Category Archives: Meaning of Life – Classics

Summary of E. D. Klemke’s, “Living without Appeal”

E.D. Klemke (1926-2000) taught for more than twenty years at Iowa State University. He was a prolific editor and one of his best known collections is The Meaning of Life: A Reader, first published in 1981.  The following summary is of his 1981 essay: “Living Without Appeal: An Affirmative Philosophy of Life.” I find it one of the most profound pieces in the literature.

Klemke begins by stating that the topics of interest to professional philosophers are abstruse and esoteric. This is in large part justified as we need to be careful and precise in our thinking if we are to make progress in solving problems; but there are times when a philosopher ought to “speak as a man among other men.”[i] In short a philosopher must bring his analytical tools to a problem such as the meaning of life. Klemke argues that the essence of the problem for him was captured by Camus in the phrase: “Knowing whether or not one can live without appeal is all that interests me.”[ii]

Many writers in the late 20th century had a negative view of civilization characterized by the notion that society was in decay. While the problem has been expressed variously, the basic theme was that some ultimate, transcendent principle or reality was lacking. This transcendent ultimate (TU), whatever it may be, is what gives meaning to life. Those who reject this TU are left to accept meaninglessness or exalt natural reality; but either way this hope is futile because without this TU there is no meaning.

Klemke calls this view transcendentalism, and it is composed of three theses: 1) a TU exists and one can have a relationship with it; 2) without a TU (or faith in one) there is no meaning to life; and 3) without meaning human life is worthless. Klemke comments upon each in turn.

1. Regarding the first thesis, Klemke assumes that believers are making a cognitive claim when they say that a TU exists, that it exists in reality. But neither religious texts, unusual persons in history or the fact that large numbers of persons believe this provide evidence for a TU—and the traditional arguments are not thought convincing by most experts. Moreover, religious experience is not convincing since the source of the experience is always in doubt. In fact there is no evidence for the existence of a TU and those who think it a matter of faith agree; there is thus no reason to accept the claim that a TU exists. The believer could counter that one should employ faith to which Klemke responds: a) we normally think of faith as implying reasons and evidence; and b) even if faith is something different in this context Klemke claims he does not need it. To this the transcendentalist responds that such faith is needed for there to be a meaning of life which leads to the second thesis:

2. The transcendentalist claims that without faith in a TU there is no meaning, purpose, or integration.

a. Klemke firsts considers whether meaning may only exist if a TU exists. Here one might mean subjective or objective meaning. If we are referring to objective meaning Klemke replies that: i) there is nothing inconsistent about holding that objective meaning exists without a TU; and ii) there is no evidence that objective meaning exists. We find many things when we look at the universe, stars in motion for example, but meaning is not one of them. We do not discover values we create, invent, or impose them on the world. Thus there is no more reason to believe in the existence of objective meaning than there is to believe in the reality of a TU.

i. The transcendentalist might reply by agreeing that there is no objective meaning in the universe but argue that subjective meaning is not possible without a TU. Klemke replies: 1) this is false, there is subjective meaning; and 2) what the transcendentalists are talking about is not subjective meaning but rather objective meaning since it relies on a TU.

ii. The transcendentalist might reply instead that one cannot find meaning unless one has faith in a TU. Klemke replies: 1) this is false; and 2) even if it were true he would reject such faith because: “If I am to find any meaning in life, I must attempt to find it without the aid of crutches, illusory hopes, and incredulous beliefs and aspirations.” [iii] Klemke admits he may not find meaning, but he must try to find it on his own in something comprehensible to humans, not in some incomprehensible mystery. He simply cannot rationally accept meaning connected with things for which there is no evidence and, if this makes him less happy, then so be it. In this context he quotes George Bernard Shaw: “The fact that a believer is happier than a skeptic is no more to the point than the fact that a drunken man is happier than a sober one. The happiness of credulity is a cheap and dangerous quality.” [iv] 

b. Klemke next considers the claim that without the TU life is purposeless. He replies that objective purpose is not found in the universe anymore than objective meaning is and hence all of his previous criticisms regarding objective meaning apply to the notion of objective purpose.

c. Klemke now turns to the idea that there is no integration with a TU. He replies:

i. This is false; many persons are psychologically integrated or healthy without supernaturalism.

ii. Perhaps the believer means metaphysical rather than psychological integration—the idea is that humans are at home in the universe. He answers that he does not understand what this is or if anyone has achieved it, assuming it is real. Some may have claimed to be one with the universe, or something like that, but that is a subjective experience only and not evidence for any objective claim about reality. But even if there are such experiences only a few seem to have had them, hence the need for faith; so faith does not imply integration and integration does not need faith. Finally, even if faith does achieve integration for some, it does not work for Klemke since the TU is incomprehensible. So how then does Klemke live without appeal?

3. He now turns to the third thesis that without meaning (which one cannot have without the existence of or belief in a TU) life is worthless. It is true that life has no objective meaning—which can only be derived from the nature of the universe or some external agency—but that does not mean life is subjectively worthless. Klemke argues that even if there were an objective meaning “It would not be mine.” [v]  In fact he is glad there is not such a meaning since this allows him the freedom to create his own meaning. Some may find life worthless if they must create their own meaning, especially if they lack a rich interior life in which to find the meaning absent in the world. Klemke says that: “I have found subjective meaning through such things as knowledge, art, love, and work.” [vi] There is no objective meaning but this opens us the possibility of endowing meaning onto things through my consciousness of them—rocks become mountains to climb, strings make music, symbols make logic, wood makes treasures. “Thus there is a sense in which it is true … that everything begins with my consciousness, and nothing has any worth except through my consciousness.”[vii]    

Klemke concludes by revisiting the story told by Tolstoy of the man hanging on to a plant in a pit, with dragon below and mice eating the roots of the plant, yet unable to enjoy the beauty and fragrance of a rose. Yes, we all hang by a thread over the abyss of death, but still we possess the ability to give meaning to our lives. Klemke says that if he cannot do this—find subjective meaning against the backdrop of objective meaninglessness—then he ought to curse life. But if he can give life subjective meaning to life despite the inevitability of death, if he can respond to roses, philosophical arguments, music, and human touch, “if I can so respond and can thereby transform an external and fatal event into a moment of conscious insight and significance, then I shall go down without hope or appeal yet passionately triumphant and with joy.”   [viii]

Summary – The meaning of life is found in the unique way consciousness projects meaning onto an otherwise tragic reality.

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 [i] E. D. Klemke, “Living Without Appeal: An Affirmative Philosophy of Life,” in The Meaning of Life, ed. E.D Klemke and Steven Cahn (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 184-195.
[ii] Klemke, “Living Without Appeal: An Affirmative Philosophy of Life,” 185.
[iii] Klemke, “Living Without Appeal: An Affirmative Philosophy of Life,” 185.
[iv] Klemke, “Living Without Appeal: An Affirmative Philosophy of Life,” 192.
[v] Klemke, “Living Without Appeal: An Affirmative Philosophy of Life,” 193.
[vi] Klemke, “Living Without Appeal: An Affirmative Philosophy of Life,” 193-4.
[vii] Klemke, “Living Without Appeal: An Affirmative Philosophy of Life,” 194.
[viii] Klemke, “Living Without Appeal: An Affirmative Philosophy of Life,” 194.

Irving Singer: The Meaning of Life

Irving Singer (1925 – 2015) was Professor of Philosophy at MIT where he began teaching in 1958. He was a voluminous writer, and the author of Meaning in Life in three volumes, as well as the three-volume trilogy, The Nature of Love.

Singer says there are basically three positions regarding the meaning of life: a) traditional religious answers; b) nihilistic answers; and c) create our own meaning answers. Singer grants that religious answers provide many persons with meaning but he rejects them: “this pattern of belief is based on non-verifiable assumptions that exceed the limits of natural events and ordinary experience. Take away the transcendental props, which nowadays have become wobbly after centuries of criticism, and the grand edifice cannot stand. The challenge in our age is to understand how meaning can be acquired without dubious fantasying beyond the limits of our knowledge.”[i]

Singer also rejects nihilism, especially the idea that the universe is indifferent to whatever we value. Singer counters that what we want is valuable to us whether or not the universe cares. Our values originate in our human condition; they spring from but do not contradict, a world that we should not expect to care about us any more than we expect this of other inanimate things. One can consistently hold that they both act with purpose and that the universe is purposeless. Our values do not exist from the eternal perspective, but they are not arbitrary, irrational, or absurd; our values emanate from our evolved nature.

While Singer’s thoughts on the topic are vast and complex, the secret to understanding it is found in the title of his first major book on the subject, Meaning in Life: The Creation of Value (Volume 1)Meaning is something we create. Yet he is sensitive to the rejoinder that regardless of what matters to us subjectively, nothing matters objectively. Here he notes two responses: 1) if something matters to an individual then it matters, period; and 2) if nothing matters then it doesn’t matter that nothing matters. However, neither response reassure. That things matter only to us is not enough, and that things do not matter at all provides no comfort.

In response to this conundrum, we might welcome the notion that nothing matters. If we embrace this thought we may no longer be tormented by a social faux pas or even by the fact that all our efforts will finally come to nothing. We may no longer need to contrast the meager with the important; we could leave self-righteousness behind, accepting ourselves and others. But what then should we do, what then should we value? The idea that nothing matters is ultimately unhelpful.

Instead, Singer argues that accepting that nothing matters is to lose touch with one’s instincts, as we naturally find things matter to us. By simply being alive we reveal that things do matter to us; in large part being alive is about choosing what does and does not matter to us. That something matters is a prerequisite for life, and specifically what matters is what brings happiness and meaning to individuals.

Yet none of this means there is a reality behind the appearances that gives meaning to life as the optimists claim. “Our mere existence in time, as creatures whose immersion in past and future prevents us from adequately realizing the present, convinces me that the optimists are deluding themselves.”[ii] Like Emily Gibbs in Wilder’s Our Town, we seem incapable of realizing life while we live it. And while some like Plato and Whitehead have posited eternal objects as a solution to the passage of time, Singer rejects these as mere abstractions and static—unlike life.

All of this leads Singer back to the question: Is life worth living? He answers that we must participate in significant creative acts to make our lives meaningful. To clarify what he means Singer quotes George Bernard Shaw:

This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being thoroughly worn out before you are thrown on the scrap heap; the being a force of Nature instead of a feverish selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy. And also the only real tragedy in life is the being used by personally minded men for purposes which you recognize to be base. All the rest is at worst mere misfortune or mortality: this alone is misery, slavery, hell on earth; and the revolt against it is the only force that offers a man’s work to the poor artist, whom our personally minded rich people would so willingly employ as pander, buffoon, beauty monger, sentimentalizer and the like.[iii]

Singer grants that Shaw does not tell us how to be forces of nature or what it means to be true to our nature. But for Singer, this includes at a minimum an acceptance of our nature and self-love. Self-love is not the same as vanity; rather it enhances our ability to love others. And although we may not be able to love all of life, or love others as much as we love ourselves, we can see others as possible objects of our love. As everything loves itself, inasmuch as they do what they can to preserve themselves, there is love in everything. We can try to love the love that is in everything. As Singer puts it:

Those who love the love in everything, who cares about this bestowal and devote themselves to it, experience an authentic love of life. It is a love that yields its own kind of happiness and affords many opportunities for joyfulness. Can anything in nature or reality be better than that?[iv] 

Summary – We give meaning to life by loving the good in everything.

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[i] Irving Singer, Meaning in Life: The Creation of Value (New York: Free Press, 1992), 73.
[ii] Singer, Meaning in Life: The Creation of Value, 133.
[iii] George Bernard Shaw, Man and Superman, 1903.
[iv] Singer, Meaning in Life: The Creation of Value, 148.

Summary of R. M. Hare’s: “Nothing Matters?”

R.M. Hare (1919 – 2002) was an English moral philosopher who held the post of White’s Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Oxford from 1966 until 1983, after which he taught for a number of years at the University of Florida. He was one of the most important ethicists of the second half of the twentieth century.

Hare begins his essay, “Nothing Matters,” by telling the story of a happy 18-year-old Swiss boy who stayed with Hare in his house at Oxford.  After reading Albert Camus’ The Stranger, the boy’s personality changed, becoming withdrawn, sullen, and depressed. (The Stranger explores existential themes like death and meaning; its title character Meursault is emotionally alienated, detached, and innately passive.) The boy told Hare that after reading Camus he had become convinced that nothing matters. Hare found it extraordinary that the boy was so affected.

As a philosopher concerned with the meaning of terms, Hare asked the young boy what “matters” means, what does it mean to matter or be important? The boy said that to say something matters “is to express concern about that something.”[i] But Hare wondered whose concern is important here? When we say the something matters, the question arises, “matters to whom?” Usually, it’s the speaker’s concern that is expressed, but it could be someone else’s concern. We often say things like “it matters to you,” or “it doesn’t matter to him.” In these cases, we refer not to our own concern, but to someone else’s.

In Camus’ novel the phrase “nothing matters” could express the view of the author, the main character, or the reader (the young boy.) Now it’s not Camus’ unconcern that is being expressed since he was concerned enough to write the novel—writing the novel obviously mattered to Camus. It is clear in the novel that the main character does think that nothing matters—he doesn’t care about hardly anything. Still, Hare thinks that even Meursault is concerned about some things.

Hare doesn’t think it possible to be concerned about nothing at all, since we always choose to do one thing rather than another thereby revealing, however slightly, what matters to us. At the end of Camus’ novel, Meursault is so upset by the priest’s offer of religion that he attacks him in a rage. This display of passion shows that something did matter to Meursault, otherwise he would have done nothing. Yet even supposing that nothing does matter to a fictional character: why should that matter to the Swiss boy?  In fact, the boy admitted that he cares about many things, which is to say that things do matter to him. Hare thinks the boy’s problem was not to find things that matter, but to prioritize them. He needed to find out what he valued.

Hare claims that our values come from our own wants and the imitation of others. Maturing in large part is bringing these two desires together—the desire to have our own values and to be like others with the former taking priority. “In the end…to say that something matters for us, we must ourselves be concerned about it; other people’s concern is not enough, however much in general we may want to be like them.”[ii] Nonetheless we often develop our own values by imitating others. For instance, we may pretend to like philosophy because we think our philosophy professor is cool, and then gradually we develop a taste for it. This process often works in the reverse; my parents want me to do x, so I do y. Eventually, through this process of conforming and non-conforming, we slowly develop our own values.

Hare concludes that things did matter to the young boy and he was just imitating Meursault by saying that nothing matters, just as he was imitating him by smoking. What the boy did not understand was that matter is a word that expresses concern; it is not an activity. Mattering is not something things do, like chattering. So the phrase “my wife chatters,” is not like the phrase “my wife matters.” The former refers to an activity; the latter expresses my concern for her. The problem comes when we confuse our concern with an activity. Then we start to look in the world for mattering and when we do not find things actively doing this mattering, we get depressed. We do not observe things mattering, things matter to us if we care about them. Mattering doesn’t describe something things do, but something that happens to us when we care about things. To say nothing matters is hypocritical; we all care about something. (Even if what we care about is that nothing seems to matter.)

As for his Swiss friend, Hare says he was no hypocrite; he was just confused about what the word matter meant. Hare also suggests that we are the kinds of beings who generally care about things, and those who sincerely care about almost nothing are just unusual. In the end, we cannot get rid of values—we are creatures that value things. Of course when confronted with various values, so many different things about which to be concerned, it is easy to through up our hands and say that nothing matters. When confronted with this perplexity about what to be concerned about, about what to value, Hare says we might react in one of two ways. First, we might reevaluate our values and concerns to see if they are really ours; or second, we might stop thinking about what is truly of concern altogether. Hare counsels that we follow the former course, as the latter alternative leads to stagnation: “We content ourselves with the appreciation of those things, like eating, which most people can appreciate without effort, and never learn to prize those things whose true value is apparent only to those who have fought hard to achieve it…”[iii]

Summary – We all generally care about some things, some things do matter to us. We don’t find this mattering in the world; it is something we bestow upon things and persons. Hare suggests we find value (or meaning) in things which are really worthwhile.

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[i] R. M. Hare, “Nothing Matters,” in The Meaning of Life, ed. E.D Klemke (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 43.
[ii] Hare, “Nothing Matters,” 45.
[iii] Hare, “Nothing Matters,” 47.

Summary of Bertrand Russell’s, “A Free Man’s Worship”

Bertrand Arthur William Russell, 3rd Earl Russell, (1872 – 1970) was a British philosopher, logician, mathematician, historian, atheist, and social critic. He is, along with his protégé Ludwig Wittgenstein, one of the founders of analytic philosophy and he is widely held to be one of the 20th century’s most important logicians. He co-authored, with A. N. Whitehead, Principia Mathematica, an attempt to ground mathematics in logic. His writings were voluminous and covered a vast range of topics including politics, ethics, and religion. Russell was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1950 “in recognition of his varied and significant writings in which he champions humanitarian ideals and freedom of thought.” Russell is thought by many to be the greatest philosopher of the 20th century.

Russell’s view of the meaning of life is set forth most clearly in his 1903 essay: “A Free Man’s Worship.” It is truly one of the classics of the meaning of life literature. It begins with an imaginary conversation about the history of creation between Mephistopheles, the devil, and Dr. Faustus, a man who sells his soul to the devil in return for power and wealth. In Russell’s story, God had grown weary of the praise of the angels and thought it might be more amusing to gain the praise of beings that suffered. Hence God created the world.

Russell describes the epic cosmic drama, and how after eons of time the earth and human beings came to be. Humans, seeing how fleeting and painful life is before their inevitable death, vowed that there must be some purpose outside of this world. And though following their instincts led to sin and the need for God’s forgiveness, humans believed that God had a good plan leading to a harmonious ending for humankind. God, convinced of human gratitude for the suffering he had caused, destroyed man and all creation.

Russell argues that this not-so-uplifting story is consistent with the world-view of modern science. To elaborate he penned some of the most pessimistic and often quoted lines in the history of twentieth-century philosophy:

That man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labors of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins–all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.[i]

Still, despite the ultimate triumph of vast universal forces, humans are superior to this unconscious power in important ways—they are free and self-aware. This is the source of their value. But most humans do not recognize this, instead choosing to placate and appease the gods in hope of reprieve from everlasting torment. They refuse to believe that their gods do not deserve praise, worshiping them despite the pain the gods inflict. Ultimately they fear the power of the gods, but such power is not a reason for respect and worship. For respect to be justified, creation must really be good. But the reality of the world belies this claim; the world is not good and submitting to its blind power enslaves and ultimately kills us.

Instead, let us courageously admit that the world is bad, Russell says, but nevertheless love truth, goodness, beauty, and perfection, despite the fact that the universe will destroy such things. By rejecting this universal power and the death it brings, we find our true freedom. While our lives will be taken from us by the universe, our thoughts can be free in the face of this power. In this way, we maintain our dignity.

However, we should not respond to the disparity between the facts of the world and its ideal form with indignation, for this binds our thoughts to the evil of the universe. Rather we ought to follow the Stoics, resigned to the fact that life does not give us all we want. By renouncing desires we achieve resignation, while the freedom of our thoughts can still create art, philosophy, and beauty. But even these goods ought not to be desired too ardently, or we will remain indignant; rather we must be resigned to accept that our free thoughts are all that life affords in a hostile universe. We must be resigned to the existence of evil, and to the fact that death, pain, and suffering will take everything from us. The courageous bear their suffering nobly and without regret; their submission to power an expression of their wisdom.

Still, we need not be entirely passive in our renunciation. We can actively create music, art, poetry, and philosophy, thereby incorporating the ephemeral beauty of this world into our hearts, achieving the most that humans can achieve. Yet such achievements are difficult, for we must first encounter despair and dashed hopes so that we may be somewhat freed from the Fate that will engulf us all—freed by the wisdom, insight, joy, and tenderness that our encounter with darkness brings. As Russell puts it:

When, without the bitterness of impotent rebellion, we have learnt both to resign ourselves to the outward rule of Fate and to recognize that the non-human world is unworthy of our worship, it becomes possible at last so to transform and refashion the unconscious universe, so to transmute it in the crucible of imagination, that a new image of shining gold replaces the old idol of clay.[ii]

In our minds, we can create beauty in the face of Fate and tragedy, and thereby thwart nature to some extent. Life is tragedy, but we need not give in; instead, we can find the “beauty of tragedy” and embrace it. In death and pain, there is sanctity, awe, and a feeling of the sublime. Such feelings allow us to reject petty and trivial desires, and to transcend the loneliness and futility we experience when confronted with vast forces which are both indifferent and inimical to us. To take the tragedy of life into one’s heart, and respond with renunciation, wisdom, and charity, is the ultimate victory for man: “To abandon the struggle for private happiness, to expel all eagerness of temporary desire, to burn with passion for eternal things—this is emancipation, and this is the free man’s worship.”[iii] For Russell the contemplation of Fate and tragedy are the way we subdue them.

As for our fellow companions, all we can do is to ease their sorrow and sufferings, and not add to the misery that Fate and death will bring. In this, we can take pride. Nonetheless, the universe continues its inevitable march toward its own death, and humans are condemned to lose everything. All we can do is to cherish those brief moments when thought and love ennoble us, and reject the cowardly terror of less virtuous persons who worship Fate. We must ignore the tyranny of reality that continually undermines all of our hopes and aspirations. As Russell so eloquently puts it:

Brief and powerless is man’s life; on him and all his race the slow, sure doom falls pitiless and dark. Blind to good and evil, reckless of destruction, omnipotent matter rolls on its relentless way; for man, condemned today to lose his dearest, tomorrow himself to pass through the gate of darkness, it remains only to cherish … the lofty thoughts that ennoble his little day; disdaining the coward terrors of the slave of Fate, to worship at the shrine that his own hands have built; undismayed by the empire of chance, to preserve a mind free from the wanton tyranny that rules his outward life; proudly defiant of the irresistible forces that tolerate, for a moment, his knowledge and condemnation, to sustain alone, a weary but unyielding Atlas, the world that his own ideals have fashioned despite the trampling march of unconscious power.[iv]

Summary – There is no objective meaning in life. We should be resigned to this, but strive nonetheless to actively create beauty, truth, and perfection. In this way, we achieve some freedom from the eternal forces that will destroy us.

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[i] Bertrand Russell, “A Free Man’s Worship,” in The Meaning of Life, ed. E.D Klemke and Steven Cahn (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 56.
[ii] Russell, “A Free Man’s Worship,” 59.
[iii] Russell, “A Free Man’s Worship,” 60.
[iv] Russell, “A Free Man’s Worship,” 61.

Summary of Kurt Baier’s “The Meaning of Life:”

BaierKurt 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, 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 complimentary. 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 purposes. 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 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 they could be stated coherently they require 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 maligned in comparison 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. Those 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 on 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. Religion gives purpose to existence but does so in morally objectionable ways. 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.

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[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.