A Little Nihilism for a Cold Monday

It is fairly easy to slide from the question "why live longer?" to the question "why live?" If you're not so sold on being alive at the present time, it may follow that you're also not so much in favor of being alive for longer in the future. Sadly, many people are on the fence when it comes to their continued existence as thinking, conscious entities: ambivalent until threatened with impending death, at which point deep-seated survival instincts take over, but ultimately vaguely looking forward to their end. Others call into question the morality of creating new people when they are doomed to inevitable suffering and death, and this cheerful topic leads us to a brace of posts at Depressed Metabolism.

Non-existence is hard to do

Even the antinatalist position that it is better never to have been and that we have a moral obligation not to procreate is not completely obscure. Who has not had the experience of talking to the grumpy old lady who wonders why anyone would want to bring children into this world? We routinely dismiss such positions as being out of touch with reality but modern culture persists in linking intellectualism to pessimism.

Review of 'Better Never to Have Been'

"Would that I had never been born" is a lament sometimes voiced in the depth of misfortune, a cry of despair we hope may be soon be stilled by something more positive, when the bad things, whatever they are, have run their course. Enter David Benatar, a respected professor of philosophy at the University of Cape Town, South Africa. In the volume here reviewed he offers the extreme view that in fact it would have been better, all things considered, if not one of us had ever existed, or even any sentient life whatever. Life is that bad, he says, and he bases this judgment on certain logical principles along with empirical evidence of the allegedly poor quality of life that most of us are forced to endure in this world. Among the consequences is that no more humans should be born, and the human race (and other sentient creatures) ought to become extinct.

Is a life worth starting? Some personal views

Life does, of course, have its problems, death in particular, that might call in question whether it is worthwhile after all and thus, whether the life of any sentient being is worth starting. For this one problem there are a number of possible answers that will be satisfying to different people, and thus can serve as ground for a feeling that life is worthwhile and was worth starting despite one's own mortality. There is the famous Epicurean argument that death is not really a problem because before it happens it causes no harm, and after it happens there is no victim. ... Then there is scientific immortalism, which holds that at least substantial life extension through science and technology is possible, so that, irrespective of any supernatural or mystical process, persons of today have more to hope for as they get older than the usual biological ruin and oblivion.

Engineered human longevity as a bright view into the future of freedom from pain, rejuvenation, the triumph of life, and agelessness is forever wedded to to the flip side of the coin, which is that people suffer and people die. No-one wants to think about death, but that fact doesn't make it any less real or any less a threat. Nor does it dispel those elements of our culture who greatly value death, or who believe that people should be forced to age to death rather than take advantage of the coming age of longevity science. They exist, and they are playing in the great game of accomplishment and persuasion just like the rest of us - we ignore them at our peril.


Our souls are here to grow through hardship and the love we find is worth the heartache in the end

Posted by: Lindy Taverner at December 27th, 2010 10:48 PM

I think ALL those who claim they "don't care" if they cease to exist are in denial. Since dying is naturally a fearful thing, convincing yourself that you don't care about it is a coping mechanism. (like the teenager who says "whatever" when faced with a problem) But when it comes down to it, those who claim not to care all still do the things they need to do to keep surviving, like eating, and also would all get treatment to save their lives if they got cancer tomorrow, so they're full of it. The good news is that even if people aren't fans of being alive today, future technology could allow the quality of life for all to dramatically go up by giving us control over our minds and emotions.

Posted by: Kim at January 2nd, 2011 10:18 PM

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