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Saturday, May 26, 2018
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Every single person alive today makes a choice about how to live their life, specifically whether to believe in God and an existence beyond this one or not. Though, rather than being two choices I think it’s best to think of there being four possible choices.
The first choice, and still by far the most common, though declining every year, is to identify with a religious ideology. Of course there are various levels of religious belief and adherence, but currently 84% of people worldwide identify as a member of a religion. That sounds high, but it is down from the 99-100% it was just 50 years ago. As far as an existence beyond this one, it is assumed that people in this group hope that their religious belief will provide them with that.
The second choice is the choice of the traditional atheist, Bertrand Russell described it thusly:
That Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the débris of a universe in ruins — all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.
Russell’s case is unambiguous, and one I agree with, if you’re going to reject religion and embrace atheism, then this is what you have to confront, but not every traditional atheist agrees with Russell’s point about “unyielding despair”. I believe I’ve mentioned Carl Sagan and his wife Ann Druyan before in this space. Ann believed just as much as Bertrand Russell in the finality of death. But she fell in a different camp:
We never trivialized the meaning of death by pretending it was anything other than a final parting. Every single moment that we were alive and we were together was miraculous-not miraculous in the sense of inexplicable or supernatural. We knew we were beneficiaries of chance. . . . That pure chance could be so generous and so kind. . . . That we could find each other, as Carl wrote so beautifully in Cosmos, you know, in the vastness of space and the immensity of time. . . . That we could be together for twenty years. That is something which sustains me and it’s much more meaningful...I don't think I'll ever see Carl again. But I saw him. We saw each other. We found each other in the cosmos, and that was wonderful.
In any case regardless of whether they view the world with despair or wonder, the traditional atheist acknowledges both that death is unavoidable, and also that there is nothing beyond it.
The third choice is one that has only lately come on the scene, the choice of transhumanism. Most of these people (though not all, thus my fascination with the Mormon Transhumanist Association) are also atheists, but rather than reacting to the prospect of death with despair like Russell, or just being grateful for the extreme improbability of the life they did get, the transhumanists desire immortality without involving God (again, with the notable exception of the MTA.)
I suppose you could argue that, were they to achieve immortality, they would not be entering into an existence separate from this one. That rather they are extending the existence we already have. This may be technically true, but for tens of thousands of years (at least) human existence has involved death, creating an existence without death should surely count as something different, even if technically it may look very similar. And of course this assumes that transhumanism takes the form of simple immortality and doesn’t involve things like transferring consciousness to one of Robin Hanson’s EMs, or something even more futuristic.
The fourth choice is the choice of apathy and inaction. All the people who aren’t declared atheists (or agnostics) or transhumanists, or who are religious, but other than attending church once to be baptized, have never attended since. Depending on how you define this group it’s possible it’s even bigger than the first group, at least in America and Europe. I’m probably not the best person to talk about this group because, despite their numbers, these people honestly baffle me. I understand the appeal of dealing with what’s right in front of you. Of enjoying what you have without thinking too much about what does or doesn’t happen when you die, which is anyway decades away. But at some point you have to grapple with it, don’t you? Perhaps this is just a difference in levels of belief between the old and the young or to put it another way, those who are about to die and those who are a long way from death, though I don’t think it’s as simple as that.
In any event why do I bring these choices up? As long time readers will know, this isn’t the first time, and if I haven’t made any impact on groups two through four already, what makes me think it will be different this time?
Very likely it won’t be, but I intend to persist anyway, in part because I’m hoping that this blog will become a resource for Mormon apologetics and more broadly Christian apologetics. Though to be clear, I’m not sure how good of a job I’m doing. In part, I’m sure it’s because the apologetics I do engage in are not always easy to recognize as such. If you’re trying to increase people’s engagement with religion, there are a couple of well-trod paths, and my stuff has a tendency to fall into the no-man’s land between those two paths.
On the one hand, you can talk about spiritual experiences, relate faith promoting stories and discuss people whose lives have been changed through their religious belief, or through Jesus Christ or through reading the Book of Mormon.
On the other hand, there are those apologetics who spend most of their time rebutting specific arguments, explaining historical events in a way which is favorable to the church or answering pointed criticism.
Given that I do almost none of the former and very little of the latter I don’t think my blog is what most people expect. If you were being charitable you could say I’m working at a higher level, but it might be more accurate to say I’m just esoteric. That said, I do aspire to comment on things from a high level view, to show how religion is integral to civilization, how the latest ideology is not as revolutionary as people think, how current philosophy and ideology has not left religion behind, but only made it more important, and so on. In an effort to be less esoteric, in this post I want to get into the nuts and bolts, numbers and figures that really show how beneficial religion is even if we set aside the promise of potential salvation offered by most religions.
I’m going to take much of what I say from a talk given at the 2017 Fair Mormon Conference, by Dan Peterson, titled What Difference Does It Make? I’ve already stolen the Russell quote from the speech, and as I say so often you should read the entire thing, or possibly better yet, in this case, you can listen to it.
Also before I get into things, as I mentioned in the last post I’ve been reading Skin in the Game by Taleb, and he makes the very valid point that not all religions would be considered religions in the classic “freedom of religion” sense, which is to say not all religions accept the division between church and state. Meaning that, going forward, I’m going to be talking about benefits of religion in the American Judeo-Christian context, and these benefits may not exist outside of the context. It’s certainly possible that the points I’m about to make apply to other religions in other places, but Peterson’s data all comes from America and Europe.
With that out of the way, as I said at the beginning, everyone is making a choice between one of four options (or perhaps not choosing in the case of option 4) and the position that Peterson champions is that the first option is the best choice even without considering whether it leads to some sort of existence after this one. To begin with he argues that it improves a person’s health, particularly their mental health. And of course the irony is that so many people in groups 2-4 actually make the opposite argument, that religion is something of a mental illness. (Peterson offers up quotes from both Dawkins and Sam Harris in support of this.)
It’s easy to make that claim, and I’m sure it plays well with the sort of people who like Dawkins and Harris, but is there any truth to it? Here we turn to Peterson:
Harold Koenig, a psychiatrist on the faculty of Duke University, has established himself as a premier authority in this area. He and his collaborators argue that religious involvement is correlated with better mental health in the areas of depression, substance abuse and suicide, and, somewhat less certainly, with better results in the treatment of stress-related disorders and dementia.
Moreover…Tyler VanderWeele, professor of epidemiology at Harvard University…confirms the links that previous scientific investigation had identified between attendance at religious services and enhanced health. Regular attendance is associated, for example, with “a roughly 30 percent reduction in mortality over 16 years of follow-up; a five-fold reduction in the likelihood of suicide; and a 30 percent reduction in the incidence of depression”...
Regular participation in communal religious worship [also] appears to be associated with “greater likelihood of healthy social relationships and stable marriages; an increased sense of meaning in life; higher life satisfaction; an expansion of one’s social network; and more charitable giving, volunteering, and civic engagement,” says VanderWeele.
One might perhaps conclude that it’s the social support afforded by religious participation that confers such benefits. VanderWeele, however, says that social support accounts for only about 20-30 percent of the measured results. The self-discipline encouraged by religious faith and the optimistic worldview that it supports also appear to be important contributing factors to physical health and longevity.
The “five-fold reduction in the likelihood of suicide” is particularly interesting. First, because the effect is so large. Second, because, just in the last few days I’ve seen several articles reporting that the rate of hospitalization for attempted suicide and suicidal ideation has more than doubled among teens and children, and third because Peterson opened his talk with a story of someone who committed suicide after leaving the Church, seemingly because of his anger at the Church for, what he perceived to be, its many lies. To say that this particular individual would still be alive if he had never left the Church, is both callous and unwarranted, since it’s impossible to say what would happen with any given individual, but if VanderWeele’s claims are to be believed, and we instead look at the aggregate, there might be thousands of people if not more who would be alive today if they had been active in a religion.
Peterson goes on to quote Dr. Andrew Sims, former president of the United Kingdom’s Royal College of Psychiatrists and professor of psychiatry at the University of Leeds:
The advantageous effect of religious belief and spirituality on mental and physical health is one of the best-kept secrets in psychiatry, and medicine generally...If the findings of the huge volume of research on this topic had gone in the opposite direction and it had been found that religion damages your mental health, it would have been front-page news in every newspaper in the land! Churches are almost the only element in society to have offered considerate, caring, long-lasting and self-sacrificing support to the mentally ill… [which is one of the reasons why] religious involvement results in a better outcome from a range of illnesses, both mental and physical.
At this point you may want to argue that there are other confounders that were missed by VanderWeele and Sims, and maybe there are, but I think Sims makes an excellent point that if the research (a “huge volume” recall) had gone in the opposite direction it would have been front-page news, and my guess is that very little attention would have been paid to possible confounders in that case. Instead it’s mostly ignored, and my sense is that such research is becoming rarer. Possibly this is because the conclusions are solid enough to not require further support. More likely it’s because in this day and age no one wants to engage in the study of religion at all, particularly if that study is going to force them to arrive at a conclusion they don’t like. If you still have your doubts Peterson goes on to further summarize Sims’ findings:
In the majority of scientific studies...religious involvement correlates with enhanced well-being, happiness and life-satisfaction; greater hope and optimism, even when facing serious diseases, such as breast cancer; a stronger sense of purpose and meaning in life; higher self-esteem; better responses to bereavement; greater social support; less loneliness; lower rates of depression and faster recovery from depression; reduced rates of suicide; decreased anxiety; better coping with stress; less psychosis and fewer psychotic tendencies; lower rates of alcohol and drug abuse; less delinquency and criminal activity; and greater marital stability and satisfaction.
Indeed, correlations between religious faith and improved well-being “typically equal or exceed correlations between well-being and other psychosocial variables, such as social support.” And, he adds, this substantial assertion is “comprehensively attested to by a large amount of evidence.”
“The nagging question we are left with is, why is this important information” — “epidemiological medicine’s best-kept secret,” [Sims] calls it — “not better known?”
“If it were anything other than religious belief or spirituality resulting in such beneficial outcomes for health, the media would trumpet it and governments and health care organizations would be rushing to implement its practice.”
Here I diverge somewhat from Sims and Peterson, I don’t know that health care organizations and governments could successfully duplicate the positive benefits of religion. In particular, it doesn’t seem that forcing someone to join a religion probably gives the same benefits as someone voluntarily joining a religion, or staying in the religion of their parents. But even if these benefits can’t easily be duplicated, that doesn’t mean that there’s nothing to be done. To begin with, these results certainly point to a policy of not mocking the people who are religious. Modern atheists are an obvious target for this policy, but I think it extends to a lot of the modern left in general. Recall Obama’s statement about bitter people who cling to their religion, and here’s a whole column in “The Atlantic” talking about the Democrats religion problem.
I think the quotes also strongly argue against policies which are anti-religious. Unlike some people I don’t think there’s a “War on Christians”, but neither do I think that the current political environment is particularly friendly to Christians at the moment either. Just today I read that the city of Philadelphia had ended its association with two Christian foster care and adoption organizations because they won’t place kids with gay parents. I might be sympathetic to the city if these were the only organizations in the city providing this sort of service, or if there was no need for additional help with foster care and adoption, or if these organizations did not offer referrals to other organizations who do work with same sex couples. But none of those conditions is true. And in fact at the same time this was happening Philadelphia tweeted about the urgent need for foster parents. I understand this is just one story, and I’ve already talked at some length about freedom of religion in another post, so I’ll leave it there.
I find that I am most of the way through this post and I’ve only covered the first of several points Peterson makes about the value of religion. Perhaps I’ll cover the others in a future post, but for now I need to talk about group three, the transhumanists. While, Peterson did an excellent job of covering groups one and two (and to a certain extent to group four) he understandably didn’t spend any time talking about transhumanism. Therefore this is one area where I thought I might be able to add something to the discussion.
To begin with, one of the advantages of religion is that it seems to work even for the very poorest and most disadvantaged people. In fact, it may be that among those people is precisely where it’s the most useful, particularly when compared with other “interventions”. In contrast, the transhumanist ideology is almost entirely restricted to affluent first worlders with a predilection for technology. Now it is possible that combining the two gives the best outcome of all, which is the entire point of the MTA, but it is also possible that the combination results in something which abandons the caution of either in favor of something that is far too optimistic and utopian. Regardless, at the moment the idea of combining the two has an influence far too small to make much of an impact either way.
If we consider the route to “salvation” provided by transhumanism on its own it has the advantage of potentially providing immortality and eternal happiness even if there should turn out to be no God, this is counterbalanced by the disadvantage I already mentioned of, at least initially, only being available to a select few. Also it’s unclear if the transhumanist ideology would create any of the advantages I mentioned above as far as mental and physical health. Unless we assume that all the benefits of religion come because of its promised immortality, which I strongly doubt, transhumanism is unlikely to act as a substitute. But maybe I’m wrong, there is unfortunately, to the best of my knowledge, no data comparing outcomes between the religious and the transhumanists. Also to be fair the Effective Altruism movement is pretty big in that space, and it has the very religious sounding rule of giving 10% of your income to charity.
Also, the reason I talk about transhumanists so much is not because I dislike them, but because, they appear to be doing the best they can in the absence of religion. That said, I think they overstate the advantages (immortality is going to be ridiculously difficult, and yet it’s child’s play compared to ensuring eternal happiness) and understate the disadvantages, particularly the small number of people for whom it has any effect at all. And it is a small number, I mentioned at the beginning that the number of religious people in the world has fallen from essentially 100% to around 84%. As the number of religious individuals has decreased every other category I mentioned above has increased, though I would argue that the biggest increase has not been among atheists and transhumanists, but among category 4, the apathetic and inactive.
To conclude, let’s for the moment imagine that being an atheist or a transhumanist is a good thing, that somehow it replaces all of the benefits of religion with something as good or better. I very much doubt this is the case, but for the sake of argument let’s assume that it is. We still have the problem that the vast majority of people have not left religion for atheism and transhumanism. The vast majority of people have left religion for nothing. Thus we have not replaced believers, with all the benefits attached, with intellectually courageous atheists, or futuristic transhumanists, but with a vast and increasing mass of shallow, materialistic, status seeking people who have lost the benefits of religion without any compensation.
I repeat again, the harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved.
Is there any benefit to donating to a religiously themed blog? Maybe… There’s only one way to be sure.
Saturday, May 19, 2018
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There are many people who claim that in the future everything will be better. As an example of this I will point out Steven Pinker’s, Enlightenment Now, which I just covered and which is most notable for having lots of graphs which all go up. As you may recall, Pinker (along with many others) claim that we’ve mostly eliminated war and famine, and that we’ll soon eliminate disease. Leaving death as the only remaining horseman of the apocalypse. But if we go farther and bring transhumanists into the discussion, then even death will shortly be eliminated through things like cryonics, brain-uploading and cool cyborg enhancements.
Despite these upbeat predictions of a brilliant future where humanity will either be gods, or at a bare minimum live in a super awesome society, (as best as I can tell you should picture a place like Norway only even better) anytime someone writes about the future, they generally end up creating something strongly dystopian. Now I have said before this is more a reflection of the art of a good story, and to a lesser extent Tolstoy’s observation that, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”, than any sort of actual divination. Accordingly it would be misguided to use the existence of science fiction dystopias as proof that actual dystopias are inevitable.
That said, Tolstoy did make a good point in what has come to be known as the Anna Karenina Principle. For things to go the way you want everything has to go right. Thus happy families are alike because they all have the same set of things going well. On the other hand any number of different things could be causing the unhappiness of an unhappy family. In the same way, there are any number of things that could go wrong which would derail the predictions of Pinker and the transhumanists, and, on the other hand, everything has to go right for those predictions to come to pass.
However, all of this is tangential to my real point. As I said, there are numerous science fiction dystopias, and along with that, for the most part, there is widespread consensus that we should do what we can to avoid these dystopias, however unlikely they might be. I said “for the most part”, I imagine that there are some transhumanists who would prefer the world of Neuromancer or Altered Carbon to the current world. Which is not to say they wouldn’t tweak some things if they had the chance. But this is not the sort of thing which concerns me. What concerns me is that there is at least one dystopia out there, which is actually viewed as a utopia by some. What is this dystopia and who are these people? The dystopia is Children of Men by P.D. James and the people are antinatalists, people who are opposed to humans reproducing.
This is one of those posts where everything seems to be pointed in the same direction. To begin with over a month ago one my readers sent me a video about antinatalists which started me thinking about the subject. Second, one of the things which I failed to cover when I was talking about Pinker’s book, is his lack of any discussion about the importance of reproduction and survival, which I feel is one of the major weaknesses of the book. Finally there’s last week’s discussion of incels, which, regardless of your personal feelings on the movement itself, touches on this issue as well. And then of course there are previous posts in this space which touch on the issue.
Let’s start with the video I got sent. It’s a presentation by Dr. Tom Moore of University College Cork, Ireland where he discusses David Benatar’s book Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming Into Existence. His discussion starts with a skeptical air (probably reflecting the attitudes of his audience) before ultimately coming to the conclusion that despite antinatalism appearing ridiculous on its face, that there are no successful counter arguments to Benatar’s version of it (at least not that he’s aware of.) As you might gather I am not an antinatalist, so either I must have taken that position on faith (which is not the worst thing in the world) or I must believe that I have a successful counterargument. In the end it’s a little bit of both, but I assume my readers are more interested in a successful counter argument.
Obviously, it would be inappropriate to launch into a counter argument without first presenting the argument itself. To begin with antinatalism can be divided into three sub-ideologies:
- Antinatalism as a solution to overpopulation, and as a tool in the prevention of a Malthusian catastrophe. I.e. being alive is good, but better if it’s limited to a “privileged” few.
- Humans are bad, they ruin everything and “things” would be better, particularly for other species if humans weren’t here. I.e. Being alive is bad, but not for humans, for everything else.
- Being alive is so bad that it’s better to have never lived at all. I.e. Suffering sucks, and that’s what being alive is all about.
The first two positions are easy to understand even for those people who don’t agree with them. It’s the third that Benatar advocates for, and which requires some explanation.
For Benatar there are two possibilities, being born and not being born. If someone is born they experience some happiness and some suffering. If the happiness is greater than the suffering then being alive was a good thing. On the other hand if someone isn’t born, they can’t experience any suffering. We have prevented it. And the prevention of suffering is obviously a moral good. Of course we have also prevented them from experiencing happiness, which most people would count as a bad thing. But Benatar argues that non-existent individuals cannot have regrets, accordingly rather than counting the missing happiness as a bad thing, we should assign it a value of zero. Something that is neither good nor bad. To put it another way no one imagines the anger of the children they didn’t have (well actually I know some religious people who do, but I think they’re an edge case.)
What this means is that unless the net happiness of those who are alive completely swamps the prevented suffering of those who were never born (which will be difficult, since the number of people who could have been born but have not could be in the trillions) then it would be better for all of humanity to go extinct.
This is the argument Dr. Moore found so compelling, and I agree, if you accept all of the assumptions, the logic is essentially irrefutable. But should we accept all of the assumptions?
The most critical assumption in this chain of logic is that the happiness of those who are unborn have zero value. That if, say for instance, Shakespeare had never been born that it wouldn’t have been a loss to humanity, because we would never know what we were missing. I might grant Benatar’s point, but only when evaluating one life at a time. As productive and consequential as Shakespeare was we still probably wouldn’t notice the space where he would have been.
There are in fact very few individuals whose lack would be noticeable, even if we could compare the reality in which they were present against the reality in which they are not. Particularly on a time scale of hundreds or thousands of years. Even without Shakespeare we would still have Christopher Marlowe, Ben Johnson, and Sir Walter Raleigh, and later Keats, and Byron and Shelley. But what if we eliminated England in its entirety? Is it possible we might notice a lack then? That we might decide that however bad life is, that this was not a trade worth making? Maybe, hard to say. And some anti-colonists might argue that the world in fact would be better without the English. But I am positive that they in turn would be appalled if I suggested that we wipe out all Africans. Why is that? Perhaps they just don’t understand Benatar’s iron-clad logic. Or perhaps there’s something else going on, if despite all the suffering they claim for the continent and its inhabitants and those who were carried away as slaves, they still wouldn’t want Africa to cease to exist.
But Benatar doesn’t just want to eliminate all the English or all the Africans, he wants to eliminate everyone. I think at this point it’s hard to argue that we would be oblivious to the positive contributions of all those who would not be born under this plan. It may be hard to model the contributions of the sibling you might have had, but didn’t. It’s a lot less difficult to model the contributions of all of humanity. In other words Benatar isn’t merely assigning a value of zero to one hypothetical unborn life. He’s assigning a value of zero to all of the happiness, art, science and other achievements for all of humanity from the point of extinction forward.
That phrase, “point of extinction” brings us to another interesting inflection in Benatar’s ideology, at least as it was explained by Moore (I may eventually read Benatar’s book, but you can imagine why it’s not very high on my list.) Given that Benatar views human extinction as a way of reducing suffering, he doesn’t want to do anything to cause any more suffering even if it’s in furtherance of his ideology. What this means is that he doesn’t advocate suicide (because of the suffering it causes to those around you). Nor does he advocate homicide, forcible controls on reproduction or even euthanasia. Additionally, any anticipation of the extinction would also cause suffering as well. Meaning that Benatar’s ideal solution would be an instantaneous extinction which was completely unanticipated.
As regular readers know I have my disagreements with Eliezer Yudkowsky, but on this issue he made an excellent observation. There are people who would be horrified at the murder of a single individual, who would never in a million years consider killing someone, but yet, when you wrap it up in enough philosophy will calmly contemplate, and even advocate the murder of everyone who’s currently alive or who ever will live. In Benatar’s case the only condition is that it needs to be sudden and painless. But let’s not overlook the fact that he advocates murdering everyone.
Benatar’s argument has one further assumption, and this is an assumption which is made by Pinker as well. They assume that happiness/pleasure/lack of suffering is the thing we want to be optimizing for. And as long as I’m mentioning Yudkowsky, he had something interesting to say on this subject as well. When talking about rationality he made the point that people can get so caught up with the idea of what is or isn’t rational, that they overlook the key thing, which isn’t rationality for rationality’s sake, but overall success, or as he phrases it: Winning. Which is to say, even if by some logic, Benatar is being completely rational, the extinction of all of humanity is probably not winning.
As I said a lot of this comes back to whether or not happiness/pleasure/reduction of suffering is our terminal value. If it’s not, then what is? I’m half way through Skin in the Game by Nassim Nicholas Taleb (post coming soon) and he speaks to this issue and how it connects to rationality on multiple occasions:
Reality doesn't care about winning arguments; survival is what matters.
What is rational, is what allows the collective--entities meant to live for a long time--to survive.
Rationality does not depend on explicit verbalistic explanatory factors; it is only what aids survival, what avoids ruin.
Along with Taleb, my argument would be that survival should be our core value, and by mentioning survival, we can no longer avoid the elephant in the room: evolution and Darwinian natural selection. As far as I can tell every, even somewhat rational, antinatalist admits that our survival instinct is far too strong for voluntary extinction to work, which leaves only murder (which Benatar at least opposes) or some sort of instantaneous extinction, which appears to be impractical.
From a certain point of view, this is the best counter-argument of all, “It’s absolutely impossible.” And for my own part it adequately answers the second form of antinatalism (Humans ruin everything). And we’ve already covered the third form of antinatalism, but what about the first form of antinatalism, avoiding the Malthusian catastrophe? This is where, I would argue, all of the various threads come together.
As I pointed out when I originally brought it up, the first kind of antinatalists believe that life is grand, but that it should be reserved for a select few. As it turns out there’s a logical proof concerning this as well, though it comes to the exact opposite conclusion. It’s called the Repugnant Conclusion, and while there’s a fair amount going on with it, in essence, it says that if everyone is experiencing at least some amount of net happiness, that maximizing happiness requires as many people as possible. I don’t really have strong feelings one way or the other on the Repugnant Conclusion as a guide to action (though it does support the religious injunction to multiply and replenish the earth). Rather, I bring it up at this point for three reasons:
1- It’s a compelling and logical counter-argument of the sort that Moore said he was unable to find. And it directly speaks to the first form of antinatalism.
2- However “repugnant” this conclusion is, I can’t imagine anyone arguing that it’s more repugnant than the extinction of all of humanity.
3- The first form of antinatalism at least pays some attention to the issue of survival.
At this point the common thread, from Benatar to the Repugnant conclusion, up to and including even Pinker, is a debate over whether happiness or survival should be our guiding value. On the one side, to use the technical term, Pinker and Benatar and Dr. Moore, are all hedonists. Now I don’t know about you, but for me, and I think most people, hedonism has a negative connotation. One I think it’s earned. I know there are hedonists who will argue that their philosophy is more nuanced and complex that just doing whatever is the most pleasurable in any given moment. And I’m sure they’re correct, but I don’t think it matters.
I’m not sure what to call those people on the other side of the hedonists. Maybe the survivalists? But on this side, in addition to myself, and Taleb, you have all humanity, and indeed all life back to the beginning. It’s only in the world of the last few decades, that one could argue that happiness is so good, or suffering so bad, that it should override survival.
To put it another way, there are really only two logical positions. You can either think being alive is preventing happiness (by causing suffering) in which case you’re allied with Benatar, or you can think being alive is a necessary precondition for happiness. I don’t think it’s a stretch to argue that the vast majority of people reject the first position almost as soon as they hear it, and if not I’ve provided several counter arguments. Leaving only the second position, being alive is necessary to being happy. In which case survival precedes and takes priority over happiness, by virtue of the obvious: you can’t be happy if you don’t exist.
If it’s down to a battle between happiness and survival, what does that mean? At this point maybe you’re convinced that survival should be the ultimate value or maybe you’re not. But for the moment let’s move past that and assume that it is. I mean sure “The Children of Men” is a bleak future, and you may still have a hard time imagining that there are people pushing for just that future, but we’re surely not in any danger of that, right? Well I definitely hope not, but if we do avoid it it won’t be because we’ve taken any precautions against it. In fact much of what Pinker and people like him find so great about modernity are precisely those things which nibble away at our chances for survival. And this is a problem.
Why is it a problem? Well, the essential danger of having incorrect priorities is that we are getting better and better at pursuing our priorities. With this in mind the question becomes how much does the pursuit of happiness overlap with ensuring that we survive? I’m becoming increasingly convinced that they don’t overlap at all. Thus prioritizing happiness has nothing to do with prioritizing survival.
I’m reminded of this everytime I see an article by someone explaining that people without kids are way happier than people with kids. How is it that we’ve reached a point where our urge to survive is so weak that the combined strength of all of our selfish genes put together is not enough to outweigh the pursuit of slightly increased happiness? Even if there is some overlap between survival and happiness, to the extent that they diverge (and as this example shows, they don’t even have to diverge by very much) survival is going to increasingly be left behind, as we put more and more effort into pure happiness and less and less effort into pure survival.
I would argue that the accumulated survival efforts of all those who have gone before us have created a surplus which masks the extent of the problem. In reality, if you were to take a snapshot of modern society, say take 1000 individuals, and remove them from the rest of civilization, your only conclusion would be that they were in a lot of trouble. If you were to apply the same standard you use for pandas, tigers and mountain gorillas you would definitely classify them as endangered, and not because of their numbers. You would be way more concerned about their below replacement birth rate. The significant and increasing minority who don’t even engage in sexual activity that results in procreation. And the fact that when children are conceived there’s a non-trivial chance that the child will be aborted in-utero. You might even conclude, that somehow, evolution has stopped working with this species. And yet everything I just listed is considered progress by people like Steven Pinker. It is progress towards some definition of happiness. It is not progress towards ensuring our survival.
The point I’m trying to get at is that when taken to its logical conclusion, prioritizing happiness over survival leads to things like Benatar’s antinatalism. But even when not taken to such extremes, such as the case Pinker makes in “Enlightenment Now” it can still end up emphasizing the wrong thing, emphasizing a soft but nevertheless toxic hedonism while completely ignoring stagnation and decline in the only thing that matters, our very existence, itself.
My survival is contingent on eating, eating is contingent on money, money is contingent on your donations, thus my very survival is contingent on you donating. If you’re experiencing any guilt at all right now, then, mission accomplished!