Monday, 25 July 2011

What is Life Accomplishing?

What is human life doing? What is it all about ultimately?

Examine your day-to-day life: you awake, you may need to urinate or excrete, you’ll probably eat something, you’ll head off somewhere to sell your time to someone in order to acquire the means to keep what exactly? To keep getting up, to keep excreting, urinating, eating, drinking and so on and on. During the day your head will be filled with countless thoughts, ideas, vague hopes, different emotions of varying intensity, propositions, images, spectacles and so on. You will have very little control of that thought content. You’ll fantasise about what you may do in the evening. You may go online, you may go for a drink, you may chat with a pal, you may read, you may watch tv, you may masturbate, you may do nothing. You are a prisoner of time and space, of circumstance, of gender, of history, of pigmentation, of a DNA lottery where there is no winning ticket. And all the while the clock is ticking, you are getting older, the freshness is fading, you are heading toward the end, the end of what? The end of something you did not elect to come into, something you had no choice but to participate in, all like a dream, a phantasma, an insane slide show of images that make no sense. That will have been your life. And then darkness forever. As if you had never been.

And how do people respond? Essentially by self-delusion and distraction. Most elect not to think about life too closely, and to be frank who could blame them? They work, they revolve in their narrow orbit of job, friends, family and newspaper and that’s it. Life is too much to think about.

There are those who, generally when they hit their thirties, run out of gas. They’ve been to college, had their fun, worked a bit, travelled, got married and now there’s nothing left to do but have the inevitable kiddies in the hope of rejuvenating that flagging relationship where there’s nothing more to talk about. So they go ahead and fulfil the expectations of their parents and society and a new cycle of their lives where “it’s all about the kids” kicks in. This gives them a vicarious reason for living and allows them to justify life to themselves: “it’s not about me anymore”.

Then there are those who think more than is strictly necessary for the mindless biological functioning that life in its essence consists of. They may realise there’s something up, that life isn’t as it was advertised by parents, teachers and the like. Looking around the world and the madness and randomness of it, they may realise they’ve been sold a pup. Some will respond by turning to religion, and again who could blame them? Life is so horrific, unfair and unjust you can’t really hold it against people for desperately hoping there’s some form of justice and explanation on the other side of consciousness.

And then we get those who believe that by twiddling the knobs and redesigning the political alignment we’ll somehow even things out or maybe achieve Paradise on Earth. These people go by many names, Marxist, Communist, Anarchist, Libertarian and so on. Again, you can hardly blame them, but they’re also ignoring the reality of human history and human nature.

Then we have the people who think, fuck it, I want to enjoy myself, pump my ego, be worshipped, have my voice heard so and they become politicians, businessmen, academics, artists and so on. They take life as an unashamed ego-trip where wealth accumulation, ego expression and social status amongst their fellow-baboons is the ultimate value.

And then we have the majority who essentially live in fear. Fear of loneliness, fear of poverty, fear of homelessness, fear of tyranny and so on. You see, life has been very generous indeed in providing many, many things to fear. And so these people keep their heads down, serve the powers that be and pass on.

And then you have people like me, and perhaps like you, seeing as how you happen to be reading this blog, who really are just sick to the back fucking teeth of this pitiful parade of insanity, lunacy, madness, delusion and despair. People who have to drag themselves out of bed in the morning, tired of having to feign enthusiasm, of having to formulate plans and projects to drag their asses through life, all so we can bow out one fine day, hopefully not in excruciating agony and torment.

Welcome to the Pleasure Dome.

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Consent and Sterilization in Antinatalism

The issue of consent regarding sterilization has been appearing here and there on a few antinatalist blogs lately and it’s made me ponder. As far as I’m aware, most antinatalists have been against forced sterilization until recently, but CM made a point over on estnihil’s blog that really got people thinking:

“As far as sterilizing humans and the issue of consent: there are plenty of things we regard as acceptable to do to people without their consent, but if you believe that it’s okay to use force to prevent people from murdering others, then the same reasoning should apply to using force to prevent births (because births entails deaths, plus a whole lot of other shit, so in most cases it’s actually worse than murdering someone from a consequentialist perspective.)”

I’ve been reflecting a lot on this and I really can’t see any flaws in it. The basis of antinatalism is a form of negative utilitarianism: life entails far more suffering than pleasure; the non-existent are not deprived by non-existence; existence entails unnecessary suffering for every being alive; life has no purpose other than its own survival and blind perpetuation and so on. Therefore there should be no more births. We all know the drill by now.

Yet the big sticking point is consent. We struggle with the classic liberal idea of bodily self-ownership and the thought of forced sterilization is intuitively repugnant on initial consideration. However, as Inmendham often says, just because I own my fist doesn’t give me the right to furl it up and send it flying into your face. Or another useful analogy is that of drink-driving (another Inmendham favourite): we have laws rendering that practice illegal and we inflict severe punishment on those found guilty, even if someone is apprehended drink-driving without having harmed anyone. I find it difficult to see why the same principles shouldn’t apply to birthers. From the antinatalist perspective, life is the ultimate harm, the phenomenon that generates all suffering, so from that viewpoint why shouldn’t people be deprived of the right to procreate?

Here’s another analogy: imagine you hear the news that police have tracked down a group of terrorists armed with backpacks of explosives who intend to detonate themselves on the public transport system. The police warn the terrorists that their plot has been discovered and that unless they surrender armed force will be used against them. The terrorists refuse and the police use their guns. All of the terrorists are killed, but none of the explosives are detonated and no innocent person is harmed.

What is the general moral reaction? Sadness that people are driven to terrorism, repugnance that they believe they have the right to murder others in the name of their beliefs, regret at the violence and loss of life ensuing from the police action, but ultimately relief and a recognition that the police had no other choice but to act in the way they did in the name of preventing large-scale suffering.

Obviously I’m using this analogy to compare procreators to terrorists. They inflict harm on others on account of their beliefs/ selfish desires. Nothing good ultimately comes of their activities, merely more suffering all round. Why shouldn’t they be stopped by whatever means necessary? I’m struggling to find an answer to this one.

To quote another commenter: “So, to put it bluntly, the reason one would not go through with the law in this scenario would be an appeasement to a minority of prenatal terrorists?:-)” If we put the smiley aside and substitute “majority” for “minority” we’re left with a very serious moral debate for antinatalism. A few people on different blogs have admitted that they’d press the “automatic sterilization” button if they had the hypothetical option, so I feel this is a debate worth having. The conclusions drawn from it may initially be profoundly counter-intuitive and even repugnant, but so is antinatalism itself for many upon first contact yet ultimately they come round to supporting it.

To conclude, the scenario of enforced sterilization troubles me, but I can’t see how it can be argued against given the premises of antinatalism.

All comments and observations welcome.

Monday, 11 July 2011

The Tree Of Life

Another review, but shorter this time. I saw Terrence Malick’s latest movie “The Tree of Life” the other night. Malick is a famously reclusive film director, a former philosophy student and translator of Heidegger, who made one of my favourite movies “The Thin Red Line” back in 1998. (Anyone who hasn’t seen but is intending to watch The Tree of Life needn’t fear: I’m only going to focus on one small aspect of the movie.)

His latest offering is a family drama that revolves around a typical American family of the 50s and the childhoods of their three sons. For those familiar with Malick’s style, it offers the usual ruminative and reflective cinematography, with the director’s obsession with the sun and skyscapes even more evident than in previous offerings (if Turner were alive today, he’d make movies like Malick). Going on the evidence of his films, Malick appears to be a kind of Pantheist, a worshipper of “Nature”, and a man who reveres the “mysteries” of life.

What makes this movie stand out is that Malick breaks up the human storyline with flashbacks to the Big Bang, the formation of the universe and the evolution of life on earth. One feature in particular really caught my attention. Malick depicts the creation of the first protein based units that eventually led to humanity, and then we get a brief Jurassic park sequence with a couple of dinosaurs knocking around. When they appeared I really wanted to see if Malick would faithfully depict what I and a lot of the other people on this and other similar themed blogs talk about frequently, namely the brutal indifference of nature and its savage predatory cycle.

So what do we get? A few dinosaurs are splashing about in a river, all looking like they’re having fun. Then we get a close-up of a dinosaur lying on the stones, resting. Next a dinosaur splashes out of the water and puts his foot on the head of the one lying down. The audience tensed in anticipation. Here we go, thought I, we’re about to get the Dinosaur wars and a little tableau of nature red in tooth and claw.

How wrong I was. The dinosaur held his foot on the head of his mate for a moment, then removed it and went for another merry paddle. The audience sighed with relief and chuckled. Next shot we were back with good ol’ Homo Sapiens and the American suburbs.

What a cop-out, thought I. No depiction of the carnivore wars, the ruthless battle for survival, the merciless circus that is “Mother Nature”, just a couple of Spielberg dinosaur orphans from the backlot of Jurassic Park paddling about in the drink. As if every living creature had a nice easy time of it, and anything bad that happened was an unfortunate accident. Malick must be going soft in his old age, I reflected, a suspicion confirmed by the extremely cheesy ending that I won’t reveal here.

In general, the movie is worth a watch, if only for the cosmic scenes, and I must admit that I do admire Malick’s artisitic integrity in always having made the kind of movies he’s wanted without pandering to the whims of the studios or the audience, but when it comes to a faithful rendering of Nature he ducks out here bigtime.

Monday, 4 July 2011

Cumulative vs. Reiterative Suffering (Reflections on the Sunset Limited)

I watched The Sunset Limited a few nights ago. It’s a tv drama starring Tommy Lee Jones and Samuel L. Jackson and based on the play of the same name by Cormac MacCarthy. It features only two characters: Black and White (no prizes for guessing who plays who). The plot is simple: Black and White debate the meaning of life in Black’s room after the latter has prevented White from throwing himself in front of a train (the Sunset Limited of the title). Black turns out to be an ex-con Christian convert who dedicates his life to helping drug addicts and other down-and-outs; White is a disillusioned college professor suffering from complete ennui, fatigue and world-hatred.

This two-hour drama plays out with Black dominating proceedings for 95% of the time. He is a clever, witty, likeable guy who wholeheartedly believes in the message of Christian redemption and loving one’s fellows. He teases and cajoles White, but in a gentle and caring way, attempting to give him a reason to carry on living. MacCarthy works it so that we grow to like Black; he isn’t an annoying preachy evangelical and no matter how many times White attempts to leave the room Black persuades him to stay. As the tension builds we wonder whether White will have a conversion.

With about ten minutes to go, however, White rises to deliver his philosophy of life. No matter how persuasive or well-meaning Black may be, White cannot escape his vision of the world as a torture ground where day by day countless numbers are killed and slaughtered for no apparent reason. As an intelligent and sensitive man he is incapable of shutting his eyes to this reality, nor can he find any consolation in the Christianity of Black. He delivers his worldview in an eloquent and devastating speech that leaves Black flabbergasted and distraught by the depths of its pessimism and unflinching conviction. Black is incredulous that someone can view the world in the way White does: previously he had supposed that White was suffering from some personal trauma and had attempted to discover the details; now he realises that he is dealing with a different phenomenon altogether and he has no answer. White leaves the room (to commit suicide or not is left unspoken), and Black is left alone, devastated that the God he believes in was unable to inspire him to match the dark vision of White. The play ends.

One detail in White’s speech really struck me. He mentions briefly the difference between cumulative and reiterative suffering and how those who view life as a gift are wedded to the latter mode of thinking without being aware of it. In many ways, this difference strikes me as resting at the heart of the antinatalist vision and explains why that vision meets with such incredulity and hostility from its opponents. The latter attempt to digest antinatalism but are incapable of escaping their personal perspective and fundamental egotism. A common spiel is “Well sure, I’ve had some dark times and bad experiences, but on the whole I love my life and I want to keep on living for as long as I can. Why can’t you guys just chill out?” The pronatalist cannot or will not read the whole script; he only highlights his little role in it, assuming all the while that there exists a meaningful plot and satisfying denouement. Fundamentally he lacks empathy, or is afraid to attempt empathy for fear of what he may find.

By contrast, the antinatalist draws the camera back and adopts a god’s eye view. He or she surveys the entire scene in so far as is possible and sees nothing but a history of horror, woe and pointless suffering ever since the day the first biped got on its feet and smashed in the head of the first animal it encountered. Theirs is the cumulative perspective. They see that taken as a whole human life is going nowhere; only the illusion of the steadily progressive calendar and the number-worship of modern society creates that chimera. It is all for naught; worse than that, there is suffering and a pointless suffering at that. Why play the game? Why continue this sick joke designed by no one for no reason? Unfortunately the pronatalist can only see his or her own existence and regards life as fundamentally an ego-trip and private joyride with suffering as an inconvenience and the suffering of humanity as a whole as an irrelevance. Thus the wretched game plays on with only the Reaper to bring it to an end.