Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Better Never To Have Been Born? Really?

Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 film, Wild Strawberries, is a beautiful story of an old man realizing that, even though he was a brilliant doctor who selflessly served his patients, he was emotionally reserved. No one could get close.
The film takes place in one day, as the old man drives to the town where he is to receive an honorary degree. Through vivid dreams he is able to experience the cost of his coldness—the loss of his first love and the infidelity of his wife. His daughter-in-law accompanies him on the trip, and she reveals the cost in the life of his son. When she told his son that she was pregnant, he replied, “Life is absurd, so I don’t want to bring any children into this world. I want to die myself.” (Not an exact transcript)
Bergman ends the film with the promise that his characters will be healing from this life-negating worldview.
The film brought to mind “The Case Against Kids,” by Elizabeth Kolbert, a review of three books about the ethics of having children. I was astounded to read about Better Never To Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence, by a philosophy professor at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, named David Benatar, in which he claims that the inevitability of suffering means it’s better not to be born at all.
Kolbert quote from Benatar’s book: 
One of the implications of my argument is that a life filled with good and containing only the most minute quantity of bad—a life of utter bliss adulterated only by the pain of a single pinprick—is worse than no life at all.
She paraphrases more of his argument thus:
If we all saw the harm we were doing by having children and put a stop to it, within a century or so the world’s population would drop to zero. For Benatar, this is an outcome devoutly to be wished. "Humans have the unfortunate distinction of being the most destructive and harmful species on earth," he writes. "The amount of suffering in the world could be radically reduced if there were no more" of us…Benatar’s title refers to the passage in Sophocles’ ‘Oedipus at Colonus’ in which the chorus observes: "Never to have been born is best, But once you’ve entered this world, Return as quickly as possible to the place you came from." It also alludes to an old Jewish saying: "Life is so terrible, it would have been better not to have been born. Who is so lucky? Not one in a hundred thousand."
It occurred to me that this is the inevitable consequence when a culture no longer believes in absolutes: since there is no meaning to our suffering, it’s better not to exist at all.
Recently I read about the 19th century philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, and he had much the same perspective as Benatar.  Schopenhauer claimed that the reason people feel shame about sex is that they realize that life is evil because it includes suffering, and therefore it is wrong to perpetuate life. No wonder he’s considered a gloomy philosopher:
Life presents itself as a problem, a task to be worked out, and in general therefore as a constant struggle against want and affliction. Accordingly everyone tries to get through with it and come off as well as he can; he disposes of life as he does of a compulsory service that he is in duty bound to carry out. But who has contracted this debt? His begetter, in the enjoyment of sensual pleasure. Therefore, because the one has enjoyed this pleasure, the other must live, suffer, and die.
But the act by which the will affirms itself and man comes into existence is one of which all in their heart of hearts are ashamed, and which therefore they carefully conceal; in fact, if they are caught in the act, they are as alarmed as if they had been detected in a crime. It is an action of which, on cool reflection, we think often with repugnance, and in an exalted mood with disgust. […] A peculiar sadness and remorse follows close on it; yet these are felt most after the consummation of the act for the first time, and generally they are the more distinct, the nobler the character. Hence, even the pagan Pliny says: “Only man feels remorse after the first copulation; a course characteristic of life, that we feel remorse for our origin.” …But the human race continues to exist simply and solely by means of the constant practice of such an act as this. Now if optimism were right, if our existence were to be gratefully acknowledged as the gift of the highest goodness guided by wisdom, and accordingly if it were in itself praiseworthy, commendable, and delightful, then certainly the act that perpetuates it would necessarily bear quite a different complexion. If, on the other hand, this existence is a kind of false step or wrong path, if it is the work of an originally blind will, the luckiest development of which is that it comes to itself in order to abolish itself, then the act perpetuating that existence must appear precisely as in fact it does.
Benatar and Schopenhauer seem to be saying that even the tiniest mote of suffering is not worth living for. But from my point-of-view, consciousness and suffering are linked. You can’t have one without the other. We live in a universe of limitation. To be alive means you are going to die. To be limited means ignorance, which means fear. Fear means suffering. But to be alive also means the pleasure in sensual experiences like eating, sex, and the electric energy flow of the life force through our bodies. It means the thrill of connection with another manifestation of the life force. It means the fulfillment of self-expression. Just to name a few.
Besides the fact that it is an inextricable component of conscious life, suffering is also the propellant for change. When I look at the times I have made a major change in my life, that change was motivated by suffering—I had accumulated enough negative experiences to compel me to stop choosing the easy way of whatever behavioral rut I was in and risk a new behavior. Without the prod of the pain I wouldn’t take the risk.
Without suffering there would be no growth in consciousness.
Many people seem to want to eliminate suffering from their lives. Eastern religions seem to have the goal to “get off the wheel of death and rebirth.” Many Christian churches preach the concept that “life is a veil of tears” that must be endured until the real life starts after death. (I once heard a gospel song, “I’m gonna have the time of my life when my life is over.”) Some people think they did something wrong in a past life to be here; this life is a punishment. I think these perspectives miss the whole point of life.
My metaphysics is very Taoist, and is expressed in the book I wrote with my husband, The Game of God. Quickly, the premise is: God is unlimited. That means God cannot experience what it is to be limited. But this inability to experience limitation is itself a limitation.
The universe is the solution to this riddle: we are the Unlimited experiencing limitation. Limitation means ignorance, mortality, and weakness. It also means challenge, learning, discovery, and falling in love. The whole point of the universe is to experience the entire gamut of limitation, from the almost-infinitely-limited to the almost-infinitely-unlimited. From the point of view of the One, suffering is as equally valid a reason for existence as joy, because it is a full-fledged experience of what it is to be limited.
From my point of view, this means we should embrace suffering. 


  1. It is through embracing suffering that we learn compassion. I just learned that my son has Asperger's Syndrome with which he has been suffering for 35 undiagnosed years. I am suffering as a mother who was unable to understand her son or his suffering until now. All we really want is to be loved and to be understood. Thank you for another meaningful blog post.

  2. Buddhists understand suffering as the path to compassion and consciousness, which is more my view. But I'm not sure I understand the part about the fact that these philosophers have depressing outlooks as an "...inevitable consequence when a culture no longer believes in absolutes..." I feel much of our culture does believe in absolutes, which to me is depressing in and of itself. Call me weird, but I'm all about the great mysteries of life and consider myself a truth seeker. It is my passion for truth that steers me away from depression. I am not afraid to shift myself away from an entrenched belief, however painful it may be.

    So it appears to me that the philosophers that you mention have very absolutist and depressing ideas, not leaving themselves any room for happiness. I guess I'm having trouble grasping the whole "absolutes" thing in your context.

    1. Hi GreenMan, what I meant by "absolute" was an underlying truth, meaning, and/or purpose to the universe, and/or an ultimate Being as the ground of All, what many call God. More and more people don't believe in absolutes in this sense of the word, and if there is no God, meaning, or purpose, what does it matter if we live or die?

      It seems your take on "absolute" is an unwillingness to let go of a belief. That wasn't the meaning I had in mind at all. But thanks for writing so I could (hopefully) clarify this!

    2. When a co-worker of mine became pregnant, since I was the most horrible man in Texas I thought that her gestating was really great because now we were going to have another extreme user of earthly resources, another supporter of livestock cruelty, another passive enabler of those who make sure that inhabitants of economic ghettos remain in their places, another contributor to destructive climate change, and so on. Now of course this kind of thinking doesn't only apply to babies but also to ourselves. While I don't wholeheartedly share Benatar's vision as presented above, without some great self-assurance that this whole thing is headed in a "positive" direction resulting in universal happiness or something like that, I'd say that Benatar appears to be just as likely to be right as anybody else who is serious. It's probably a matter of personality and circumstance, especially considering that the environment of South Africa with its history of apartheid and current status as the country with the greatest gap between rich and poor could be a very depressing place for a sensitive soul.
      Also, I am far more ashamed of taking a shit in public than having sex.

    3. And yes, better to have never been born. I wish I hadn't been.

  3. I'm not sure what you are saying about the universe here. Isn't it a sort of 'primitive accumulation', racking up limitations JUST BECAUSE One does not have them, yet they are worse than/malignantly useless? The hallmark of finitude of being is having needs that can only be supplied by the environment. The universe as poularly understood, has neither needs nor an environment. So where did the motive for sentient life come from?

    I s there a second-order need for first order needs to exist, even before the first-order need exist? (To unpack that consider chistian apologists' emphasis on free will. SUre, moral evil is plausibly necessary for free will, which is necessary for anyone to choose to love god, but what is it that god then does with this love? These religions are very clear that god doesn't 'need us' and they get huffy when you suggest that god was unable to sit quietly in a corner by himself, grew lonely and dragged us in to this world. So was it just god and some vague 'need for needs' prior to the creation of finite beings?).

    And how can the universe be infinite if it is restricted by a) a lack of direct experience, b) a need for direct experience? Honestly, those 'astral tourist' beliefs are laughable. What, is life like a bunch of rich New englanders who sponsor their kids on a grand coming-of-age tour of Europe (your best chance at an extensive wealthy civilisation before the invention of the Interstate). If that's all it is, why don't you rich Yankees tour my neck of the savannah? The weather's nice round this time in Africa, just occasional showers of shrapnel and digital phalanges. I mean, I think human life is meaningless in every quantifiable aspect (i.e whatever we can comprehend, is NOT the meaning of life, the Tao that can be spoken etc etc, also what ZSteve Weinberg said about our growing science) and nobody anywhere has any premises for sponsoring or endorsing this....ineffectual motion machine. However, a world where the *happiest* children are born somewhere between France and Denmark (depending on the year in question. Just don't get out of sight of England), and the *most* children are born in Africa, well that is underwhelming. I can't be a Buddhist because being born in Africa would be bad Karma, so I deserved this, and should just 'take it like a muhfuckin man'. I can't be an 'astralian' because it implies I chose this, in which case I am a self sabotaging idiot and I should probably stay alive just to punish myself....for punishing myself. No, I'd rather think i'm here because of the general brokenness of existence, and the venereal horniness of my parents. Nothing to be proud of! But this allows me not to affirm this decision that was taken over my head. ANd of course, if this life is an accident, death means being DONE WITH IT! That's greatput the kibosh on this farce, I'm already fuckin over it!

    See, this asinine hand-waving is like god's supposed love of our love-so what does he then do with it, after this frightful price is paid? Now, I understand that individual consciousness may be an illusion, but is this cloyingly sentimental motive only acceptable because "others" are paying the price? Trust me, life has got to be some kind of mistake, whether we are god's pets, the universe's extra-credit project, or puppets dangling from strands of DNA.

    1. I'm sorry to hear your experience of life has made you think it's a mistake. I don't really understand what the astral plane or America vs Africa has to do with the basic point. Is one tiny dot of suffering too much, so that it obliterates every positive? I threw out the theory of limitation as just another idea, I don't think it has any bearing on the main point, which is: life is worth experiencing in and of itself. Including the pain and suffering.