It is an evil state we are in, ignorant as we are of the ultimate why and wherefore.
The topic of birthdays came up among some friends. I said I don't celebrate mine: my birth befell me; it was not my doing. A female companion replied that life is a gift to which my response was that that is a question, not a given. It is not clear that life is a gift or even a good. Equally, it is not clear that it is a mistake (Schopenhauer) and something bad.
Human life is a problem the solution to which we do not know. One can only have faith that life is good, and I do. It is a reasoned not a blind faith. But that I lack knowledge and need faith is itself something evil. There are far worse evils, of course.
The issue of procreation -- pun intended -- makes the question concrete. To procreate deliberately and responsibly is to act on the conviction that conception, birth, and the predictable sequel are good. But that is not known given the powerful counter-evidence that pessimists provide.
So again one is thrown back on faith. To need faith is to lack knowledge and by my lights this lack is a privatio boni and insofar forth evil.
Readers will of course disagree with me and disagree among themselves as to what merits disagreement. This is just further evidence that our predicament is suboptimal.
If you want to think about the problem of evil in its full sweep you ought to include the evil of ignorance in all its forms. And you ought to bear in mind that evil is not a problem for theists alone.
Gisle Tangenesdescribes the life and ideas of a cheerfully pessimistic, mountain-climbing Norwegian existentialist, pessimist, and anti-natalist, Peter Wessel Zapffe:
Thus the ‘thousand consolatory fictions’ that deny our captivity in dying beasts, afloat on a speck of dust in the eternal void. And after all, if a godly creator is waiting in the wings, it must be akin to the Lord in The Book of Job, since it allows its breathing creations to be “tumbled and destroyed in a vast machinery of forces foreign to interests.” Asserts Zapffe: “The more a human being in his worldview approaches the goal, the hegemony of love in a moral universe, the more has he become slipshod in the light of intellectual honesty.” The only escape from this predicament should be to discontinue the human race. Though extinction by agreement is not a terribly likely scenario, that is no more than an empirical fact of public opinion; in principle, all it would require is a global consensus to reproduce below replacement rates, and in a few generations, the likening of humankind would “not be the stars or the ocean sand, but a river dwindling to nothing in the great drought.”
So if you believe in a moral world order and the ultimate hegemony of love in the midst of all this misery and apparent senselessness, if you deny our irremediable "captivity in dying beasts," (what a great line!) then you display a lack of intellectual honesty. Let's think about this.
The gist of Zapffe's s position as best I can make out from the fragments I have read is that our over-developed consciousness is an evolutionary fluke that makes us miserable by uselessly generating in us the conceit that we are more than animals and somehow deserving of something better than dying like an animal after some years of struggle. Giseles: "Evolution, he [Zapffe] argues, overdid its act when creating the human brain, akin to how a contemporary of the hunter, a deer misnamed the ‘Irish elk’, became moribund by its increasingly oversized antlers." A powerful image. The unfortunate species of deer, having evolved huge antlers for defense, cannot carry their weight and dies out in consequence. Similarly with us. We cannot carry the weight of the awareness born of our hypertrophic brains, an awareness that is not life-enhancing but inimical to life.
Human existence is thus absurd, without point or purpose. For human existence is not a merely biological living, but a conscious and self-conscious living, a reflective and self-questioning living in the light of the 'knowledge' of good and evil. Human existence is a mode of existence in which one apperceives oneself as aware of moral distinctions and as free to choose right or wrong. Whether or not we are really free, we cannot help but experience ourselves as free. Having become morally reflective, man becomes self-questioning. He hesitates, he feels guilty, his direct connection to life is weakened and in some cases destroyed. He torments himself with questions he cannot answer. The male beast in heat seizes the female and has his way with her. He doesn't reflect or scruple. 'Respect for persons' does not hobble him. The human beast, weakened by consciousness, self-consciousness, moral sensitivity, reason, objectivity, and all the rest, hesitates and moralizes -- and the female gets away.
In short, man is a sick animal weakened by an over-developed brain who torments himself with questions about morality and ultimate meaning and then answers them by inventing consolatory fictions about God and the soul, or else about a future society in which the problem of meaning will be solved. Either pie in the sky or pie in the future to be washed down with leftist Kool-Aid. The truth, however, is that there is no ultimate meaning to be found either beyond the grave or this side of it. The truth is that human existence -- which again is not a merely biological living -- is absurd. And at some level we all know this to be the case. We all know, deep down, that we are just over-clever land mammals without a higher origin or higher destiny. One who will not accept this truth and who seeks to evade reality via religious and secular faiths is intellectually dishonest. Antinatalism follows from intellectual honesty: it is wrong to cause the existence of more meaningless human lives. It is unfortunate that the human race came to be in the first place; the next best thing would be for it to die out.
Many of us have entertained such a dark vision at one time or another. But does it stand up to rational scrutiny? Could this really be the way things are? Or is this dark vision the nightmare of a diseased mind and heart?
There are several questions we can ask. Here I will consider only one: Can Zapffe legitimately demand intellectual honesty given his own premises?
The Demand for Intellectual Honesty
Zapffe thinks we ought to be intellectually honest and admit the absurdity of human existence. This is presumably a moral ought, and indeed a categorical moral ought. We ought to accept the truth, not because of some desirable consequence of accepting it, but because it is the truth. But surely the following question cannot be suppressed: What place is there in an amoral universe for objective moral oughts and objective moral demands? No place at all.
It is we who demand that reality be faced and it is we who judge negatively those we do not face it. We demand truthfulness and condemn willful self-deception. But these demands of ours are absurd demands if our mental life is an absurd excrescence of matter. They would in that case have no objective validity whatsoever. The absurdist cannot, consistently with his absurdism, make moral demands and invoke objective moral oughts. He cannot coherently say: You ought to face the truth! You ought not deceive yourself or believe something because it is consoling or otherwise life-enhancing. Why should I face the truth?
"Because it is the truth."
But this is no answer, but a miserable tautology. The truth has no claim on my attention unless it is objectively valuable and, because objectively valuable, capable of generating in me an obligation to accept it. So why should I accept the truth?
"Because accepting the truth will help you adapt to your environment."
But this is exactly what is not the case in the present instance. The truth I am supposed to accept, namely, that my existence is meaningless, is inimical to my happiness and well-being. After all, numerous empirical studies have shown that conservatives, who tend to be religious, are much happier than leftists who tend to be irreligious. These people, from the absurdist perspective, fool themselves, but from the same perspective there can be no moral objection to such self-deception.
So again, assuming that human life is absurd, why should we accept rather than evade this supposed truth?
The absurdist cannot coherently maintain that one ought to be intellectually honest, or hold that being such is better than being intellectually dishonest. Nor can he hold that humans ought not procreate. Indeed, he cannot even maintain that it is an objectively bad thing that human existence is absurd.
The fundamental problem here is that the absurdist cannot coherently maintain that truth is objectively valuable. In his world there is no room for objective values and disvalues. By presupposing that truth is objectively valuable and that our intellectual integrity depends on acknowledging it, he presupposes something inconsistent with his own premises.
"You are ignoring the possibility that objective values are grounded in objective needs. We are organisms that need truth because we need contact with reality to flourish. This is why truth is objectively valuable."
But again this misses the crucial point that on Zapffe's absurdism, acceptance of the truth about our condition is not life-enhancing, not conducive to our flourishing. On the contrary, evasion of this 'truth' is life-enhancing.
Addendum (2/25): Karl White refers us to some translations of Zapffe.
I'm with Gray. This July will be the 50th anniversary of Barry Maguire's Eve of Destruction. It has been a long and lucky half-century eve, and by chance, if not by divine providence, the morning of destruction has not yet dawned with the light of man-made suns. Now take a cold look at the state of the world and try to convince yourself that we are making moral progress and that war and violence and ignorance and hatred and delusion are on the decline. I won't recite the litany that each of you, if intellectually honest, can recite for himself.
The 'progressive' doesn't believe in God, he believes in Man. But right here is the mistake. For there is no Man, there are only human beings at war with one another and with themselves. We are divided, divisive, and duplicitous creatures. We are in the dark mentally, morally, and spiritually. The Enlightenment spoke piously of reason, but the light it casts is flickering and inconclusive and its deliverances, though not to be contemned, are easily suborned by individual passions and group tribalisms. And just as it is certain that there is no Man, it may doubted that there is any such thing as Reason. Whose reason? There are two points here. The first is that reason is infirm even on the assumption that there is such a universal faculty. The second, more radical point, one that I do not endorse but merely entertain, is that there may be no such universal faculty.
The 'progressive' refuses to face reality, preferring a foolish faith in a utopian future that cannot possibly be brought about by human collective effort. As Heidegger said in his Spiegel interview, Nur ein Gott kann uns retten. "Only a God can save us."
You say God does not exist? That may be so. But the present question is not whether or not God exists, but whether belief in Man makes any sense and can substitute for belief in God. I say it doesn't and can’t, that it is a sorry substitute if not outright delusional. We need help that we cannot provide for ourselves, either individually or collectively. The failure to grasp this is of the essence of the delusional Left, which, refusing the tutelage of tradition and experience, goes off half-cocked with schemes that in the recent past have employed murderous means for an end that never materialized. Communist governments murdered an estimated 100 million in the 20th century alone. That says something about the Left and also about government. What is says about the latter is at least this much: governments are not by nature benevolent. It may be that man is by nature zoon politikon, as Aristotle thought: a political animal. But what may be true of man cannot be true of the polis.
Suppose you are an atheist who considers life to be worth living. You deny God, but affirm life, this life, as it is, here and now. Suppose you take the fact of evil to tell against the existence of God. Do you also take the fact of evil to tell against the affirmability of life? If not, why not?
In this entry I will explain what I take to be one sort of problem of evil for atheists, or rather, for naturalists. (One can be an atheist without being a naturalist, but not vice versa.) For present purposes, an atheist is one who affirms the nonexistence of God, as God is traditionally conceived, and a naturalist is one who affirms that reality, with the possible exception of so-called abstract objects, is exhausted by space-time-matter. Naturalism entails atheism, but atheism does not entail naturalism.
Are the following propositions logically consistent?
a. Life is affirmable.
b. Naturalism is true.
c. Evil objectively exists.
1. What it means for life to be affirmable
To claim that life is affirmable is to claim that it is reasonable to say 'yes' to it. Life is affirmed by the vast majority blindly and instinctually, and so can be; in this trivial sense life is of course affirmable. But I mean 'affirmable' in a non-trivial sense as signifying that life is worthy of affirmation. This is of course not obvious. Otherwise there wouldn't be pessimists and anti-natalists. Let me make this a bit more precise.
To claim that life is affirmable is to maintain that human life has an overall positive value that outweighs the inevitable negatives. Note the restriction to human life. I am glad that there are cats, but I am in no position to affirm feline life in the relevant sense of 'affirm': I am not a cat and so I do not know what it is like 'from the inside' to be a cat.
'Human life' is not to be understood biologically but existentially. What we are concerned with is not an objective phenomenon in nature, but life as lived and experienced from a subjective center. So the question is not whether it is better or worse for the physical universe to contain specimens of a certain zoological species, the species h. sapiens. The question is whether it is on balance a good thing that there is human life as it is subjectively lived from a personal center toward a meaning- and value-laden world of persons and things. The question is whether it is on balance a good thing that there is human subjectivity.
Now it may be that over the course of a particular human life a preponderance of positive noninstrumental good is realized. But that is consistent with human life in general not being worth living. If my life turns out to have been worth living, if I can reasonably affirm it on my death bed and pronounce it good on balance, it doesn't follow that human life in general is worth living. Let us agree that a particular human life is worth living if, over the course of that life, a preponderance of positive noninstrumental value is realized. To say that positive value preponderates is to say that it outweighs the negative.
The question, then, is whether human life, human subjectivity, in general is affirmable. To make the question a bit more concrete, and to bring home the point that the question does not concern oneself alone, consider the question of procreation. To procreate consciously and thoughtfully is to affirm life other than one's own.
Suppose that one's life has been on balance good up to the point of one's procreating. Should one be party to the coming-into-existence of additional centers of consciousness and self-consciousness when there is no guarantee that their lives will be on balance good, and some chance that their lives will be on balance horrendous? Would you have children if you knew that they would be tortured to death in the equivalent of Auschwitz? Note that if a couple has children, then they are directly responsible for the existence of those children; but they are also indirectly responsible in ever diminishing measure for the existence of grandchildren, great grandchildren, etc. If life is not affirmable, then it is arguable that it is morally wrong to have children, life being a mistake that ought not be perpetuated. If on the other hand life is affirmable, then, while there might be particular reasons for some people not to have children, there would be no general reason rooted in the nature of things.
2. Is life affirmable in the face of evil?
More precisely: Is life affirmable by naturalists given the fact of evil? There is a problem here if you grant, as I hope you will for the sake of this discussion at least, that natural and moral evils are objective realities. Thus evil exists and it exists objectively. It is not an illusion, nor is it subjective.
The question could be put as follows: Is it rational to ascribe to human life in general an overall positive value, a value sufficient to justify procreation, given that (i) evil exists and that (ii) naturalism is true?
If naturalism is true, then there are unredeemed evils. Let us say that an unredeemed evil is an evil that does not serve a greater good for the person who experiences the evil and is not compensated for or made good in this life or in an afterlife. Thus the countless lives of those who were born and who died in slavery were lives containing unredeemed evils. In many of these countless cases, there were not only unredeemed evils, but a preponderance of unredeemed evil. Whatever these sufferers believed, their lives were not worth living. It would have been better had they never been born. If naturalism is true, then those sufferers who believed that they would be compensated in the hereafter were just wrong. Their false beliefs helped them get through their worthless existence but did nothing to make it worthwhile.
Here is an argument from evil for the nonaffirmability of life:
1. Human life in general is affirmable, i.e., possesses an overall positive value sufficient to justify procreation, only if the majority of human subjects led, lead, and will lead, lives which are on balance good.
2. It is not the case (or it is highly improbably that) that the majority of human subjects led, lead, or will lead such lives: the majority of lives are lives in which unredeemed evil predominates.
3. Human life in general is not affirmable, i.e., does not (or probably does not) possess an overall positive value sufficient to justify procreation.
It seems to me that a naturalist who squarely and in full awareness faces the fact of evil ought to be a pessimist and an anti-natalist. If he is not, then I suspect him of being in denial or else of believing in some progressive 'pie in the future.' But even if, per impossibile, some progressive utopia were attained in the distant future, it would not redeem the countless injustices of the past.
True Detective is a new HBO series getting rave reviews. This bit, I am told by Karl White from whom I first learned about the series, is from the first episode. It's good. I'll leave it to you to sort through the sophistry of Rust's spiel.
Here is some TD dialog about religion. I'll say this about it: it is well done and stimulates thought.
The scriptwriter, Nic Pizzolatto, is a very interesting cat who abandoned a tenure-track university gig to try his hand at writing for TV. It takes balls to give up security for a long shot. Especially when you have a kid. At that point nothing-ventured-nothing-gained risk-taking begins to taper off into irresponsibility. If I had had young children I wouldn't have quit my tenured post. Conservatives are cautious and responsible, fiscally and otherwise.
Pizzolatto earns a place in my Mavericks category. Bio and interview here. Excerpt:
Do you think part of the reason why television had so much appeal for you was that you knew you’d be able to reach an audience? Everyone has a TV in the living room. Not everyone reads literary novels.
That’s a great point. I think, with myself, growing up in rural Louisiana but having TV—TV jumps all these class boundaries. For a kid to even have a disposition to be willing to sit down and read literary fiction and not regard it as a waste of time—that requires a certain amount of cultural influence and education. But TV sneaks in, no matter what. I really like that. And the idea that you could put your heart and soul and every bit of yourself into it, the same way you could a novel, and stay there and make sure it was done right? That was all appealing.
I am as confirmed a bibliophile as I am a scribbler. But books and bookishness can appear in an unfavorable light. I may call myself a bibliophile, but others will say 'bookworm.' My mother, seeing me reading, more than once recommended that I go outside and do something. What the old lady didn't appreciate was that mine was a higher doing, and that I was preparing myself to live by my wits and avoid grunt jobs, which is what I succeeded in doing.
Clarity will be served if we distinguish the specifically Epicurean reason for thinking death not an evil from another reason which is actually anti-Epicurean. I'll start with the second reason.
A. Death is not an evil because it removes us from a condition which on balance is not good, a condition which on balance is worse than nonexistence. This is the wisdom of Silenus, reported by Sophocles (Oedipus at Colonus, ll. 1244 ff.) and quoted by Nietzsche in The Birth ofTragedy, section 3:
There is an ancient story that King Midas hunted in the forest a long time for the wise Silenus, the companion of Dionysus, without capturing him. When Silenus at last fell into his hands, the king asked what was the best and most desirable of all things for man. Fixed and immovable, the demigod said not a word, till at last, urged by the king, he gave a shrill laugh and broke out into these words: "O wretched ephemeral race, children of chance and misery, why do you compel me to tell you what it would be most expedient for you not to hear? What is best of all is utterly beyond your reach: not to be born, not to be, to be nothing. But the second best for you is -- to die soon."
B. Death is not an evil for the one who dies because when death is, one is not, and when one is, death is not. My being dead is not an evil state of affairs because there is no such state of affairs (STOA) as my being dead. Since there is no such STOA, there is no bearer of the property of being evil. If this property has a bearer it cannot be an individual or a property but must be a STOA.
And so the Epicurean line is consistent with life affirmation. The Epicurean is not saying that being dead is good and being alive evil; he is saying that being dead is not evil because axiologically neutral. The Epicurean is therefore also committed to saying that being dead is not a good.
The first reason is axiological, the second ontological. The Silenian pessimist renders a negative value verdict on life as a whole: it's no good, better never to have been born, with second best being to die young. By contrast, the Epicurean's point is that the ontology of the situation makes it impossible for death to be an evil for the one who has died.
This reinforces my earlier conclusion that there is nothing nihilistic about the Epicurean position.
From Some of the Dharma, Viking 1997, p. 175, emphasis added:
No hangup on nature is going to solve anything -- nature is bestial -- desire for Eternal Life of the individual is bestial, is the final creature-longing -- I say, Let us cease bestiality & go into the bright room of the mind realizing emptiness, and sit with the truth. And let no man be guilty, after this, Dec. 9 1954, of causing birth. -- Let there be an end to birth, an end to life, and therefore an end to death. Let there be no more fairy tales and ghost stories around and about this. I don't advocate that everybody die, I only say everybody finish your lives in purity and solitude and gentleness and realization of the truth and be not the cause of any further birth and turning of the black wheel of death. Let then the animals take the hint, and then the insects, and all sentient beings in all one hundred directions of the One Hundred Thousand Chilicosms of Universes. Period.
Nature is the cause of all our suffering; joy is the reverse side of suffering. Instead of seducing women, control yourself and treat them like sisters; instead of seducing men, control yourself and treat them like brothers. For life is pitiful.