Monday, 27 June 2011

The Dehumanisation of the Species

The belief that ultimate knowledge will bring ultimate freedom still prevails in the discourse of western intellectuals today. In spite of all the lessons of history since the beginning of the Enlightenment, a faith in the liberating power of science still forms the mythical undercurrent of liberal society. In part, this may be attributed to the innate mechanism of the human mind that filters out any knowledge or perceptions that lead to inertia or negative conclusions. The majority of people are fundamentally blinkered and the dead do not speak, so the human carnival can continue on its rickety path, ignoring the slew of corpses in its wake.

Yet if one examines clinically the course of history since the Industrial revolution there appears very little to be proud of. The evolution of warfare has lead to forms of human brutality previously inconceivable; the 20th century was the most violent in the history of the species; the dropping of the atom bomb was a new low point in ethics and we are now faced with the unavoidable development of genetic warfare, surely the lowest form of activity that can be conceived. Ponder for a moment what the last mentioned item means: in the not too remote future, governments will possess weapons that will be able to alter your DNA and send you spiralling into paralysis and agony. And yet the cries of progress and liberation continue.

To what may we attribute such delusion? Apart from the aforesaid tendency of the human mind to disregard displeasing information, we can also see in the writings of the popularisers of science an unwillingness to confront the famous fact/value distinction. The conclusion that no readily apparent course of action can be easily inferred from complete knowledge seems to be a reality that scientists, for all their talk about being fearless truth-seekers, cannot face. The practitioners of today’s enlightenment are in the grip of the groundless conviction that once we know all, all will be well. Yet they cannot grasp the real fact that the majority of people regard the boundless grasp of science as a threat and a source of deep personal and existential anxiety.

Free will is gradually, but almost imperceptibly being eroded as a concept. Monitor the newspapers and you will see that a frequent headline theme is one conveying the information that a genetic cause has been discovered for every form of human disposition, modality and preference that exists. Scientists are mapping the human machine in every last nuance and detail in what amounts to a renaissance in Cartesianism.

Descartes infamously believed that animals were but machines: they did not possess free will; they had no soul; they were not marked by the grace of God’s imprimatur and therefore they merited no ethical consideration. The only thing in Descartes’s metaphysics that prevented humans from sliding into the same category was a belief in a transcendental, ethically benevolent deity that had bestowed humans with the possibility of choosing between good and evil.

Today, and in spite of every last sophistical turning of Theologians, woolly agnostics and purveyors of religion-as-ritual, the progress of science has discredited the concept of God. As a consequence, there now exists no metaphysical wall that prevents us from falling into the same category as Descartes’s animal machines. The constant revelation of genetic determinism only speeds up this natural reclassification. In warfare the rights of the individual are non-existent. The flouting of the Geneva convention, the use of anonymous drone warfare, unilateral assassinations and the concept of “collateral damage” all constitute proof that the era of the rights-bearing individual is over. We are now viewed as machines, and like all machines we are judged in terms of functionality. And the prevailing discourse of human functionality today is economics.

If you do not contribute to the accumulation of Capital, GDP, GNP, tax revenue and so on, you are considered first and foremost as a problem. The prevalence of economic value as an all-encompassing determinant of human worth can in part be traced back to the triumph of the statistical and calculative mode of thought that made the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution possible. What can be measured is what is real; only what is visible is true. Newtonian mechanics, Cartesian rationalism and the triumph of the mercantile class have over the past four centuries led to the degradation of the individual, the withering of any non-monetary conception of human value and the defilement of the earth to serve the god of “productivity”. Progress or a blind drift into the abyss? Be glad you only have to live once.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Work and I

I’ve spent a lot of my life avoiding work, and believe me it’s a full-time job. Well before I arrived at my antinatalist position, I knew there was something seriously wrong with work. In school, I couldn’t really grasp the concept. People spending their entire lives doing the same thing over and over again, for no appreciable reason. Was that it? You were supposed to grow up and assume some role and stay there for the entirety of your days. I just couldn’t get my head around it. Unlike every other kid in the school, whenever I was asked what I wanted “to be” when I grew up I couldn’t answer and just made up something on the spot. Aged nearly 35, nothing has changed.

I managed to avoid work until I was 19. I had dropped out of university, finding the whole thing a pretty insipid and uninspiring experience. I was mouldering at home, when a do-gooder uncle of mine decided this was unacceptable and got me a job in a local supermarket. I had no way of avoiding his horrible “philanthropy” and dutifully dragged my ass in to the shopping centre where this place was for an introductory meeting with my boss. She was a fully paid-up drone, astonished by my bare CV and asked me if I fancied stacking shelves or working behind the counter in the deli. The latter looked like my version of hell, so I naively asked for the stacking job. It didn’t look so bad: straightforward and all you had to do was stack items; only rarely did it seem you were approached by the public.

The following Monday I went into this modern-day gulag to be told I was working in the deli. I couldn’t believe it. The bitch had stitched me up! I was brought in and told to put on the ridiculous uniform: apron, hat, gloves. I never felt so trapped in my life. The atmosphere of the staff was one of total servitude. It was October, but the sole topic of conversation was the Christmas staff outing to a nearby town for a night out. I couldn’t believe it. This was what they were looking forward to? Jesus Christ! Matters wern’t helped by hating having to serve the public. I knew I had to get out. After another day of this slow-motion nightmare, I decided enough was enough. I went to the doctor, feigned depression (although after the supermarket maybe it wasn’t faked) and got a sick-note. A permanent one, of course.

Around a year later, I was under pressure to do something and so went back to college. I had a great time for the next two years, delighted to be away from the work-police for another while. When graduation came, I enrolled for a Master’s degree. At the time it was from genuine interest, but I also knew that I was desperate to avoid the 9-5. I did get a summer job in the cataloguing section of the university library, which was my first dose of office work. The tedium, the non-variety and the inevitable politics were stultifying. The job was only four hours a day but was still torture. I left after a couple of months.

A few months later I was down to my last ten quid, and something had to be done. A friend of mine with a similar disposition had taken a job in security, informing me that it wasn’t so bad if you got a cosy lock-in night job where you were free to read. I applied and was accepted. After a couple of crappy numbers, I got a relatively tolerable gig in a hospital where you had to walk the grounds once an hour. The rest of the time I could read. The only risky point was when a junky with a needle threatened me, but I managed to talk him into calmness. The worst gig came when I was dragged into a bookmaker’s after the guard there had walked out. I quickly realised why. It was one of the most miserable 10 hours of my life. Standing at the door of a bookies, watching the same people frittering away a few quid at a time on the horses and the dogs. There were some guys there who didn’t leave the place for the whole time I was there. Truly grim.

One MA became two, and then the inevitable Ph.D. By now, I knew I was just using college as a refuge from “reality”. 9-5, family life, Sunday roasts and all the rest of it just didn’t appeal, to put it mildly. I also knew that most people in the academic racket were there simply because it appealed as a lifestyle choice, but they tried to dress it up as something noble and humanistic. They were furthering “scholarship” and advancing toward the light. In reality, they fancied the long holidays, high pay, perks, conferences abroad, having the attention of fawning female undergrads and all the rest of it. Sure, there were one or two genuine scholars, but the vast, vast majority of people there were just hanging around in order to avoid the work grind. I didn’t have a problem with that: I just wanted the posers to be honest about it.

Inevitably, I dropped out of the Ph.D, not being able to subscribe fully to the cult of academia. You can bluff it there for a while, but the higher you go the more bullshit there is to swallow, and only the real egomaniacs survive. After that I worked in a couple of libraries. I did a stint in a public library, which was actually worse than the academic variety. I was in a snobby part of town, where the locals fancied themselves to be the equivalent of the Mayfair or Central Park set. The lack of manners and general ignorance of the people who came in there was genuinely shocking. To make it worse, the local mothers used the place as a crèche for their screaming spawn, a perfect storm for a by-now convinced antinatalist! I left one evening and didn’t return. The following day I disconnected the landline, turned off my mobile phone and drank in the silence and solitude like it was the nectar of the gods.

In the meantime, I’ve gotten by on freelance writing and Welfare. I’m not ashamed of the latter. If it’s there, take it. You didn’t ask to be born and you’ve been thrown into a nest of vipers and rattlesnakes determined to enslave you, so why not avail of it if it’s on offer. Those who talk about work being “virtuous” are either brainwashed idiots or glory-hunting egomaniacs. In the meantime, life revolves around avoiding two horrifying things: procreation and 9-5.

Monday, 6 June 2011

The Pollyannism of Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins, probably the world’s best known scientist, on the suffering of the world:

“The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the minute that it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive, many others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear, others are slowly being devoured from within by rasping parasites, thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst, and disease. It must be so. If there ever is a time of plenty, this very fact will automatically lead to an increase in the population until the natural state of starvation and misery is restored. In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won't find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference."

Powerful words, worthy of Ecclesiastes, Schopenhauer, Cioran and all of the other great sages of darkness. And, of course, to those who aren’t blinkered, all perfectly true. The only quibble, and a notable one, is the limiting of the description to the natural world. Anyone who doesn’t have their head in the sand and even glances only occasionally at a newspaper or news channel sees that the above applies equally, if not more so, to the human world.

Given such a horrible picture it would appear obvious and eminently rational that one would react with horror, distress and disgust at such a tapestry of misery and suffering. After all, who would embrace such an existence or world if they were offered it beforehand, or even affirm its worth finding themselves thrown into it? Given that Professor Dawkins prides himself on his rationality and his tireless combat against what he perceives to be mindless superstitions, we would be justified in expecting a reaction of horror and outrage. But no; instead we get this:


“We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton.”

And this:

“We as individuals are still hugely blessed. Privileged, and not just privileged to enjoy our planet. More, we are granted the opportunity to understand why our eyes are open, and why they see what they do, in the short time before they close for ever.”

And then the poetry:

“After sleeping through a hundred million centuries we have finally opened our eyes on a sumptuous planet, sparkling with colour, bountiful with life. Within decades we must close our eyes again. Isn't it a noble, an enlightened way of spending our brief time in the sun, to work at understanding the universe and how we have come to wake up in it? This is how I answer when I am asked -- as I am surprisingly often -- why I bother to get up in the mornings. To put it the other way round, isn't it sad to go to your grave without ever wondering why you were born? Who, with such a thought, would not spring from bed, eager to resume discovering the world and rejoicing to be a part of it?”

Hmmmm, hard to see how such celebrations of life follow from the first quotation. Let’s try a little experiment here: given that scientists such as Dawkins are always espousing the values of consistency, logic, the banishing of subjective emotions from the judgement process, the condemnation of religion as being no more than wish-fulfilment and so on, it shouldn’t be unreasonable to mix and match Dawkins’s statements and expect a coherent whole to emerge. Here we are:

I tried to convey how lucky we are to be alive, given that the vast majority of people who could potentially be thrown up by the combinatorial lottery of DNA will in fact never be born. For those of us lucky enough to be here, we live in a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, where some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won't find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. After sleeping through a hundred million centuries we have finally opened our eyes on a sumptuous planet, sparkling with colour, bountiful with life: during the minute that it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive, many others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear, others are slowly being devoured from within by rasping parasites, thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst, and disease.
Isn't it sad to go to your grave without ever wondering why you were born? We as individuals are still hugely blessed. Privileged, and not just privileged to enjoy our planet. More, we are granted the opportunity to understand why our eyes are open, and why they see what they do, in the short time before they close for ever, namely that the universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference. Who, with such a thought, would not spring from bed, eager to resume discovering the world and rejoicing to be a part of a universe where the total amount of suffering per year in that world is beyond all decent contemplation?

Ah yes, pass the straitjacket please....