Nature’s deterrent to suicide

If one thinks that life is on balance suffering, why not leave it?  Centuries ago, Epicurus himself remarked in his Letter to Menoeceus

Much worse is he who says that it were good not to be born, but when once one is born to pass quickly through the gates of Hades. For if he truly believes this, why does he not depart from life? It would be easy for him to do so once he were firmly convinced.

I suppose if one believed in a bad afterlife (or perhaps in a nice afterlife for people who somehow tough it out in this one without committing suicide) then one could explain the absence of more suicides tan one might otherwise expect if life were mostly suffering. Perhaps the presence of such supernatural beliefs does explain why suicide is not more common than it is. But such supernatural beliefs cannot (I would think) explain why we don’t see more suicide among atheists and rationalists unless we assume (as seems rather unlikely) that atheists have especially charmed existences.

Another possibility is that suicide is irrational and so among us rational types who don’t believe in an afterlife we shouldn’t expect to see much of it. This claim, however, is not terribly plausible. It is true that death would cut off future enjoyments. But it would also cut off future suffering — it would be a commencement of the deepest sleep one might ever had. It would resume the blessed calm of nonexistence one had before one started to exist, a period which, we all know, we hardly terrible. So if life is, on balance, suffering, shouldn’t we welcome its coming to an end?

Something has to give here, either the belief that human beings are rational, or that it death is nothing to be feared. I would opt for the former. We are not rational. We fear death, but shouldn’t. Philosophical arguments to the effect that we should not fear death do not help much, if at all.

Let us begin by admitting we have irrational fears. I know that I do, and here is an example. High, open places create create in me a sense of vertigo and anxiety. I am entirely aware that these things happen even when I am in no danger of anything bad at all from being in a situation where they are present. An urban balcony twenty stories up and thirty feet deep will cause me to feel this way even if I am twenty feet from the five foot-high barrier at its edge. I will not want to go out on that balcony even if there is something very desirable out there — say, a fully-stocked, expertly-tended bar at which sits a very attractive woman who really would like to talk to me even in spite of what an awful person I am. I will not want to go out there even if it would mean escaping from a truly tedious bore who wises to engage me in conversation.

Perhaps it is fortunate for me that I do not get invited to very many parties. If I were, it might be necessary to seek out cognitive-behavioral therapy for my acrophobia.

But death is something else again. Almost everyone fears it. While my fear of balconies might be an idiosyncratic phobia, death is a nigh universal phobia. And why is that?

Because we are created not by a benign deity but but indifferent natural selection. Consider two proto-humans, Proto-Epicurus and Proto-Hobbes. Both suffer a lot from life, from hunger and thirst and parasitic infections and lack of interest from would-be mates and whatever else might have happened to afflict proto-people. The difference between Proto-Epicurus and Proto-Hobbes is that Proto-Hobbes happens to carry alleles that code for a psychology that regards death as a great terror, while Proto-Epicurus carries no such alleles. Death is nothing to Proto-Epicurus. So one day a hungry lion happens upon the two Protos out foraging. Proto-Hobbes flees in terror, while Proto-Epicurus resigns himself to his fate, secure in the knowledge that while there might be a brief period of pain as the lion lays into him, beyond that there is no suffering to be had at all.

So Proto-Epicurus ends up as lion chow, while Proto-Hobbes lives to forage another day. Or, perhaps more to the point, Proto-Hobbes lives to breed another day, thus becoming the ancestor to the future generation of little Hobbeses, who all in turn, being good avoiders of lions and everything else that might cause them not to eat, survive and reproduce, in turn become the ancestors of us all, we lucky inheritors of their terror-of-death alleles.

In this toy example, a deep truth. Natural selection does not “see” the subjective well being of what it creates. More technically, the subjective well-being that will result from individual vehicles (organisms, meaning you and me, friend) controls none of the variance of the differential reproductive success of the genes that determine that well-being. For getting organisms to eat, survive, and reproduce, the stick is just as good as the carrot, if not better. Or, to put matter still more succinctly and bluntly, natural selection is not your friend.

For getting us not to just go under, to take care of ourselves, and thus to last at least long enough to pump out offspring, no matter how miserable we might happen to be in the meantime, the fear of death, the passionate desire to avoid death, is an excellently suited psychological trait.

And a perfectly horrible one at that, since it means that we suffer in life from it, we are trapped in life by it, unless you happen to be unspeakably miserable or superhumanly philosophical.

I’ll state matters again, because I happen to think this dyad of propositions jointly constitute was as at once oe of the darkest, and also one of the most important, of all human truths. All together now:

You were made by natural selection.

Natural selection is not your friend.

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