Comments on the book YOUNIVERSE by Robert Ettinger

Robert Ettinger‘s book Youniverse: Toward a Self-Centered Philosophy of Immortalism and Cryonics is a book containing many insights and deep thoughts, yet has such an informal writing style that many readers might not take it seriously. I know of no other work of philosophy in which the author begins a sentence with “Anyway,”. Ettinger writes that the first cryonics-related organization was founded “in 1962 or 1963, I forget which”, then says “Why don’t I look it up?” and justifies himself by reference to a Woody Allen movie. This is not the kind of writing one expects from a philosophy treatise.

Ettinger may not take himself too seriously, but he is even more dismissive of most of the world’s foremost philosophers and religious figures. The writings of Aristotle are called “ramblings”. In describing William James’s statement that James was only able to understand Hegel while under the influence of nitrous oxide, Ettinger notes how appropriate it is that nitrous oxide is also called laughing gas. Ettinger wrote that “Rousseau has been extravagantly praised, and not only by himself”, but dismisses Rousseau as unoriginal, incoherent, not profound, and frequently wrong. Ettinger describes the philosopher G.E. Moore as being “definitely confused as well as confusing, abounding in contradictions and non-sequiturs, sometimes substituting assertions for arguments.” Ettinger often seems himself guilty of the last accusation. He faults Isaac Asimov for the “absurdity” that without the “saving grace of death” the rigid views of the old would prevent further progress — but leaves a critique of Asimov’s argument “as an exercise for the reader”. Ettinger writes that “Paeans of praise have poured from the pens of platoons of panting pundits” concerning Godel’s Incompleteness theorem, which he dismisses as a linguistic trick associated with the failure of physics to correspond identically with formal (mathematical) systems. By finding the quote from Wittgenstein “I don’t know why we are here, but I am pretty sure that it is not in order to enjoy ourselves”, Ettinger has massively deflated my respect for the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. Ettinger describes the modern “self-styled bioethicist” as a “new type of vermin or parasite” whose major accomplishment has been to create “the illusion of looking down on people far above them.”

Ettinger wrote that “fear of God” is generally really fear of parents, neighbors, and a lifetime of conditioning. He says people too readily submit to tradition rather than use reason. To be “normal” is to have the same delusions as the neighbors. He says loyalty “is frequently a worthy habit”, but sometimes nothing more than an unjustified habit. Ettinger says faith is arrogant certainty in the absence of evidence, which ultimately “boils down to sacrificing your integrity for a bit of comfort”. To Ettinger it is obvious that non-human animals have consciousness and feelings, and that a God that disregarded the suffering of animals on the grounds that animals have no soul “would have less compassion than the average human”. Like many physicists, Ettinger seems accepting of the idea that time and the universe began with the Big Bang, but wonders where God would be before He created time and the universe. Ettinger can make no sense of an omniscient, omnipotent God creating people who need to live their lives to prove whether they deserve Heaven or Hell. Ettinger says that a benevolent God would forgive the skeptics, who should therefore have no reason to compromise their integrity and disbelief.

Ettinger’s irreverence extends to the legal system. Frequent use of appeals courts and split decisions in the Supreme Court are given as evidence that laws are unclear or that bias is pervasive. He describes juries as “ignorant, stupid and readily swayed by irrelevancies and by histrionics”. In connection with the adversarial system, Ettinger wrote “All lawyers are frightening, and specialty litigators are terrifying. Some firms are said to keep their lead litigators chained in a tower room and fed raw meat until needed.” I asked Mr. Ettinger what his beloved son (a lead litigator at a prestigious law firm) had to say about the law chapter, but I got no definitive response.

As the book title YOUNIVERSE implies, Ettinger believes that “me-first” and “feel-good” are the only possible basis for conscious motivation. He also states that a person ought to want whatever will maximize future “feel-good”, and that people do not always want what they ought to want. Ettinger believes that “figuring out what we ought to want is the primary problem of philosophy”. He says that a main aim of YOUNIVERSE is to debunk the views that values are arbitrary or externally given.

Ettinger challenges the claim of David Hume that “You can’t derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is'”, and — like Ayn Rand with her Objectivist Ethics — he does so by reference to values being rooted in biology. Ettinger disparagingly dismisses Rand’s views as narcissism, “me generation”, and “looking out for number one” without explaining how this differs from “me-first”. Rooted in biology, Rand makes survival the basis of her ethics, rather than “feel-good”. Ironically, Ettinger writes more approvingly of Nietzsche’s self-centeredness, although Ettinger faults Nietzsche’s belief in the importance of power over other people as a core value. (Ettinger notes that Nietzsche believed Russians and Jews, rather than Germans, would be the “master races” of Europe.)

I disagree with the arguments of Rand and Ettinger for deriving “ought” from biology. Biology dictates that animals value food and water, but many humans have committed suicide by refusing food and water. To assert that such people are “wrong” and did not do what they ought to have done would be attempting to externally impose values upon them. Ettinger could argue that such people were acting in such a way as to maximize their satisfaction — “me-first” and “feel-good” (he gives the examples of a woman rushing into a burning building to save her baby, or “saints” who gain personal satisfaction from ascetic service to others). But by that argument they were wanting what they ought to want. The point Ettinger seems to be making is that people should not allow others to impose their values upon them — should not be driven by guilt, social pressure, the need to conform. But if people are driven by these motives, they are nonetheless still maximizing their satisfaction. Ettinger might say that such people are acting without integrity by not being true to themselves, but why should people be blamed for valuing the opinions of others and for this being important to them? If it is “impossible to be motivated by anything other than self interest, because motivation means what is important to the self”, then the word “ought” is inappropriate. If “me-first” and “feel-good” are the only possible bases for conscious motivation, then the word “ought” is inappropriate. The only reason that people fail to want what they ought to want is because of matters of fact, not matters of value — people failing to appreciate the consequences of their actions in the context of their values.

The issue of determinism and free will is a subject about which I have thought, read, and written about considerably (see A Case for Free Will AND Determinism ), yet I found Ettinger’s chapter on this subject impressively thoughtful and informative. I mostly agree with Ettinger’s views, about which we are both very much in the minority. I won’t say much about the issues or insights I gained in the determinism chapter, but I will comment on how he applies determinism to cryonics. Ettinger notes that “determinism is very nearly equivalent to” conservation of information, which implies that any human who ever lived could be reconstructed without having been cryonically preserved — except that there may never be adequate computing power.

Although I can conceive of retaining my personal identity in the total absence of any memories that I have, I nonetheless find the idea hard to relate-to. I am even less comfortable about the idea that the essence of my personal identity is feeling. Ettinger has firmer opinions on these subjects than I do, but I sense that his emphasis on feeling as the essence of personal identity contradicts his admonishments about the use of reason against intuition, tradition, and conditioning.

Ettinger skims over the subject of ischemic damage in cryonics, and I think he is wrong to say that “cryothermic damage will in most cases be the most difficult to reverse”. Freezing damage is like broken pieces that are nonetheless intact, whereas ischemic damage is like dissolution or decomposition of structure. Nonetheless, I cannot quantify my argument in terms of “most cases”. I think Ettinger is wrong to cling to the word “immortality” as meaning “indefinitely extended life” when its literal meaning is “eternal life”. His use of the word “immortality” presents cryonics as an alternative to religion rather than an extension of medicine.

Although Ettinger acknowledges that death will mean an end to suffering, he sees a number of disadvantages, including
“…it’s hard to enjoy life when you’re dead.
…daisies are prettier when viewed from above.
…you can only vote in Chicago.
…you need extra strength deodorant.”
But mainly, “Life is better than death because it is more interesting.” (For my own views on the subject, see: Why Life Extension?)

In his lifetime of reading Ettinger has collected numerous notable quotes, and these gems are liberally sprinkled throughout YOUNIVERSE. Some of my favorites include “‘Love thy neighbor as thyself’ presupposes that you love yourself” (Miguel de Unamuno), “The greatest part of our happiness depends on our disposition, not our circumstances” (Martha Washington), and Will Rogers’s WWII suggestion for getting rid of German U-boats: “Boil the Atlantic Ocean. How do we do that? Hey, I’m just an idea man, I leave the details to the engineers.”

Ettinger also has a chapter called “Misunderstandings” which deals with his insights into a wide variety of subjects. Indicative of my “anti-intellectual” bias, is the fact that my favorite is Ettinger’s observation that torque (force X lever arm length) has identical units to work (newton-meters), despite the fact that work and torque are completely different. He offers no solution or explanation, however.

A consequence of Ettinger’s informal writing style is that there is much autobiographical material throughout YOUNIVERSE. But the last formal chapter (I am not counting the Appendix) is explicitly autobiographical. He says “I have perhaps a few thousand admirers, hardly any of whom give me much thought or attention”. Ettinger speaks of his loneliness in having experienced the loss of all his friends and family of his generation, and that there is nobody left whom he wants to impress. Indicative of Ettinger’s world-weariness is his quote of a comment made by his brother that all of life is “killing time and amusing oneself while waiting to die”.

Ettinger’s final comments concern his plan to have a pre-mortem “jolly wake” with music, speakers, toasts, and other festivities prior to a suicide intended to improve the conditions of his cryonic preservation. Ettinger notes earlier in the book that “many people are more afraid of seeming cowardly than of facing danger”, which is why suicide with an audience of friends and family would boost his courage. The last line of the chapter reads “If I never wake up, my last experience will have been better than most — a very brief comfort, to be sure.”

Although there are some cryonicists who believe that Robert Ettinger would be the perfect cryonicist to win sympathy for voluntary self-euthanasia to improve cryopreservation, I am not one of them. How can you justify voluntary euthanasia in a non-terminal person when there is no way of knowing how many years of life that person could be expected to live? How can you justify voluntary euthanasia for ANYONE not suffering from a terminal disease, or expect the public to be sympathetic to voluntary self-euthanasia under these conditions? Even for terminal cryonics patients, I would not be to eager to see a public association of cryonics with self-euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide. Cryonicists would be accused of taking advantage of mentally-compliant sick and elderly people for monetary reasons, which would lead to even more cryonics-unfriendly legislation.

And there are practical problems, not the least of which is the danger of autopsy. Many cryonicists, myself included, cling to life tenaciously — much more tenaciously than the average person. I would find it very difficult to euthanize myself or have myself euthanized. The ideal situation is when death is nearly certain to occur within a week. But this is the condition in which standbys are typically initiated, not the condition in which standbys fail to occur. Heart attack is a common cause of death, and this is most often unexpected. Most cryonicists who receive standby are people dying of cancer, and whose slide toward death is along a more predictable path. The ability of cancer victims to euthanize themselves would make the standby process easier, but that would have no effect on reducing the number of cryonicists who deanimate without standby, despite having arranged for standby. There are no convincing arguments that simplifying self-euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide will lead to the majority of cryonics cases having greatly improved cryopreservation by significantly reducing the number of cryonicists deanimating under unfavorable conditions.

Non-existence is hard to do

A review of  contemporary antinatalist writings

Originally published in Cryonics, 2nd Quarter, 2010 (PDF)

“Coming into existence is bad in part because it invariably leads to the harm of ceasing to exist.” David Benatar

If they could get a corpse to sit up on an operating table, they would jubilantly exclaim, “It’s alive!” And so would we. Who cares that human beings evolved from slimy materials? We can live with that, or most of us can.” Thomas Ligotti

The persistence of pessimism

When I sent out an email message soliciting contributions on the topic of philosophical pessimism and antinatalism one person declined with the reasonable response that such positions are only taken seriously by a handful of far-out philosophers. Humans have evolved to procreate and seek happiness. What is the point?

The reason why I have not been inclined to so easily dismiss the recent renaissance of philosophical pessimism is because negative and tragic views about life are woven throughout human history and culture. Most dominant religions have little positive to say about the state of humanity (after the fall) and the prospects for a life devoid of suffering on earth. Despite its relative sophistication, even Buddhism presents a picture of the universe as a source of suffering. Much can be said about pessimism but not that its influence is outside the mainstream.

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. This perhaps should not be surprising because, as a general rule, excessive thinking comes at the expense of sensual experience. One reason why many intellectuals are biased towards pessimism is because it provides them the opportunity to rescue us with their ideas. Antinatalism offers the triumph of Reason against existence itself; the ultimate triumph of the Intellectual.

Philosophical aversion to pessimism can be found among the finest thinkers in the history of philosophy. There is David Hume, the great empiricist thinker, and an amiable and optimistic person. Then there is Friedrich Nietzsche, who, despite a life of disease and isolation, recognized that pessimism is not an objective feature of the universe but the expression of a weak and oversensitive mind. The twentieth century witnessed a strong renaissance of the empiricism of David Hume in the form of logical positivism. These philosophers rightly abstained from putting forward a “philosophy of life,” but optimism about science and humanity’s potential is clear in their foundational writings. It is also interesting to note that the most recent forceful responses to pessimism have not come from professional philosophers but from libertarian economists who do not display the slightest intellectual embarrassment in claiming that life is getting better all the time.

In my opinion, the most obvious question that can be raised about philosophical pessimism is whether its supporting claims are factual descriptions of reality or just expressions of temperament. Another interesting question is whether philosophical pessimism necessarily obliges us to the antinatalist position. In seeking answers to these questions we turn to the literature of contemporary antinatalism.

Jim Crawford’s Confessions of an Antinatalist is a highly readable autobiographical exposition of antinatalism. Thomas Ligotti’s book The Conspiracy Against the Human Race is more ambitious in scope and contains a wealth of historical information on pessimism, discussions of modern science, and, not surprisingly, a review of the theme of pessimism in horror literature. David Benatar’s Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence is the most rigorous exposition of antinatalism to date. This book covers a lot of ground and I will confine myself to some of its main topics only.

The harm of coming into existence

In its purest form antinatalism may not be attainable but the framework that informs this position rests on a couple of sound premises: (1) we do not impose a harm (or withhold a benefit) by not bringing someone into this world; (2) we do impose a harm by bringing someone into the world when this person’s life will be bad. Jim Crawford believes that these premises are evident and I see little reason to dispute him. The real debate about antinatalism is how to determine that a person’s life is (or will be) bad, and how much consideration the interests of parents should be given.

One of the most problematic aspects about the work of Crawford and other antinatalists is that they have little patience for the argument that life is better than they think it is. In some passages it is hard to distinguish the antinatalist from the Marxist. If people think that life is much better than Crawford makes it out to be, the standard rejoinder is that these people suffer from a form of false consciousness (pessimists frequently use words like “truly” and “really”). In some passages this attitude borders on intolerance. A prime example can be found in Crawford’s discussion of childhood. For many people growing up was a period of great happiness and discovery. Crawford’s agitated dismissal of such accounts introduces an element of illiberalism in what is otherwise a humanistic endeavor. It is in these passages that antinatalism turns into bitter ideology.

The way the term “bias” is employed is deeply problematic. It is used as if there is an objective perspective that can reached were it not for those pesky evolutionary biases coming between the person and the universe. At times the author appears to be saying that if evolution did not select in favor of those wanting to survive we would not want to survive. This is not particularly helpful. Some of these “biases” do not cover up anything but just make us happier.

Let us assume here the metaphysical premise that there is an objective, material reality that can be known through the use of reason and empirical observation. This does not mean that there is one “correct” fit between an organism and the world. A person who is manically depressed perceives the world in a different matter than a person who is not. How we are “wired” and respond to our environment is not a matter of “correct” or “incorrect.” Thinking otherwise would be hard to reconcile with an evolutionary outlook in which life is just the outcome of random interactions of organic molecules.

One argument that remains available to the pessimist would be that the probability of creating a miserable life is too high to warrant procreation. But it is at this point that the “transhumanist” can enter the debate and claim that our expected quality of life is no longer just the outcome of a “random” evolutionary process but can be brought under rational control. We should endeavor to make happy children.

In my opinion, the short response to empirical pessimism can take the following form. Pleasure and pain are both part of existence. For some sentient beings pleasure outweighs pain, for other sentient beings pain outweighs pleasure. A moral agent cannot add up, subtract, or divide these elements for life as a whole to produce an objective quality-of-existence function. The antinatalist runs into the same problems as all the utilitarians and welfare economists who have tried to define a social utility function as a guide for public policy. As Thomas Ligotti notes in his book, “…the reason for the eternal stalemate between optimists and pessimists, is that no possible formula can be established to measure proportions and types of hurt and happiness in the world. If such a formula could be established, then either pessimists or optimists would have to give in to their adversaries.” I think that the best response available to the antinatalist would be to follow David Benatar’s example and present a strictly formal argument, or simply argue that in case of doubt, we should abstain from procreation.

Escape strategies

After spending the bulk of his book persuading the reader that life is suffering, Crawford discusses what he calls “Escape Strategies.” In his treatment of Buddhism as an escape strategy he could simply have made the obvious internal critique that desire may be sufficient, but not necessary for suffering. Crawford’s treatment of Christianity is scathing, which may indicate regret because the author himself was a Christian for awhile. Why have children if there is the prospect of eternal damnation? Good question, but I think that a Christian can respond by saying that following Scripture is more important than applying human morality to God’s creation.

The last escape strategy that Crawford reviews is hope, which turns into a discussion of futurism and transhumanism. The argument that many of those pursuing life extension will not be around to benefit from it is too simplistic. Unless the brain is completely destroyed at death, the neuro-anatomical basis of identity can be preserved at cryogenic temperatures for a very long time. No delusional expectations about the future are required. People in cryostasis have time. But then the author delivers a critique that I think deserves serious treatment by transhumanists (discussions about “friendly AI” do not exhaust this topic by any means). In a nutshell, we should not expect that technological progress will necessarily produce moral progress. And even if it will, accidents happen. Technologies that can be designed to produce great joy can be used to create great suffering as well. If humanity can manufacture hell without God, the case for pessimism and antinatalism may be strengthened.

Interestingly enough, the anticipation of such dark future technologies may present a (subconscious) obstacle for many people considering cryonics. Hundreds of millions of people believe in the craziest things like astrology and psychoanalysis, but only a handful of people (around 1500) have made cryonics arrangements. This lack of interest can  hardly be attributed to ignorance, and perhaps the most persuasive answer may be hidden in Crawford’s book. Cryonics basically forces people to deal with the question whether they would like to be “born again” in a far and unknown future. As a general rule, the answer seems to be “no.” Antinatalists may find additional ammunition for their position in studying the reasons for the low sign-up rate for cryonics.

Mahayana antinatalism

Antinatalists should expect a lot of obvious questions such as “are most people not glad to be alive?” or “why not kill yourself?” I fear that Crawford’s answer to the question “why not kill yourself?” risks undermining the orthodox antinatalist project. If empathic sensibility can make an enlightened antinatalist who wants to stick around it is arguable  that antinatalists should make an effort to remain alive in an effort to reduce the amount of (future) suffering in the universe. Antinatalists then become life extensionists. To use conventional Buddhist terminology, perhaps at some point there will be a Theravada version of antinatalism (focused primarily on non-procreation) and a Mahayana version of antinatalism (concerned with the elimination of the suffering of all sentient beings).

David Benatar runs into a similar problem when he ponders the question whether bringing new people into the world could be justified to reduce the suffering of the last remaining people. It seems to me that how an antinatalist deals with such practical moral issues depends on how the ethics of antinatalism is conceived. Do we have a “right” not to come into existence or is the objective of antinatalism to juggle with small and great suffering towards the ultimate end of its complete abolition?

If antinatalism is conceived as a strictly individualistic endeavor, concerns about the suffering of all humans can be easily dismissed. But in that case antinatalism would just collapse into individualist pessimism. Who cares about suffering, as long as it is not me! This is not the kind of sentiment that is generally found in antinatalist writings. I do not think that the question whether there might be moral reasons to remain alive, and, yes, bring into being forms of life that are benevolent but ruthless towards suffering, can be easily dismissed.

At one point Crawford observes that secular and smart people are having fewer children. This does not look good for the inevitable triumph of antinatalism. Under such scenarios antinatalism produces dysgenics, and if one believes that stupidity and evil go hand in hand, increased suffering for more people.

To me it is not unlikely that, in practice, antinatalism leads to more suffering because it will only be adopted by sympathetic human beings such as Crawford. The antinatalist cannot argue that the amount of suffering in the universe cannot be increased nor decreased. The whole point of antinatalism after all is that suffering can and should be decreased. But how to go about this may be more complicated than it appears. A sober assessment of the practical implications of antinatalism may require revision of the antinatalist position itself.

Confessions of an Antinatalist is a fine and humane book, but in the end it is also a book of the converted written for the non-converted. Thomas Sowell has noted that in economics there are no solutions but only trade-offs. I would not be surprised if antinatalists will come to a similar conclusion at some point.

Suffering without meaning

Thomas Ligotti is a contemporary horror writer whose fiction work  is marked by cosmic nihilism, alienation and the fragile nature of reality. As a great admirer of the work of Ligotti I have been reluctant to comment on his non-fiction. Fortunately, unlike many other artists, Ligotti has little interest in “critical theory” or “progressive” politics. His book The Conspiracy Against the Human Race: A Contrivance of Horror is not concerned with such trivial topics but with the bleak fate of humanity in a deterministic and indifferent universe.

The book starts off with an introduction by obscurantist philosopher Ray Brassier, whose work would certainly qualify for the description that Ligotti gives to Schopenhauer’s oeuvre (“too overwrought in the proving to be anything more than another intellectual labyrinth for specialists in perplexity”).

Reading Ligotti’s account of why humans reject truly bleak views about life it would be interesting to see how antinatalists respond to the existence of orthodox Calvinism. Accepting a universe without free will that is ruled by an omnipotent God who has decreed that the majority of people will suffer in hell for His self-glorification seems a lot more terrifying to me. Nonetheless, millions of people have accepted this theological perspective. The existence of Reformed theology lays to rest the view that humans have an intrinsic desire to avoid doctrines that are too terrible too contemplate.

When Ligotti discusses the work of antinatalist Peter Wessel Zapfe once more we find the view that there is an objective predicament of mankind that is hidden by false consciousness. It is remarkable to see the similarities between those who argue that we do not want look our “oppression” straight in the face and those who argue that we avoid coming to terms with the horror of existence. What  is often lacking here is the recognition that there is also a wealth of literature about human suffering that supports the idea that we would be happier if we did look nature straight in the face. No nonsense about “moral responsibility,” “sin,” “duty,” “the greater good” etc. Marquis de Sade, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Max Stirner are representatives of this school of thought.

What is intriguing about Ligotti’s book is that it reads like a rather delicate balancing act. On one hand, we have the detached observer (my favorite) who is bemused at the show business of both the optimists and pessimists. On the other hand, it is unmistakable that Ligotti feels affinity with the philosophers of cosmic horror and pessimism. His fiction does not leave much room for any other conclusion. But The Conspiracy Against the Human Race contains more than a few (unintended) suggestions how someone who declines to take sides would present his argument.

Hard determinism and the illusion of the self

I have a hard time relating to the Ligotti’s discussion about determinism and pessimism. Hard determinism (or hard imcompatibilism) is just a part of the “scientific worldview” and it is not obvious to me why it should be a source of despair. Ligotti then discusses the existence of the “self.” I am inclined to think there is an important difference between free will and the self. Modern science can make sense of the world and human action without assuming free will. I am  not convinced that this is possible if the concept of the self is rejected. Unlike free will, the recognition of a “self” comes at a later stage in evolution. It has been argued that primitive people could not clearly distinguish the self from its surroundings and thus were not able to discover the laws of physics and manipulate it to their benefit. The philosopher Hans Reichenbach developed a pragmatic case for the existence of the external world and the self in his seminal work Experience And Prediction: An Analysis of the Foundations And the Structure of Knowledge. Ultimately, the Kantian question whether something “really” exists (or what something “really” looks like) does not seem particularly helpful in the study of reality, as the early logical positivists of Vienna understood well.

Why would anything that neuroscientists discover about the self and how it is constructed be a source of dread? If you believe that life is just the result of random meetings of organic molecules, it stands to reason that the physical basis of consciousness and the self reflects such a process. Why would accepting such ideas make one a “heroic pessimist?” Why the pessimism at all? Ligotti even agrees. “One would think that neuroscientists and geneticists would have as much reason to head for the cliffs because little by little they have been finding that much of our thought and behavior is attributable to neural wiring and heredity rather than to personal control over the individuals we are, or think we are. But they do not feel suicide to be mandatory just because their laboratory experiments are informing them that human nature may be nothing but puppet nature. Not the slightest tingle of uncanniness or horror runs up and down their spines, only the thrill of discovery. Most of them reproduce and do not believe there is anything questionable in doing so.”

Ligotti also discussed transhumanism, but not in much depth. As a transhumanism skeptic myself, I found little to object to but it seems that Ligotti’s real target is what is called Singularitarianism. This part in the book seems something of a missed opportunity because there is substantial overlap between Ligotti’s fiction and themes that are discussed by transhumanist writers: living in a computer simulation, parallel universes, alternate realities etc.

When Ligotti reviews near-death experiences and ego-death, the common-sense neurological explanations that were invoked in discussions of free will and the self are largely absent (a notable exception is his discussion of the possibility that a brain tumor can cause such an “enlightened” state). For critical-care physicians it is a given that many people suffer (regional) cerebral ischemia during the dying process. As such, it is surprising (but encouraging) that not more people claim enlightenment after they recover. These periods of  transient oxygen deprivation can produce long term damage and a “re-wiring” of the brain, which can explain the new perspectives these people adopt. From a physicalist perspective, death of the ego is (partial) death of the brain, something one may or may not want to celebrate.

In Ligotti’s book the reason for pessimism is multi-factorial. It includes the lack of meaning in an indifferent universe, the reality of hard determinism, and the illusion of the self. The works of Benatar and Crawford are more restricted in scope and mostly focus on more mundane suffering. Ligotti’s philosophical horror is much richer, but I wonder how much of it will resonate with people who embrace a scientific view of the universe. The Conspiracy against the Human Race may not have been designed as an argument against “unweaving the rainbow” (to use Richard Dawkin’s useful phrase) but it sometimes reads like one.

There is a lot in Ligotti’s fine book that I have not discussed such as the extensive treatment of pessimism in horror fiction, loads of interesting philosophical and scientific references, plus illuminating discussions of obscure authors such as Peter Wessel Zappfe and Philipp Mainlander. As such, it can also be considered as an indispensable reference for philosophical pessimism and cosmic horror.

Empiricism and non-existence

David Benatar is a rigorous philosopher. His work can be situated in the analytic tradition and he makes an honest attempt to anticipate objections to his own views. When he argues for positions using mainly logical arguments he is quite persuasive. A being that does not exist can neither be harmed nor benefited. I cannot see how this argument (or  tautology?) can be successfully refuted. But when Benatar attempts to argue that the quality of life of most people is much worse than they think it is, multiple challenges arise. I do not think this is the result of Benatar’s poor reasoning but because the fields that he relies on – evolution, social psychology, happiness research and the study of cognitive biases – are notorious for allowing competing views. It seems to me that ultimately Benatar cannot escape the charge that he pays excessive attention to theories that claim that we think we are happier than we really are. Perhaps I have spent too much time in the wrong subculture but it seems to me that the phenomenon of people claiming to be less happy than they really are should not be ignored either.

Like Crawford, Benatar cannot completely escape the charge of illiberalism. Classical liberalism takes very seriously the challenges in reaching satisfactory conclusions about the quality of other people’s lives. In practice this means that we exercise restraint in making strong cognitive and moral claims about the feelings and preferences of other people. This is a mindset that does not seem to come easily to antinatalists. Benatar is on more agreeable ground when he simply derives his antinatalism from uncertainty; “some know that their baby will be among the unfortunate. Nobody knows, however, that their baby will be one of the allegedly lucky few.”

Benatar believes that even if his empirical argument about the poor quality of our lives fails, his formal argument from asymmetry is still left standing. He thinks that even if there is one single painful pinprick in an otherwise good life, we still harm that person by bringing him into existence. I think that Benatar is “proving” too much here. We can agree that anyone who conceives a child cannot escape the prospect that this person will experience some harm. But from this it does not follow that the person is harmed in a meaningful moral sense without considering the expected overall quality of that life. Perhaps Benatar would respond that I have not understood his argument, and I will admit that I have a difficult time understanding why the possibility that a person’s pleasures are expected to outweigh the pains do not alter his argument. I think that both bringing into existence a life that is invariably good and a life that is generally good can be morally defended on the grounds that there will not be any post-natal moral objections from the person involved. Of course, we are not morally obliged to do so, because we will not deprive the unborn of such a good life if we don’t have children. But since most parents have a positive interest in having children, in practice this tips the scales in favor of some (but not all!) procreation. One problem I can see with my argument is that it might permit the creation of a life form that would experience great suffering but with an unalterable survival instinct and no cognitive possibility of moral blame or regret. Some antinatalists might even claim that this is a rather accurate description of the human race as it exists today.

As an empiricist, I generally give the benefit of doubt to empirical observations when they appear to conflict with logical reasoning. I think that this preference itself can be justified on historic and pragmatic grounds. The claim that coming into existence is always a harm is not consistent with the reports of all those who have come into existence. That seems to be a non-trivial epistemological roadblock for antinatalism.

When Benatar discusses the moral duty not to have children he runs into the obvious problem of how the interests of the parents should be weighed against the interests of the child. One does not need to be an ethical egoist to believe that the interests of the parents count for something. In this case the question returns to how bad the life of most people is and, as discussed, this is a rather vulnerable part of antinatalism. Benatar attempts to answer the obvious objection that most people who have been born do not regret this or blame their parents. But when I read his thoughts on “indoctrination” I only see further evidence of the anti-liberalism in his writings.

In fairness to Benatar (who seems to identify himself as a liberal of some sorts), he does defend the legal right to procreation because he admits that there can be reasonable disagreement about his views. I think this point is particularly important for antinatalism since reasonable objections often come from the very people whose lives Benatar characterizes as very bad. That is not to deny that society can choose to be less supportive of people who engage in reckless procreation. Such behavior can be substantially decreased by withholding benefits that encourage or reward such behavior. Benatar correctly argues that if one subscribes to a consistent interpretation of the Kantian argument that future people should not be treated as means, then all reproduction is morally dubious. But whether that highlights the virtues or defects of Kant’s ethics I leave to the reader to ponder.

Benatar highlights the importance of making a distinction between the decision to bring someone into existence and the decision to continue life. Even if we commit to the idea that it is better never to have been we can still have reasons for wanting to continue life. As a matter of fact, Benatar entertains the argument that the prospect of death itself is one of the reasons why existence is bad. Those who follow Epicurus believe that death cannot be experienced and thus cannot be a bad thing for the person. This is an extremely difficult argument to refute, but Benatar’s discussion of this topic is quite illuminating because he points out that those who hold this position may also have to commit to the view that death can never be good for a person. One only needs to imagine a person whose life is one of continuous suffering to see that this is not a plausible argument.

As an academic Benatar is less hostile to religion than Crawford and Ligotti but I do not think he can successfully escape the objection that antinatalism requires an atheist perspective. One does not have to be a scripturalist to note that Benatar is only concerned with the fate of humans and not with the interests of God. Perhaps Benatar cannot see any positive value in human suffering because his information about Creation is incomplete. Theodicies that reconcile the existence of God and the existence of Evil are not difficult to generate. As Plotinus has observed, “We are like people ignorant of painting who complain that the colours are not beautiful everywhere in the picture: but the Artist has laid on the appropriate tint to every spot.”

Antinatalists and life extensionists

One would think that cryonicists and life extensionists should be repulsed by antinatalism. I think such a view would be mistaken. All the antinatalist authors discussed here are motivated by empathy for the suffering of all sentient life. We should also welcome the analytical and physicalist perspectives that underpin their writings. Too much (Continental) philosophy is simply an insult to the intellect and a waste of time. If a case should be made for pessimism it needs be stated in a form that is amenable to reasoned debate and empirical investigation.

Of more specific interest to life extensionists is the plausible prospect that our abilities to decrease suffering will (necessarily?) be matched by our abilities to increase suffering too. This is a possibility that should be studied in great detail by advocates of molecular nanotechnology, strong AI, and Substrate Independent Minds.

It is no secret that cryonicists are underperforming in terms of reproduction. But as Howard V. Hendrix discusses in the article “Dual Immortality, No Kids: The Dink Link between Birthlessness and Deathlessness in Science Fiction,” this may not be a coincidence. If biological immortality becomes a credible option, having children as a substitute for personal survival will lose much of its appeal.

Most rewarding for cryonicists is the unique perspective that antinatalists can bring to the debate concerning why so few people have made cryonics arrangements. The hostility of many people towards cryonics cannot be explained if people categorically believe that  meaningful resuscitation (revival) is impossible. It is the prospect that cryonics may actually work that induces severe anxiety. If the antinatalists are correct in their assessment that coming into existence is always a harm, the unpopularity of cryonics might be indirect evidence for their position.

I want to close this review with one word of advice to those who engage in debates with antinatalists. Most antinatalists waste little time reminding their readers how controversial their ideas are. They think that they have uncovered the greatest taboo of all time. As an empirical matter, this is doubtful. Antinatalist ideas can be freely discussed in modern Western countries, something that cannot be said about a number of other controversial ideas. Antinatalists are also quick to point out that their pessimism should not be dismissed as an expression of weakness and depression. But then the antinatalists commit a similar error by too easily viewing optimism as a defense mechanism or a form of bias. But is it completely unreasonable to look for the neurophysiologic and genetic basis of pessimism and optimism? The uncompromising naturalism in the work of the antinatalists  supports such an inquiry.

Jim Crawford: Confessions of an Antinatalist (Nine Banded Books 2010)

Thomas Ligotti: The Conspiracy Against the Human Race: A Contrivance of Horror (Hippocampus Press 2010)

David Benatar: Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence (Oxford University Press 2006)

Thanks to Dr. Michael Perry for discussing some of the topics in this review and proofreading an earlier version of this document.

Edward O. Wilson's Consilience

Sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson believes that a major reason why the social sciences have made so little progress is that its practitioners have ignored the biological basis of human behavior. He is not impressed with arguments that purport that the complexities of human behavior cannot be reduced to more elemental physical principles as embodied in modern neuroscience and biochemistry. Wilson recognizes that his view on the unification of the sciences carriers forward the logical positivist ideal of the Unity of Science. In his book Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge he writes:

Logical positivism was the most valiant concerted effort ever mounted by modern philosophers. Its failure, or put more generously, its shortcoming, was caused by ignorance of how the brain works.

The canonical definition of objective scientific knowledge avidly sought by the logical positivists is not a philosophical problem nor can it be attained, as they hoped, by logical and semantic analysis. It is an empirical question that can be answered only by a continuing probe of the physical basis of the thought process itself.

Wilson is basically saying that logical positivism was not empiricist enough, a view that was anticipated by the logical empiricist Hans Reichenbach in his seminal work Experience And Prediction: An Analysis of the Foundations And the Structure of Knowledge.

On the tension between religious and scientific  perspectives of the world he writes:

The human mind evolved to believe in the gods. It did not evolve to believe in biology. Acceptance of the supernatural conveyed a great advantage throughout prehistory, when the brain was evolving. Thus it is in sharp contrast to biology, which was developed as a product of the modern age and is not underwritten by genetic algorithms. The uncomfortable truth is that the two beliefs are not factually compatible. As a result those who hunger for both intellectual and religious truth will never acquire both in full measure.

Remnants of such supernatural thinking are still with us today when we exempt humans from physical reality and attribute agency and free will to them.

Wilson is sensitive to the scenario that defective or disadvantageous genes increase and persist in modern human life but he believes that such a course of events will be relatively short-lived as humanity will master and embrace human genetic engineering. On the use of such technologies he writes:

I predict that future generations will be genetically conservative. Other than the repair of disabling defects, they will resist hereditary change. They will do so in order to save the emotions and epigenetic rules of mental development, because these elements compose the physical soul of the species. The reasoning is as follows. Alter the emotions and epigenetic rules enough, and people might in some sense be “better,” but they would no longer be human. Neutralize the elements of human nature in favor of pure rationality, and the result would be badly constructed, protein-based computers. Why should a species give up the defining core of its existence, built by millions of years of biological trial and error?

His reconciliation of human enhancement and cultural incrementalism is reminiscent of the “conservative transhumanism” of the biologist Alexis Carrel.

Free will versus determinism as it relates to cryonics

Excerpt from “Ben Best – A Case for Free Will AND Determinism”

Determinism implies materialism — implies that consciousness is material. Cryonics is based on the premise that the preservation of the fine structure of the brain at low temperature will preserve the self — ie, that the self is entirely determined-by and contained-in the physical brain. Determinism would imply that preservation of the material basis of mind/self is theoretically possible. (For an exploration of how the self is encoded in the brain, see my series The Anatomical Basis of Mind. Development of the anatomical argument to explain the functioning of mind is best summarized in Chapter 8, Neurophysiology and Mental Function.)

Defenders of “free will” who say that the self has a spiritual basis independent of the brain often reject cryonics as being unnecessary. There are a few “spiritually” oriented people (like the Fyodorovians) who think that “resurrection of the body” is essential due to an intimate connection between the body and the “soul”, but these are in the minority. The majority of cryonicists do not accept spiritual beliefs, but there are notable exceptions, namely people who regard cryonics as a form of medicine. If cryonics can extend life, it is no more an affront to spiritual belief than other life-extending practices such as exercise and the avoidance of tobacco.

What about anti-determinist materialists who believe in “free will”? Those, like Roger Penrose, who claim that the mind is ultimately rooted in quantum uncertainty might not accept the possibility of biostasis, but Penrose has made no explicit statement about this subject. Penrose writes of the non-computability of mind, but acknowledges that non-predictability does not equate with “free will”.

Predictability is really at the heart of what is required for cryonics. If the mechanical operation of billions of neurons and trillions of synapses result in the phenomena known as the mind, the Self and the Will, then preservation & restoration of this machinery by cryonicists & nanotechnologists is possible in principle. But this also means that human beings are machines whose future actions are, in principle, entirely predictable. The positive side of this is that understanding the machinery in sufficient detail could provide the basis for reconstructing those aspects of the mind (parts of the brain) that were destroyed beyond recognition or repair. The negative side is that many people find it “dehumanizing” to believe that we are nothing but machines.

The proposition that the self/mind has a complete material basis in the mind has practical implications for cryonics, but also raised baffling questions. If it is possible to use a cryopreserved brain as a template for atom-by-atom reconstruction of a new brain, the identity of the person whose brain was cryopreserved would presumably be restored. But if such reconstruction could be done once, there is no reason why it could not be done hundreds of times. Would each reconstruction have the same personal identity (the same self) as the original? (For more detail on this question, see my essay The Duplicates Paradox).