worldview conflicts with this medieval view. The earth and humans are not at the center of the solar system and the cosmos is billions of years old, not a mere six thousand.

But the conflict runs much deeper. In the Christian view, god is “a kind of superman… [who] acts as a sort of playwright-cum-legislator-cum-judge-cum-executioner.”[i] This god writes the play, makes the rules, and punishes misbehavers. According to this view, all is for the best even if it appears otherwise, and humans ought to worship, venerate, praise, and obey the creator. But with the rise of science, the universe is explained better and more reliably without gods, leading many educated persons to reject the Christian view and conclude that individuals and the universe are without meaning.

Explaining the Universe – In response to this apparent conflict between science and religion, one might argue that the two are in fact complementary. Science, it might be said, gives precise explanations of small parts of the universe; religion gives vague explanations for the whole universe. The devoid-of-meaning conclusion comes about only because one is confusing the two explanations. Scientific explanations tell us how things are but not why they are. The ultimate explanation is that which explains the purpose or the why of something. While both types of explanations are needed and work well in their own domain if we are looking for answers to the ultimate why questions we need religious answers.

Baier argues instead that both scientific and religious explanations involve an infinite regress—they are both equally incomplete. Saying that gods caused the universe merely raises the question of what caused the gods; saying the gods are the reason there is something rather than nothing just raises the question of why the gods exist. Thus scientific explanations lack nothing that religious explanations possess; neither type of explanation explains completely. Scientific explanations differ from religious ones by being precise, capable of falsification, and amenable to slow improvement. These considerations lead Baier to the main conclusion of the first section: “that scientific explanations render their explicanda as intelligible as pre-scientific explanations; they differ from the latter only in that, having testable implications and being more precisely formulated, their truth or falsity can be determined with a high degree of probability.”[ii]

The Purpose of Existence – Despite the conclusion reached above—that scientific explanations are better than religious ones—it might still be argued that scientific explanations lead to the conclusion that life is meaningless. After all humans and their planet are not at the center of creation, the universe appears doomed, humans were not specially created, and the entire universe is a hostile place. In such conditions, humans try to seize a few moments of joy until their lives end in death. Science explains such a world but what meaning does it find in it? Whereas the medieval worldview provided purpose, the scientific worldview does not. Or so it seems.

Baier responds by distinguishing between two different senses of purpose. 1) Purposes that persons and their behavior have (to build factories to make cars) and 2) purposes that things have (the purpose of a car is to provide transportation.) People do many things without purpose or meaning, pointless labor for example, but the scientific worldview does not force us to regard our lives in this way. Instead, it provides better ways of achieving our purposes. As for the other kind of purpose—the purpose of things—to be used this way is degrading and it is implied by the Christian worldview, viewing a human as a divine artifact here to serve the purpose of its maker. Moreover,  those who reject the scientific worldview because they think it renders life pointless from the outside, forget that life can still be meaningful from the inside. They “mistakenly conclude that there can be no purpose in life because there is no purpose of life.”[iii]

Baier notes that many long for the medieval worldview where a gentle father watches over and cares for them, but he stresses that rejecting this view does not render life meaningless. Rather one can find meaning for oneself; one can become an adult and stand on their own feet. The Christian replies that being part of a god’s plan assures that life is meaningful, that life is moving toward an end that transcends the individual. What then is this noble plan or end for which the gods have created the world?

Two problems immediately confront us: 1) how can the purpose be grand enough to justify all the suffering in the world? And 2) the story of how the plan is brought to fruition involves morally objectionable concepts. The whole story of a taboo on the fruit of a tree, the punishment given for violating said taboo, blood sacrifice, sacraments and priests to administer them, judgment day, and eternal hellfire are all grossly objectionable. Baier concludes “that God’s purpose cannot meaningfully be stated.”[iv] And even if it could be stated coherently it requires humans to be totally dependent on the gods, which Baier finds inconsistent with humans as independent, free, and responsible individuals.

The Meaning of Life – But how can life have meaning if all ends in death, if there is no paradise? In the Christian, worldview life has meaning because, though it is filled with the suffering that follows from the curse the gods sent after the fall, it is followed by a paradise after we die. However, if we accept that life is filled with suffering but deny the afterlife, then life appears meaningless. Why endure it all if there is no heaven? According to Baier, if we reject the afterlife, then the only way to find meaning is in this life.

Of course, we do not normally think life is worthless, a thing to be endured so as to get to heaven. If we did we would kill our friends and ourselves quickly in order to get to heaven, but the gods forbid such acts so we must accept the pain and suffering that accompany our lives. As for murder, most of us think that it does deprive persons of something valuable—their lives. And how do we decide if our lives are valuable? Most of us regard our lives as worth living if they are better than the average life, or closer to the best possible life than the worst possible life.

By contrast, the Christian view compares life to some perfect paradise, promises believers that they can enjoy this paradise, and denigrates the pleasures of this life as vile and sinful. Baier elaborates on the point: “It is now quite clear that death is simply irrelevant. If life can be worthwhile at all, then it can be so even though it be short. And if it is not worthwhile at all, then an eternity of it is simply a nightmare. It may be sad that we have to leave this beautiful world, but it is so only if and because it is beautiful. And it is no less beautiful for coming to an end. I rather suspect that an eternity of it might make us less appreciative, and in the end, it would be tedious.”[v]

The upshot of all this is that the scientific worldview helps us see meaning in this life since the worth of this life needs no longer be compared disfavorably with a perfect idealized afterlife.

Conclusion – Baier states that persons who reject a traditional religious view often assume that life is meaningless because they think there are three conditions of meaning that cannot be met given the scientific worldview. These conditions are: 1) the universe must be intelligible; 2) life must have a purpose; and 3) human hopes must be satisfied.  For Christians, these conditions can be met, thus one must either adopt a worldview incompatible with modern science, the Christian view, or accept that life is meaningless. But Baier argues that a meaningful life can be lived even without these three conditions being met. Life does have meaning in the scientific worldview—the meaning we give it—and besides there are multiple reasons for rejecting the Christian worldview.

Summary – Science explains existence better than religion. Christianity, if it were true, might give purpose to existence but does so in morally objectionable ways. So although there is no objective meaning to life, we can give subjective meaning to it. A religious worldview hinders our doing this by its emphasis on an idealized afterlife, thereby belittling the beauty and meaning of this life.

___________________________________________________________________

[i] Kurt Baier, “The Meaning of Life,” in The Meaning of Life, ed. E. D. Klemke and Steven Cahn (Oxford University Press 2008), 83.
[ii] Baier, “The Meaning of Life,” 110.
[iii] Baier, “The Meaning of Life,” 101-102.
[iv] Baier, “The Meaning of Life,” 103.
[v] Baier, “The Meaning of Life,” 109.

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20 thoughts on “Kurt Baier “The Meaning of Life”

  1. ”….one might argue that the two are in fact complementary.”

    And also, that one thing seems complementary to another, does nothing in regard to establishing if either or one of these things is true or false (of course, I am not saying anything new to you 🙂 ).

    ”People do many things without purpose or meaning, pointless labor for example, but the scientific worldview does not force us to regard our lives in this way. ”.

    An excellent point. Science basically says: ‘Here’s the facts. It’s not up to me to provide you with a purpose.’. The responsibility to find a purpose falls on us, not some brilliant and amazing god. Is it difficult? No kidding. Often we might feel ‘purposeless’ because, perhaps, we are taking things for granted. A solution is to take as examples people who are far worse off than we are.

    The problem of death of course remains, but I believe the smartest ones of us will educate ourselves on this subject. A samurai proverb I really like goes like this: ‘Great things should be taken lightly.’. Obscure at first, but what it means is that one should deliberate deeply about death, so that any fears or doubts are eradicated, at least as far as possible.

    But this god thing really makes no sense….. I am almost 50 and whilst in the past I kind of simply ignored religion, now it really appears to me as some sort of preposterous nonsense. How convenient, instead of finding the cause for an effect, as done in science, the effect is taken first and a cause is made up to explain it, that suits what one wants to believe.

    ”Moreover, those who reject the scientific worldview because they think it renders life pointless from the outside.”.

    Which is why they need religion: because they can’t take it otherwise. A pattern that I see always in common with any good philosopher, whether it’s Epictetus, Schopenhauer, Miyamoto Musashi, and many others, and from various cultures, is that of self-reliancy, i.e. more is searched internally than externally. It’s up to me to find meaning for myself, not some illusory gods.

    (A story about Musashi is particularly interesting to me, in that every samurai before a mortal duel -granted, a crazy undertaking that the same Musashi abandoned later on- , would pray before the duel started. Musashi tried to do it once, I seem to remember, and then decided that it was a ridiculous practice, and that he was responsible for his life, not gods, which was pretty remarkable for someone living during times of much superstition in the 1500’s in Japan. Sorry for the digression!).

    ”Rather one can find meaning for oneself; one can become an adult and stand on their own feet.”.

    Exactly what I meant to say before in my messy ways 🙂

    “mistakenly conclude that there can be no purpose in life because there is no purpose of life.”.

    An excellent distinction, I never thought about it in this way. It’s as if you were living in, say, a bad neighborhood…..does that has to define you, must you be as bad as others? In the end, for a purpose to be a purpose, it must be a choice, at least to some extent, and even when it’s not, maybe it could be turned into a purpose. That’s what someone like Viktor Frankl did.

    Like the story of Zeno when he lost his goods because the ship carrying them, had sunken. ‘Great’, he replied, ‘I’ll have more time for the more important things.’.

    ”Baier concludes “that God’s purpose cannot meaningfully be stated.”

    No kidding! How about the story when he wiped out a whole town because there were homosexual people, or bisexual or whatever. And then he instructed one man to offer his daughter to some pervert (I don’t remember all the frankly stupid details of the story). Nice god! If that were true, it would mean god is as brutal and stupid as the worse ones of us.

    ”…deny the afterlife, then life appears meaningless. Why endure it all if there is no heaven?”.

    Which is of course why anyone needs religion: they just can’t take it. But we all know that here. Come to think of it, the idea that denying the afterlife destroys any meaning IN life, is quite stupid, for the simple fact that once one is dead, he won’t care about an afterlife. It is as if we get caught in the trap that we can think, as living being, as if we were dead. But the dead don’t think! The afterlife is only needed while we live, and think as we were already dead. It’s interesting how we get caught up in our thinking…..when it’s right, it’s great, but when it’s wrong, the whole thing becomes stupid and/or insane.

    ”Saying that gods caused the universe merely raises the question of what caused the gods.”.

    Looking back on my life, I am so proud of having asked this question during my first days of ‘school’…. the school teacher told us very nicely that ‘we are all born from god’. I immediately stood up and asked who gave birth to god. She explained to me that I had to lift my hand first, before asking a question, and not interrupt. So I did the whole thing and asked again, and she gave me the outrageous answer that ‘god is born from nothing’. I was not, of course, convinced, but the answer confused me, (which is what sophistry is known for.).

    ”It is now quite clear that death is simply irrelevant. If life can be worthwhile at all, then it can be so even though it be short. And if it is not worthwhile at all, then an eternity of it is simply a nightmare.”.

    Excellent. I truly am now convinced that death is irrelevant. The transition will be short, we have probably felt very ill before, maybe being in bed with flu or something like that. And the dead don’t think, don’t feel sorrow or pain, so how, in the end, is death relevant to us? Only when, unfortunately, someone we knew and cared for, dies, but that’s another topic I guess. Or more accurately, a sub-topic.

    ”So although there is no objective meaning to life, we can give subjective meaning to it. ”.

    I really think that is the BEST answer I have ever read about the meaning of life!

    Thank you!

  2. Just a brief comment, since I have not read Baier. I have claimed there is a thin distinction between ethics and morality, after witnessing a decline in both over much of my life. Moreover, just when I conclude we have hit bottom, again, something else happens along, and, the distinction grows thinner still. A contributor was featured today on Oxford’s Practical Ethics blog. He wrote about fracking. Did not seem to ‘get’ my response, or got it differently than I intended. That stack of turtles is getting wobbly.
    There is something to the admonition that philosophy do things that matter (Singer).

  3. Good morning , do you know if a written copy of this lecture exists, that would allow me to read it in whole?

    Also, thanks for this article, it was an interesting read.

  4. Whether any of the foregoing is meaningful or meaningless, is conjectural and speculative. This is not nihilism, fatalism, nor is it theistic, agnostic or atheistic. It is, rather (ding!, according to Dennett), human invention and contrivance. We, as sentient beings—according to us,—create and re-create, world view…which turtles down to national view and so on to the bottom of turtledom. Every notion of meaning has an antithesis. Somewhere. Which is why ethics and morality are relative, and why the Pope and his Catholicism loathe postmodernism. Every other one of us should loathe postmodernism too, but not for theistic reasons. We ought to fear the chaos we are warned of, within those laws of thermodynamics. There is a path, with connectable dots.
    We are not there, yet. Not even close.

  5. the essay is reprinted in many anthologies including the one footnoted at the bottom of my post.

  6. As always I so appreciate the care you give to reading the essays Luigi. And your insights are always great.

    John

  7. A starting point for considering this essay is to answer these sorts of underlying questions:

    what is the meaning of meaning? What is the meaning of purpose? Meaning and purpose to whom? And for how long? Is an act or omission or a life meaningful if only in the mind of a single person? Does Meaning require or imply an Other— whether a person, an audience, or a God? Can anything be meaningful if it is only temporary? Can a life be meaningful without an afterlife?

    Is “meaning” a cognition or a sentiment? Is it rational or visceral?

  8. Infinite regress=ineffability? Such would appear to be so. Of course, true believers of several faiths assert that since God is unknowable, that makes inevitability AOK.
    Belief and meaning are different tigers—with different stripes. Some acolytes and seekers ponder scriptural texts for guidance and are disappointed. Other people look for meaning everyday among the common things around them, and, lo, they find it—hiding in plain sight.

  9. As a youngster selecting a confirmation name, I chose Thomas (the doubting apostle). Even then I was aware that the universe was an “IS,” and we Homo Sapiens were little more than recent blow-ins, as the Irish would say, creating our own meaning as situations changed. Science on the other hand has made our time on this planet easier while religion has provided comfort to many accepting a miserable existence ruled over by those claiming a divine right to rule. If one is not too dogmatic, a coexistence between the two has benefits. Even our Founding father, George Washington, a Diest, recognized the importance of religion in keeping many of the unruly inline. This being a slightly better explanation than Marx’s “Religion is the opiate of the people.” I might add that when I hear a politician talking about religion, I immediately put my hand on my wallet.

  10. you are correct. I try to address some of the “meaning of meaning” and “meaning of the question” questions in my meaning of life book. But all of those questions are prerequisites to understanding the question.

  11. I like the idea of finding meaning in the seemingly mundane things around us. In the extraordinary ordinary.

  12. I thought some more about the excellent statements I had read in the essay about the irrelevancy of death.

    It truly is irrelevant: for if I am alive, I am not dead, and therefore it makes no sense for me to be concerned about dying. And when I’ll be dead, I won’t care.

    And the afterlife is only needed by the living, since it is far more plausible to believe that there’s no afterlife, because the “non-sexy” answer is likely to be the correct one ( is it more plausible for the Bermuda Triangle to be cursed, than for the disappearances to be caused simply by natural occurrences? ).

    ” And your insights are always great.”.

    The rest of us would be nothing without the likes of you.

  13. “When we exist, death is not; and when death exists, we are not.” Epicurus

    The Bermuda Triangle is of course an urban legend. But people love to believe in mysteries.

  14. The questions underlying all this include:
    – what is the meaning of meaning? Of purpose?
    – can an experience be meaningful even if it is temporary? Is eternality a necessary ingredient of meaning?
    – is meaning a cognition or a sentiment? Rational or visceral?
    – meaning to/for whom? Is an Other an essential ingredient of meaning? Another person, a larger audience or group, a God? Can anything be meaningful if only to a single person?

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