Sunday, May 11, 2008

David Benatar's "Better Never to Have Been'...Chapter 3

Pain and sorrow, toil and trouble;
perturbations on the skin of a big bang bubble
that came out of nowhere, and is headed towards same-
we've no place to turn to, and no one to blame.

So, just how bad is coming into existence? Very bad, according to David Benatar. Then why is it that most people, when asked, tend to assess their own lives as good...to VERY good? The answer, says Mr. Benatar, is that there are various psychological mechanisms running in the background of our awareness which serve to mitigate, and even distort, our valuations of the world, as well as the true estimation of our own happiness. He categorizes these self-deceptive phenomena as...

1. The Pollyanna Priniciple- whereby we tend to use selective recall and projection to overestimate, or exaggerate, the postive aspects of a given situation, while downplaying or ignoring the negative.

2. Adaptation, accomodation, or habituation- where we change the dimensions of our hopes and expectations, as well as the actual interpretations of our subjective experience, in order to conform to changing, and often diminished, circumstances.

3. Comparison- instead of judging the quality of our lives against any kind of objective, idealized scale, we resort to measuring ourselves relative to other peoples’ happiness, or misery (as we perceive them).

He then goes on to outline three views about the quality of life...

1. Hedonistic theories- life judged according to positive or negative mental states.

2. Desire fulfilment theories- life judged according to the extent to which desires are fulfilled.

3. Objective list theories- life quality judged in relation to an ‘objective list’ of good and bads.

Obviously, there is some overlapping here...human conciousness is a pretty sophisitcated matrix, against which this rather stark outline seems awfully simplistic. However, the author does his best within the constraints of a chapter section, and establishes his case commendably, all things considered (BUY THE BOOK). His conclusion, of course, is that by whatever set or sub-set of theories we ultimately choose to gauge the quality of existence, life comes up short. The human species is running a race on a treadmill, knows it’s doing so, and so invents an illusory world of attainments to belie the fact. Thus the great and varied ‘life lies’, of which religion is probably THE prime example, as well as all the daily lies we tell ourselves and our children in order to cope (I just noticed how close ‘cope’ and ‘hope’ are...funny).

A WORLD OF SUFFERING
THIS is the part of the book I’ve been waiting for! For while the author’s arguments thus far have been excrutiatingly detailed, as well as acutely cogent, I’m afraid the flavor of his message has been a wee bit too sophisticated for the palates of his critics, if I’m reading them correctly. And so, dear readers... the LIST!

NATURAL DISASTERS
FAMINE
DISEASE
MURDER
TORTURE
ACCIDENTS
WARFARE
RAPE
ASSAULT
GENITAL MUTILATION
ENSLAVEMENT
INCARCERATION
SHUNNING
BETRAYAL
HUMILIATION
INTIMIDATION

This list, with all the sub-categories it implies, MUST give even the brightest optimist pause to reconsider, before he allows that most misleading of all axioms, “life is good”, to fall off his tongue, and into the metaphorical (and literal) blood that all of God’s green earth is saturated with. Life is a killing and eating machine, folks, and Mr. Benatar takes up a few pages in rubbing our noses into this almost universally pooh-poohed fact. All of us will suffer at the hands of at least SOME of the items on this list, either directly or vicariously. And then, of course, each and every one of us will die, inflicting even more suffering on the ones we leave behind. Seeing that THIS is the reality that we choose to bring our children into, is it any wonder the author ends this chapter by pointing out that we “...play Russian Roulette with a fully loaded gun- aimed, of course, not at our(sic) own heads, but at those of our(sic) future offspring.”?

One other thing I failed to mention, that the author briefly touches upon, is the subject of suicide. It is estimated that around a million people take their own lives every year, with perhaps twenty to thirty times as many failing in the attempt, for various reasons. Recognizing the many psychological barriers against killing one’s self (fear of pain, fear of failure, shame to one’s self and to loved ones, familial duty, societal duty, etc.), it must be acknowledged that, at least for some, life is a horror beyond the capacity to cope. Of course, the knee-jerk response is to label these unfortunates as ‘mentally ill’, but I’m wondering...is there a context in which suicide can be seen simply as a failure to adopt the ‘life lie’ of the prevailing culture? I also question the capacity of people to be truly happy in the midst of universal (not to mention animal) suffering, without the dulling of the empathetic sensibility required to ‘shut out’ the unattractive elements of existence. If this is the case, and taken to its logical extreme, it might just be that the egotistic sociopath is the happiest of us all. Just a thought.

11 comments:

Robert said...

I've enjoyed this , and I was struck particularly when you mentioned that life was a rat race and that humanity invents illusory achievements to provide diversions away from this fact.


I would like to say that this is, of course, not due to any kind of conscious effort. We are occupied by basic biological striving to perpetuate our existence. Life itself, as it tries to perpetuate itself, is the agent of subterfuge and we are the pawns in the struggle. That last thought can be attributed to Schopenhauer.

your host said...

I suppose that under the overarching, predeterministic framework of existence that science espouses (which I believe is probably the most accurate way of seeing things), you're right.
Of course, all ways of thinking and talking about the world are ultimately representational, including the scientific one. Seen in this manner, concepts like 'conscious effort', or life 'trying to perpetuate itself' are really just metaphoric descriptions of stuff bumping into other stuff, for no reason at all. Funny you bring this up, because I'm planning on adressing this illusory nature of our thinking processes in my chapter 5 review of Benatar's book, concerning how we determine the moment when life begins...though I'm afraid it's gonna run rather long, and require a few diagrams.

Having said all that, we're sorta stuck at this baseline of reasoning, I think. That is, if we plan to think and talk about anything at all. And inside that little bubble realm of admittedly partial realities, people DO choose to not have children, from time to time. And although antinatalism is far from being the predominant worldview, still...one never knows where an idea might lead.

Thanks for your points, robert...keep reading!

Curator said...

An excellent non-Shoah-related resource to shut up the cheery is Jasper Becker's book Hungry Ghosts: Mao's Secret Famine, which includes an entire chapter just on cannibalism. Also, although John Leslie is miserably cheery (and an unexamined pro-natalist), his The End of the World has a great chapter on existential risks that does the job pretty well, too.

Leslie clings to pro-natalism based on intuition. It's not clear he's thought about it much at all. Which is sad, because I love the guy and love his book.

your host said...

Thanks for the reading refs; I'll try to find them. And if people were more willing to actually examine the issues, and (god forbid!)think about them, well...I guess there'd be more blogs like this one.

davidpearce said...

I share your bleak diagnosis of existing life. But I think the biggest problem with anti-natalism is the argument from selection pressure. If anti-natalists practise what they preach, then they will die out, leaving breeders who think we have a duty to "go forth and multiply" to inherit the Earth.

By contrast, a civilisation based entirely on adaptive gradients of genetically programmed well-being is technically feasible. And unlike anti-natalism (or wireheading), there may be selection pressure in favour of genotypes coding for cerebral bliss as the reproductive revolution of designer babies gathers pace later this century.

By way of illustration, imagine the following scenario. Suppose you are a prospective parent choosing the genetic dial-settings for the "set point" of mood of your future kids. What dial-settings would you choose for the typical (un)happiness of your children? Presumably most parents-to-be will probably want temperamentally happy kids rather than anxious depressives. Thus I predict the normal “hedonic set-point” of (post)humanity is likely to be ratcheted up without clearly defined limit in centuries (and millennia?) to come.

For an outline of this perspective, see http://www.abolitionist.com

your host said...

Thanks for the comment, davidpearce; glad to have you here.
You said...

"But I think the biggest problem with anti-natalism is the argument from selection pressure. If anti-natalists practise what they preach, then they will die out, leaving breeders who think we have a duty to "go forth and multiply" to inherit the Earth."

But the ideas carry on, and that seems to be the important thng to me. It's more about memetic transmission than genetic, I think.

As for the rest, I'm far from convinced that depression is THE initiator here, though I'm sure it can play a part, varying in degree from person to person. In fact, I'm fairly certain that depression often emerges as the after-effect of a legitimate realization of the circumstances of existence. As I've spoken to here, and elsewhere in my blog, self-deception seems to play a crucial role in the motif of existential happiness.

There are other problems with this view that I've touched upon here and there, but it strikes me just now that even the logistics behind these human transformation schemes are suspect. There are ENORMOUS cultural and religious barriers set up against such tinkering, and I really question the inroads that could realitically be acheived in the middle term. Of course, antinatalism faces the same challenge; but at least concerning the latter, we're only talking about ideas being spread about, and not actual, physical intercession of one sort or another.

A couple more things:

1) The higher up the transhumanist(or,'improved human', if you prefer) ladder you go, the more speculative the whole undertaking becomes, and nobody knows which rungs will turn out to be thin air. Comparatively speaking, embraced antinatalism is a sure thing, and definitionally ends all mankind's problems in a century or so, period.

2)Any even faintly realistic appraisal of transhumanism puts the culmination (if there can ever be a culmination of mankind's problems while mankind still exists...who knows?)far in the future. In the meantime, billions upon billions of people will continue to suffer and die, and all for a highly speculative...and dare I say, born of wishful thinking?...vision of what MIGHT be SOMEDAY.

Of course, perhaps the hardest thing in the world to do, is to convince people that the end of all human misery is as close as a box of condoms in the dresser drawer, or a quick visit to the family physician. Or, in other words...

DON'T HAVE KIDS!

davidpearce said...

I wonder if our positions can be reconciled?

I think we'd both agree that there is currently no moral justification for bringing children into the world. However, anti-natalism frequently falls on deaf ears. Many (involuntarily) childless couples today, for example, desperately want to have children; and advances in reproductive medicine will soon make it feasible (and likely) they will do so.

What’s the solution? Choosing not to have kids - and urging other prospective parents to refrain likewise - is consistent with trying to improve the lives of new children who are born despite our efforts. Thus within the next few decades, all prospective parents may have the opportunity to bear children genetically predisposed to be constitutionally happier than is feasible today. I’d argue we should encourage such (comparatively) responsible parental choices rather than relying on the genetic roulette of "natural" reproduction - accepting that most "breeders" will ignore us is we simply advocate childlessness. It is sociologically and biologically unrealistic to believe we can overcome millennia of pro-natalist cultural and religions tradition in a few centuries, whereas the genetic basis of mood and emotion is amenable to interventions that can eliminate the nasty side of life altogether.

Wishful thinking? Maybe. But we are neurochemical robots who are rapidly gaining the capacity to rewrite our own source code - and I think we should do so.

your host said...

Davidpearce, I agree that the persuasive power of my presentation is uphill, probably tending towards absolute vertical. And I can't fault you for wanting to approach the dilemma of suffering from a more practical, and perhaps more feasible, position. My difficulty with your solution is that the real core of the problem is barely scratched.

In my view,suffering experienced as the result of a genetic or chemical pre-disposition to depression is a rather insubstantial piece of the pie. Consider...

NATURAL DISASTERS
FAMINE
DISEASE
MURDER
TORTURE
ACCIDENTS
WARFARE
RAPE
ASSAULT
GENITAL MUTILATION
ENSLAVEMENT
INCARCERATION
SHUNNING
BETRAYAL
HUMILIATION
INTIMIDATION

Will we inure future generations to such things by just switching off a chemical switch, or conversely, mutating them so that nothing affects their happy mood? I just can't buy the idea that the problems of life are all about the peceiver, and aren't irrevocably tied into the source being perceived, you know?

davidpearce said...

One reason I stress the need to recalibrate the hedonic treadmill rather than discard it entirely is precisely so we remain "informationally sensitive" to negative stimuli like the nastiness you cite. It is more prudent to be blissful than "blissed out". Fortunately, gradients of pleasure can in principle be at least as motivating as gradients of suffering. If harnessed to intelligence-amplification and better technology, they can in principle eliminate the natural disasters you catalogue over the next few hundred years. The human tragedies are more problematic. But war, rape, enslavement, female genital mutilation, etc, can largely be traced to the actions of the Y chromosome. Tweak it in our future kids - and enhance their native oxytocin function etc - and "human nature" can be transformed, and its testosterone-driven cruelties averted.


I think a twin-track strategy of urging antinatalism while enhancing the lives of sentient beings who are born (and who are already alive) is more likely to be fruitful than arguing for collective mass-extinction. But I don't disagree with your core diagnosis of how bad life is at present.

koningrobot said...

Davidpearce, you write: Fortunately, gradients of pleasure can in principle be at least as motivating as gradients of suffering.

This is kind of the problem I have with the whole artificially happy thing. If all you experience is gradients of pleasure, won't then the lowest gradient of pleasure become suffering, seeing as there is no worse emotion to compare it to? And if not, how does one know?

davidpearce said...

Intuitively, you're right. But compare: there are some people today who suffer chronic pain and/or depression.
Since some of their days aren't as awful as others, are they really happy on such "better" days? After all, what else have such victims of chronic suffering to compare their misery to - other than their worse misery on previous days? How can they know they are miserable?

We can easily see the error of this argument. By contrast, the prospect of lifelong happiness in the form of gradients of well-being is much more counterintuitive. But it's no less technically feasible. Yes, lifelong happiness is "artificial". But so is civilization.