Antinatalism as reductio ad absurdum.

To say that antinatalism is a weird position would be an understatement for most people. Actually, to most people antinatalism is so utterly bizarre that they can’t possibly imagine themselves agreeing with it. Very few intellectual positions are so universally reviled.

This is so true that antinatalism is considered to be a reductio ad absurdum, e.g. in population ethics or in utilitarian morality. If your conclusion ends up being “no one should be born,” that means you made a mistake somewhere. One of your premises must be wrong. Your calculator says “ERR” and you have to start over. You goofed. It just can’t be right.

So why would anyone possibly believe something which is so clearly an error? Well, it would be easy to say something like “you’re just all depressed.” I’m certainly not depressed. Or something like “you clearly just all want to kill yourselves” (although it seems that this is usually meant more as a dismissive insult than an actual statement of fact). I don’t want to kill myself. And most people who are actually depressed or suicidal are not antinatalists. And I know plenty of antinatalists who are not depressed or suicidal.

It has also been suggested that antinatalist are whiners. But one can conflate any ideology which opposes anything as being a form of whining, so that doesn’t really advance the conversation. Besides, why mere whiners would bother to create an entire ideology centered around their whining is a mystery to me. At that level, I think we’re far beyond whining.

Most antinatalists I know (including myself) were convinced of the truth of antinatalism on the basis of evidence and arguments, not whining or depression, although being depressed obviously helps take down the intellectual barriers to examining the evidence and arguments. We don’t think antinatalism is an obvious error because we’ve actually examined the evidence pro and con, and have come out with the idea that there is something true there. Therefore, we disagree that antinatalism can be a reductio ad absurdum. If you arrive at the conclusion that no one should be born, then you’re actually right, as outlandish as that may sound.

To make an analogy, there are some people who think egalitarianism is an absurd position that automatically discredits any ideology that contains it. They think that saying everyone should be on an equal footing morally, politically or economically is such a silly proposition that it’s an obvious error. And yet egalitarianism seems to me to be clearly correct. Am I stupid beyond comprehension? Not really, no. While I concede that I am not particularly intelligent, I don’t think I’m extremely stupid, or even particularly stupid. Likewise, I don’t think most egalitarians are so stupid as to be unable to recognize a clear absurdity.

So antinatalism is perhaps not an exceptional case. Perhaps people who reject antinatalism immediately as absurd simply need to understand the evidence for it in order to stop saying such things, although I don’t think that would convert everyone by a long shot.

I’ve even seen someone argue that antinatalism is a reductio ad absurdum of atheism, although I can’t for the life of me figure out how that could possibly work. The position that procreation is wrong is not a logical extension of a lack of belief in gods. Actually, one could easily argue that the position that procreation is wrong is the logical extension of belief in Christianity, as I’ve discussed here. The fact that Christianity logically entails antinatalism may be used as further evidence that Christianity is wrong through reduction ad absurdum (Christianity entails antinatalism, antinatalism is absurd, therefore Christianity is invalid). I prefer to think that Christianity, as the profoundly pessimistic, death-worshipping cult that it is, portrays “the world” in a harsh light and therefore gives us even less motivation to reproduce (although of course its adherents don’t think about such things).

The concept of absurdity is not only used against antinatalism, but against parts of antinatalism as well. Many people argue that the concept of human extinction is a reductio ad absurdum of antinatalism, something so unthinkable that it renders antinatalism automatically invalid.

Although I think that such arguments are logically imbecilic and not worth considering, I do sympathize to a certain extent with the poor sod who trembles at the idea of human extinction. It is a daunting concept to contemplate, as daunting as the prospect of annihilation or the lack of absolute morality can be for an ex-Christian turned atheist. Both natalism and Christianity are fantasy ideologies which rely on the imagination in order to propagate. Believers imagine their lives extended into infinity through Heaven. Breeders imagine themselves being extended into infinity through their progeny. Both fantasies require quite a bit of intellectual honesty and courage in order to stop believing in them. But the rewards are great for those who are able to do so.

Human extinction goes against one of the fundamental, unspoken beliefs of natalism, that of “winning the game.” Many believers see evolution as the rules of a game which we call “nature,” and the objective is to propagate “your” (i.e. your species’) genes. But whether they believe in evolution, in creationism, or in anything else, they seem to share the belief that there is a game going on and that the objective is to survive. Species that don’t survive, lose. Species that do survive, are not losing. There does not seem to be any way to win as such, only to keep not losing. The belief in human extinction therefore represents not only a desire to lose, but treason: you are not only not cheering for your own team (your species), but you are actively wishing that your team loses. This, I think, is why human extinction is so outrageous to them. It’s basically the same as an American student cheering against their own football team (something which, I understand, would be sacrilege).

There are some obvious issues with this belief. For one thing, how can it be a game where there’s really only one participant? No other species out there is consciously trying to play this game. Most of them can’t even understand the concept of a game. So doesn’t that make this natalist concept of a survival game just basically mental masturbation? What else would you call a game where only one person is playing but they’re pretending everyone else around them is part of it too, even though none of them are even conscious there’s a game going on? I am no expert, but to me that sounds like either a person who is way, way too competitive, or a person who’s simply lost the plot and lives solely in their imagination.

Another problem is that you can’t have a competitive win-lose kind of game (a finite game) without having some way to win, since the whole point of finite games is to decide on who the winner is. Now, religious people do have a leg up on this one, since they already have something that qualifies: the end of the world, Armageddon, what have you. Anyone who survives to the end of the world wins. And if you believe in this shit, then why not? Of course, they still fail to answer the first problem (the fact that there’s only one player), but at least they can answer this one, while secular believers cannot (especially those who believe in their funhouse version of evolution, because evolution cannot have any end point anyhow, even if all life was wiped off the planet).

Either way, if the people who are not afraid of human extinction are guilty of something, it’s of not believing in the survival game, and I don’t think that’s clearly and obviously absurd.

And to flip the tables around, antinatalism also has its own reductio ad absurdum, contained in the Asymmetry. Most people reject the Asymmetry either by rejecting premises 3 or 4 (see the argument in detail here). That is to say, they wish to argue that what is non-existent can feel pain, or be deprived of pleasure. But this is profoundly silly: that which does not exist cannot feel pain or be deprived of anything. Only things that exist can feel anything. I believe that people only argue such nonsense because they don’t understand the implications of the Asymmetry. Surely no one actually believes that non-existing things can feel pain.

But if we start from the premise that non-existing things do feel pain and are deprived of pleasure, then we end up in what seems to me to be a reduction ad absurdum, because it leads us to the conclusion that the only ethical thing to do is to have as many children as physically possible, in order to prevent the suffering of non-existing future lives. Not only that, but we also should create children artificially as much as we possibly can. We must devote all the resources that are not going to making vital necessities to making more children.

The reason for this should be obvious. If we accept the premise that non-existing future lives feel pain and are deprived of pleasure, then that means that bringing them into existence is always better than not doing so, because existing lives at least experience pleasure. If non-existent lives still suffer but are also deprived of the pleasures of life, then they must be saved from their non-existence.

We can make an analogy to reflect this new (and bizarre) situation. So for instance, there are people trapped in a swamp. They can’t move and can’t, in any way, help others get them out. They experience all the pains of daily existence, but they experience no pleasure, no joy, as they are trapped in a swamp. Two people can work for months to free one of these people, and the government, although unconcerned with their plight, encourages people to free the trapped victims. What should you do? Shouldn’t you help these people to be free and live a normal life, and encourage the government to organize freeing parties, or research better technology that could free them even faster? I hope the analogy is obvious here. The swamp represents this bizarre state of non-existence where things still feel pain, the victims are future lives, and the people are, well, us.

But surely this is an absurd position. I don’t know of any group or ideology out there that holds that we should produce children by any means (including artificial means and coerced procreation) at the exclusion of pretty much anything else (not even the Quiverfull go that far). Therefore, the Asymmetry must be valid, because the alternative is to silly to contemplate.

Note that the more academic position of people like Bryan Caplan, who says that lives are worth starting because most people are happy and those who are not should just kill themselves, equally leads to this position. If every possible future life is better off if we start it, then we should make as many children as we possibly can. While they may object to that view on economic grounds, this would be spurious, as economics is wholly useless without values to orient its objectives. If we assume that starting new lives is always good, then a proper economics should seek the goal of maximizing births, not maximizing GDP, profits, or utility.

But since I’ve already debunked other reductios, might this one not be faulty as well? Are we just setting up another false dichotomy? An opponent might point out that there are many other positions between antinatalism and full speed procreation. That is true, but the question here is: are those positions logical? They are mostly based on the concept of “balance of pleasure and suffering,” but I’ve already discussed why this concept doesn’t hold water. It’s simply not possible to compare pleasure and suffering in the way that natalists would like. Given that fact, it’s easy to see what they’re really doing: adjusting their relative evaluation of pleasures and sufferings so their side comes out on top. But then it becomes a completely arbitrary standard, and why should we adopt a purely arbitrary standard?

Might the position that having children at all costs be at least not absurd? I doubt it. But I am willing to hear any arguments in favor of this view, as I think other people should be willing to hear arguments in favor of my view.

8 thoughts on “Antinatalism as reductio ad absurdum.

  1. Noway Jose March 17, 2016 at 10:27 Reply

    “Actually, one could easily argue that the position that procreation is wrong is the logical extension of belief in Christianity, as I’ve discussed here. The fact that Christianity logically entails antinatalism may be used as further evidence that Christianity is wrong through reduction ad absurdum (Christianity entails antinatalism, antinatalism is absurd, therefore Christianity is invalid). I prefer to think that Christianity, as the profoundly pessimistic, death-worshipping cult that it is, portrays “the world” in a harsh light and therefore gives us even less motivation to reproduce (although of course its adherents don’t think about such things).”

    But then that would be assuming Christians are generally logical, which they’re not since they breed like rabbits according to “be fruitful & multiply.” In fact, I’m inclined to think that their otherworldiness & belief in the afterlife is WHY they reproduce – they can’t succeed in this life, and so they create more lives in the hopes of a better future, “raising better people” (as if!) and generally not giving a shit about the people who ALREADY exist.

  2. Vegfem April 26, 2016 at 13:28 Reply
    • Francois Tremblay April 26, 2016 at 15:20 Reply

      Thank you, I will have to write a rebuttal to this nonsense.

  3. Brian L May 6, 2016 at 18:43 Reply

    If you’re not an antinatalist, you haven’t thought about it enough.

    • Brian L May 6, 2016 at 18:47 Reply

      Hell, even if you take a biblical stance, God did not intend Adam and Eve to procreate. It was essentially the original sin, and mankind was cursed with continuance in a forced labour camp that is life ever since.

      • Brian L May 31, 2016 at 05:54 Reply

        It seems I have my chronology incorrect on the Adam and Eve saga. Not that it matters, as its just a fairy tale anyways, and matters not.

  4. David September 6, 2016 at 09:41 Reply

    Francois,
    Thank you for this blog. I only recently turned my rational mind to the question of whether I should have more children. (I already have 4, and care for them deeply) But I will be abstaining from here on out, against the wishes of my spouse.

    For the record, I was married as a Christian and deconverted after believing for about 20 years. I have sometimes made the argument that Christians should be in favor of abortion and even infanticide up the the “Age of Accountability”, but it never dawned on me until recently that the same argument applies to everyone that is capable of suffering. What really set me on this path was global climate change. I see the inevitability of it now, especially with the rise of anti-science and anti-intellectualism in the US.

    I now spend a lot of time and money in raising my kids not to be asshats, and giving to Humanist endeavors in order to reduce suffering. I just don’t know what else to do with my time here.

    • Francois Tremblay September 6, 2016 at 15:15 Reply

      Well, it’s never too late to do the right thing. Welcome to the fold. :)

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