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.