Category Archives: Book Reviews – Philosophy

Summary of Samuel Scheffler’s, Death and the Afterlife

In the recent book, Death and the AfterlifeSamuel Scheffler offer two imaginative thought experiments in an attempt to understand our attitudes toward death and meaning.

In the first, the doomsday scenario, we are asked to imagine that we will live out our normal lifespan, but that thirty days after our deaths an asteroid will destroy the earth and all life on it. Needless to say most of us would find this a depressing prospect, independent of the fact that we would not die prematurely. Scheffler argues that this shows that the lives of others who live on after we die, what he calls the “collective afterlife,” matter more to us than we ordinarily think, and that our individual survival matters less to us than we normally suppose.

In the second, the infertility scenario, we again live out our normal lives but must do so with the knowledge that the species is infertile. With the last human death, humanity dies out. Scheffler argues that this knowledge would demoralize us, undermining our attempt to live happy lives. Again we see that the collective afterlife is more important to us than we usually realize.

Scheffler then contrasts the relative calm we feel about the fact that all those now living will one day be dead, with the horror we experience thinking about either of the above scenarios. This suggests that the fact that we and those we love won’t exist in the future bothers us less than that some unknown people won’t exist in the future. As Scheffler says:

the coming into existence of people we do not know and love matters more to us than our own survival and the survival of the people we do know and love. . . . This is a remarkable fact which should get more attention than it does in thinking about the nature and limits of our personal egoism.

MARK JOHNSTON REPLIES

But is it true that we really care more about potential people in the future than our loved ones now? This idea was challenged in a piece in the January 02, 2014  edition of the Boston Review by Mark Johnston entitled, “Is Life a Ponzi Scheme? Johnston asks us to imagine that the population of our tribe is half of humanity, and our tribe is also infertile. Would we really prefer the death of our tribe if we knew that the remaining half of humanity will repopulate the planet to its previous levels in a few generations, and then all of them will die a few generations later? Johnston thinks most of us would answer no to this question, and that his thought experiment belies Scheffler’s claim that we care more about unknown future persons than our present loved ones.

Johnston also argues that it is not just any future for humanity that matters to us, but rather valuable ones. Thus a future in which gangs fight for cosmic space or we are food for aliens is not better than one in which we perished altogether. Johnston prefers we perish rather than suffer such terrible fates. This leads him to consider whether our lives have meaning: a) if humanity has a future or; b) only if humanity has a valuable future. The problem with either of these is that if value depends on the future, then value will eventually be undermined—since the universe will ultimately end.

To avoid such a depressing conclusion Johnston advises us to value our lives now rather than holding them hostage to some future. And we should not be demoralized by the thought of our own or humanity’s death: “The kind of value that properly calls forth joy is not something that waits to be validated by the collective life to come. As a consequence, we already live in a rich ecology of value that surrounds us here and now, no matter what happens in the future.”

MESSERLY REPLIES

I challenged Johnston’s views in my recent book: The Meaning of Life: Religious, Philosophical, Transhumanist, and Scientific Perspectives. There I argue that what I call complete meaning is not possible without (individual/collective) immortality. That is not to say that mortal beings can’t live meaningful lives, just that they would be completely meaningful only if they possessed both infinite quantity and quantity—only if they didn’t end. In my view this is possible because future technologies may make death optional and grant us immortality if we so choose.

This argument for immortality provided by future technologies is buttressed by Scheffler’s insight that we care about the future of our descendants. We care about the future because if there is no future then life is (nearly) pointless. Johnston is right that futurity can’t provide meaning if there is no future, and in that case all we can do is value the present as he counsels. But if there is a future of value and meaning—brought about by science and technology—then our role in bringing about that future gives life meaning. As for the eventual death of the universe, this too is uncertain given considerations of the multiverse, and the possibility of advanced intelligence determining the fate if the universe when they become sufficiently powerful.

Without the prospect of a good and lasting future for our descendants then, there is little or no meaning to our present lives. And that is what Scheffler’s thought experiments so beautifully and artfully illuminate.

Death and the Afterlife

Summary of Phillip Appleman’s: The Labyrinth: God, Darwin, and the Meaning of Life


A Young Version                                                  Today, in his late 80s

Philip D. Appleman (1926 –  ) is an American poet, a Darwin scholar, and Professor Emeritus of English at Indiana University. He has recently published a new book: The Labyrinth: God, Darwin, and the Meaning of Life.

I begin with an outline of the book, and follow with a detailed summary and commentary.

Outline

Here is my reconstruction of the basic points from Appleman’s book. It does not really contain a philosophical argument in the traditional sense, but is more like a last lecture or statement of his creed. (For more about the idea of a last lecture, see Randy Pausch’s moving book, The Last Lecture.) 

Part 1 – We Invented Religion

  • As we move through the labyrinth of life we wonder, who are we?
  • We are not a god’s chosen people, we are primates with big brains.
  • These brains invent gods who we believe tell us to conquer the earth.
  • Believing in gods is easy, thinking for ourselves is hard.
  • The gods promise immortality, thereby breeding contempt for the world.

Part 2 – Religion is a Horrible Thing

  • Believers are often horrible people, fanatical and anti-social.
  • Religions don’t want to be judged by their deeds, but by their rhetoric.
  • Religions want to preserve themselves.
  • Religions have been, and still are, a terrible force in human history.
  • If taken seriously, religion leads to turning your back on the world.
  • But most don’t take it seriously, they want the things of this world.

Part 3  – We Create Meaning in Life in the Face of Death

  • By giving up religion and immortality we can find meaning in this world.
  • We create our own meaning, we don’t get it from absurd theology.
  • Instead we should realistically assess our situation.
  • If we do, we’ll find that we are products of evolution.
  • We will die, but we can die with dignity like Darwin did.
  • Darwin rejected the sadism and superstition of religion, as should we.
  • Religion consoles us with promises of the afterlife, but provides no evidence.
  • We have a right to rage against death because life is precious.

Part 4 – Morality is a Biological Phenomenon

  • We find the origins of morality in the desire for self-preservation.
  • In evolutionary history we find that to survive we must cooperate.
  • But religion co-opted morality, uniting it with dogma.
  • To get people to be moral religion promises heaven and hell.
  • But this doesn’t work. For morality we must look to science.

Part 5 – Science Can Play a Role in Morality

  • Science explains human nature and how we can flourish.
  • Science shows we are connected with the entire ecosystem.
  • Knowledge is an important ingredient of conscience.
  • Most won’t engage in rigorous thought, but a few of us can try.

Part 6 – The Law and the World Are Human Made

  • The law  progresses to the extent it distances itself from religion.
  • By abandoning religion we can live better lives and make a better world.
  • We can make a heaven on earth.

Review

It is a short book, only about 60 pages, but it is carefully and conscientiously crafted, so I will quote extensively from its beautiful prose. Here are its first sentences:

The simpler the society, the cruder the problems: we can imagine Neanderthals crouching in fear—of the tiger, of the dark, of thunder—but we do not suppose they had the leisure for exquisite neuroses. We have changed all that. Replete with leisure time and creature comforts, but nervously dependent on a network of unfathomable technologies, impatient with our wayward social institutions, repeated betrayed by our spiritual” leaders, and often deceived by our own extravagant hopes, we wander the labyrinth asking ourselves: what went wrong? The answers must begin with our expectations. What is it we want? And why? What kind of people are we? (11)

We are, as Appleman knows, “A beast condemned to be more than a beast: that is the human condition.” We know our lineage, we are brothers of primates, sharing over ninety-eight percent of our DNA with chimpanzees. The legacy of more than one hundred and fifty years of scientific research confirms this central fact—we are modified monkeys who came to dominate other animals because of our large brains. But the brains that created tools also imagined they were the chosen people of the gods, that all other flora and fauna were expendable. This was our true loss of innocence. The notion that “God wills it” serves aggressor nations and species alike. The assault on nature came with the god’s permission but it was an arrogant assumption, dissociated from reality, unstable and self-destructive. “In our fantasies of godlike superiority are the seeds of neurosis, and when they bear their dragon fruit we run for the mind healers.”(14)

God is an invention of our imagination and for many people a seductive idea. (Appleman has in mind the Judeo-Christian God, but this idea would be applicable to other gods as well.) “People in general have never exhibited much passion for the disciplined pursuit of knowledge, but they are always tempted by easy answers. God is an easy answer.” (16) A brain capable of asking questions without answers satisfies itself that some god is the answer, even though this is no answer—the term god only hides our ignorance.

But belief in the gods survives because it is useful. Gods sanction war and, given that they are omnipotent and omniscient, a multitude of evils too. And they receive undeserved praise for saving our lives when, for example, thousands have just died in natural disasters. After all, there must be some reason why we were saved, we think, because our brains see patterns everywhere. In the stars they see Aquarius and Capricorn, in the heavens they see angels and archangels. No wonder religion hates knowledge—the gods depend upon our ignorance.

Learning is hard work; imagining is easy. Given our notorious capacity for indolence, is it any wonder that school is so unpopular, faith so attractive? So we fumble through the labyrinth of our lives, making believe we have heard answers to our questions, even to our prayers. And yet, deep down, we know that something is out of joint, has always been out of joint. (18)

Beginning as infants, selfish and full of desire, we soon realize that growing up means limiting our desires. By contrast theologies offer infinite delight—it’s all so tempting. Of course we can’t be sure we’ll win the eternal prize because that depends on God’s grace, given or withheld according to the capriciousness of the gods. Still most assume we are favored by the gods. Thus religion panders to childish wishes, leaving us unfit to deal with reality. In turns our attention away from this world toward the afterlife, and it often leads to horrific behavior.

Appleman says that the immoral people he has known were mostly believers, whereas his agnostic and atheist friends were quite virtuous. This is because religious people can afford to be immoral, all they need to do is ask forgiveness. “If God exists, as the old saying should go, then anything is permissible. Nonreligious people have no easy way out. Their moral accountability is not to some whimsical spirit in the sky, famous for easy absolutions … They must account to themselves and live with their own conduct…” (23)

Appleman also argues that unbelievers “are less perverted by the antisocial tendencies of religious thinking, including the seductions of fanaticism … To the fanatical mind, the act of pure religion has always been an act of pure violence …” (24-25) He provides numerous examples of religious wars and cruelty to buttress his argument, making his point in powerful prose: “Religion stalks across the face of human history, knee-deep in the blood of innocents, clasping its red hands in hymns of praise to an approving God.” (27) Yet we are all supposed to approach religion with deference, despite the fact that in the holy people “we encounter a veritable Chaucerian gallery of rogues and felons.” (27-28) Appleman provides a long list of such characters from just the last few years alone.

The religions of the world don’t wish to be judged by their deeds. They are not interested in their victims but in “the towering cathedral, and soaring rhetoric, and official parades of good intentions.” (29) Appelman attributes this public relations success to the organizational ability of religions. Beginning with visions, prophecies and other subjective experiences the priesthoods became organized. Subsequently, the original vision, whether it was for good or ill, is forgotten:

… and the organization itself becomes the object of self-preservation, aggrandizing itself in monumental buildings, pompous rituals, mazes of rules and regulations, and a relentless grinding toward autocracy. None of the other priesthoods managed all this as successfully as the early Christian clergy … Thus the “Roman” Church created for itself a kind of secular immortality sustained by a tight network of binding regulations, rigid hierarchies, and local fiefdoms, which people are born into, or are coerced or seduced into—and then find that confining maze almost impossible to escape from.” (30-31)

Large religious organizations create great problems—crusades, inquisitions, war, genocide and burning scientists at the stake. Today the Roman Catholic Church, to take one example, has used its power and influence to oppose birth control. Needless to say this policy leads hunger, poverty, disease, death, the degradation of the environment and more. Under the guise of doing good the religious wreck lives. “There is a word for this kind of activity, talking about love while blighting people’s lives: it is hypocrisy.” (32-33)

The result of this fascination with otherworldly concerns manifests itself in our distaste for the satisfactions of this world. If we truly believed in the gods, then we wouldn’t care about art, music, love, sex, money and power. But most people only give lip service to their religion, almost no one sacrifices the things of this world for the afterlife ” … few people are abjuring the world; we are taking the cash and letting the credit go …” (34) Still many can’t let go of worrying about the afterlife or rejecting their native religion. But Appleman counsels us to reject “the bribes of the afterlife” and our childish longing for gods, we can truly find meaning in this world precisely because what’s here is not eternal.

Doomed to extinction, our loves, our work, our friendships, our tastes are all painfully precious. We look about us, on the streets and in the subways, and discover that we are beautiful because we are mortal, priceless because we are so rare in the universe and so fleeting. Whatever we are, whatever we make of ourselves: that is all we will ever have—and that, in its profound simplicity, is the meaning of life. (35)

We are beasts that ponder the meaning of life. We were not designed by gods, there is no design outside of us, only the design we create. From our self-chosen actions we get our happiness, our truth, our freedom, our wisdom, and our meaning. But how can there be meaning if there is death? Our brains provide the reasons. Rejecting the “mumbo-jumbo of theologians,” we search for the truth.

Cosmic evolution gave birth to our sun and planet; chemical evolution brought forth atoms, molecules and cells; biological evolution led to us.  The process ran itself, there was no intelligent designer. But consciousness emerged, we are here, and within limits we are free. And yet we will die.

Charles Darwin died the night of April 18th, 1882. A biographer says that his last words were: “I am not in the least afraid to die.” How do we account for his courage? Appleman gives two reasons.

First, he was a mature man no longer frightened by superstitions. He once studied for the clergy, but he had “gradually come … to see that the Old Testament from its manifestly false history of the world, with the Tower of Babel, the rainbow at sign, etc., etc., and from it’s attributing to God the feelings of a revengeful tyrant, was no more to be trusted than the sacred books of the Hindoos, or the beliefs of any barbarian.” (42) He also believed religion was sadistic. “I can indeed hardly see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true; for if so the plain language of the text seems to show that the men who do not believe, and this would include my Father, Brother, and almost all my best friends, will be everlastingly punished. And this is a damnable doctrine.” (43)

Darwin knew that death is natural, we die like all the other animals. The non-religious don’t fear death, but they rage at being mortal. Religion responds differently.

Religion says: console yourself, there will be another chance, another life. Two things are wrong with this. First, there is not a shred of evidence for it and, second, it is a sop, consciously intended to blunt our rage and regret, thus dehumanizing us. Our anger at death is precious, testifying to the value of life; our sorrow for family and friends testifies to our devotion. (45-46)

Confronted with death we should see that meaning is found in what we have done, and what we have created—meaning can’t be imposed on us from the outside. Darwin was thus content, for “Darwin on his deathbed could look back on forty-three years of devotion to a loving wife, forty-five years of devotion to a grand idea … He had made his commitments and he had kept them.” (46-47)

If the meaning of life is simply the fabric of our whole existence, then no wonder our brief careers seem so illogically precious to us, so worth clinging to. Self-preservation … it’s always there, the fundamental imperative of life: survival. Preachers may sneer at this, but notice: they continue to pass the collection plate. (47)

To understand morality we begin with self-preservation. However, we soon find that in order to survive we must extend the sphere of our moral concerns beyond self to family, tribe, nation, and to the planet itself. Fortunately, cooperation is in our DNA. Darwin knew that “our social behavior might be to some extent inherited.” (49) He knew that our social instincts contain tendencies to be both selfish and altruistic.

“Once our species evolved to social consciousness and communal morality, people naturally began to express their social approval with praise, and to enforce their disapproval with contempt, anger, and ostracism.” (50) Long before religion codified morality, secular communities enforced it. Then we invented God, “thousands of years after evolution had developed our social instincts, religion co-opted our socially evolved good impulses and encumbered them with myriad disparate, controversial, and contradictory gods, priesthoods, scriptures, myths, and dogmas.” (51)

Still many are motivated by their more base instincts. Religion tries to deal with this problem with eternal reward or punishment.

But neither of these sanctions has ever worked very well, which is why (among other things) totally immersed Southern Baptists always performed the lynchings for the Ku Klux Klan; why nice Catholic boys have always run the Mafia; why a devout Jew murdered his peace-loving prime minister; and why, in a notorious American election, pious white churchgoing Christians voted two to one for a declared Nazi. (52)

The problem isn’t that people don’t know about right and wrong, but that they don’t care about it. How can people be taught to care? By social and political leaders? We know that survival depends ultimately on cooperation, but powerful politicians, financiers, and business people are among the most selfish people in society. Appleman’s sarcasm is caustic. The ruling class is strong, they “… all have enough strength to bear the misfortune of others.” (54-55)

For morals we might look instead to science:

… science strictly speaking has no ethics … But our ethics … can hardly emerge from a vacuum … Scientific knowledge has at the bare minimum a selective ethical function, identifying false issues that we can reasonably ignore: imagined astrological influence on our moral decisions, for instance. Science offers us the opportunity of basing our ethical choices on factual data … rather than on misconceptions or superstitions … (55)

Of course we can misuse scientific knowledge, but generally the growth of science corresponds to the social progress. Moreover the scientific mind discovered that we are one species on one planet, connected to other living things on whom our own survival depends. We should replace the arrogant claim that humans have dominion over the earth with a recognition that we can’t survive without the ecosystem.

The idea of the connection between all living things is particularly aroused by evolutionary biology. From this connection can spring a new ethics. As Darwin put it:

The moral faculties are generally and justly esteemed as of higher value than the intellectual powers. But we should bear in mind that the activity of the mind … is one of the fundamental though secondary bases of conscience. This affords the strongest argument for educating and stimulating in all possible ways the intellectual faculties of every human being. (60)

Appleman contrasts this intellectual outlook with the religious one. Religions often look at the evil in the world as acts of the gods or signs of the end of the world. (Think of those today who claim their god will take care of climate change.) Darwin understood such people: “To those who fully admit the immortality of the human soul, the destruction of our world will not appear so dreadful.” (61)

Today we live in a world where people are comforted by “sensational crime, sporting events, the sexual behavior of celebrities, and religious escapism. Nourished on such pap, many people find themselves lost in the labyrinth of neurosis and succumbing to easy answers and seductive promises: the priests need not soon fear for their jobs.” (61-62) Most people won’t be converted to rigorous thought, but Appleman believes there is value in speaking out.

Every small light in the pervading darkness, from Giordano Bruno and Galileo to Thomas Paine and Charles Darwin to Margaret Sanger and Elizabeth Cady Stanton is valuable and necessary. Like characters in a perpetual Chekhov drama, we can imagine a more enlightened future age looking back on our time with distaste and incredulity but nevertheless acknowledging those voices in our wilderness who kept the Enlightenment alive until humanity in general became worthy of it. (62)

Moreover the entire history of the law, Appleman says, records our transition from barbaric religious punishment and religious sanctioned slavery to a more humane secular law. The basis of morality is a social contract. However, if some don’t benefit from the contract, they will resent the current order. In the long run they will not be satisfied with the claim that all will be well in heaven. “What is required is a secular solution, which works the other way around: Improve the society and most people will behave better.” (Look at the Scandinavian countries.)

In the past slavery was defended by “conservatives, slave-owners, and most religions.” We look back with horror, as our future our descendents will at the way we treat blacks, women, and other minorities.

Humane and liberal societies gradually come to a more sensitized understanding of the plight of the less fortunate and devise sensible ways of assisting them; the underclass then feels less trapped, becomes less confrontational, and is less motivated to break the social contract. Good laws and good customs precede good behavior. (67)

In short, morality is in everyone’s self-interest. A more moral society would encourage people to reflect about their own lives, to learn about the world, to reject superstition and assess human problems with reason and compassion.

Free from the racking fear of deprivation and from the labyrinth of brutal religious animosities, free from holy nonsense and pious bigotry, living in a climate of openness, tolerance, and free inquiry, people would be able to create meaning and value in their lives: in the joy of learning, the joy of helping others, the joy of good health and physical activity and sensual pleasure, the joy of honest labor; in the richness of art and music and literature and the adventures of the free mind; and in the joys of nature and wildlife and landscape—in short, in the ephemeral but genuine joy of the human experience.

That joy does not depend upon mysticism or dogma or priestly admonition. It is the joy of human life, here and now, unblemished by the dark shadow of whimsical forces in the sky. Charles Darwin’s example, both in his work and in his life, help us to understand that that is the only “heaven” we will ever know. And it is the only one we need. (68-69)

Commentary 

That humans created religion is self-evident. I suppose that doesn’t falsify all of its claims, but it certainly sheds doubt on them. Generally religion is a horrible thing, the cause of an untold amount of suffering. Still, contra Appleman, I admit to having known some good religious persons, although on the whole I have found them morally and intellectually inferior to non-believers. That has been my experience, no doubt others have had theirs. But I’m amazed by how many truly horrific believers that I’ve known.

The question of creating meaning is one I’ve address at length in my recent book. Suffice it to say that I think subjective meaning is a part of, but not all of, the answer to the question of life’s meaning. If it were all of the answer, then one who enjoys torturing children could be said to have a meaningful life. The question of our attitude toward death is one of the most vexing I have ever faced. I don’t know if I should accept it, rage against it, or get a cryonics policy. But I do believe that death should be optional.

Morality is a biological phenomenon, and there is no morality without a knowledge of human nature. Biology is the science which tells us about human nature. Law too is a human invention, and we are better off distancing ourselves from religious moralities. (Having said that, the penal system in the United States is extraordinarily barbaric. It will stain the historical view of this country for generations.) Finally abandoning religion and other superstition is a first step to making a better world.

I thank Professor Appleman for his beautifully written and passionate prose.

Review of Bryan Magee’s, “Ultimate Questions”

magee

(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, June 9, 2016.)

Bryan Magee (1930 – ) has had a multifaceted career as a professor of philosophy, music and theater critic, BBC broadcaster, public intellectual and member of Parliament. He has starred in two acclaimed television series about philosophy: Men of Ideas (1978) and The Great Philosophers (1987). He is best known as a popularizer of philosophy. His easy-to-read books, which have been translated into more than twenty languages, include:

Confessions of a Philosopher: A Personal Journey Through Western Philosophy from Plato to Popper;
The Great Philosophers: An Introduction to Western Philosophy;
Talking Philosophy: Dialogues with Fifteen Leading Philosophers;
Philosophy and the Real World: An Introduction to Karl Popper;
The Story of Philosophy: 2,500 Years of Great Thinkers from Socrates to the Existentialists and Beyond;
and Men of Ideas.

Now, at age 86, he has written Ultimate Questions, a summary of a lifetime of thinking about “the fundamentals of the human condition.” Its basic theme is that we know little about the human condition, since reality comes to us filtered through the senses and the limitations of our intellect and language. And, according to Magee, the most honest response to this predicament is agnosticism.

Magee begins considering that “What we call civilization has existed for something like six thousand years.” If you remember that there have always been some individuals who have lived a hundred years this means that “the whole of civilization has occurred with the successive lifetimes of sixty people …” Furthermore, “most people are as provincial in time as they are in space: they huddle down into their time and regard it as their total environment…” They don’t think about the little sliver of time and space that they occupy. Thus begins this meditation on agnosticism.

Furthermore, we are ignorant of knowledge of our ultimate nature: “We, who do not know what we are, have to fashion lives for ourselves in a universe of which we know little and understand less.” Yet this situation doesn’t lead Magee to despair. Instead he calls for “an active agnosticism,” which is “a positive principle of procedure, an openness to the fact that we do not know, followed by intellectually honest enquiry in full receptivity of mind.” If he had to choose a tag he says, it would be “the agnostic.”

However most people can’t live with uncertainty, with pieces missing from the jigsaw puzzle as Magee puts it, and they replace the unknown with religion. But religion “is a form of unjustified evasion, a failure to face up to the reality of ignorance as our natural and inevitable starting-point.” The challenge of life is to live and die in a world that we don’t understand “without either … denying the mysteriousness of it or … grasping at supernatural explanations.”

Yet he takes comfort in what he calls the “us-dependent,” rather than the independent or isolated: “One essential aspect of our situation is that we are social creatures, indeed social creations: each one of us is created by two other people. If we are not cared for by them or someone taking their place, we die. Our existence and our survival both require active involvement by others.”(What a beautiful rejoined to all those supposedly self-made men. Those who were born on third base and think they hit a triple.)

In the broadest light, the book attempts to reply to the assertion: “I know that I exist, but I do not know what I am.” But Magee, after decades of searching, replies that none of us know the answers to the big questions. As for faith, Magee answers firmly: “I can think of no other context in which people are commended for the firmness of beliefs for which there is little or no evidence.” Magee accepts that some need the comfort of religion because, for example, they can’t accept their own death, and he leaves such people undisturbed. “But I do regard such people as no longer committed to the pursuit of truth.”

Magee believes contra Hume that he has a self “but I am unable to fathom its inner nature, and I have no idea what happens to it when I die.” But he rejects the view that being unable to answer ultimate questions implies that asking them is worthless, inasmuch as some understanding of our selves and the world can still be attained. “We may not know where we are, but there is a world of difference between being lost in daylight and being lost in the dark.” Still none of this implies relativism, as reason and evidence support some ideas  and theories over others. Some things are more likely to be true and rational people proportion their assent to evidence.

As for death, “the prospect of permanent oblivion” is painful. In death the magic of the world and our consciousness of it vanishes. Nonetheless, the brave face this truth without comforting themselves with false narratives. Magee says that at the moment of death “I may then be in the position of a man whose candle goes out and plunges him into pitch blackness at the very instant when he thought he was about to find what he was looking for.” These are the words of a brave and fearless intellect. What a wonderful book.

My New Book on Human Nature

I have just published a new book, Who Are We?: Religious, Philosophical, Scientific and Transhumanist Theories Of Human Nature. The ebook is available on Amazon as an ebook for $4.99. It fundamentally addresses the question “Who Are We?” Or, asked from an individual perspective, “Who am I?” Surely these are fascinating questions.

The book examines religious, philosophical, scientific and transhumanist theories of human nature. It begins by discussing various religious views of human nature—Confucianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Judeo-Christianity. Then, it looks at the philosophical theories of human nature advanced by Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus, Kant, Sartre, Marx and Freud. Next it turns to Darwin and the neo-Darwinians for insights into human nature from evolutionary biology. The book concludes by considering the future of human nature, especially how science and technology promises to transform human nature into something transhuman or post-human.

Review of David Benatar’s, Better Never to Have Been


Born rich                                                                              Born poor

(This article was reprinted in Humanity+ Magazine as, “Is It Better Never To Have Been Born? (anti-natalism)” October 13, 2014)

David Benatar is professor of philosophy and head of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Cape Town in Cape Town, South Africa. He is best known for his advocacy of antinatalism. His article, “Why It Is Better Never to Come into Existence,” espouses the view that it is always a harm to be born. In addition he wrote a book on the same topic: Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence.

It is commonly assumed that we do nothing wrong bringing future people into existence if their lives will, on balance, be good. This assumes that being brought into existence is generally beneficial. In contrast Benatar argues that: “Being brought into existence is not a benefit but always a harm.” While most people maintain that living is beneficial as long as the benefits of life outweigh the evil, Benatar argues that this conclusion does not follow because: 1) pain is bad, and 2) pleasure is good; but 3) the absence of pain is always good whether people exist or not, whereas 4) the absence of pleasure is only bad if people exist to be denied it.

To support this asymmetry between 3 & 4 Benatar presents three arguments. The first is that: 1) while there is a duty not to bring people who will suffer into the world (supports 3), there is no duty to bring people who will be happy into the world (supports 4). Thus a lack of suffering is always good, whether or not someone enjoys this absence; whereas a lack of happiness is not always bad, unless people exist to be denied it.

His second argument is that though we think it strange to say we have children so they will benefit, we think it normal to say we should not have children because they will be harmed. We don’t think people should have as many children as they can so as to benefit those children, but we do think people should refrain from having children if this will cause them suffering.

His third argument to support the asymmetry is that while not having children may be bad or good for the living, not having been born cannot deprive those who have never been born of anything.

This fundamental asymmetry—suffering is an intrinsic harm, but the absence of pleasure is not—allows Benatar to draw his nihilistic conclusions. In other words, the amount by which the absence of pain is better than its presence is itself greater than the amount by which the presence of pleasure is better than its absence. This means that not existing is either a lot better than existing, in the case of pain, or a little worse, in the case of pleasure. Or to think of it another way, the absence of pain and the presence of pleasure are both good, but the presence of pain is much worse than the absence of pleasure. (Here is my own thought experiment that might help. Suppose that before you were born the gods were trying to decide whether to create you. If they decide to create you, you will suffer much if you have a bad life or a gain greatly if you have a good life. If they decide not to create you, you will gain greatly by avoiding a bad life, but suffer only slightly if at all by not existing—as you wouldn’t know what you had been deprived of.)

To further his argument, Benatar notes that most persons underestimate how much suffering they will endure. If their lives are going better than most, they count themselves lucky. Consider death. It is a tragedy at any age, and only seems acceptable at ninety years of age because of our expectations about life-spans. But is lamenting death inconsistent with his anitnatalism? Benatar thinks not. While non-existence does not harm a possible person, death is another harm that will come to those in existence. In response you could say that you can’t be mistaken about whether you prefer existence to non-existence. Benatar grants that you may not be mistaken, if you claim that you are currently glad to have been born, but you could still be mistaken that it was better to have been born at all. You might now be glad you were born, and then suffer so badly later that you change your mind. (I might wish I hadn’t been born, after I find out what’s in store for me.)

What follows from all this? That we shouldn’t have children? That no one should have children? Benatar claims that to answer yes to these questions goes against a basic drive to reproduce, so we must be careful not to let such drives bias our analysis. Having children satisfies many needs of those who bring children into existence, but this does not mean it serves the interests of the children—in fact it causes them great harm. One could reply that the harm is not that great to the children, since the benefits of existing may outweigh the harm, and, at any rate, we cannot ask future persons if they want to be born. Since we enjoy our lives we assume they will too, thus providing the justification for satisfying our procreational needs. Most people do not regret their existence, and if some do we could not have foreseen it.

But might we be deceiving ourselves about how good life is? Most of us assume life would be unbearable if we were in certain situations. But often, when we find ourselves in these situations, we adapt. Could it be that we have adapted to a relatively unbearable life now? Benatar says that a superior species might look at our species with sympathy for our sorry state. And the reason we deceive ourselves is that we have been wired by evolution to think this way—it aids our survival. Benatar views people’s claims about the benefits of life skeptically, just as he would the ruminations of the slave who claims to prefer slavery to death. Benatar concludes by saying: “One implication of my view is that it would be preferable for our species to die out.” He claims that it would be heroic if people quit having children so that no one would suffer in the future. You may think it tragic to allow the human race to die out, but it would be hard to explain this by appealing to the interests of potential people. He concludes that it is better never to come into existence, as being born is always a harm.

Reflections – Benatar relies on an asymmetry to claim that it is better never to have been born, and it would be a good thing if the human race became extinct. The validity of this asymmetry is open to question. Yet despite its philosophical subtlety, it is hard to believe that Benatar believes his own argument. Can one really prefer eternal nothingness to the possibility of a good or bad life? If I prefer to remain alive, I am not implicitly accepting that life is better than non-life? Does it really make sense to dedicate a book to the parents who harmed you by bringing you into existence? Still, Benatar’s arguments are persuasive enough that I cannot find any knock-down arguments against them, although I urge caution against accepting philosophical prescriptions that, if followed, will result in the death of the species. Surely we ought to tread carefully here despite the power of Benatar’s claims.

I find this one of the deepest, most troubling, and hardest to evaluate pieces I’ve ever read. A possible answer might be to accept the truth of Benatar’s assertions regarding the history of cosmic evolution to the present—so far pain and unhappiness have outweighed their opposites and so far it would have been better never to have been—but suggest that a glorious future is in store for our descendents. This future will make the long, painful struggle of life and consciousness ultimately worth it. Thus the end state will be so rewarding that we can say, in retrospect, that it was better to have been.

Still this kind of eschatological talk scares me, inasmuch as it relies on a future that may not transpire. It also implies that somehow the future will justify past suffering. If this justification depends upon an eternal plan, then the eternal planner is exceptionally evil. As Dostoevsky said, the torture of a single child cannot be justified by a good future. But if reality was a matter of happenstance, and if all those who previously suffered somehow partake in this better future, then one might justifiably conclude that, on balance, it was better that consciousness arose.

Still I don’t know if my argument works against Benatar, and the whole question strains my limited intellectual faculties. Perhaps we just have to hope that life is worth living. But then this is really no answer either. As for me, I now find my life to be quite worthwhile. However, if at some point in the future that it not the case , then I hope to have the option to end my life without help, or be able to get help ending it if necessary. I also hope that my family reads the pieces I have written on this topic, as well as consult my end of life documents. Until then, I want to follow the advice of Thoreau:

… to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life …

Henry David Thoreau