Ripples

A life is a stone dropped into a pond and its meaning the ripples heading out therefrom.

Heave a brick into the Mississippi at Minneapolis. Have a friend in New Orleans try to distinguish its ripples from everything else in the river. Her report back to you should tell you much about a human life inside human history.

We pessimists are actually pretty decent people

In his most recent book, David Benatar notes that we pessimists actually do pretty well in terms of our behavior. (For “one” in the passage below, we can read “we.”)

One does not enter into people’s houses of worship to tell them they are wrong, or knock on people’s doors offering to share the “bad news” with them. One does not stop pregnant women on the street and excoriate them and their partners for creating new life.*

Well put, Professor Benatar! I might note that other things we do not do include firebombing maternity wards or gunning down fertility doctors in the lobbies of their churches.

No, we leave all that sort of thing to those lovely “pro-life” people.

*David Benatar, The Human Predicament: A Candid Guide to Life’s Biggest Questions. (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), p. 11. Back to main text.

What not knowing the future gets you

I probably ought not write about this, because I see it bringing only trouble. But I can be compulsive about the truth as I see it, so…

Young adulthood was pretty good to me. I had an awesome girlfriend and I was beginning to climb the rungs, successfully and almost easily, toward a career that I would have really enjoyed, had things panned out the way I thought they would have. Things started turning south, I would say, at about the age of 24½. For about six years after that, life felt like one heartbreaking disappointment after another.

I am now past 50 years in age, and the following grim reflection occurs to me. Although I am nothing like suicidal now, I do think that if, by some hideous anti-miracle of cognition I could have had in foresight at the age of 24½ the quarter-century I now have in hindsight, and had efficient means been available — such as a fistful of Nembutal or a reliable firearm — I very well might have killed myself. At least, the resolution to do so I regard as retrospectively rational. That I did not do so is a tribute not to wisdom but to ignorance and I suppose also to hope — here the irrational conviction during my darkest days that things would look up someday, that at the end of all the misery there would be a life so much better that I would be glad to have persevered through wretchedness. That isn’t so. While in fact things did get somewhat better, I do not now regard them as so much better that it was worth it to have lived through the darkest days. And I certainly no longer expect that any good thing lies in my future that will change this judgment. No lottery wins or Nobel Prizes lurk over my horizon, and don’t let me get started on my pessimism about relationships.

Life is served by ignorance and irrationality. That doesn’t say much good about life.

Update on July 20, 2017. I’ve added a link above about my pessimism about relationships. And if you like that sort of thing, here’s another.

I’ll take the sterile rock, thanks

The philosopher Eric Schwitzgebel has written a post recently (H/t to Brian Leiter) responding to recent books written by Owen Flanagan (The Geography of Morals, 2016) and Paul Bloom (Against Empathy, also 2016). To oversimply grossly, these two writers think we would be better off getting rid of certain kinds of emotion, in Flanagan’s case anger and in Bloom’s case empathy. Flanagan thinks we would be better off striving to become like Buddhist or Stoic sages, and Bloom thinks we could achieve a good society better using cool, rational compassion in place of empathy in making social decisions.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Professor Schwitzgebel doesn’t like these proposals very much. He advances (though admits he doesn’t at the moment have an argument for defending) a view that the world would in an important sense be poorer without these emotions even if getting rid of them might in some sense make the world better. He thinks that there is an intrinsic value to having a “rich” world, and articulates his understanding thusly:

I want to push back against the idea that we should narrow the emotional range of our lives by rejecting empathy and anger. My thought is this: Having a rich emotional range is intrinsically valuable.

One way of thinking about intrinsic value is to consider what you would wish for, if you knew that there was a planet on the far side of the galaxy, beyond any hope of contact with us. (I discuss this thought experiment here and here.) Would you hope that it’s a sterile rock? A planet with microbial life but not multi-cellular organisms? A planet with the equivalent of deer and cows but no creatures of human-like intelligence? Human-like intelligences, but all lying comatose, plugged into simple happiness stimulators?

Here’s what I’d hope for: a rich, complex, multi-layered society of loves and hates, victories and losses, art and philosophy, history, athletics, science, music, literature, feats of engineering, great achievements and great failures. When I think about a flourishing world, I want all of that. And negative emotions, destructive emotions, useless bad stuff, those are part of it. If I imagine a society with rational compassion, but no empathy, no anger — a serene world populated exclusively by Buddhist and Stoic sages — I have imagined a lesser world. I have imagined a step away from all the wonderful complexity and richness of life.

Most of Professor Schwitzgebel’s commenters seem to agree that the “wonderful complexity and richness of life” seems to trump any advantages to getting rid of things like anger.

My response to Professor Schwitzgebel’s though experiment is the good antinatalist one: “sterile rock, please.” I do find it entertaining how the way the experiment was set up allows me to echo Schopenhauer.

If you try to imagine, as nearly as you can, what an amount of misery, pain and suffering of every kind the sun shines upon in its course, you will admit that it would be much better if, on the earth as little as on the moon, the sun were able to call forth the phenomena of life; and if, here as there, the surface were still in a crystalline state.

Again, you may look upon life as an unprofitable episode, disturbing the blessed calm of non-existence. And, in any case, even though things have gone with you tolerably well, the longer you live the more clearly you will feel that, on the whole, life is a disappointment, nay, a cheat.

Wenn man so weit es annäherungsweise möglich ist, die Summe von Not, Schmerz und Leiden jeder Art sich vorstellt, welche die Sonne in ihrem Laufe bescheint; so wird man einräumen daß es viel besser wäre wenn sie auf der Erde so wenig wie auf dem Monde hätte das Phänomen des Lebens hervorrufen können, sondern, wie auf diesem, so auch auf jener die Oberfläche sich noch im krystallinischen Zustande befände.

Man kann auch unser Leben auffassen als eine unnützerweise störende Episode in der seeligen Ruhe des Nichts. Jedenfalls wird selbst Der, dem es darin erträglicher ergangen, je länger er lebt, desto deutlicher inne, daß es im Ganzen a disappointment, nay a cheat ist…

Note on the texts

I’m not about to offer a global defense of my view any more than Professor Schwitzgebel is of his, but I will offer first this observation: the “rich, wonderful world” that Professor Schwitzgebel imagines is surely one containing a lot of suffering. I don’t think Professor Schwitzgebel would deny this claim and indeed language like “…negative emotions, destructive emotions, useless bad stuff, those are part of it” seems to admit it, but to expand a bit on the point. The existence of anger — at least, any sort of anger that is somehow rationally motivated — seems to require the existence of suffering, something for people to be angry at, and seem also likely to be the cause of suffering as people act on that anger or, alternatively, bottle it up and stew. An empathy, if it’s to have much of a positive point, needs suffering to empathize with.

Having made that observation, I’m inclined to offer an error theory for why it is that people can believe that it’s so great to have a “rich, wonderful world,” and it’s that when people are allowed to contemplate cruelty and suffering as spectators, rather than as people who have to undergo the suffering, it turns out that they rather enjoy the spectacle. Our literature abounds in atrocity: from the Iliad to the latest action-movie productions of Hollywood, violence and death draw eager audiences. Those pages of history are most avidly read that are written in blood, whereupon are chronicled stories of war, massacre, and persecution. Our sporting events, from gladiatorial combats to American football, are given their seasoning by the prospect of injury and pain. And, without going too deeply into the politics of the present day, I must observe that much current political behavior is at best hard to explain if we do not take into account how the winners in political struggles savor, if only through their television screens, the sufferings inflicted on the losers. Old Nietzsche was right: spectatorial cruelty is woven deep into our natures. Small wonder people like Professor Schwitzgebel and his commenters want the “rich” world. It gives them something fun to look at, or at least contemplate within the confines of their imaginations. Honestly, it is all enough to make one sympathetic to that dark kind of antinatalism.

Let me say that I do not for a minute that I do not think for a minute that I am a better person than Professor Schwitzgebel or his commenters. I have just as much spectatorial cruelty in my nature as they, perhaps more, as a quick glance at at least one of my other blogs will quickly reveal. If I differ from them, it is only in my unwillingness to think well of myself.


Note on Schopenhauer’s text:

The German text is taken from this online version of his Parerga und Paralipomena under the heading Nachträge zur Lehre vom Leiden der Welt (§156). It represents my own transcription from the rather painful-to-read original Fraktur text. I have tried to follow the punctuation of the original. In one instance I have taken the liberty of updating Schopenhauer’s spelling (from “Noth” to “Not”). The words “…a disappointment, nay a cheat” are in English in Schopenhauer’s original text. The English text is from a translation by Thomas Bailey Saunders, published as “On the Sufferings of the World,” published at Wikisource. Both texts were accessed on March 15, 2017.

Return to main text.

Nature’s brain-hacking

From a recent article in the Health section of The New York Times: “Pregnancy Changes the Brain in Ways That May Help Mothering.”

Pregnancy changes a woman’s brain, altering the size and structure of areas involved in perceiving the feelings and perspectives of others, according to a first-of-its-kind study published Monday.

Most of these changes remained two years after giving birth, at least into the babies’ toddler years. And the more pronounced the brain changes, the higher mothers scored on a measure of emotional attachment to their babies.

[…]

In the study, researchers scanned the brains of women who had never conceived before, and again after they gave birth for the first time. The results were remarkable: loss of gray matter in several brain areas involved in a process called social cognition or “theory of mind,” the ability to register and consider how other people perceive things.

[…]

A…possibility is that the loss is “part of the brain’s program for dealing with the future,” [Paul Thompson, a neuroscientist at the University of Southern California] said. Hormone surges in pregnancy might cause “pruning or cellular adaptation that is helpful,” he said, streamlining certain brain areas to be more efficient at mothering skills “from nurturing to extra vigilance to teaching.”

Another story, from the Guardian, “Pregnancy causes long-term changes to brain structure, says study”, adds some detail.

While the researchers say the lack of similar brain changes among new fathers suggests the adjustments are down to biological processes, such as fluctuations in hormones,[Cambridge University neuroimaging expert Dr. Kirstie] Whitaker points out that environmental influences could be at play. But she agrees with the authors’ suggestion that decrease in grey matter volume could be linked to evolutionary pressures.

“Being a new mum is hard and you have to adjust an awful lot,” said Whitaker. “Your brain is going to be able to respond to that change and it is going to make it so that you can take care of this newborn bundle of joy.”

Now to be sure, it is only one study with a relatively small number of subjects, and we should generally be skeptical of reports in popular media on new science. (I have included the Times‘s link to the underlying Nature paper so readers so inclined may follow that in detail). But let’s grant for the sake of argument that the researchers are onto something and Nature really is hacking pregnant women’s brains in the service of making them better mothers. That possibility prompts (for me, anyway) the following reflection.

At this time there circulate among a certain subset of men who identify as “pick-up artists” or “men’s rights activists” putative techniques for hacking women’s brains in order to increase their sexual availability to the would-be hackers. Decent people generally see these attempts at mind-hacking as a pretty vile way to behave toward other human beings, and rightly so. But curiously, when nature is the hacker, carrying out part of its relentless program of putting new generations of suffering beings on earth, we get something like breathless celebration.

Makes you wonder how much anyone thinks these things through.

The Great Commission

Here is Jesus addressing his eleven remaining disciples in Matthew 28:18-20.

And Jesus came and spake unto them, saying, All power [ἐξουσία] is given unto me in heaven and in earth. Go ye therefore, and teach all nations [ἔθνη], baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded [Faustus: ἐνετειλάμην –there’s that word again] you: and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world. Amen.

So if I get this right, and I see no reason to think I’ve got this wrong, they’re supposed to head out and make everything and everyone Christian. Not explicitly said, but surely implied, is that this process if successful means wiping out all other religions, non-religious worldviews, and ways of life, on a planetwide basis. The great diversity of humankind is to be replaced with a Jesus-based monoculture.

I can think of many names for the aspiration embodied in Jesus’ command, of which “cultural imperialism” is perhaps the most diplomatic.

The Great Commandment

Here’s a post I thought apropos for Christmas Day, because we all remember whose birthday it is (other than Humphrey Bogart‘s, that is).

Many people think that the core of Christianity can be found in something called The Great Commandment. It’s really two commandments, and can be found in Matthew 22:35-40.

Then one of them, which was a lawyer, asked him a question, tempting him, and saying, Master, which is the great commandment in the law? Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

Perhaps “commandment” seems a little strong, but if you look at the underlying Greek you’ll find that the word used by “Matthew” and rendered by King James’s translators as “commandment” is ἐντολή, which is a very commanding word in Greek. Outside of the Christian scriptures it was used by Herodotus (in a verbal form) to describe an order given by the Persian King Cyrus to one of his subordinates.

This meaning raises a question, which no Christian in the past two thousand years has, to my mind anyway, successfully answered, or even raised.

Why on earth would we think of love as something that could be commanded?

The Artifex anticipated

The days are dark and growing darker, and not just due to the workings of celestial mechanics on the northern hemisphere. To try to find some sense of calm in the darkness I have been spending more time as usual with philosophy. With David Hume, because he never fails to be a good companion. With Arthur Schopenhauer, because his cosmic pessimism seems appropriate to the moment, and with Nietzsche perhaps most of all, because as the foremost exponent of the roles played by ressentiment and innate cruelty in human mental life he strikes me as the finest diagnostician of the illness that is life today.

I have read Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals any number of times over the past few decades. The greatest books — and this is surely one of them — repay re-reading no matter how many time one rereads them. On this re-read, something stook out.

Remember the Artifex Atrox? It is that mysterious being, that anti-God that is filled with joy at human suffering, that feeds off of it and created the universe for the purpose of having it. It was invoked (though not under the name I have attributed to it, by John Zande as a way of breaking apart and defeating theodicies. In Nietzsche’s book, I found a claim that some version of the Artifex Atrox might have been present to Greeks of old in their very gods. (Since more than one, should we perhaps then call them Artifices Atroces? Here is Nietzsche’s claim, taken from the Second Essay, §7. As usual, original German text is on the left, a tolerably-good English translation on the right.

Was eigentlich gegen das Leiden empört, ist nicht das Leiden an sich, sondern das Sinnlose des Leidens: aber weder für den Christen, der in das Leiden eine ganze geheime Heils-Maschinerie hineininterpretirt hat, noch für den naiven Menschen älterer Zeiten, der alles Leiden sich in Hinsicht auf Zuschauer oder auf Leiden-Macher auszulegen verstand, gab es überhaupt ein solches sinnloses Leiden. Damit das verborgne, unentdeckte, zeugenlose Leiden aus der Welt geschafft und ehrlich negirt werden konnte, war man damals beinahe dazu genöthigt, Götter zu erfinden und Zwischenwesen aller Höhe und Tiefe, kurz Etwas, das auch im Verborgnen schweift, das auch im Dunklen sieht und das sich nicht leicht ein interessantes schmerzhaftes Schauspiel entgehen lässt. Mit Hülfe solcher Erfindungen nämlich verstand sich damals das Leben auf das Kunststück, auf das es sich immer verstanden hat, sich selbst zu rechtfertigen, sein »Übel« zu rechtfertigen; jetzt bedürfte es vielleicht dazu andrer Hülfs-Erfindungen (zum Beispiel Leben als Räthsel, Leben als Erkenntnissproblem). »Jedes Übel ist gerechtfertigt, an dessen Anblick ein Gott sich erbaut«: so klang die vorzeitliche Logik des Gefühls – und wirklich, war es nur die vorzeitliche? Die Götter als Freunde grausamer Schauspiele gedacht – oh wie weit ragt diese uralte Vorstellung selbst noch in unsre europäische Vermenschlichung hinein! man mag hierüber etwa mit Calvin und Luther zu Rathe gehn. Gewiss ist jedenfalls, dass noch die Griechen ihren Göttern keine angenehmere Zukost zu ihrem Glücke zu bieten wussten, als die Freuden der Grausamkeit. Mit welchen Augen glaubt ihr denn, dass Homer seine Götter auf die Schicksale der Menschen niederblicken liess? Welchen letzten Sinn hatten im Grunde trojanische Kriege und ähnliche tragische Furchtbarkeiten? Man kann gar nicht daran zweifeln: sie waren als Festspiele für die Götter gemeint: und, insofern der Dichter darin mehr als die übrigen Menschen »göttlich« geartet ist, wohl auch als Festspiele für die Dichter…

Text of Friedrich Nietzsche, Zur Genealogie der Moral, “Zweite Abhandlung: »Schuld«, »schlechtes Gewissen« und Verwandtes,” §7 from http://gutenberg.spiegel.de/buch/zur-genealogie-der-moral-3249/4 . Accessed on November 11, 2016.

What really arouses indignation against suffering is not suffering as such but the senselessness of suffering: but neither for the Christian, who has interpreted a whole mysterious machinery of salvation into suffering, nor for the naïve man of more ancient times, who understood suffering in relation to the spectator of it or the causer of it, was there any such thing as senseless suffering. So as to abolish the hidden, undetected, unwitnessed suffering and honestly to deny it, one was in the past virtually compelled to invent gods and genii of all the heights and depths, in short something that roams even in secret, hidden places, sees even in the dark, and will not let an interesting painful spectacle pass unnoticed. For it was with the aid of such inventions that life then knew how to work the trick which it has always known how to work, that of justifying itself, of justifying its “evil.” Nowadays it might require other auxiliary inventions (for example, life as riddle, life as epistemological problem). “Every evil the sight of which edifies a god is justified”: thus spoke the primitive logic of feeling — and was it, indeed, only primitive? The gods conceived of as friend of cruel spectacles — oh how profoundly this idea still permeates our European humanity! Merely consult Calvin and Luther. it is certain, at any rate, that the Greeks still knew of no tastier spice to offer the gods to season their happiness than the pleasures of cruelty. With what eyes do you think Homer made his gods look down upon the destinies of men? What was at bottom the ultimate meaning of Trojan Wars and other such tragic terrors? There can be no doubt whatever: they were intended as festival plays for the gods; and insofar as the poet is in these matters of a more “godlike” disposition than other men, no doubt also as festival plays for the poets.

From Walter Kaufmann, ed. and trans. Basic Writings of Nietzsche (New York: Modern Library, 1992). pp. 504-5.

Of course they would not let a painful spectacle pass unnoticed. This must really be a true festival time for all gods and genii.

For those of us who savor a bit the idea that philosophical positions are the captives of the psychological needs of philosophers, Nietzsche has a bit more.

Nicht anders dachten sich später die Moral-Philosophen Griechenlands die Augen Gottes noch auf das moralische Ringen, auf den Heroismus und die Selbstquälerei des Tugendhaften herabblicken: der »Herakles der Pflicht« war auf einer Bühne, er wusste sich auch darauf; die Tugend ohne Zeugen war für dies Schauspieler-Volk etwas ganz Undenkbares. Sollte nicht jene so verwegene, so verhängnissvolle Philosophen-Erfindung, welche damals zuerst für Europa gemacht wurde, die vom »freien Willen«, von der absoluten Spontaneität des Menschen im Guten und im Bösen, nicht vor Allem gemacht sein, um sich ein Recht zu der Vorstellung zu schaffen, dass das Interesse der Götter am Menschen, an der menschlichen Tugend sich nie erschöpfen könne? Auf dieser Erden-Bühne sollte es niemals an wirklich Neuem, an wirklich unerhörten Spannungen, Verwicklungen, Katastrophen gebrechen: eine vollkommen deterministisch gedachte Welt würde für Götter errathbar und folglich in Kürze auch ermüdend gewesen sein, – Grund genug für diese Freunde der Götter, die Philosophen, ihren Göttern eine solche deterministische Welt nicht zuzumuthen! Die ganze antike Menschheit ist voll von zarten Rücksichten auf »den Zuschauer«, als eine wesentlich öffentliche, wesentlich augenfällige Welt, die sich das Glück nicht ohne Schauspiele und Feste zu denken wusste. – Und, wie schon gesagt, auch an der grossen Strafe ist so viel Festliches!…

It was in the same way that the moral philosophers of Greece later imagined the yes of God looking down on the moral struggles, upon the heroism and self-torture of the virtuous: the “Herakles of duty” was on a stage an knew himself to be; virtue without a witness was something unthinkable for this nation of actors. Surely, that philosopher’s invention, so bold and so fateful, which was then first devised for Europe, the invention of “free will,” of the absolute spontaneity of man in good and evil, was devised above all to furnish a right to the idea that the gods in man in human virtue, could never be exhausted. There must never be any real lack of novelty, or really unprecedented tensions, complications, and catastrophes on the stage of the earth: the course of a completely deterministic world would have been predictable for the gods and they would have quickly grown weary of it — reason enough for those friends of the gods, the philosophers, not to inflict such a deterministic world on their gods! The entire mankind of antiquity is full of tender regard for “the spectator,” as an essentially public, essentially visible world which cannot imagine happiness apart from spectacles and festivals. — And, as foresaid, even in great punishment there is so much that is festive!

How much more plausible an explanation of “free will” we have here than the implausible explanation that belief in free will is plausible because free will is itself plausible!

A natural experiment

As perhaps many of you are aware, we just had a presidential election here in the United States.  Without commenting directly on the merits of the candidates or their parties or positions, I cannot help but note that the outcome of the election put a variety of metaphysical and axiological propositions, not normally thought to be amenable to direct testing, to the test.

You theists, who believe in the existence of some sort of benign and superpowerful entity who creates and sustains the world we live in and with whom we can somehow have a relationship, you big idea collided with reality last night.  It crashed and burned (again).

You spiritual-but-not-religious types who believe in some mysterious-but-benign something that somehow suffuses the world we live in, your big idea collided with reality last night.  It crashed and burned (again).

You secular types, who don’t avow belief in any of that religio-spiritual mumbo-jumbo but do subscribe to the proposition that the arc of the universe is long but bends toward justice, your big idea collided with reality last night.  It crashed and burned (again).

You nice liberals, who think that most people are kind and decent and will manifest these traits if just given a chance to, your big idea collided with reality last night.  It crashed and burned (again).

You American patriots, who think your country is exceptional, a shining example to the world, your big idea collided with reality last night.  It crashed and burned (again).

You antinatalists, who think that it is a misfortune to be born, your big idea meshed neatly with reality last night.  It was triumphantly vindicated (again).

If nothing else, the morning after was an opportunity for a me to have a pleasant exchange of tweets:

That aside, I am more disgusted with the world than usual today. I’ll be in my cave.

A moment of identification

During my few moments of leisure this week I read parts of the Adam Parfrey-edited  anthology called Apocalypse Culture (N.P.: Feral House, 1990) and came across an interview by Jim Morton with a woman named Karen Greenlee.  The title of the interview is “The Unrepentant Necrophile,” and that title tells you much of what you need to know about the interview.  (I mean, I could tell you more, but I’ll spare the sensibilities of my more sensitive readers.)    One part of the interview struck me, in which Greenlee reflects on her curious propensities:

For a while I found myself thinking “Yeah, this isn’t normal.  Why can’t I be like other people.  Wy doesn’t the same pair of shoes fit me just right?”  I went through all that personal hell and finally I accepted myself and realized that’s just me.  That’s my nature and I might as well enjoy it.  I’m miserable when I try to be something I’m not.

I’m miserable when I try to be something I’m not.

If you must know, I am not a necrophile.  I believe most of you are not necrophiles, either.

But we are all Karen Greenlee, whether we admit it or not.