Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Richard Dawkins' Blindspot

Checking out the Amazon listing for David Benatar's book, 'Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence', I stumbled onto a couple of comments which I found disturbingly revealing as to the uphill battle the antinatalist argument faces.

Most people know who Richard Dawkins is: evolutionary biologist, well-known and extremely popular science writer; and, as of late, outspoken critic of religion. His book, 'The God Delusion', is a staple of the 'new atheist' movement, such as it is, and he's been stumping all over the place for what seems to have become his pet project; stomping out God (not a criticism, by the way). His debates and lectures are all over the net, and he loves to point out the logical inconsistencies of his opponents. I admire the man's dedication to his cause, despite the sometimes overwrought tone of his rhetoric, obviously born of his disdain for fallacious thinking and its ofttimes pernicious results.

However, in the following case, I find Mr. Dawkins' assessments to be rather un-objective; in fact, they border on pollyannish (oh, what the hell! They're emotive, not to mention inaccurate when applied to life as a whole, to the nth degree!). Here's the quotation offered by the Amazon poster- you be the judge...

An excerpt from Mr. Dawkins book, "Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder." (1998)...

*Let me quote Richard Dawkins: "We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here...After sleeping through a hundred million centuries we have finally opened our eyes on a sumptuous planet, sparkling with color, bountiful with life. Within decades we must close our eyes again. Who, with such a thought, would not spring from bed, eager to resume discovering the world and rejoicing to be a part of it?"* (I'm accepting this quotation verbatim...please inform me if there's any inaccuracy.)

Now, let's break it down a bit:

"We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born..."

Right from the start, we are confronted with the 'intuitive' prejudice, that life is a great thing, and that, somehow, those who remain unborn are the 'unlucky' ones. Please explain to me how absolute nothingness can be unlucky. Are all the imaginary creatures I might think up in my head also unlucky? Is every unfertilized egg unlucky? In what sense is this true, other than a purely made-up sort of way? And is all life, then, by definition...lucky; just for having existed, and ignoring any and all of the factors which constitute a particular life?

"The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia..."

Let's not forget here that the 'potential people' Mr. Dawkins is talking about are non-entities; there is nothing to mourn here, for nothing yet exists.

"Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton.."

Again, Mr. Dawkins uses the rather poetic term 'unborn ghosts', as if labeling a pure abstraction with a noun confers some sort of 'more than nothing' value. The true synonym for 'unborn ghost' is 'nothing'...follow the bouncing ball, Richard! Concerning the rest? Hitler. Stalin. Pol Pot. Mao Tse-tung...you know the drill.

"We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here..."

This 'what are the odds?' approach always leaves me feeling just a little bit queasy. Only possibilities which concretize into actualities ultimately matter. Oh, and might I add here, 'so what?'

"After sleeping through a hundred million centuries we have finally opened our eyes on a sumptuous planet, sparkling with color, bountiful with life..."

We weren't asleep...we DID NOT EXIST!!! Well, we DID exist, but only as the raw material, not as what is defined as life (though admittedly, we ARE made up of parts of other lifeforms). As for color...I suppose you could say that, in the tooth-and-claw struggle for superiority in the food-chain of this 'bountiful life', the prevailing color is blood-red (or, taking into account the insect world, perhaps it's green).

"Within decades we must close our eyes again. Who, with such a thought, would not spring from bed, eager to resume discovering the world and rejoicing to be a part of it?"

Um, Mr. Dawkins, have you considered the million or so verified suicides that occur every year, or the twenty or thirty times that number of attempts? How about the fifteen percent or so of the population that suffers from chronic depression? And maybe you're passing over those who suffer debilitating injuries and diseases just a tad too adroitly, as well as those who have suffered mind shatteringly tragic losses of one kind or another. To affirm your own happiness, or peace of mind or whatever, is fine as far as it goes. Personally, I'm happy as all get-out for you. But to believe that your mindset is reflected in life as a whole is beyond naive...it's an assessment based on what has to be, at least to some degree, a purposeful ignoring of the evidence on your part. I am forced to suggest that you turn the light of your own, highly trained and dispassionate scrutiny upon the world as it really is, and not as you wish it to be. I've seen you dissect unreason with the sure hand of rational analysis many times...perhaps it's time to turn that scalpel inward, and learn to face a few unpleasant facts about existence. It's the scientific thing to do.

I'd like to wind this up by citing another Amazon remark about David Benatar's book, coming from a different perspective...

"I don't understand why people are hating this book without even reading it- so you're glass half full people- people that never question their lives or existence- you are actually his target audience- he needs to make you see that what you believe is b.s. and that you should really try to look at life more objectively to determine how "worth it" it is...I think people really need to look at both sides of the story- everyone says that we're all so blessed to be alive... WHY?! the only reason why people say that is because they had no choice in the matter of coming into existence and the only way to gain some control is by pretending that you wanted to be here... so stop lying to yourselves.... you had no choice in being here... so yeah... now that we're here we make the best of it... but dont lie to yourself (and others) and say that life isn't hard and harmful...if you hate the book so much just by the title- why dont you pick up and actually read it and see what his arguments are- and read it with an open mind!!life sucks- there's no meaning- there's no purpose and you didn't even have a choice for whether to be in it or not... what's not horrible about that???"

6 comments:

Kevin said...

Perfect encapsulation of the Dawkin's delusion.Thanks Metamorphhh!

Karl said...

It's about time someone had to guts to say all of this.Well done,Metamorphhh.Better never to have been!

Anonymous said...

Karl, thanks, but the link should be
http://vorosh.blogspot.com/2008/03/optimism-delusion.html
and I have reposted it here.

carbon unit said...

Harry Neumann calls it jack ass worship, John Gray ersatz religion. In short, desperation! A side note: Everyone knows the Nazi socialists murdered 20+ million; Communists (according to The Black Book of Communism) 100+ million; capitalism (according to the silly compilation The Black Book of Capitalism) 100+ million. But what I would like to know is how many people have people killed? Any estimates?

Anonymous said...

You say it is silly to feel sorry for the unborn who will not experience joy.. and yet anti-natalists often use the potential suffering of the unborn as an argument for non-reproduction. It is equally as silly to say "I feel sorry for all the non-people who will not experience joy" as it is to say "No new people because of the potential for suffering. I do not believe anti-natalism could ever be the philosophy of a majority.. as it would inevitably rely on the violation of consent and the imposition of agenda.. two things which are at the core of the argument. Whilst some AN advocates really do mean "no birth".. when pressed a lot of them are happy to introduce a virus or a planet killer into the equation to end the suffering, or they are happy to push the "magic button"..

A fascinating philosophy nonetheless...

Karl said...

I've come to the conclusion that maybe a more uncontroversial way of stating the AN case is to point out that no one can unequivocally demonstrate that life is a good thing, and given that a potential person may not enjoy existing, the morally prudential option is non-procreation.