Monday, February 18, 2008

The Lie of Vicarious Immortality

So peculiar, this world of abstract thought we live in. Consider: physically, we are as tied to this present moment as any animal, tree, or stone. We occupy that infinitely small, moving speck of time known as 'now'; but, our intuitions tell us differently. Our conceptual 'selves' seem to occupy rather a larger segment of the timeline, emanating from now into the past of our memories, as well as into the future of our capacities to predict. We are dual creatures; but these two modes of being abide in an uneasy truce, as our seemingly transcendent aspect proclaims a truth which our immanence is loath to hear. Basic survival tools, such as the 'fight or flight' instinct, are ultimately inadequate to cope with messages born of abstract apprehensions of hypothesized dangers, such that we often find ourselves vainly tightening our jaws and stomachs against a blow aimed from the future at our existential breadbaskets.

Most animals only die once, but it's been said that man dies a thousand deaths. Perhaps it's more accurate to say that we seem to reside in a perpetual state of 'falling into' our deaths, much like our bi-pedal method of locomotion is a continuous falling forward, with every next step coming just in time to save us from a serious face-plant. Other animals confront danger only when it enters the proximity of their various sensory apparatus- smell, hearing, line-of-sight. And they either deal with the problem by way of tooth and claw, or by beating a hasty retreat.

But how does one physically retreat from a concept? Our more primitive, biological reactions reflect the old tried and true methods- adrenaline flows, muscles contract and harden, blood pressure goes up, etc. Great strategies for escaping an attacking lion. Not much good when being chased down by a charging mortgage payment, or for trying to fight off the end to a love affair. And, of course, absolutely useless in staving off that ultimate and irrevocable threat to survival...impending death. Death is the dreaded Beast, lurking in the shadows just beyond the illumination of our torchlights. We know it's out there, and that it's hungry...the only question is, when will it choose to feed? In this regard, each of us is the proverbial worm on the hook; only, we're the sort of worms who understand deep down what it means to be bait.

Furthermore, in nature there's an after-the-fact payoff to the primal defensive response (if, in fact, the host survives to enjoy it). After the defensive mechanism has served it's purpose, achieving either victory or escape, the organism 'shunts off' the excess stress, and is able to enter into a more relaxed mode of being (oh my, those sweet, sweet endorphins!). In other words, the tension hangs around only so long as is appropriate to the situation, then more or less...departs.

But inside the abstracted, conceptual space, threats seldom just 'go away'; in fact,they tend to arise long before the actual 'danger' shows up, and often linger long after we are 'safe' again (that is, when and if we were ever IN actual danger. In the abstract world, imaginary fears are often at least on a par with real ones). The result is that our defensive 'switch', with all the accompanying chemical surges, and inappropriate knotting of musculature, is always more or less 'on'. Of course, all of this itself poses a real threat to the health of the organism, which the organism recognizes as yet another threat, against which the organism bears down that much the harder, and...well, it doesn't take a genius to recognize a vicious circle, does it? This, by the way, is the feedback loop we lovingly call 'anxiety'.

But human beings are nothing if not resourceful...when faced with an abstract threat, let's face it with an abstract solution. Don't have enough stuff? 'Eliminate desire.' Shit happens, and a lot of it hurts? 'Meditate, and see through the illusion of pain.' Or 'pray'. And the big one...I'm gonna die! 'No, you won't...not really.' You'll go to heaven (if you are lucky enough to choose the right religion). Or, you'll reincarnate (what, this shit again???). Or you'll live on in the memory of others (weak), or through your work (a bit more least you're leaving something that has an actual physical presence). Or...and you knew I'd finally get to can live on through your children.

*You'll notice that the last three answers to the problem are purely abstract solutions, as opposed to the two where you literally don't die. And generally speaking, one of the first two usually exists concomitantly with one or more of the last three (atheists excepted); I guess this is what's meant by 'covering all your bases'.*

In my opinion, this vague concept of living on through your children is exactly why any talk along antinatalist lines is by and large verboten; even more so than challenging a person's religion, it seems. Why is this? I suppose one answer is that the 'need to breed' is evolutionarily hardwired, and any challenge to the status quo goes right to the primitive, reactive parts of our psychology. To this way of thinking, I suppose this anti-antinatalist tendency is an emergent feature of the ingrained genetic instructions. But I prefer raising the level of discussion from genes to 'memes', because I think we understand the world of ideas to be of a more malleable sort, whereas this talk of genetic 'coding' comes across a bit rigidly, in my opinion (and yes, I realize that that ain't necessarily so). And as I think I've outlined pretty clearly, in memish terms the need to breed really boils down to a self-survival issue. This is rather ironic, seeing that the other side to this debate constantly tries to define the antinatalist stance as a selfish one.

Whatever the case, any calling into question of this 'investment in posterity' raises hackles that no amount of rational argument can smooth over. Indeed, irrationality is the watchword from the 'against' side of the conversation, where non sequitur and outright threat against the proponents of this 'species-deep heresy' (thanks, Chip) seem to be all the reactionaries can muster. (The quality of rejoinder generally boils down to 'why do you hate people?', to 'you must be depressed', to 'why do you hate must be depressed.' Oh! And then there's 'You must be stopped!') Ah, so many thoughtcrimes, so little time...

*Shakes head*. Ok, back to business. On the upside, the antinatalist meme has actually been around for quite a while, historically speaking. Even in St. Paul of the bible, and even in *gasp*; yes, even in Jesus Christ (this is a teaser for a future article, but mostly as a reminder to myself). In the meantime, and to sum up, I'd just like to posit a few reminders for the reader to ponder...

1) All of you are going to suffer, at least to some degree.

2) All of you are going to die.

3) None of you will live on through your children. This isn't even a delusion of the imagination; not really. It's more just a vague feeling given some substance by wishing. Nothing more.

4) Every child you choose to conceive will suffer, and die. And for you theists who are holding out for heaven, need I remind you that there's at LEAST an outside possibility of your child abandoning the faith, and being cast into an everlasting hell, to be tortured and/or otherwise oppressed forever and ever and ever and ever...amen.

5) Life is not a gift, since there was never anyone to receive such a 'gift'. Rather, life is bringing into being a receptacle for pain, and disappointment, and loss (and yes, there are the good things. But as Arthur Schopenhauer remarked, 'The difference in degree between pleasure and suffering can be seen in the example of one animal killing another' (this is totally paraphrasing from memory, but I think I've captured his meaning). In other words, there's an imbalance, one which need never be experienced by someone who is never born.

(I realize that there's a utilitarian motivation to having children, and I'll address this later on in a separate post.)

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