Stepping Over Graves

Image Courtesy of my great friend and creative partner Damien Worm

The year began with a life ending. My grandmother was diagnosed with terminal liver cancer and died quickly – but, thankfully, painlessly – within a few weeks. Her bodily deterioration scraped down the iron exterior of her social self. I had grown up with her presence always filling any room or event that we attended. The gaps of silence between withdrawn family members forced to interact, the awkward distances moulded by time apart between once close siblings and cousins, were filled by her incredibly sharp – usually scathing – wit, creating a bridge on which interaction could take place. She was someone who was lucky enough to have more people love her than she loved; not through malice but through being unaware that so many did.

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Antinatalism and Death: A Quick Answer

A common question posed to antinatalists is: If you think life not worth living, why not kill yourself?

Sister Y replied to a commenter (on my column at 3quarksdaily), who asked this question. Sister replied by saying:

Two birthdays ago, my friends had a surprise party for me. I was in a very antisocial mood at the time, and it was a very unpleasant experience – but I suffered through it because I didn’t want to hurt my friends’ feelings. I didn’t just walk out and leave the party (though I feel I morally could have done, if it were bad enough for me). But mostly I wish they hadn’t had a party for me in the first place – I would have been better off if they hadn’t.

Thus others’ considerations are taken into account, but show that if they had never had a party for her in the first place, there would be no reason to maintain one’s attendance at all. ‘Ditto my mom giving birth to me,’ Sister says. ‘I wish she hadn’t, but my family and friends would be very sad if I peaced out of the party (though I still have a moral right to commit suicide).’

I think Sister provides an excellent analogy in her answer, though she doesn’t pretend it covers all questions. Furthermore, it at least begins an answer that need not pretend to be all-encompassing.

I’ve heard the party analogy used by Christopher Hitchens, too. As Hitchens indicates, it’s bad enough having to leave the party (called ‘life’) early; it’s worse still leaving and knowing it is continuing without one attending. It seems a good reason to defend the voluntary extinction of the human species: If there is no one continuing the party, if everyone leaves at the same time or closer to one’s own leaving, then dying isn’t as hard since there will be no human person that will miss or yearn for us, or be continuing ‘the party’ at all. I would hate to die knowing that people are continuing enjoying life. I would be more comfortable with death if I knew everyone, the entire human species, was ending itself at about the same time voluntarily.

What I Believe for the 21st Century

Along with Bertrand Russell, it is importance to consider what one believes rather than what one knows. Knowledge, the evanescent sphere that humans touch upon to ascend to higher planes of comprehension, is mostly unimportant: It is the beliefs that we hold. Indeed, modern philosophers like Roger Scruton regard epistemology not as the study of knowledge but the justification for our beliefs. In this short space, I am aim to succinctly outline my current beliefs with the goal of checking up on them in one year. I hope readers do not find this self-indulgent but rather a project of epistemic duty, to which each person should scrutinise for themselves. If there are alternate and better views, many current views should be rescinded or replaced.

I believe…

  • …nothing is sacred and the attempt at sanctification brings nothing but dogmatic human assertion onto an otherwise neutral world. This is not to be confused with not thinking certain thing highly important: for example, I do not believe in the “sanctity of human life” but I believe very strongly in fighting for people’s autonomy, freedom and their pursuit of happiness.
  • …many current governmental policies, even in “Western” liberal democracies, are premised on knee-jerk emotional responses which cater to the masses. We need a thorough reassessment based on evidence rather than emotion if we wish to help our fellow Man. Thus, our policies on drugs, capital punishment, education and the automatic respect for religions to dictate on important moral issues needs at the most rescinding and at the least thorough consideration.
  • …suppression only worsens rather than ameliorates most social problems. Thus, we should legalise drugs (from marijuana to cocaine), prostitution, pornography, abortion,  euthanasia and similarly related constituents of “immorality”. Conservative moralists tend to consider a slippery-slope that as AC Grayling put it works like this: “If you eat two bananas, you are going to want to eat a million.” We can already see the irrationality of such an approach. Firstly, if people want drugs, abortions and euthanasia, they will usually find a way to get it. Secondly, we already have arbitrary instances of various allowances of these prohibitions: we have legalised alcohol and nicotine (both of which are far worse than other drugs, like say marijuana); we don’t blink when we give a pet a good death (the literal meaning of euthanasia) but shudder when the gaze shifts to one of our own. This again goes back to considering something sacred, rather than looking at something humanely – that is, it is more important for someone to have life, even if it is filled with suffering, than to have no life and therefore no suffering. Also, those who chant the mantra “drugs are bad” should remember that for the most part, even alot of so-called hard drugs when taken in minimal circumstances do little to no damage.
  • …when entering the public sphere, all ideas are open to criticism, debate, mockery and scorn. If we eliminate the stupid notion of sanctity, we can allow that ideas are man-made and therefore fallible. The point is to weed out the bad and keep the good but that can not be done if certain ideas are beyond criticism. For too long we have lived under the shadow of a respect for people’s faiths but no longer must that be the case. We should care more about people and creating a better world, than hushing our own important criticisms which could better more lives by being spoken rather than placating dormant lives with silence.
  • …we should not be afraid to defend our point of views strongly, but more importantly we must be able to utter 2 three-word sentences: “I don’t know” and “I stand corrected”. Sure, we may feel like imbeciles when we vehemently defend a view which turns out to be wrong. We should then apologise and say so, rather than making the situation worse by deluding ourselves into naive dogmatism. Nobody really cares anyway because no one is keeping tabs on how often you were right. Also you will be right by acceding to your opponent or antagonist (even if there are say, your brilliant philosopher girlfriend), because you will be able to correct those who shared your previously held view.
  • …religions are a disgusting affront to human sensibilities and are perverse for accruing various properties. It is both tedious and mortifying to constantly read about religious groups opposing abortions, same-sex marriages, prostitution, drugs, freedom of speech and expression, liberty, and so on. In each case, we can probably name a few cases where religious people who deem their actions sanctified (there is that notion of sanctity again!) by a god have killed someone who is part of these movements. Religious people often refuse to face facts and evidence, as is the case with for example evolution and contraceptives, and instead point to arbitrary passages in their arbitrary (sacred) book.  Religions not only reward people for horrifying actions like the slaughter of innocent people, but also rewards people for believing without evidence. It also rewards people for peering into other people’s private lives which, if ignored, would not hinder their own lives at all (how could a happy homosexual couple going about their business make the lives of say a normal family horrid, unless they were Christians and told by their holy book that homosexuality is an affront to god?)
  • …the most disgusting affront to our species and the biggest fight we have is the continued emancipation of women and bringing their hands to tightly clutch the banner of liberty. Especially in such places as Africa, where we know that when women are allowed charge over their own bodies, we can end poverty. Poverty will not be solved solely though charity – we know that will not work. Instead, we must seek charity’s root, namely karitas or the love of fellow humans. This means liberating women which reduces poverty by not dealing out already low resources to an inestimable number of offspring, who themselves grow up to continue to breed and create more people to suffer needlessly. Aside from poverty, we need to push back the patriarchy of society to realise that women (who do better than the male counterparts in education) are human. Religions also aid this patriarchy by giving men a divine sanction to use their wives as nothing more than cattle. There are too many instances to name in Islamic countries that they might collectively be called Misogynia. By combating these arrogant and stupid men who think women are lower than themselves, we will be pulling the carpet from under the feet. The biggest wake up call that Muslims states could suffer would be a woman, wearing clothes of her choosing, smiling and enjoying her own mind and body. A respect for the minds and their bodies should be welcomed, not solely for the purpose of the male related urge to have sex, but also for the appreciation of the beauty of both. Personally, women are the better sex and it is often said that if god was a woman, the world wouldn’t be in such a mess – perhaps the only statement of an anthropomorphic god I could agree with.
  • …we need a re-evaluation of why we procreate. To the Greeks, everything was an ethical dilemma: even the clothes you wore. To them the ethical life was a life well-lived and living ethically was a life-long challenge. We tend to forget this view, with its importance on self-reflection. Applying this to all spheres would end a lot of social problems but it needs to be consistent. Thus, to be consistent, there has yet to be a good reason laid out for the procreation of  our species. As I write this, I am of the opinion that it is immoral to create new people, since it is by definition impossible to have a child for that child’s sake – because the child does not exist when you conceive him. Parents do not know their children for quite some time, so it is impossible to say that parents have children for that child’s sake. To have a child is simply a selfish act, a biological need (arguably the most prominent and therefore the most overlooked!). Why have kids? It is a bizarre question to most people, but as of yet there has not been a satisfactory answer. To continue the human species is not good enough either, since I do not care for those who do not exist. I care and apply my moral sphere to those who exist. Those who do not exist do not suffer. Also, we must remember that our species will die out eventually and we only prolonging the inevitable. It seems harsh and to some horrifying, but it is rather simple. For this reason, I at this moment will not have children. Instead, I think our efforts in helping people to procreate and the “sad” fact that people are sterile, needs shifting to aid children who are already alive. That is, instead of focusing on children who do not exist, focus on those who do! Perhaps this is what irks me the most – there are so many children who need loving families and I do not doubt that people who want kids simply want a child to love. Therefore, they should not add to our overpopulated word, but simply adopt. Psychological testing has shown time and time again, there is no difference in affection and love between children who parents adopt and children born to biological parents. I believe it a human duty to shift our silly polices on those “unlucky people who are sterile” and who can not create new people; and instead promote the humanity and importance of adopting people who already exist.
  • …reading is the gateway to living the good life and engaging in discussion with ideas its path. Epicurus was the embodiment of this, who thought the highest aim in life was sitting beneath a tree discussing philosophy. Whilst we can not reasonably expect such a life today, we can approach it with the same considerations. Reading is a joy and should be shown to young people when their minds are finding fruition and goal. Like education, reading should not be promoted by forcing children to read certain books, but how and why they should read in the first place. People find their hunger grow when reading and the acquisition of “knowledge” becomes a life long goal. There is nothing pretentious in reading Tolstoy and Faulkner’s books, indeed they are beautiful and actually simple writers. They are classics because even the general reader is able to enjoy its beauty, whilst stuffy introverts like myself could dissect it for in-depth literary criticism. There is also much joy to be gained in reading opposing viewpoints, thus reading books for and against evolution, for and against god, for and against postmodernism, and so on. We enjoy debates for their entertainment value and watching one side get overturned by the brilliance of the other; but we also allow people in better positions than ourselves to criticise more eloquently and with better information. It is a joy: try (really try) for example reading a work by Derrida (perhaps a short one) than try Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont’s Fashionable Nonsense or Ophelia Benson and Jeremy Stangroom’s Why Truth Matters.
  • …by studying philosophy, I hope to bring it further into the public sphere where it belongs. Much is to be gained from the history of ideas and discussion within philosophy. Not least the clarification and use of critical thinking so important to this discipline. Moral philosophers need to be higher placed within our society than say, bishops and rabbis – for the simple reason that moral philosophy is not moralising – i.e.: it is not about setting out a list of “Thou shalt…” and “Thou shalt not…” but the clearing of verbose emotional reactions and alternate paths not previously considered. The first person journalists should contact when an ethical dilemma arises from medical advancement should not be the public or a religious don: it should be a bioethicist. After outlining all the paths and conjectures surrounding the topic, others can contribute more coherently. This should be the job of the philosopher in general, to clear the path for discussion to continue maturely.
  • …sex is overrated. In nearly every sense, sex finds itself at the top of the list for both those who consider themselves godless liberals in their “FOR” list, and for the conservative moralisers in their “AGAINST” list. If sex was less the topic of focus, it could be allowed to be the healthy, enjoyable actualisation of affection two (or three or four) people have for each other.
  • …I am not intelligent or bright. I reserve such terms for those who deserve it and find it a particularly insulting when an important property finds itself attached to me. As an example, I did terribly in high-school, barely passing. I did even worse in a tertiary institution, only managing firsts in English literature – a degree, nearly anyone could do well in. I am not exceptional in any way, save that I am particularly good-looking.
  • …that last sentence was a lie.

I hope that by next year one of these would have changed, either to be replaced with something more informed, or elucidated more clearly. For example, I hope to be able to say that I am working from a tertiary institution. Until then, let us see what changes the world makes upon itself.

The Attempted Aphorisms – On Life

On Life

Those who say “life is beautiful” are as fearful as those men who admire a lovely woman from afar, whilst music plays and the dance floor is clear. Instead, it is necessary to take her by the hand, lead her deftly on to the floor, surround yourself with the silence of an audience, and prepare a dance toward an unknowable end. This is the only way to lead ones life and it should serve to remind us that other suitors would sooner have our life in their hands, rather than see it foisted pragmatically within our own.

Living In Suspension

We are nothing but extemporaneous matter, dissolved into a fine fluid of prehensile fear, docked between a sea of chaos and a harbour of doubt. Setting our anchors would be dogmatic, to let them float idiotic. Yet, tossed we are on these rough oceans that would permit only the stars’ ebbing reflection to be a form of stability, and nothing but darkness as a dream.

We arise from what we perceive to be nothingness and will return to nothingness. We are suspended between two poles, existing on a trajectory from a high pole of “birth”, which glides down to join the lower one of “death”. We are a tiny droplet of water snaking down from the first pole to the last, reflecting the images surrounding us from the environment, yet distorting it with the refraction of subjectivity.

Evolution – not any deity – has prefigured us with a consciousness: That is, we are aware of ourselves, our existence and the surrounding world. But consciousness, whatever it is, comes with a horrible cost and it is for this reason that if there is a deity, he is surely a cruel one.

The reason I say this is due to the shadow set aflame by the light of consciousness: The awareness of death. The two most horrid combinations one could invest in an entity would be consciousness and transience. Or perhaps mortality. Regardless, what this means is simple: “You are aware to such a great extent that you are aware of your oncoming death.”

Yet, we humans – especially those of us who face up to the fact that there is no truth to the monotheisms’ metaphysical claims  – are not found cowering in corners, spitting at clocks, defacing watches and ignoring our pulse. Our pulse is the slow countdown timer that leads to a flat-line. Everyone has an amount of heartbeats that they will beat in their life time. The average, if you live till you are 70, is 2.52 billion heart beats. The slow countdown is gradual, like drops off the suspended line between the pole of “birth” down to “death”.

But each drop of heart beat lands to make music in the surrounding environment. We do not dismiss each drop, we should relish in it. It will fall into nothing anyway, so why despair when it is, in fact, more reasonable to celebrate.

As Richard Feynman said:

If a Martian (who, we’ll imagine never dies except by accident) came to Earth and saw this peculiar race [sic] of creatures – these humans who live about seventy or eighty years, knowing that death is going to come – it would look to him like a terrible problem of psychology to live under those circumstances, knowing that life is only temporary. Well, we humans somehow figure out how to live despite this problem: we laugh, we joke, we live.

What a waste it would be to slide down that suspension, from one pole to the other, as a blinkered drop. How distasteful to clamour for dispair because there is no celestial hand holding the string to cater for your every snaking move. It would be better to never have been if you take no comfort in being a reflecting drop, in celebrating your movement and your awareness and the “kingdom of infinite space” – as Raymond Tallis calls it – in between your ears. We do not know everything, nor will we. Our knowledge is various lit lanterns placed on the precipice of the external world, which show the extent where the border into ignorance rests. Crossing into that land is exhilarating, since it requires that only place we know which is endless: Our imaginations.

Imagine can be traced to the Greek phainesthai, which means “to appear”, which itself is related to phaos and phos meaning “light.” Thus, our imaginations light the way for knowledge, which is made tentatively and by incremental snaking – though from a pole of ignorance to one of further ignorance. I have always thought it is better to proclaim the extent of ones ignorance than the extent of ones knowledge, since we can change our ignorance but there is nothing much we can do to our knowledge. This might be translated into Confucius’s better phrasing: “Real knowledge is to know the extent of ones ignorance.”

As tiny droplets, there is much wonder to reflect upon. Why should we be sad? We exist and we can not know non-existence, so there is nothing to fear. It is not death but dying that people fear. Rise up with your flame of knowledge and traverse unknown lands with the map of the imagination. It has been suggested that the fact that the majority of our species do believe in celestial beings, ghosts, demons, witches and one or two other supernatural paraphernalia, is testament to humanity’s inherent capabilities to using its imagination. Even if, like myself, you find ideas of religion and other supernatural or superstitious vagaries annoying, distasteful and perhaps the central problem of today’s world, you can still take comfort in this: At least people are using their imaginations.

Both believers and nonbelievers are using their imaginations to fight off the fear of death. The only difference is that we realise that our imaginations is testament to wonder at the workings of nature, whereas the faithful, the superstitious and the overzealous equate their ancestor’s imaginations with knowledge. There is nothing to be terrified about the ties that knot around knowledge and imagination are allowed to loosen. Many religious already do this and it these many call the “moderates”, who allow for ignorance to be a leading focus and drive. It is the dogmatic fundamentalists who believe so strongly in a god that they do not believe in ignorance. It really has become something of a dichotomy.

But there is beauty in ignorance, in wonder and in relishing in the wonder-full universe we are citizens of. To make a propitiation toward an obscure Palestinian deity, when a universe of wonder awaits, seems to me to be worthy of a criminal offence. We are all heading toward that same end, that same nothingness, that same bottom pole.

Would it not be better to be conjoined droplets, making a lasting impact on that line, to reflect collectively the great wonder and achievements of our past and then create a wave that would prevent us from self-destruction? The line is taught and easily broken. Let us slow down, relax our hold and take a good look around us. There is much light to be shone and only a short amount of heart beats for us to do it in.