Saturday, February 17, 2018

Hampster on a wheel

I'll be quoting some passages from David Benatar's The Human Predicament: A Candid Guide to Life's Biggest Questions (Oxford 2016). 

The only consistent atheists are atheists who commit suicide. All other atheists pull their punches. There are several reasons I harp on the nihilistic consequences of atheism:

i) It's useful in evangelism and offensive apologetics. Many atheists are atheists because they don't take atheism seriously enough. They compartmentalize their atheism. They fail to appreciate what's at stake in the debate between Christianity and atheism. They act as if these are symmetrical options. 

ii) It's useful in defensive apologetics. Some professing Christians commit apostasy because they think atheism is a viable alternative. They never had a deep appreciation of what Christianity offers. They never understood the contrast. They never thought through what makes human life worthwhile. 

iii) It's devotional and edifying to have a point of contrast between Christianity and the stark alternative. That's something on which we should meditate regularly. 

Benatar does take some swipes at Christianity. I may respond to that at some point, although he doesn't say anything original. What's striking is that even though Benatar has nothing to lose and everything to gain by ditching atheism and adopting Christianity, he doesn't appear to have made much effort to study the evidence for Christianity. Why admit that atheism is a worst-case scenario, yet cling to atheism for dear life? 

Even Benatar blinks and balks in the face of his own position. But he comes closer than most before swerving. His basic thesis is that human existence poses a hopeless dilemma: life is a curse and death is a curse. 

We are born, we live, we suffer along the way, and then we die–obliterated for the rest of eternity. Our existence is but a blip in cosmic time and space. It is not surprising that so many people ask: "What is it all about?"

The right answer, I argue in this book, is "ultimately nothing." Despite some  limited consolations, the human condition is in fact a tragic predicament from which none of us can escape, for the predicament consists not merely in life but also in death. It should come as no surprise that this is an unpopular view to which there will be considerable resistance (Preface).

There is an obvious dilemma in defending a pessimistic view. If the human predicament is as bad as I shall argue it is, is it not cruel to rub people's noses in it by highlighting just how bad it is? If people have coping mechanisms, should we not indulge them rather than pull the carpet out from under them by telling them just how terrible things are? (chap. 1).

We are ephemeral beings on a tiny planet in one of hundreds of billions of galaxies in the universe (or perhaps the multiverse)–a cosmos that is coldly indifferent to the insignificant specks that we are. It is indifferent to our fortunes and misfortunes, to injustice, to our hopes, fears, values, and concerns. The forces of nature and the cosmos are blind.

One's very existence is an extreme contingency. The chances that a particular human–oneself–would come into existence are remote. One's ever having come into existence was dependent on a string of contingencies, including the existence of all one's progenitors. Even if all of them, down to one's great-grandparents, grandparents, and parents existed, the odds are still against one's existing. One would not have existed if one's parents had never met, or if they had met but never reproduced, or if they had reproduced but not precisely when they did. In the last case, a different sperm would have united with the ovum of the month to produce some other person.

As unlikely as coming into existence is, nothing could be more certain than ceasing to exist. We can sometimes stave death off for a while, but there is no avoiding it entirely. 

Moreover, it is thought that there is something absurd about the earnestness of our pursuits. We take ourselves very seriously, but when we step back, we wonder what it is all about. The step back need not be all the way to the cosmos. One  does not need much distance to see that there seems something futile about our endless strivings, which are not altogether different from a hamster on its wheel.

There is plenty of scope for questioning the significance of even the broader goals of one's life. This (personal) cycle continues until one dies, but the treadmill is intergenerational because people tend to reproduce thereby creating new mill-treaders. This has continued for generations and will continue until humanity eventually goes the way of all species–extinction. It seems like a long, repetitive journey to nowhere. In this regard we seem to be like Sisyphus…

Thoughts of these kinds can be triggered in many ways. The prospect of one's own death, perhaps highlighted by a diagnosis of a dangerous or terminal condition, tends to focus the mind. But the deaths of others–relatives, friends, acquaintances, and sometimes even strangers–can also get a person thinking. Those deaths need not be recent. For example, one might be wandering around an old graveyard. On the tombstones are inscribed some details about the deceased–the dates they were born and died, and perhaps references to spouses, siblings, or children and grandchildren who mourned their loss. Those mourners are themselves now long dead. One thinks about the lives of those families–the beliefs and values, loves and losses, hopes and fears, strivings and failures–and one is struck that nothing of that remains. All has come to naught…Someday, somebody might stand at one's grave and wonder about the person represented by the name on the tombstone, and might reflect on the fact that everything that person–you or I–once cared about has come to nothing. It is far more likely, however, that nobody will spare even that brief thought after all those who knew one also died. 

Once we know what we are asking, the broad contours of the answers are reasonable straightforward, at least if we are prepared to be honest with ourselves. This honesty is rare because it requires facing up to some unpleasant truths (chap. 2).

Many atheists, while critical of theodicy, are themselves engaged in a kind of secular theodicy–an attempt to reconcile their optimistic views with the unfortunate facts about the human condition (chap. 4).

A terrorist has an Epicurean tied down. He forces a gun into the Epicurean's mouth and keeps threatening to pull the trigger. If the threat is acted upon, it will kill the Epicurean instantly. Either (a) the Epicurean remains true to his belief that "death is nothing to us" and sits there unperturbed, or (b) he is unable to conform his emotions to his beliefs and is filled with anxiety, perhaps to the extent that he soils himself. 

These are very big bullets for the Epicurean to bite (at point blank range). There are people who say that they accept these implications. We could put them to the test, but it would be unethical to do so (at least if I am right)…Arguments that death is not bad…are fine for the seminar room, but one seems to have lost perspective if one genuinely accepts the conclusion–if one thinks, for example, that killing somebody (painlessly) is never bad for that person. 

Annihilation is the sort of misfortune that, absent any overriding consideration, is best delayed as long as possible. This is because it is not the sort of misfortunate one can "get over," for the obvious reason that (unlike diamonds, which are only for a very long time) death really is forever

There is a tendency to admire those who manage to retain their composure in such circumstances and stare death in the face. This tendency may be explained in part by an implicit knowledge of just how difficult that is. However, it is difficult to escape the thought that praise of such stoicism is also aimed at discouraging those who cannot face death the way we like to see it faced–namely, "bravely." Seeing people fall apart in the face of their imminent death, or the threat thereof, only highlights our own mortality and makes us extremely uncomfortable. 

There is a generational march from womb to grave. The oldest people are at the front. In the least bad circumstances, the Grim Reaper cuts them down with his bloodied scythe…Before long, one finds oneself in the front line staring death in the face. 

The least bad circumstances are often not the actual circumstances. Those in the younger ranks are often victims of the Grim Reaper's snipers who pick out targets among those whose "turn" we feel should not yet have arrived…Younger people, at least in good health and not facing any external threats, can cope by rationalizing that at least death may not be imminent. That is not a luxury in which the elderly can indulge. One begins to think that one cannot reasonably hope for more than another ten years. Then one's horizon looks more like no more than five years, and then one realizes that the chances of dying within the year are great. One lives knowing that one does not have much time left. The clock is ticking loudly. 

Old age, it is said, is where everybody wants to get but nobody wants to be. The latter is partly because of the frailties that often accompany advanced age, but the increasing threat of death is another. There is thus a cruel irony here. We want long lives, but the longer we live, the more reason we have to fear that less life remains. This is yet another feature of the human predicament (chap. 5).

Being mortal causes many humans considerable anxiety. The shadow of death looms over our lives. No matter who we are, where and when we live, and what we do, each of us knows that he or she is doomed to die. We first gain this terrifying awareness as quite young children. Insofar as we can, we put this fact out of our consciousness, but it lurks beneath the surface, breaking through at times when we cannot but confront our mortality. This awareness is one of the chief triggers of existential angst, and it spurs attempts to find meaning. Our mortality is an unbearable limit that we seek to transcend…We are not the only mortals, but as far as we know, we are the mortals with the most acute sense of their mortality.
In the ordinary course of life, we typically lose our grandparents, then our parents, then our spouses, siblings, and friends. These are massive losses that we carry with us for the remainder of our lives. We avoid them only by dying prematurely, in which case, we cause others to be bereaved.  
Substituting mortality with immortality, while holding other features of the human predicament constant, would extend the predicament temporally and would also introduce novel features unless we impose the kinds of conditions I have discussed…It is possible that we are damned if we die and damned if we don't. Some predicaments are that intractable (chap 6). 

The human predicament has a number of interlocking features. First, human life, as is the case with all life, has utterly no meaning from the cosmic perspective. it is not part of a grand design and serves no greater purpose, but is instead a product of blind evolution. There are explanations of how our species arose, but there are no reasons for our existence. Humans evolved and, in time, the species will become extinct…All human achievements–the buildings, monuments, roads, machines, knowledge, arts–will crumble, erode, or vanish. 

…procreation, the sexually transmitted "virus" that spreads existence and also spreads the existential predicament. 

Most people resist pessimistic views even when such views are appropriate. This is especially true with reference to a primarily pessimistic view about the human condition. The truth is simply too much for many people to bear…Few people like a grouch…There is plenty of social pressure, often implicit, to put on a grave face and be cheerful…the fact that pessimistic views are so often hidden from view only further reduces other people's exposure to them and makes those views seem more abnormal.

Every birth is death in waiting. When one hears of a birth, one must know that it is but a matter of time before that new human dies. Sandwiched between birth and death is a struggle for meaning and a desperate attempt to ward off life's suffering. 

Each generation creates a new [procreative Ponzi scheme] in order to mitigate its own situation. Like all Ponzi schemes, this one will not end well.

It might be argued that there are excellent pragmatic reasons for accepting optimism even if the claims it makes are false. After all, optimism makes life so much easier. It helps one confront all the horror of the human predicament. It thus mitigates or palliates the predicament. 

We need to think carefully about what this pragmatic argument involves. It is most effective when offered in defense of the others' optimistic beliefs, because the beneficial effect is most marked if one truly believes the optimistic view, but anybody who advances the argument cannot entirely believe it because they know that the optimism is a kind of placebo…Optimism is not an innocent anodyne. While it soothes the optimist, it can also have noxious effects on others. 

it is possible to be unequivocally pessimistic but not dwell on those thoughts all the time. They may surface regularly, but it is possible to busy oneself with projects…It allows for distractions from reality… (chap. 8). 

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