Monday, July 28, 2008

One From the Bard

"Why don’t you just kill yourselves?"

Thus hangs the accusation upon the air again, that those who dare speak against the ultimate goodness of life be hypocrites for not committing suicide. You antinatalists, how dare you speak against conception, whilst loitering in the world you pretend to despise. Off with you then; to your guns, and nooses, and sleeping pills!

Aside from the fact that one can experience a personally satisfying life (at least, to some degree), while still recognizing the risks inherent in bringing new life onboard, is a potential suicide REALLY a hypocrite if he/she doesn’t actually go through with it? I’ve had several people comment on my generally negative attitude towards life in this vein..."Oh, you don’t really mean that. If you did, you’d kill yourself! You’re just...

1. Emoting
2. Seeking attention
3. Being provocative

Are antinatalists, or anyone who’s just sort of down on life, arguing in bad faith, simply because they don’t take that final step and blow their brains out? I would counter with the argument that such an assertion is simplistic horseshit. It completely ignores the fact that the grand subtext behind the human condition is one of competing desires, duties, and fears.

I would now point you to one of the most famous soliloquies in all of English literature...

Hamlet 3/1- William Shakespeare

To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep;
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to, 'tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish'd. To die, to sleep;
To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there's the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause: there's the respect
That makes calamity of so long life;
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely,
The pangs of despised love, the law's delay,
The insolence of office and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscover'd country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action. - Soft you now!
The fair Ophelia! Nymph, in thy orisons
Be all my sins remember'd.

To summarize: Life sucks for a variety of reasons. Sometimes, it sucks so much that it would be far better to be done with it, right here and now. HOWEVER (and here’s the rub), there might be consequences which are worse than the ‘cure’ (suicide was deemed a mortal sin by the Church of England, I believe...and certainly there are more than slight religious qualms about it up to this day). Thus our ‘cowardice’ (fear of divine punishment) stays our hand. Hamlet is in no way equivocating in his negative value judgement towards life; rather, he is weighing consequences, and THIS is my point...

A person can dislike his existence to varying degrees, including up to the point where he’d just as well end it all; and yet, he might choose to endure out of fear, like Hamlet. Or out of love for people who depend on him, or out of a sense of personal responsibility to his friends, his community...whatever. Or maybe he just can’t bring himself to commit a violent act, even against his own person (this would be very tough for me, I think). In short, there are a host of imaginable reasons why a person might not like life, and yet refuse to take that final step. I really don’t understand why I need to explain this, ONCE AGAIN, but it seems that some folks need everything spelled out for them. So, here it be.

And for you who absolutely LOVE life- as you savor every precious moment, affirming to yourselves that, for every drop of rain that falls, a flower grows...can you at least pull your heads out of your asses (though I’m sure they smell sweet) long enough to acknowledge that misery exists, that it’s not always curable, or even mitigable, and that there’s no way to adequately predict who might come out on the short end of the existential stick? If you can’t, then you are intellectually impaired, empathetically numb, and absolutely no use to me at all...

Maybe you should consider suicide (just kidding...seriously suggesting such a thing, ESPECIALLY to someone who might be seriously depressed, would be cruelly reprobate of me...tut!)

18 comments:

TGGP said...

I bet if you had to (for example, you knew that you would be rescued and were merely demonstrating how it works) you could sit in a running car in a closed garage. That's a pretty pain-free way of committing suicide and it doesn't quite have that oomph or transition movement that says "I'm agressing against my self/person right now".

your host said...

Maybe...I was reading the other day how the lead singer from 'Boston' killed himself last year. Two charcoal barbeques in the bathroom. Seems like it would be kinda choky, though, and I have a pretty sensitive gag reflex.

You know, I had a dog put to sleep recently...they just overdosed her with barbituates. She fell asleep in about 2 seconds, and it was over. I wonder why they don't do that in death penalty cases...they make such a big deal about the drug cocktails. Probably just lawyer bullshit, though.

Curator said...

Sadly, it's nearly impossible to get barbiturates in this country, even illegally. As Nitschke and Stewart point out in The Peaceful Pill Handbook, barbiturates are not commonly abused by long-term users these days; their primary demand is by would-be suicides, and no black market supply chains can develop as the demand is one-time-only.

Speaking as someone who has put a thoroughly unwholesome amount of effort into studying this question, beyond the ethical issues, suicide in the West is just HARD. Certain of the more "progressive" states even put you on a no-gun list if you've been a danger-to-self guest in one of their facilities.

Which leaves us with unsatisfactory methods likely to fail and leave sequelae, including hanging and the carbon monoxide inhalation method tggp proposes.

Or we can get in good with a veterinarian.

Your question about why animals are euthanized with pure barbiturate overdose, whereas people are killed with a drug cocktail, is an interesting one. I'm not familiar with the "lawyer bullshit" on that one, though. It could just be a matter of speed.

your host said...

That just shows how out of touch I am with the times, curator. Barbituates were everywhere when I was young. I used to score them from a host of places.

As far as the lethal injection thing goes; from what I recall, in CA there was something about a drug to relax you, then one to kill you afterwards...something like that. Then defense attorneys started claiming that the relaxant was cruel and unusual (can't remember their argument). I might have it all mixed up. It just seems that a straight shot of barbituate would do the trick nicely, though. Certainly seems to work at the vet's.

Anonymous said...

HOWEVER (and here’s the rub), there might be consequences which are worse than the ‘cure’ (suicide was deemed a mortal sin by the Church of England, I believe...and certainly there are more than slight religious qualms about it up to this day).

Indeed, lots of religions consider suicide a major sin. Even if you assign these religions low probability, the Pascalian case against suicide is very strong.

Curator said...

Except that, given zero evidence, we have to assign equal plausibility to, say, the Church of Euthanasia postulate that suicide make you a saint.

your host said...

I'll go with Curator on this one, anon. One could dream up these 'what-if-and-so' arguments 'til the cows come home. What if God hates people who use vowels? Dd y vr thnk f tht? (I can imagine fundamentalists damning me to hell for using a 'y'...hehehe!) I think there's a level of credibility that's being ignored here; a threshold of belief that, though coming up short of zero, becomes unreasonable to cross. In a world of all possibilities which come up less than zero, even the kind with theoretically severe personal consequences, what is one to do?

Personally, I find Pascal's wager very weak on two fronts. In the general sense, it just says too damned much. It can be used to butress absolutely ANY belief system with severe enough cosequences for unbelievers, including any 10 I make up right now, off the top of my head. And in the specific sense i.e. in the defense of Christianity, it's just a last ditch end-around argument, an attempt to force a decision in the face of insubstantial evidentiary claims. After all, reality is what it is, probabilities of knowledge notwithstanding, and the way of living in the world is through reasonable induction, not philosophical certainty. Though the Pascalian approach purports to be one of logical necessity, I just find it rather sloppy.

Sorry.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the Pascal's-wager comments.

The basic question is whether we assign higher probability to being punished eternally (A) for committing suicide or (B) for failing to do so. There are more complicated possibilities (e.g., being punished for it on Mondays and being punished for not doing it on Tuesdays), but I regard those as less probable a priori on account of Occam's razor. In any event, this simplification helps to clarify the question.

If we imagine that we knew nothing about the world, we would assign some prior probability to each of A and B, perhaps based on their simplicity as hypotheses. Say we assign them equally priors. Then, we update our priors based on what we know about the world -- call that evidence E -- to arrive at posterior probabilities. Because we assumed P(A) = P(B), we'll have P(A | E) > P(B | E) if and only if P(E | A) > P(E | B). That is, the more probable hypothesis is whichever explains better why the world is the way it is.

I personally think A does a better job of explaining why, for instance, many religious people believe in punishment for those who commit suicide, but practically no one believes the opposite. (It's true that we wouldn't expect to find many people around to tell us that they believe B. But if lots of people have committed suicide on account of believing B, one would think there might be historical records describing such incidents.)

You don't have to agree with my assumptions, but the point is that it's not at all obvious that P(A | E) = P(B | E), and indeed, if we asked this question of say, an AI applying strict Bayesian reasoning from a given set of priors, it would almost certainly conclude that P(A | E) is not equal to P(B | E).

As for determining on which side the balance falls without such an AI, I don't currently have any further suggestions. But I do think there is enough data in the world that considering the question can potentially be more than a futile exercise.

Curator said...

You clearly believe A, but what evidence E do you have that its probability is any higher than that for B? I'd almost suspect you of using number of adherents as evidence in itself, if I didn't know you knew better than to do that.

There are many suicides and people pleading for death in the Bible, and it's not treated as a big religious error or problem in the text. Are you saying we should be Catholic, or subscribe to some other particular non-Biblical heresy? Even so, you have the problem that all the other Christian sects believe that the Catholics have institutionalized the gravest sin, idolatry, and that all their non-Biblical doctrine is a product of that.

Also, there are very good political reasons why a human religion would make suicide a sin, and fewer political reasons for rewarding suicide (except suicide of women when their husbands die, as some religions do), dropping our confidence in its being somehow related to the commandment of a deity. It easily explains the "number of adherents" pseudo-evidence.

Anyway, I don't think you can win Pascal's Wager. Once you posit the evil alien god Jehovah controlling everything, the odds that he'd give you a nice, accessible "way out" of eternal suffering drop to zero. And even if he did, the idea that he'd make it so that you could use your rationality to locate the "way out" is even more ludicrous. Jehovah is a perverse god; even if he existed, we wouldn't be able to trust him.

Curator said...

This discussion does have the interesting feature of treating religious belief piecemeal - one belief at a time, one action at a time. I'm not sure that's appropriate, given that most of the hell/brimstone religions seem to propose the way out of hell as a package of beliefs and actions, which conflict with each other (Baptists think Catholics are going to hell and vice versa). In any of these belief systems, merely avoiding suicide won't do it. You have to accept the whole package - and the packages conflict.

Anonymous said...

what evidence E do you have that its probability is any higher than that for B? I'd almost suspect you of using number of adherents as evidence in itself, if I didn't know you knew better than to do that.

Well, yes, the fact that people believe something is a piece of data about the world and hence is itself evidence. Our theories must explain why it is that people believe what they do.

Under A, this explanation would seem to be fairly natural: God actually will punish people for committing suicide, and he has conveyed that to various people through teachings of various religions. Under B, the explanation seems (to me at least) a little less plausible: God actually will punish people who don't commit suicide, but he doesn't let people on to that fact, and he (or the devil, maybe) actually puts the opposite idea into some people's minds to fool them.

I'm not claiming these hypotheses are exhaustive (the examples I gave above are specific instances of the broader sets of hypotheses A and B), but they give some flavor of my intuition.

But I could be overlooking something. In particular, your point that "there are very good political reasons why a human religion would make suicide a sin, and fewer political reasons for rewarding suicide" is highly relevant. (Not only are there political reasons, there are survivorship reasons -- people who believe B are unlikely to be around to tell us their views!)

As a side note, if we're just talking about a "human[-invented] religion," then it doesn't really matter what the religion says, because it's not true. The relevant cases to consider are those in which God does actually punish people one way or the other. But, yes, even if such a God exists, human beings can distort that God's teachings for political reasons or through survivorship bias.

Still, these explanations are just as valid under A as under B. So maybe both A and B can explain what we observe pretty well on account of them. The question, though, is whether A can explain what we observe just slightly better on account of having another reasonable explanation: that God told people about his plans.

There are many suicides and people pleading for death in the Bible, and it's not treated as a big religious error or problem in the text.

I'm not an expert, but I agree that the Bible doesn't seem that explicit about prohibiting suicide. (Does the prohibition on murder count?)

However, question we're asking isn't whether (1) suicide will lead to punishment vs. (2) suicide will not lead to punishment. The relevant Pascalian question is whether (1) is true or whether (3) failing to commit suicide will lead to punishment. Even if there isn't strong Biblical evidence for (1), there seems even less in support of (3). :)

Once you posit the evil alien god Jehovah controlling everything, the odds that he'd give you a nice, accessible "way out" of eternal suffering drop to zero. And even if he did, the idea that he'd make it so that you could use your rationality to locate the "way out" is even more ludicrous. Jehovah is a perverse god; even if he existed, we wouldn't be able to trust him.

Well, in that case, don't believe in that particular interpretation of Jehovah. But there are lots of other ideas out there about who Jehovah is (or, as others might put it, "the space of possible gods is vast"). Why not choose an interpretation of Jehovah who respects your efforts to be concerned about figuring out what his will is?

I'm not sure that's appropriate, given that most of the hell/brimstone religions seem to propose the way out of hell as a package of beliefs and actions [...].

Yes, many widely accepted religious beliefs are "packages." But it's possible to imagine some that aren't, and those are the only relevant cases to consider for a particular Pascalian decision. (Of course, such decisions do affect each other. For instance, making a Pascalian commitment to, say, Christianity in one context may constrain what other religions you listen to in other contexts.)

Curator said...

Well, in that case, don't believe in that particular interpretation of Jehovah. . . . Why not choose an interpretation of Jehovah who respects your efforts to be concerned about figuring out what his will is?

Abundant evidence from our world precludes the existence of a benevolent, powerful god.

as others might put it, "the space of possible gods is vast"

The possibility space does not appear to me to be that vast - it's either an evil alien god, a weakling god, or no god at all. The latter two options bode well for the absence of hell, and the first option would mean there's not much we can do about it if it exists.

divine mouthpiece said...

Anonymous, I'm here to tell you that you will be punished eternally unless you henceforth post under your true name.

As this is a claim about the afterlife directed specifically and uniquely to you personally, unlike every other religion you've ever heard of, I trust you will adjust your priors in the appropriate Pascalian fashion and act accordingly.

If you choose to remain anonymous, please tell us the probabilistic reasoning which informs that decision. (Doing so will also spare you the eternal punishment, obtaining an eternal holiday in limbo for you instead.)

Anonymous said...

divine mouthpiece, here's one semi-plausible reason to reject your wager. I consider your threat considerably less probable in absolute terms than Christianity, because alternate explanations for your post are very natural, while alternate explanations for Christianity are sometimes less so. (As an example of the latter: Assuming atheistic evolution, the probability that humans would invent religions seems somewhat low to me. Certainly they might, but if you just imagined Homo sapiens on the Savannah evolving from their primate ancestors, it's not obvious that they'll go on to develop beliefs about a God, afterlife, etc.)

Now, if Christianity is true, I might be punished for responding to your request, because that would imply I'm "bowing to another god." And since Christianity is quite a bit more probable than your threat, there would be a net loss for me in responding.

I agree that this is something of a cop-out, and I (probably) would not comply with your request anyway. But in that case, I might well be acting in an irrational, unjustified way. I do think, prima facie at least, that your claim is slightly more probable than the relevant counter-possibility: That you're deceiving me and you'll punish me precisely if I do respond to your request.

I do hope you'll be gracious enough to grant me eternal holiday in limbo. :)

Anonymous said...

In my experience, rapid exsanguination is an extremely peaceful way to go; I was pulled back from near death last year by EMTs...and really wish they hadn't.

The Romans used this as their prime means of allowing respected or leading individuals/families to end their own lives. Self-inflicted capital punishment in other words.

The big advantage of this method is that one doesn't poison one's neurons (as with fumes)--and who knows, but that our consciousness might not slip into something higher and need our sharp mindedness to do that. (That was my experience, slipping out of life.)

Also it doesn't run the terrible risks of messing up that guns or drugs do.

In my experience, god is as confused as we are. Which makes sense, because if god is in fact omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent, that makes it the brightest most creative being in the cosmos...trapped in a box exactly its size. We're atoms of that.

Anonymous said...

PS--my rapid bleeding to near death was accidental, not intentional.

Curator said...

Anonymous, I wish you weren't anonymous.

Interesting to know first-hand about exsanguination.

jsabotta said...

Another problem...

"But oddly enough, the worthy gentleman owned himself most impalpably disquieted by a mere minor detail. On the huge mahogany table there lay face downwards a badly worn copy of Borellus, bearing many cryptical marginalia and interlineations in Curwen's hand. The book was open at about its middle, and one paragraph displayed such thick and tremulous pen-strokes beneath the lines of mystic black-letter that the visitor could not resist scanning it through. Whether it was the nature of the passage underscored, or the feverish heaviness of the strokes which formed the underscoring, he could not tell; but something in that combination affected him very badly and very peculiarly. He recalled it to the end of his days, writing it down from memory in his diary and once trying to recite it to his close friend Dr. Checkley till he saw how greatly it disturbed the urbane rector. It read:

'The essential Saltes of Animals may be so prepared and preserved, that an ingenious Man may have the whole Ark of Noah in his own Studie, and raise the fine Shape of an Animal out of its Ashes at his Pleasure; and by the lyke Method from the essential Saltes of humane Dust, a Philosopher may, without any criminal Necromancy, call up the Shape of any dead Ancestour from the Dust whereinto his Bodie has been incinerated.'