Continuing from 'A Lesson in Pessimism: Part I':
Granting the strong points in the pessimists’ claims, it is still possible to detect certain confusions and dubious inferences in their arguments. To begin with, there is a very obvious inconsistency in the way writers like Darrow and Tolstoy arrive at the conclusion that death is better than life. They begin by telling us that death is something terrible because it terminates the possibility of any of the experiences we value. From this they infer that nothing is really worth doing and that death is better than life.Okay, I'm going to have to interject right there. Morbid, and pathological seems a little harsh (ha) and certainly I am often troubled by the concepts of authenticity and integrity. Since everything is pointless, what do they really matter? Am I cutting my nose off, to spite my face? Having watched quite a lot of reality-TV singing competitions, I think most people do believe that they are the best, not fat, not ugly, and not stupid. Whereas in reality, most are stupid and ugly (or combinations thereof). I've mentioned before on this blog, that depressive people may be more realistic in their views of the world. Understanding that death is the end of everything, that we're not going to see our loved ones again, after they and we have died, and that everything that you get out of bed for in the morning, is pointless; that hard fought knowledge about the universe, cannot help but have an influence on behaviour. I won't argue that delusion isn't happier, but then science is about the truth, regardless of whether the answer is to the liking of humanity.
Ignoring for the moment the claim that in view of our inevitable death nothing is “worth doing,” there very plainly seems to be an inconsistency in first judging death to be such a horrible evil and in asserting later on that death is better than life. Why was death originally judged to be an evil? Surely because it is the termination of life. And if something, y, is bad because it is the termination if something, x, this can be so only if x is good or has positive value. If x were not good, the termination of x would not be bad. One cannot consistently have it both ways. To this it may be answered that life did have positive value prior to one’s realization of death but that once a person has become aware of the inevitability of his destruction, life becomes unbearable and that this is the real issue. This point of view is well expressed in the following exchange between Cassius and Brutus in William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (III.i.102–105):
CASSIUS. Why he that cuts off twenty years of life—
Cuts off so many years of fearing death.
BRUTUS. Grant that, and then is death a benefit:
So are we Caesar’s friends that have abridged
His time of fearing death.
There is a very simple reply to this argument. Granting that some people after once realizing their doom cannot banish the thought of it from their minds, so much so that it interferes with all their other activities, this is neither inevitable nor at all common. It is, on the contrary, in the opinion of all except some existentialists, morbid and pathological. The realization that one will die does not in the case of most people prevent them from engaging in activities which they regard as valuable or from enjoying the things they used to enjoy. To be told that one is not living “authentically” if one does not brood about death day and night is simply to be insulted gratuitously. A person who knows that his talents are not as great as he would wish or that he is not as handsome as he would have liked to be is not usually judged to live “inauthentically,” but on the contrary to be sensible if he does not constantly brood about his limitations and shortcomings and uses whatever talents he does possess to maximum advantage.
Think about a mother losing a child. It's all very well telling her that time will heal, that other people get over loss and grief, and that she'll see her child again in heaven. But reality is, that something treasured, is lost forever. It is understandable that some people never get over life events like that.
There is another and more basic objection to the claim that death is better than life. This objection applies equally to the claim that while death is better than life it would be better still not to have been born in the first place and to the judgment that life is better than death. It should be remembered that we are here concerned with such pronouncements when they are intended not merely as the expression of certain moods but as statements that are in some sense true or objectively warranted. It may be argued that a value comparison—any judgment to the effect that A is better or worse than B or as good as B— makes sense only if both A and B are, in the relevant respect, in principle open to inspection. If somebody says, for example, that Elizabeth Taylor is a better actress than Betty Grable, this seems quite intelligible. Or, again, if it is said that life for the Jews is better in the United States than it was in Germany under the Nazis, this also seems readily intelligible. In such cases the terms of the comparison are observable or at any rate describable. These conditions are fulfilled in some cases when value comparisons are made between life and death, but they are not fulfilled in the kind of case with which Tolstoy and the pessimists are concerned. If the conception of an afterlife is intelligible, then it would make sense for a believer or for somebody who has not made up his mind to say such things as “Death cannot be worse than this life” or “I wonder if it will be any better for me after I am dead.” Achilles, in the Iliad, was not making a senseless comparison when he exclaimed that he would rather act… as a serf of another, A man of little possessions, with scanty means of subsistence, Than rule as a ghostly monarch the ghosts of all the departed. Again, the survivors can meaningfully say about a deceased individual “It is better (for the world) that he is dead” or the opposite. For the person himself, however, if there is no afterlife, death is not a possible object of observation or experience, and statements by him that his own life is better than, as good as, or worse than his own death, unless they are intended to be no more than expressions of certain wishes or moods, must be dismissed as senseless. At first sight the contention that in the circumstances under discussion value comparisons between life and death are senseless may seem implausible because of the widespread tendency to think of death as a shadowy kind of life—as sleep, rest, or some kind of homecoming. Such “descriptions” may be admirable as poetry or consolation, but taken literally they are simply false.There is no afterlife. Is death better than life? From the MacMillan Encyclopedia of Death and Dying (a cheery read indeed):
The World Health Organization estimated that approximately 1 million people commit suicide annually. Suicide is among the top ten causes of death and one of the three leading causes in the fifteen-to-thirty-five-years age group worldwide. In the United States, where suicide is the ninth leading cause of death (and where the number of victims is 50% higher than the number of homicides), the Surgeon General in 1999 issued a Call to Action to Prevent Suicide, labeling suicide “a significant public health problem.”So you're more likely to kill yourself, than be killed by another person. Whether some people find life enjoyable and worth living, it is inarguable that some people don't. If you spend every second alive, in pain, it is understandable that you might seek the cessation of that pain, through death. For some people then, wishing that they had not been born in the first place, seems like a reasonable conclusion (if not a personal one). More importantly, one day the question will be moot. When the universe is dead, there will be no life, and with it, nobody to remember that you hung yourself or not.
Irrelevance of the Distant FutureIfs and ands. Pots and pans. Everything always has, and always will be pointless and since we're not dumb enough to even entertain the nonsensical idea that a super-alien somehow created the universe for you and me, talk of what ifs, is just doubly pointless. Any meaning that you would like to come up with, is essentially the pointless ponderings of a pointless biological machine, constructed by natural selection, and hence of no great importance.
These considerations do not, however, carry us very far. They do not show either that life is worth living or that it “has meaning.” Before tackling these problems directly, something should perhaps be said about the curious and totally arbitrary preference of the future to the present, to which writers such as Tolstoy and Darrow are committed without realizing it. Darrow implies that life would not be “futile” if it were not an endless cycle of the same kind of activities and if instead it were like a journey toward a destination. Tolstoy clearly implies that life would be worthwhile, that some of our actions at least would have a “reasonable meaning,” if the present life were followed by eternal bliss. Presumably, what would make life no longer futile as far as Darrow is concerned is some feature of the destination, not merely the fact that it is a destination; and what would make life worthwhile in Tolstoy’s opinion is not merely the eternity of the next life but the “bliss” that it would confer—eternal misery and torture would hardly do. About the bliss in the next life, if there is such a next life, Tolstoy shows no inclination to ask “What for?” or “So what?”But if bliss in the next life is not in need of any further justification, why should any bliss that there might be in the present life need justification?
The Logic of Value JudgementsAnd so here is where the hedonists fall flat (in my opinion). Agree that everything is pointless; that without god, everything is permitted. There is no morality, only the rules of a minority, which attempt to control and restrict the behaviour of other human beings. And so I ask, striving for what? What standards and goals did we all sign up for? Who decides? The world today is a battleground of stupid ape descendants, who have carved up the land, and the people and riches in it. Every day people die. Every day people are born. War, disease, pain and misery. On one hand you have rich people, flying around in jets, with their obese children, and obese pets, working, spending, energy, energy, energy. And then they wonder why the world might be fucked up. If human beings really do ruin the one place in the universe they know can keep them alive, isn't that an absurd joke? And the piece argues that it's okay striving for today, even if there isn't a tomorrow. Fuck it if the oil runs out tomorrow, today we get our buck and fuck! All well and good for the people who prosper, but look around humanitarians and show me the world where everybody has enough to eat. We are all related, cousins from thousands of years back. And like a dysfunctional family, we're not ever going to get along. Live for today and be happy, is fine advice (seeing as everything is pointless). But I understand why some people choke trying to swallow it...
Many of the pessimists appear to be confused about the logic of value judgments. It makes sense for a person to ask about something “Is it really worthwhile?” or “Is it really worth the trouble?” if he does not regard it as intrinsically valuable or if he is weighing it against another good with which it may be in conflict. It does not make sense to ask such a question about something he regards as valuable in its own right and where there is no conflict with the attainment of any other good. (This observation, it should be noted, is quite independent of what view one takes of the logical status of intrinsic value judgments.) A person driving to the beach on a crowded Sunday, may, upon finally getting there, reflect on whether the trip was really worthwhile. Or, after undertaking a series of medical treatments, somebody may ask whether it was worth the time and the money involved. Such questions make sense because the discomforts of a car ride and the time and money spent on medical treatments are not usually judged to be valuable for their own sake. Again, a woman who has given up a career as a physician in order to raise a family may ask herself whether it was worthwhile, and in this case the question would make sense not because she regards the raising of a family as no more than a means, but because she is weighing it against another good. However, if somebody is very happy, for any number of reasons—because he is in love, because he won the Nobel Prize, because his child recovered from a serious illness—and if this happiness does not prevent him from doing or experiencing anything else he regards as valuable, it would not occur to him to ask “Is it worthwhile?” Indeed, this question would be incomprehensible to him, just as Tolstoy himself would presumably not have known what to make of the question had it been raised about the bliss in the hereafter. It is worth recalling here that we live not in the distant future but in the present and also, in a sense, in the relatively near future.
To bring the subject down to earth, let us consider some everyday occurrences: A man with a toothache goes to a dentist, and the dentist helps him so that the toothache disappears. A man is falsely accused of a crime and is faced with the possibility of a severe sentence as well as with the loss of his reputation; with the help of a devoted attorney his innocence is established, and he is acquitted. It is true that a hundred years later all of the participants in these events will be dead and none of them will then be able to enjoy the fruits of any of the efforts involved. But this most emphatically does not imply that the dentist’s efforts were not worthwhile or that the attorney’s work was not worth doing. To bring in considerations of what will or will not happen in the remote future is, in such and many other though certainly not in all human situations, totally irrelevant. Not only is the finality of death irrelevant here; equally irrelevant are the facts, if they are facts, that life is an endless cycle of the same kind of activities and that the history of the universe is not a drama with a happy ending. This is, incidentally, also the answer to religious apologists like C. H. D. Clark who maintain that all striving is pointless if it is “without final consequence” and that “it scarcely matters how we live if all will end in the dust of death.” Striving is not pointless if it achieves what it is intended to achieve even if it is without final consequence, and it matters a great deal how we live if we have certain standards and goals, although we cannot avoid “the dust of death.”
The Vanished PastI must admit, that everyday I find myself thinking that another day has gone, That the earth has spun around once, on that slow journey around the sun. It is scary. Apes, huddled together on a rock, spinning in space. With no destination, but the grave. Okay, so some people can enjoy their time on earth. I get that already. But when you understand that life formed randomly, that humans are not inevitable, and that everything is pointless, it kinda sucks all the fun out of life, (because fun = endorphin release, and so what?). We are descended from creatures that survived and fucked. Thinking didn't factor into the equation until recently. No wonder that we intrinsically may feel that we have to do things. The heart and lungs don't need a reason to do their job. But a thinking brain, that has been taught science and learnt to see value in understanding the universe, cannot help but understand that having sex is just putting a weird body part into an orifice; that love is just a chemical state of the brain. And then, so what? Yeah you like it. Yes it's your drug. But other people are condemned for taking drugs. They are judged and their freedom is taken away, because they want to cut out the middle man and the bullshit and go, chemical drug > here is my brain. I certainly understand that particular strategy. But again, so what? Hedonism, and feelings are all so very physiological. And feelings are just these weird twinges you get, your body influencing your consciousness. So you get out of the bed, to feel weird? Absurd.
In asserting the worthlessness of life Schopenhauer remarked that “what has been exists as little as what has never been” and that “something of great importance now past is inferior to something of little importance now present.” Several comments are in order here. To begin with, if Schopenhauer is right, it must work both ways: If only the present counts, then past sorrows no less than past pleasures do not “count.” Furthermore, the question whether “something of great importance now past is inferior to something of little importance now present” is not, as Schopenhauer supposed, a straightforward question of fact but rather one of valuation, and different answers, none of which can be said to be mistaken, will be given by different people according to their circumstances and interests. Viktor Frankl, the founder of “logotherapy,” has compared the pessimist to a man who observes, with fear and sadness, how his wall calendar grows thinner and thinner as he removes a sheet from it every day. The kind of person whom Frankl admires, on the other hand, “files each successive leaf neatly away with its predecessors” and reflects “with pride and joy” on all the richness represented by the leaves removed from the calendar. Such a person will not in old age envy the young. “‘No, thank you,’ he will think. ‘Instead of possibilities, I have realities in my past’” (Man’s Search for Meaning, pp. 192–193). This passage is quoted not because it contains any great wisdom but because it illustrates that we are concerned here not with judgments of fact but with value judgments and that Schopenhauer’s is not the only one that is possible. Nevertheless, his remarks are, perhaps, a healthy antidote to the cheap consolation and the attempts to cover up deep and inevitable misery that are the stock in trade of a great deal of popular psychology. Although Schopenhauer’s judgments about the inferior value of the past cannot be treated as objectively true propositions, they express only too well what a great many human beings are bound to feel on certain occasions.
To a man dying of cancer it is small consolation to reflect that there was a time when he was happy and flourishing; and while there are undoubtedly some old people who do not envy the young, it may be suspected that more often the kind of talk advocated by the prophets of positive thinking is a mask for envy and a defense against exceedingly painful feelings of regret and helplessness in the face of aging and death and the now unalterable past.
Perhaps you can see why I use these terms to describe myself:
Atheist. Nihilist. Anarchist. Pessimist. Misanthrope.There is no god. There is no meaning. No one has the 'right' to dictate to another. Nothing will change. Human beings are idiots. :P
Part III soon.