This is the third in a series on David Benatar's The Human Predicament (Oxford UP, 2017). This entry covers pp. 35-45 of Chapter 3.
The good news from Chapter 2 was that there is meaning at the terrestrial level. The bad news from Chapter 3 is that there is none at the cosmic level, or from the cosmic perspective. Cosmic meaning is meaning from the perspective of the universe. Of course, the universe does not literally have a perspective or point of view: it is not an experiencing subject. But one can usefully speak as if it did. (35)
I object, though, to Benatar's calling the cosmic view the view sub specie aeternitatis. From the point of view of eternity, the cosmos, as unimaginably vast as it is, is not ultimate or absolute. For one thing, it is modally contingent: it exists but might not have. It is also finite in the past direction as per current cosmology. It is certainly not eternal or necessary. Given that the cosmos is not eternal, its point of view cannot be the point of view of eternity. The cosmos is not causa sui or the ground of its own being. Its point of view is not the widest of all wide-angle points of view. From the point of view of eternity, there might not have been any cosmos, any physical universe, at all. Thus there is a wider point of view than the cosmic point of view, namely God's point of view. It alone is the view sub specie aeternitatis. The point of view of eternity is the eternal God's point of view and he alone views things under the aspect of eternity.
It is obvious that one can speak of God's point of view without assuming the existence of God: it is the point of view that God would have if God existed. We can avoid all reference to God by saying that the view sub specie aeternitatis is the ultimate point of view, the view of Being or of truth. The truth is the ultimate way things are. I tap into the ultimate point of view when I think the thought: there might have been no physical universe at all. I am able to do this despite my being a measly bit of the world's fauna.
In any case, Benatar's claim is that human life has no meaning when viewed cosmically, from what he thinks is the ultimate point of view, that of the universe, but which I claim is not the ultimate point of view.
Why does human life (both at the individual and species levels) have no cosmic meaning? His main point is that we humans "have no significant impact on the broader universe." (36) He means the universe beyond the Earth. "Nothing we do on earth has any effect beyond it." (36) This is true, apart from some minor counterexamples, but trivial. Or so it seems to me. Why should the lack of causal impact of the earthlings on the wider universe argue the ultimate meaninglessness of their existence? It strikes me as very strange to tie existential meaning to causal impact.
Suppose earthlings were everywhere in the universe and could have an impact everywhere. That would not show that their lives have meaning. The earthlings might ask: "We are everywhere but why are we anywhere? Why do we exist?" Our lack of cosmic impact cannot show that our lives lack meaning if maximal causal impact is consistent with meaninglessness. It is worth noting that size does not matter either. If we human animals were many times larger than we are and had the causal impact of elephants or dinosaurs, how would that augment our meaning? Suppose I am the biggest, baddest hombre in the entire universe. Suppose I am omni-located within it, able to affect every part of it. I could still ask: But why do I exist? For what purpose?
Benatar points out that we won't exist for long and that this is true for the species and for individuals. (36) True, but again how is this relevant to the question of existential meaning? Suppose humans always existed. This would not add one cubit of meaning to the meaning of the individual or the species. So the fact that we do not last long either as individuals or as a species does not argue lack of meaning. Duration matters as little as size.
One of the puzzles here is why Benatar should tie existential meaning to causal impact. But he also speaks of our lack of purpose.
The Theistic Gambit
For Benatar, "The evolution of life, including human life, is a product of blind forces and serves no apparent purpose." (36) To which a theist might respond with a Baltimore catechism type of answer, "God made us to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him forever in the next." Our ultimate purpose, on this scheme, is to share in the divine life and achieve final felicity.
Benatar gives a strange argument against the coherence of the theistic scheme:
Even in the best-case scenario, it is hard to understand why God would create a being in order to prepare it for an afterlife given that no afterlife would be needed or desired if the being had not been created in the first place. [. . .] The sort of meaning that the afterlife provides cannot explain why God would have created us at all. (39)
While it is true that only beings who already exist could want or need an afterlife, it is a non sequitur to conclude that it is no explanation of why we exist in the first place to say that we exist in order to share in the divine life. God wants to share his super-effulgent being, consciousness, and bliss and so he creates free beings with the capacity to participate in the divine life. If that is true, then it explains why we exist in the first place.
Of course, we don't know that it is true, and we cannot prove that God exists or that we have a destiny beyond this brief animal life. But the naturalist is in the same boat: he cannot prove that God does not exist and that human life is a product of blind forces. Benatar movingly describes animal pain and the horror of nature red in tooth and claw (42-44). Considerations such as these should put paid to any pollyanish conceit that life is beautiful. And yet they are not compelling or conclusive. While it is reasonable to be a naturalist, it is also reasonable to be a theist. Neither side can refute the other, and one's subjective certainty counts for nothing.
One of the things I like about Benatar is that he draws the pessimistic consequences of naturalism. Most naturalists compartmentalize: in their studies and offices they are naturalists who reject God and the soul and ultimate meaning; at home, however, with their families and bourgeois diversions they are happy and optimistic. But given their theoretical views, what entitles them to their happiness and optimism? Nothing that I can see. They are living in a state of self-deception.
Benatar lives his atheism: he has existentially appropriated his theoretical convictions and drawn the consequences. (Not that atheism by itself entails anti-natalism.) But is it practically possible to live as an atheist? W. L. Craig thinks not. See his The Absurdity of Life Without God. Benatar, needless to say, is not impressed by Craig's reasoning. (44).
Speaking for myself, if I KNEW that I was nothing but a complex physical system slated for anihilation in a few years, I would be sorely tempted to walk out into the deseert and blow my brains out, my devotion to my wife being the only thing holding me back. Why hang around for sickness, old age and a death out of one's control? And it is not because my life isn't good; it is very good. I have achieved the happiness that eluded me in younger years. But if one appreciates what naturalism entails, then all the mundane goodness and middle-sized happiness in the world is ultimately meaningless.
It is my reasonable belief that I am not a mere complex physical system slated for annihilation that adds zest and ultimate purpose to my life. I keep on because there is reason to hope, not only within this life, but beyond it as well.