Nov 292017

The Case for Not Being Born

Where philosopher David Benatar attempts to make the case that  life is sufficiently horrible that it make sense to end it and prevent there from being more of it.

Basically, he’s H.P. Lovecrafts worldview come to life, minus the vast, malevolent cosmic intelligences that want to wipe out all life on Earth. But nowhere did HPL ever suggest that the best approach would be to give up; the struggle might be in the end futile, but it’s better than any alternative.

The guy has a bunch of arguments that are convincing to him, and have apparently convinced a bunch of others. And while on a certain level he’s right – the worst pain is far more painful and lasts vastly longer than the best pleasure is pleasurable, for instance – on any *real* level he seems to miss the point. If humans were simple difference engines… yeah, sure, turn off the lights, shut it down. But we’re *not.* What gives people a sense of worth/meaning/whatever is irrational and intangible, not the end result of running the numbers.

I’m an engineer. A whole lot of questions can be found to have very definite right (or at least wrong) answers, discoverable through objective means by running the numbers, doing the math. In those cases, it is irrational to try to find the answer *without* doing the math. But in other areas, the answer cannot be reliably found via doing the math. And consequently, declaring the answer based on doing the math is itself irrational. For instance, right now there is a painting hanging on my wall within my field of view (as it is most of the time). I would far rather have this painting there than something by a Recognized Famous Master, despite the fact that the painting in question would probably not be considered in the same league. Why? Because that painting was made for me by a person who was very important to me. Would I like to have a Rembrandt? Sure, what the hell. I can probably get a couple bucks for it at auction. But I’m keeping the one made by my friend. The math on that doesn’t make a lick of sense… but I suspect it’s a conclusion that *most* people would draw.

Basically, what we have here is someone who ran the numbers and came up with the wrong answer. There are lots like that. You can find encyclopedias worth of carefully considered, mathematically inarguable proofs that the world is flat or that “jet fuel can’t melt steel” = “inside job,” or that the Fermi Paradox leads inexorably to the Reptilians. You just need to shrug, look at the world around you with all its pain and decay and misery and socialists and sickness and despair, look at your life with its failed careers and unfulfilled potentials, look down the line towards inevitable death at the hands of post-apocalyptic Antifa cannibals and realize that even with all that, you’d rather have lived your life than not. That painting on the wall is a reminder of that. I guess our philosopher friend just doesn’t get that. Perhaps he saw the simple conclusion that for the vast majority of people it’s better to have been than not, and he decided that he needed to complexify it. Otherwise… what’s a philosopher *for?*

 Posted by at 1:26 am
  • David Winfrey

    >…the Fermi Paradox leads inexorably to the Reptilians.

    David Gerrold took this on in his short novel “Chess With a Dragon,” in which humanity had discovered that most alien species were bugs or lizards, ’cause the dinosaur-killer was a rare event, see, and few worlds developed mammals. The sole exception was a race of sentient rats.

    As to the philosopher, there’s a far older thought experiment that basically says, “No matter how bad you find life, it’s better not to commit suicide due the possibility the result is eternal damnation.” Now personally, I doubt the existence of a Creator of All Things who would deem ANY human misbehavior worth ETERNAL damnation (really? Hitler’s, even? Even a guy who presses the button and kills the planet? ETERNAL damnation?). But who knows. Maybe God’s a Fun-damn-entalist Southern Baptist after all…

  • David Winfrey

    So why is he alive and making money writing this crap?

    • sferrin

      x2. Shouldn’t he have offed himself via “assisted suicide” by now? Sounds like he doesn’t believe his own bull$hit.

      • Ulrich Brasche III

        it’s always for “someone else” to do the thing that’s being sold. same as most modern politics

  • David Winfrey

    What was the USAF ballistic capsule manned project pursued but unbuilt (spellchek sez that’s not a word) in the late ’50s/early ’60s…not SAINT-B, I don’t think, and maybe written up by a guy named Day on The Space Review–where I found this:

    …which is I guess what happens when a right-minded activist artist (to whom I give kudos) lacks the artistry of Robert McCall, whose mural wouldn’t get the same idea across to them with none in their pretty little heads. SIGH

    • Scottlowther

      > What was the USAF ballistic capsule manned project

      The one that comes to mind is MISS (Man In Space Soonest)

      As for the “space tapestry:” I don’t get it. Sees like it could have been a series of web-comics, taking up a lot less space.

      • David Winfrey

        Found it!

        >it could have been a series of web-comics, taking up a lot less space.

        Yes, it could. And I can look at MANY detailed photos of a Saturn V online…but nothing’s like standing next to one, or beneath an upright 1:1 model of one, as at Huntsville. “Real” (full scale) art has an impact nothing else does.

        • Scottlowther

          Yeah, but a Saturn V isn’t a low-rez, meh-quality bit of black and white art. A “Hagar the Horrible” strip does’;t get bigger if you blow it up to wall-size.

  • Adam

    Is this your first encounter with antinatalists Scott?

    • Scottlowther

      Naw. Been aware of ’em for a quarter century or more, ever since hearing about the Voluntary Extinction Movement. This one just sorta jumped out at me since it’s got the gloss of respectability rather than the usual sheen of pure crazy.

  • Molochnik

    I’ve studied this subject at length and have found that it’s a tough conversation have with folks who don’t consider life absurd or even meaningless. Many people don’t want to explore the question period. Benatar makes a logical point with his “asymmetry” graphic, to those of us who would agree with it. And it’s true that for those who don’t, it may seem like hogwash.
    The “intangibles” or non-mathematical aspects of life, to me, are certainly “a thing”, but I think that when one expands the value of life paradigm to include them, which is fine, one has got a long row to hoe in convincing another that they do or do *not* make life worth living.
    This could very much appear to look like an argument of faith in that the perceived irrationality of the opposing worldview make it a useless endeavor. Writings such as Benatar’s and Schopenhauer provide some comfort to those of us who consider life a waste of time and energy. Just as there are plenty of writings that do the same for those who value their lives.
    Should antinatalists off themselves? I submit that those who haven’t wish they could. Perhaps it’s cowardice, perhaps it’s simply a perceived obligation to those with whom they’re involved. If one’s own death is not perceived to be an emergency, one can find themselves paralyzed considering all they need to do to die “well”. And again, this may seem like an excuse to hide cowardice, and that may very well be true for those who find value in life. After all, our perceptions are all we have.
    I think I would be remiss if I didn’t mention, as has been below, that some who were faithful to constructs that involve eternal damnation for the sin of suicide have cause for pause in that regard as well.
    Meh, that’s as succinct as I think I can be. I get it though; not all philosophy is for everyone.

    • Scottlowther

      Beyond all the philosophical philosphizin, there’s the simple fact that life is a natural function, like water flowing downhill or combustion. And so long as you consider the natural working of the universe to be at least non-evil, then life in general is also non-evil. It is therefore natural for those currently undergoing the process of life to consider being alive to be non-evil. And there’s a whole lot on the far side of pure neutrality, starting with at least “meh.” And even if you are living a 0.01 life, compared to someone living a 9.99 life, it’s still better than a 0.00 life… or a -0.01 life.

      The “pain is bigger than pleasure” argument I also find to be unconvincing. Me, I’ve reached that stage in life where some sort of pain is pretty much non-stop. My shoulder hurts a lot. My lungs bug me. Occasional headache. These are of course not “being eaten alive by tumors” or “body covered in deep-tissue acid burns,” but they’re still something negative and unwanted. And still, I’ll take my humdrum failed life with it’s pains and irritations over the alternative – nonexistence – any day. Day may come when the calculation runs different… six months of sickening chemo in order to extend the process of being consumed by explosive ass cancer seems like maybe nonexistence would be an improvement. But I ain’t there. There’s still stuff I want to see.

      • Molochnik

        Scott – understood. However, I submit that it’s been a long-time issue of uncertainty for humanity, writ large, what happens 0.00 and into the negatives.
        I agree that there is suffering endured by people as well as any sentient being. One could plausibly argue that, if nothing else, suffering may very well be the thing that binds us all together.
        I appreciate the desire to still see stuff, but for some folks there is a genuine lack of interest, or even a disinterest that may have been developed within the context of their experience, or it’s simply innate.
        In regard to life being non-evil, I can’t disagree with any certainty. People, however, can be very evil. It may be tough to prove that, but I believe it is so. I think the fact that any reasonable human being (contrasted against folks with too much or errant education) has a concept of good and evil proves that those qualities exist, at least within the context of the human experience. This line of thinking might be extended to the concepts of optimism and pessimism.
        Speaking to non-existence, one might consider their threshold of stimulation. For some it is very high, or very specific. For others it is not. I don’t like to gamble whether it’s a poker game, slot machine, or the lottery, but I love to be on a racetrack with a motorcycle. Both are types of gambling to be sure (you ought to see my leathers), but risk with the former is too high in comparison with the latter.
        My endeavors into these conversations has waned as they often seem to come down to some kind stalemate regarding faith (well beyond the word’s religious suggestions). I want to be clear I’m not trying to rebut your position, in fact, your blog is often the first thing I look at when I unlock my computer because I find value and entertainment in your perspectives. That may have the appearance of a veiled insult, but rest assured, there are lots of blogs I don’t or even won’t read. And I like cats and ‘murica.
        I don’t know a whole lot about Benatar, the man, but a guy like him feels a compulsion to write, and I won’t deny there isn’t a component to it that would try to sway one’s opinion. When I was a kid in the Air Force, I decided to become an autodidact beginning with a tome called “Classics of Western Philosophy”. Some of it was ridiculous, if not unreadable. Stumbling upon Schopenhauer, I finally found I was reading some comfortable and affirming to my outlook. I spent a lot of time reading Nietzsche, diverged into Ouspensky, and eventually the Bible. The path of Christ is a tough one to try to follow (those who genuinely can, have my respect), and I found myself back with Nietzsche and Schopenhauer years later.
        I said all of that to say that it comes down to wiring and individual experience in the forming of a worldview…and that they are both valid. It is rare for cultures to normalize antinatalism as it is counterproductive to the survival of the culture. I haven’t had any children and have no regrets, in fact I took somewhat of an engineering approach to the idea. Now I’m sorta rambling, but my point that I’ve been trying to make is that Benatar’s writing may be as comforting to some as it is abhorrent to others, as with the Bible, or even having someone sit down and try to comprehend a maintenance manual.
        It’s easy for almost any movement to start becoming a caricature of itself. Look at the Democrats…or even the Republicans for that matter. 🙂

        • Scottlowther

          > One could plausibly argue that, if nothing else, suffering may very well be the thing that binds us all together.

          Naw, that’s duct tape.

          Many long decades ago I was shot down by someone I was interested in by the employment of a belief I didn’t understand then and still don’t… that “real love only comes about through mutual tragedy.” That Person A couldn’t love Person B unless B had gone through something horrible with A. I’ve often wondered if that was actually a clumsy attempt at a “gentle letdown,” but the fact is I’ve heard the same idea expressed multiple times over the years.

          > you ought to see my leathers

          You can’t say that sort of thing these days.

          > The path of Christ is a tough one to try to follow

          You think that’s tough, try following the path of Frodo.

          > Benatar’s writing may be as comforting to some as it is abhorrent to others

          I don’t know how “abhorrent” it is, as opposed to “incomprehensible.”

          > It is rare for cultures to normalize antinatalism as it is counterproductive to the survival of the culture.

          Death worshippers are sadly not as rare as you might expect. There’s currently a cult that dominates the lives and minds of a billion people and fills many of ’em with the thought that dying in a certain unnecessary way will lead to bennies in the afterlife. Many others have set a rather low bar for “dishonor” that requires taking poison or gutting yourself. Many others that practiced a form of eugenics, where newborns with any sort of deformity or weakness were left out for the critters; and it’s hardly been rare for children to be seen as rather disposable until they hit puberty or so because the childhood mortality rate was so high that it just didn’t make sense to get emotionally attached to something that was very likely to die before too long.

          *Universal* antinatalism is a bit of a rarity, as you say it’s a bit of a bummer for the population growth rate. But *partial* antinatalism of a sort is all over the place.

          • Molochnik

            Scott, I nodded with empathy, agreement, and laughed a little too. I assure you, the leathers I speak of are *not* festooned with brass rings, exposed chrome zippers, and only have holes for hands, feet, and neck.
            For clarification: MY arms, feet, and neck.

            And yeah, I think death cults are silly; perhaps even oxymoronic (yeah, I made that up). I get what you’re talking about.

          • Scottlowther

            > I nodded with empathy, agreement, and laughed a little too.

            No, no, no. All wrong. Those aren’t the reactions you’re supposed to have. Instead, this:


  • Michael

    Any action is good if it reduces the breeding population if his kind of thinker. It’s best if they do to themselves, which is what he is proposing.