The “Falling Due” of the Self

The event of a human being beginning to exist is one which has been occurring over and over for many millennia. But is it determined (and if so, how) that an individual should begin to exist at one particular point in time? Clearly, each individual was “due” at some particular point in time or other. Our organisms are strongly determined by the genes of our parents and forefathers. Partially, our psyche is genetically determined along with these organisms. But what is it that explains the fact that each of us began to exist, precisely at the time of his or her falling “due”, AS THIS PARTICULAR EXPERIENCING BEING? If the combination of genes is so decisive, why did I “fall due” specifically with this combination and not with some other, at some point in the past or in the future?

Parental Revision (Symbolic Revocation of Burdening by Parents)

Parents impose upon their children not only the world but also themselves, the parents. “Properly raised” children must face the prospect of having to care for fragile or terminally ill parents. Without being able to offer proof of such things here, we must suppose the existence of exclamations in which parents, when it becomes clear to them what a burden they must necessarily become to their children, revoke and rescind this burdening obligation, for example with the words: “Oh if only I had not burdened my offspring with my own self” – something which amounts to an embracing of the antinatalist position.   

Paradox and Significance of Concluding or Culminating Experience

Retrospectively, we often tend to judge unpleasant experiences persisting over long periods much less negatively than one might expect in light of an evaluation of the aggregated negative experiences. As experimental psychology has shown, this is especially the case when the concluding or culminating experience in such a series is a positive one, or at least brings with it an improvement of the general situation.

Clearly, it would be paradoxical to want to apply this lesson about “concluding experience” to the life of an individual. Because with regard to a whole life the person concerned will always, at the moment of such a “concluding experience”, have ceased to exist and will have no more to report to us. Let us nonetheless mount a thought experiment whereby one might, even after the onset of an irreversible cerebral collapse, continue to communicate, as some sort of “post-mortal consciousness”, before ceasing to exist even in this form. We might then ask, in the knowledge that a life’s “concluding experience” exerts such a significant influence, a large number of such “post-mortal consciousnesses” to evaluate the lives that lie behind them. What would they tell us? To the extent that it is the case that a “peaceful going to sleep” at the end of a human life is a myth or a rare exception, the “concluding experience” of the great majority of such “post-mortal consciousnesses” will surely have been a terrible one (>Catastrophe of Dying) So that, under such circumstances, such consciousnesses would come to a negative conclusion about their past lives even if these lives had been, in general, only lightly burdened with suffering.

What does this thought-experiment tell us? In the first place it functions, in accordance with >Ovid’s Rule, as a corrective to that general contentment with life that is to be observed all around us and that draws on the proverbial wisdom that “on rain there always one day follows sunshine”. With death, the sun goes down once and for all – and goes down, indeed, for most of us in a very painful way. If one were to question, then, such “post-mortal consciousnesses” they too would draw the very likely negative experience of dying into the general judgment passed on life and thereby undermine the possibly positive judgments passed by those for whom “sunshine” has indeed often followed “rain”.

>Diktat of the Recollecting Self

Paradises as Compensation-Institutions

On account of their >Deficit of Narrativity we find paradises portrayed less concretely than we do hells. The productive imaginative powers of the species seem to have made a pact rather with evil than with any state of joy.

 

Metaphysics as Insurance-Institution

In the course of, and after the exhaustion of, the religious it is metaphysics that serves as the bearer of hope that the existence of human beings might be equipped with a moral imperative capable of prompting to the perpetuation of that long history of suffering that this existence has hitherto been. There should be recalled here that dictum of Max Scheler’s whereby “metaphysics is no insurance-institution for weak human beings in need of moral support.” (Die Stellung des Menschen im Kosmos, p. 92) Scheler said this against the background of his metaphysics of a human struggle and collaboration in the process of the creation of a God not yet brought to full completion. Without the support of such a metaphysics, however – and this is something that Scheler neglected to consider – the moral imperative grounding Man’s continued existence implodes and undergoes, in the absence of any mechanism compensating for suffering, an inversion into an imperative that rather forbids the generation of any new human beings.

Presence of Panempathy

Classic bearers of panempathy are the Jains, who light no lamps in the dark so that small insects are not burned by them, or the bodhisattvas as they are portrayed in Mahayana Buddhism: enlightened individuals who choose to delay their own entry into nirvana until every suffering being on earth has been redeemed.

 

Eich, Günter (1907–1972)

A rare example, and advertisement, for panempathy is the following poem by Günter Eich, “Consider, that Man is an enemy to Man”:

“Consider, that Man is an enemy to Man / And that he thinks constantly of annihilation. / Consider this constantly, consider it now / During a moment in April / Under this overcast sky / When you believe you hear growth as a fine rustling / And the maidens cut thistles / amidst the songs of the larks / In this moment too consider this! / Consider that, after the hours of great destruction / Everyone will prove that he was not among the guilty ones. / Consider that Korea and Bikini lie nowhere upon the map / But rather in your heart. / Consider that you yourself are guilty of all the terrible things / That happen far away from you.” (Günter Eich, GW, Bd. 1: Die Gedichte – Die Maulwürfe, p. 220f)

If the Categorical Imperative, at least from the moment of Auschwitz onward, has to run: “Every one of your actions must be such as to be able to be accompanied by the thought of Auschwitz”, Eich’s poem can be read as a “postlapsarian” exegesis of this imperative and the question be asked: ‘How can, where what is evoked in this poem is borne in mind, new human beings be begotten?’

 

Wells, H. G. (1866–1946)

A presence of panempathy directed toward the past is to be found in H. G. Wells. In his novel Mr Britling Sees It Through, first published in 1916 in the middle of the First World War, Wells has the eponymous protagonist, drifting off into recollections of his readings in Gnostic literature, articulate the idea:

“Life had a wrangling birth. On the head of every one of us rests the ancestral curse of fifty million murders.” (Mr. Britling Sees It Through, p. 290)[1]. Was the beginning of our existence really worth this price? Would each of us not rather have to exclaim: “Looking backward, I symbolically renounce the beginning of my existence – and each human being ought to do the same if it is really the case that millions of murders might have been prevented had everyone done so – our raison d’être is a folie d’être; looking forward, this can only mean to take one’s distance from it and to beget new human beings on the backs of an unknown number of future victims of murder.”  

>Neganthropy-Profiteers

[1] The number proposed may be a little high, if one takes into account that some 100 billion human beings have existed up to this point.

Panempathy Deficiency and Apathy Regarding the Suffering of the Species

Generally speaking, parents and parents-to-be display generative àRuthlessness, or at least a conscious resistance to all anticipative neganthropic imagination (that counterpart to historical culture that, as a variation of productive imagination, is directed rather into the future), which latter should make them aware that, through the progeny that they generate, they create a chain, the length of which it is impossible to foresee, of successive, ramifying generations, among whom, sooner or later, certain unspeakably suffering individuals will necessarily arise.

Parents, furthermore, have before their eyes the (short-lived) happiness of their own children and put out of their minds all the negative aspects for which they, the parents, are the decisive causal factor. With respect to humanity at present and in future, there predominates a definite apathy vis-à-vis the sufferings of the species.

Panempathy

Characteristic particularly of those religious movements indigenous to or emerging out of India, and quite especially of Jainism, is an extremely high degree of “panempathy”: i.e of empathic sympathy with all those suffering beings who have come into existence without being asked or desiring to. Indian spirituality goes out to meet each living being with a gesture of pity and regret:   ‘unfortunately you exist; may you cease to exist without having to be born and die once again; may those concatenations of cause and effect which reach back deep into the past and stretch forward into an unforeseeable future not manifest themselves,  once again, as a being susceptible of suffering.

Antinatalism is the secular consummation of the religious aspiration to quit the cycle of birth and rebirth. Instead of being born again, and then dying again (regardless of the various different conceptions of the soul with which these may be associated) antinatalist moral theory argues rather for simply ceasing to forge new links in the àChain of Procreations.

An example of the occidental form of panempathy is provided by Chateaubriand’s story “René”, the protagonist of which does not allow himself to be blinded by the light of the world: “Looking at the lights blazing in people’s apartments, I transposed myself mentally into the world of pains and joys that they illuminated.” (Chateaubriand, Atala)

Optimism

Optimism is a form of mobilisation of our mental and psychological resources which is most likely not just philosophico-cultural but actually bionomic (>Diktat of the Recollecting Self) and which acts as a kind of buffer protecting us from any close contact with reality. If this psychological option of optimism had not existed, would procreation not have become a deeply problematical thing at least to those human beings who have, in the centuries since the Enlightenment, been deprived of any prospect of a “world beyond”?  But in accordance with what might be called the basically optimistic attitude the future is expected to be not just as good as the present but far better than it. Where this attitude is applied to the individual it results in the widespread tendency to imagine that oneself and one’s immediate milieu are immune to all strokes of ill fortune. People tend generally to underestimate the probability that they will become unemployed, fall ill with cancer, or give birth to only moderately intelligent children. In view of the murderous nature of human history up to the present day it is hardly possible to describe the optimistic attitude as a rational or realistic one. Also in light of past history the continuing wide prevalence of optimistic attitudes to the world a further reason to suppose that we are dealing here at least in part with a set of mental and emotional responses which are biologically-based and independent of the individual will and which serve to secure the species by helping us to fool ourselves regarding the actual nature of reality.

By now, however, the question of how it is possible that so many people continue to maintain an optimistic attitude even though reality ought in fact to have long since disabused them of this latter appears to have found a natural-scientific answer. Examinations were made of the brains of individuals while they were processing partly positive, partly negative information about their futures. It was found that, whereas on learning these pieces of news the neuronal networks could be relied upon to code desirable information conducive to an optimistic attitude, this was much less the case where the information to be processed was information that proved unexpectedly undesirable. Put simply, our brains are wired in such a way that an optimistic attitude is the natural one for us. And indeed, such an optimistic attitude does indeed appear to be promotive both of the perpetuation of the species and the survival of the individual – even if this attitude is not a realistic one and can consequently have results that are ethically difficult to justify. Especially in the area of procreation. The neurologist Tali Sharot notes: “The brain’s illusions have to be identified by careful scientific observation and controlled experiments and then communicated to the rest of us. Once we are made aware of our optimistic illusions, we can act to protect ourselves.“ (Tali Sharot, Guardian Weekly, 20 Jan. 2012, p. 25-27, here: p. 27) One must add to this finding the condition that all, without exception, of those affected by this optimistic illusion are to be taken into account. Paradoxically, even those human beings are to be “protected” from a merciless optimism who, had this optimism not exerted its powerful effect, would never have begun to exist in the first place.

From what we have said it is clear that Man’s process of self-cultivation – contrary to what the guiding principle of philosophical anthropology leads us to suppose – is still a long way from having come to an end. Man might be described as “a cultural being by nature”. We carry around with us – not least in the form of the reality-distorting optimism that we have been talking about – a legacy from our existence as merely natural beings which demands to be constantly examined and questioned in a spirit of genuine enlightenment.

 

Optimism, Unrealistic Nativistic

If one puts to a relatively large number of people the question of whether their own life has contained more positive experiences, and fewer negative experiences, than the average human life most of those asked will say that their own lives contain more positive things, and fewer negative things, than the average. But a majority which situates itself in this way far from the average must necessarily be suffering from an unrealistic self-assessment. A similarly unrealistic optimism must also be reckoned as regards the offspring of such people: their parents will assume that this offspring will naturally experience more happiness, and less misery, than the average.

 

Diderot, Denis (1713–1784)

Diderot practices a fundamental onto-ethical critique of all forms of optimism that underestimate human suffering when he writes that nothingness is to be preferred to a world in which happiness is to be acquired only at the cost of pain:

“Regardless of what the optimists tell us we will always retort: if the world cannot exist without beings susceptible of feeling and if these beings susceptible of feeling cannot exist without some degree of pain, then everything ought rather to have remained in that condition of perpetual peace. After all, an eternity had already gone by without any foolishness of this sort’s existing.” (Diderot, letter to Sophie Volland of the 20th of October 1760, S. 127)

Optimistic, Life-Loving Antinatalism?

Are we, if we consider our existence to be a tolerable one – i.e. if we are rather of a sunny disposition than “tired of life” – thereby obliged to subscribe to the proposition that it was a good thing that we were begotten? Such a refractory attitude to non-being is defended by Micha Brumlik: “We too, if we find ourselves to be content, under the given conditions, with our lives must thereby also implicitly be of the view that it was a good thing that we were conceived and born.” (Brumlik, Über die Ansprüche Ungeborener und Unmündiger)

But what reasons of moral logic would render it impossible for us to prefer a course of the world in which we would never have begun to exist while at the same time defending the notion that our life at present is worth living? There appear to be no convincing arguments against the moral-logical possibility of even a happy, committed individual’s defending an antinatalist position – even if he were to do so merely out of empathy with those billions of others who may be less happy or fortunate than him. With reference to early Christian antinatalism Hieronymus Lorm (1821–1902) expounded, in a book from 1894, this possibility of a combination of moral commitment and advocacy of an ebbing away of humanity:

“It is perfectly possible for me to sacrifice myself, my fortune and my life, motivated by pity or by love of my neighbour, for the sake of a person, a group, a class, a people or even some cultural cause while all along having the feeling that it would be better for the latter and more in their interest if they had never existed or if they were to be painlessly extinguished. The notion has, in recent years, now and again been weighed of whether one might wish for, or even actively facilitate, the bloodless suicide of the human race through a cessation of all new births. And one may entirely accept and embrace this notion without ceasing to be a good Christian. Indeed, one may even interpret it to be an idea derivable from the Gospel.” [1] (Hieronymus Lorm, Der grundlose Optimismus)

[1] For a later defence of the combinability of both positions see also: Saul Smilansky,10 Moral Paradoxes, Blackwell Publishing 2007, chapter 10, p. 100ff: Preferring Not to Have Been Born.

Ovid’s Principle

“Praise not the day before the night!” is an old saying that is still often heard today. Its original form, which takes a still darker view, is perhaps to be found in Ovid’s “Metamorphoses”:

“Nor should we say ‘he leads a happy life’

Till after death the funeral rites are paid’

(Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Book 3, 1)

If we take this principle of Ovid’s seriously then a human life can only count as “happy” if the death that concludes it takes no catastrophic form – that is to say, if the person in question’s dying occurs in such a way that we may also call the person “happy” in respect of this dying. But how many people does such good fortune befall? One among 100,000?

Ontopathological Syndrome

The person who experiences a sense of horror whenever he tries to grasp the notion that the universe might never have come into existence can be said to suffer from “ontopathological syndrome”[1]. Whoever is susceptible to such an ontopathological syndrome is quite probably likewise susceptible to the >Fear of Never Having Been.

[1] The concept was coined by Grünbaum, see Jim Holt.Why does the world exist

Imposition Error

The false notion that life is something that is imposed upon a somehow pre-existing person. The “imposition error” committed by many antinatalists is the counterpart to the “gift error” committed by many pronatalists, who believe that life is a “gift that is given us”. But just as “no one” was there beforehand upon whom existence might have been “imposed”, there was likewise “no one there” from whom existence might have been withheld or to whom it might have been “gifted”.

>Stalemate, Nativistic

Swooning

For Schopenhauer “just as sleep is the brother of death, so is swooning its twin brother” (Schopenhauer, Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung). And the swoon, indeed, is closer to death than is sleep, inasmuch as the former is entirely dreamless.  The French author Daniel Pennac has documented a kind of childish striving toward non-being: a friend squeezes tightly the narrator’s chest after this latter has completely expelled his breath, giving rise to a transitory non-existence (unconsciousness) which is what had been desired. “We played at inducing swoons in one another…it was assuredly a delightful experience!”[1]

[1] „Nous avons joué à nous évanouir… En tout cas, c’est vraiment délicieux !” (Journal d’un corps, eBook, Pos. 277-78 and 281)