Karl, from the antinatalist blog Say No to Life, really blew the lid on this one. He has analyzed Richard Dawkins’s schizophrenic attitude towards life using quotes from two books he wrote. First, there is this quote from River Out of Eden:
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.
Sounds like Dawkins sees life in a very realistic way1. He acknowledges that being alive leads to all sorts of harms as well as benefits, and that this distribution is not based on anything meaningful. So his attitude towards life should be pretty sober, right? Well…
From Unweaving the Rainbow:
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.
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.
What is the use of bringing a baby into the world if the only thing it does with its life is just work to go on living? If everything is judged by how ‘useful’ it is — useful for staying alive, that is — we are left facing a futile circularity. There must be some added value… Of course science pays its way; of course it is useful. But that is not all it is.
Just so you know I did not take these out of context, here is the chapter where these can be found. It’s pretty much all like this.
As Karl points out, Dawkins’ dispassionate, rational attitude has failed him, and this is nothing more than wish-fulfillment, completely contradicting his realistic assessment of the nature of life. According to Dawkins, we are lucky and hugely blessed to be part of a system which contains suffering beyond our ability to fathom; not only that, but one must surmise that we are also privileged by the fact that said suffering strikes in an incredible variety of forms which we all must escape, follows no rhyme or reason, and that we are ultimately incapable of eradicating it.
He keeps talking about the beauty and complexity of the natural world. It is quite true that the natural world is beautiful and complex, but the fact that something is beautiful and complex does not make participation in that thing a blessing or a privilege. Beauty is a purely automatic brain reaction, and complexity is irrelevant to the topic, as complex systems can be both desirable and undesirable (an elaborate and baroque mousetrap will no less kill the mouse than a simple one).
To point out evolution’s gross inefficiency and major shortcomings, and then to push the “life is wonderful” party line, is as asinine as “solving” the problem of poverty by putting out propaganda that being poor is wonderful. The poor person will starve whether ey believes being poor is wonderful or not. The objective fact of suffering cannot be made to disappear by praising it. A privileged shiny-eyed and shiny-white Western scientist may be able to close his eyes to the fact that most of human life has been, and still is, stressful and shitty at best, but this does not change the state of the average human being or of the average sentient lifeform on this planet.
If science has imparted anything to society, and if science is based on anything at all, it must be the need for unflinching honesty. But scientists who waddle into science education seem to regularly fail to apply unflinching honesty to the most profound issues of human life. I have discussed before how Dawkins and Sagan fail at rationally analyzing socio-political issues, but this is by far the most profound sort of dishonest they exhibit.
One gasps to hear scientists swooning over the universe or any part thereof like schoolgirls overheated by their first crush. (Albert Einstein, Karl Popper, Carl Sagan, Richard Dawkins, many others.) From the studies of Krafft-Ebbing onward, we know that it is possible to become excited about anything—from shins to shoes.
The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, Thomas Ligotti
Dawkins is at least able to identify the fact that by far most [potential] people will never be born. But the bizarre thing is, he says we are the lucky and blessed ones. That’s a preposterous statement; how can it be a blessing to exist? Contrary to living people, non-existing people cannot suffer and have no frustrated desires. They also do not suffer from not witnessing the wonders of the universe which Dawkins harps upon. Sure, we are part of a select group of potential people who came into existence, but that’s no more “lucky” than to be part of the select group of people who have died from lightning strikes.
At least this much reasoning is readily available to anyone who’s willing to think about the issue for any length of time. So why does Dawkins fail to realize it? Most likely it is a refusal to think about the subject any further. David Benatar himself (author of the seminal book on antinatalism, Better Never to Have Been; please note that using Benatar quotes here does not mean I support Benatar as a philosopher) argued in 2008 that Dawkins not only fails to follow logic, but also fails to understand how evolution has bearing on the issue, something which, you’d think, Dawkins of all people would realize:
It is curious that Professor Dawkins seems so unaware of these optimistic biases, given their obvious evolutionary explanation. Those with the right dose of delusion are more likely to produce offspring, whereas those who see the human condition for what it is, are unlikely to want to reproduce it.
Yet this secular equivalent of religious awe is no guarantor of life’s meaningfulness. It is no proof that a Godless world is a meaningful one. Just because the universe and human life lack the meaning that theists often say a God would bestow on them, does not mean that the void has to be filled by some secular alternative. It might simply be the case that our lives are pointless. To ward off this conclusion, Professor Dawkins makes the common suggestion that one’s life is ‘as meaningful, as full and as wonderful’ as one chooses to make it. But that assumes that subjective meaning is the only meaning our lives require. However, if that were the case, then a religious life could have immense meaning even when it is founded on delusions – because such lives too are ‘as meaningful, as full and as wonderful’ as the people living them choose to make them. It is one kind of delusion to think that one’s life has meaning because it fits in with God’s plan when, in fact, there is no God. It is another kind of delusion to think that one’s life has meaning because it fits in with one’s own plan when, in fact, one is mistaken that one’s own plan can endow (the right kind of) meaning.
If this whole issue was only relevant to Dawkins’ schizophrenic opinions, then it would not be that significant. But it’s not just Richard Dawkins, or a handful of scientists, who have to be taken to task here. If this issue is significant at all, it is as an attack against modernity as a whole, against humanism, against the search for meaning outside of God.
The last quote from Benatar may give you an idea of what I am alluding to. Up until now, we human beings have manufactured religion after religion in order to construct some kind of meaning to life, some kind of grand narrative that justifies our existence. This, as you know, was an utter, farcical, grand failure, a fact which we are only now slowly coming to terms with. Religion has been a laughable failure at providing even the merest little context for human life, and has only come up with atrocities, insanity, or ascetism.
And now, because of the theory of evolution, we are well aware of life as a meaningless, endless cycle of consumption, addiction, cannibalism2 and reproduction, perpetuating itself on a global scale. Unfortunately, it has been found impossible for human beings to simply accept that fact. As human beings, we crave narratives, we crave some understanding, any understanding. So when confronted with the lack of meaning in the universe, human beings looked to evolution for a new storyline. Instead of looking to learn from evolution, we have exploited evolution for our own comfort.
At first, it was all about man being the pinnacle of evolution, the top of the evolutionary ladder, the master of the world. Now that this myth has been dismissed as unscientific, we have switched to a more watered-down version, which is to say that since reproduction is what “drives” evolution, it must be that our purpose and the meaning of our lives is in reproduction. And so we have the myth of “living through our children,” “living through our legacy,” and so on. It’s only a skip and a hop from here to outright DNA-worship. Just as the religious holds on to the afterlife as the answer, the humanist (here defined as a person who holds humanity, instead of God, as the standard of value) looks to reproduction as the answer. As Benatar points out, both answers are on the same footing: if one is delusional, then both are. Both belief systems are motivated by the fear of suffering.
Saying that reproduction is the purpose of the human being is nonsense. Evolution is a purposeless, undirected process. Those little inanimate DNA molecules do not seek anything. The belief that evolution exists for the sake of, and is driven by, gene replication (and thus, reproduction) is a metaphor that helps understand how evolution works, but it is not a statement of fact. The simple fact is that evolution does not exist for the sake of anything, and it doesn’t pursue anything; it is no less mechanistic than the law of gravity, the laws of thermodynamics, or capillary action. Evolution does not give purpose to humans any more than gravity gives a purpose to the Sun or capillary action gives a purpose to straws.
Any argument that “we are genetically programmed/made to do X” cannot lead to the belief that X is the standard by which all humans should be measured. And I also have to mention that elevating reproduction as the purpose of human beings is extremely insulting to large segments of the population. It is basically stating that anyone who consciously refuses to reproduce is objectively useless, which is an open attack against equality. It is this kind of marginalization of conscientious objectors by humanists which, ironically, arms the Christians’ war against love and the war against abortion.
Humanists believe in human values, as opposed to religious values, as the standard of ethics. This is all well and fine, and I agree up to a point. But they fail to realize that human values ultimately cannot be an objective standard and thus are really no more valid than the alternatives, because they are rooted in the brain structures dictated by our DNA, which is the result of an unthinking, automatic process. Our addictions to sex or status are no more or less substantial than our addictions to totalizing beliefs like religion. Both are made of consumption, addiction, cannibalism, ego-worship and reproduction. The perceived necessity of perpetuating mankind or sentience or human values is a mental illusion. As long as we acknowledge this, we’re fine, but when we declare human values as the only thing that counts, we’ve fallen into the trap of thinking mere desires have objective meaning.
Do people find subjective meaning in reproduction? Sure, many people do. But people find subjective meaning in pretty much any complex activity or structure of thought, because the complexity means our brain can make associations from it to pretty much anything else. So what? That doesn’t make it special in any way. It’s just anti-scientific crap, we know better than that now, we know it has no basis in fact.
Although he is reductionist to a manic degree, Dawkins is too intelligent and too sophisticated to fall into that trap. Rather, he seems to take the stance that science itself justifies our coming into being, that our personal and collective discoveries about the universe make life worth living.
Again, it’s hard to see how science is special if the afterlife and reproduction are not. Of course we can find a lot of joy in science, just as people find joy in religious belief or in raising children. But what is the purpose of this discovery of the universe? To alleviate one’s boredom? To make us feel better about being finite, flawed creatures? To lead to better ways to cure disease? To harness technology that will make us transcend our humanity? But all of these are merely attempts at alleviating the harm of existence.
Even from a purely consequentialist standpoint, it is tremendously difficult to make the case that the joy of scientific discovery is worth the suffering its existence has caused. Some examples of these include the tremendous death tolls of World War 1 and 2, the Holocaust, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, biological weapons, industrial farming, booming population growth with the corresponding rise in suffering, and so on.3
Furthermore, any impulse for discovery must eventually lead us to discover and accept that human life is, like all forms of life on this planet, an endless cycle of consumption, addiction, cannibalism and reproduction for which no meaning or purpose has been found. So this proposed solution is ultimately self-defeating.
Dawkins wants life to have meaning so he can sell books, and he wants science to be that meaning because science is his job. It’s what he knows, and it sounds noble and grand, so why not say it’s the meaning of life? After all, purely intellectual pursuits are easy to rationalize as being above mere material concerns, and so people might not see it as being on the same level as consuming matter from other living things or tribes killing each other for resources. But those intellectual pursuits are no less part of the endless, meaningless cycle. In order to fulfill them, we consume resources, we feed our ego by gaining status and prestige, and we make children so we can indoctrinate them with the same system of thought.
And again, this is a very insulting statement for all those people whose lives are, or were, useless and futile according to Dawkins, because they do not acknowledge and follow his own personal purpose in life. Why does Dawkins think he has the right to tell other people what their purpose is? To be fair, this is only a side issue from the fact that he’s wrong, but it still demonstrates disrespect for one’s fellow human beings.
Dawkins accidentally gave us a very, very good question: “What is the use of bringing a baby into the world?” But “science” is not the answer to this question (and since most babies will not grow into science-loving adults, they are thereby, according to Dawkins, not worth bringing into the world, so perhaps Dawkins should be more accepting of antinatalism). Antinatalism (the teleological kind, anyway) merely backs the humble proposition that, because no answer has been found in two hundred thousand years, there probably isn’t any.
Let me be clear: we are not lucky for having been born. Existing is a regrettable fact4. However, having been born, we have all acquired a vested interest in our continued existence; as such, we have to make the best of it, hence Anarchism, atheism, chocolate chip cookies, the breeze on a hot summer day, the joy of discovery, and so on. I am not downplaying these things: they are very important to us, and for good reasons. The fatal mistake (no pun intended) is to confuse the palliative measures with the regrettable fact that they attempt to palliate. It’s as much a stupid mistake as confusing an aspirin pill with the concept of a headache.
1 I have supported the position that cooperation, not competition, is the main guiding force of evolution, and the main human drive. However, most aspects of this force of cooperation (mutual defense, or finding food, for instance) would not even need to exist if the competition for resources did not exist. Nature at its foundation is all about being “red in tooth and claw,” and altruism in animals (including humans) is mainly a reaction to that fact.
2 To borrow a phrase from Gary Mosher, aka inmendham. This is not to say that we engage in literal cannibalism, but that we extract our well-being from hurting other living beings. For example, our artificially high standard of living in the Western world is predicated on the neo-liberalist oppression and exploitation of the rest of the world. Not only is the natural world a zero-sum “dog eat dog,” but we keep adding new political, economic and social zero-sum games on top of it.
3 I anticipate the partisans of science will raise a ruckus over this point, but it will do them no good to bring up overall desirable goods created by scientific research such as vaccines, sanitary principles, electricity, means of communication and travel, and so on; as I’ve explained before, we have a duty not to create harm, but we do not have a duty to create goods. My argument is not that science is overall bad, which I don’t think is true anyway, but rather that it does not justify natalism even at a consequentialist level.
In case this is not clear enough, let me spell this out further, taking the example of health care. Non-existent people do not need health care because they cannot get sick. Only existing people can suffer from sickness or accidents. So we cannot use health care as evidence that existence is superior to non-existence, since we can only, at the very best, “break even” by curing every sickness and accident caused by people existing. As for the negatives, well, non-existing people also cannot suffer from the various evils which were originated by scientific discovery, therefore these evils must be part of the equation. This is why the evils must be counted, but not the goods. Those who know Benatar’s asymmetry argument will easily recognize the structure of my explanation here.
It will also do the partisans no good to argue that the harm inflicted by these products of science was really inflicted by politicians or other unsavory characters, since all I am arguing is that they could not exist without the institution of science, nothing more.
4 For those morons amongst you who at this point want to fire off a comment telling me to kill myself: I already addressed that such an attack has nothing to do with antinatalism because antinatalism is against potential people coming to existence, not against existing people continuing to exist, and at least read the following sentence where I acknowledge that we, existing people, have a vested interest in pursuing the pleasures of life.