Monday, December 5, 2011

Should we Procreate to Honour our Ancestors?

There are at least three pressures to procreate. First, there’s the lure of pleasure from sex hormones that are released during sex. Humans have learned to control that pressure by separating the pleasure from procreation, with birth control techniques. Second, there’s a limited time in which reproduction is biologically feasible, so that if you’re interested in having children, you’re pressured to do so within only a certain number of years. To some extent, humans have learned to control this pressure too, by setting up infrastructures for child adoption or for raising children by the extended family. Plus, you may not be interested in having children in the first place.
Procreation and the River of DNA

But the third pressure pertains to that question of interest, although this pressure is so mind-shattering that it’s seldom consciously considered. Every animal is chemically connected to what the biologist Richard Dawkins, in his book River Out of Eden, calls a river of DNA that stretches back to the origin of life on this planet. This is to say that we’re each alive not just because of the obvious facts that our parents reproduced and that their parents did as well, but because a continuous stream of our ancestors did so, including the evolutionary ancestors of our species and the ancestors of those ancestral species, and so on back to the simplest sexually reproducing organisms. This is a biological fact rather than just a metaphor and the point isn’t merely the abstract one that humans descended from other species; rather, each one of us, and each animal currently alive, is alive only because that animal’s germ cells were produced by its parents’ sperm and egg, which themselves were produced by their germ cells, which in turn were produced by that animal’s grandparents' sperm and egg, and so on, going back countless generations and thousands and millions and billions of years. Each one of us, therefore, was literally produced indirectly by certain dinosaurs, for example, who stomped around on prehistoric Earth long enough to procreate.

The third pressure, then, is that when an animal fails to reproduce, for whatever reason, that failure is the termination of a multibillion-year-old chemical process that created millions of generations of creatures that necessarily succeeded in sexually reproducing. There’s the sense that although most of our ancestors, including our nonhuman ones, can’t know when we fail to pass their genetic material to a new generation, we nevertheless let them down when we fail in that regard, since we render their struggles ultimately inconsequential. When a person dies without reproducing and raising a child to be able to carry on the genetic legacy, the person is a dam blocking the river of DNA from flowing onward. Did the river flow for countless miles and for billions of years, through its dinosaurian and mammalian host organisms, only to be stopped by Joe Blow, who slips on a sidewalk and dies prematurely or, even worse, who chooses not to have children even when he has the resources to honour his ancestors’ victories by letting their river of DNA flow through him as well? There’s the feeling that life is precious and that if everyone ceased reproducing, ending life on this planet, the loss to the universe would be unfathomable. Thus, when even a single person takes a step towards realizing that possible lifeless future, by failing to procreate, the person sins against the sacredness of life.

In his post-apocalyptic novel, The Road, Cormac McCarthy depicts the end of most life on Earth and the correspondingly increased pressure on a surviving father to “keep the fire of life lit,” to protect what’s most precious, namely the life of his son, who represents the continuation of life after the father’s eventual death. According to this grim thought experiment, then, we regard life as so precious that we’d cheer for its continuation even when the world has ended and reasonable hope for happiness has been lost. The symbolism of the Olympic passing of the torch is apt here as well: if the torch represents life, we each have the solemn obligation to receive the torch from our parents and to pass it to a new generation, by having and raising kids ourselves. If we drop the torch, we literally can’t even imagine the enormity of our blunder. For example, we lack the brainpower to empathize with each one of our millions of ancestors whose often triumphant survival we negate with that failure.

Should Life be Valued?

Is this third pressure to procreate real or imaginary? Is it like our fear of threats in the dark, caused by mere paranoia? Fear of the dark isn’t necessarily irrational, though, for creatures who depend on their vision which in turn works best with adequate lighting. But is it likewise rational to think of the river of DNA or the passing of the torch as a reason to procreate? Only if life were precious, and this raises the question whether the high value of life in turn is justified. Most people who ever lived regarded life as precious because they assumed organic life was created by God who himself judges that life to be good. At any rate, given this theistic assumption, we wouldn’t be merely imagining that a universe without life in it would be bad, since a nonhuman intelligence, whose perfect judgment we’d have to respect, would deem it so. However, theism is no longer the default worldview, not after the Scientific Revolution and the influence of modern rationalism in philosophy and in public affairs. (See Theism). So suppose there’s no viable theistic reason to believe that life is precious. Is our urgency to protect our DNA, to pass the torch, rational or irrational? This is to ask whether this urgency is caused ultimately by a fact of life that makes it worthy of our esteem.

Perhaps the most promising reason to think there’s such a fact derives from naturalistic philosophy, which posits our biological “functions.” A function is a purpose or a reason to exist. For example, the heart’s physiological function is to circulate blood, and an organism’s evolutionary function may be, in large part, to sexually reproduce. In the case of artifacts that we create, like shovels or computers, their functions are normative, and so we can speak of a shovel’s failure when it breaks and is unable to fulfill its function, because the shovel doesn’t measure up to its designer’s or its user’s intention. Once we dispense with theism, there is no intention behind the design of a so-called biological function, because natural selection has no plan. At most, then, the host organism that uses its organs could be let down when those organs malfunction, and so we could speak of the value of body parts to the user of those parts.

This would locate the value of life, though, in our own minds rather than in some objective fact. Were we to change our mind, or our plan for our body parts, we’d alter the normative status of their biological functions, just as nothing would prevent a shovel’s function from changing were we all to favour some new use for it. Again, were someone to commit suicide, deeming her life to be worthless, there would be no fact of the matter to counter her negative evaluation, assuming the preciousness of life is due to a biological purpose that has only that subjective use value. Suppose this suicidal person is a hermit with no social ties to anyone, so that no one indirectly makes use of her functional body parts. For example, suppose she has no employer who makes use of her brain. In that case, there wouldn’t be even a conflicting subjective basis for her life’s value. As soon as she deems her life to be worthless, her judgment would make it so. Therefore, were life to have factual value because of evolutionary purposes, these purposes would have to depend on something other than the goals of the user of the functional body parts. Without theism, the only alternative is a version of panspermia, according to which life on Earth was seeded by intelligent extraterrestrials. This only pushes the question back a step, since now we’d have to ask whether we could trust the judgment of those imperfect intelligent designers and whether the preciousness of their own life is factual or delusory.

These considerations don’t prevent some naturalistic philosophers and biologists like Dawkins himself from smuggling normative judgments into their talk of natural selection and of biological functions. Dawkins shows us the gene’s “perspective” as the “immortal” gene sends its “instructions” to protein “machinery” that builds its “host” bodies, “discarding” generations of them as it floats along waves of sexual reproduction. The sole merit of this extended metaphor of the "selfish gene," however, is its usefulness in simplifying a complex biological theory. We should remind ourselves that this metaphor doesn’t report any scientific discovery that genes actually have a perspective or that they instruct machines. These anthropomorphic images are empirically gratuitous. At the genetic level, evolution is a chemical process, whereas in the well-understood case of the function of artifacts, the function’s value derives from intentions which are psychological. So if genes have no minds, they can’t confer any value to the body types they help produce. Likewise, if the process of natural selection has no mind of its own, neither can it confer any such value.

It seems, then, that biology gives us no reason to think that life is precious as a matter of fact. On the contrary, by replacing Creationism and theistic Intelligent Design theories, evolutionary biology supplies us with abundant reasons to think that, like any physical system that exists ultimately as a matter of inexplicable brute fact (due to a random quantum fluctuation that produced the big bang and natural laws, for example), life is objectively, factually worthless. Indeed, to speak of worth in the absence of the mind of a beholder is to commit a category error. What this means is that if we subtract our personal goals and standards which we’re free to change, and restrict our attention to natural facts that are what they are regardless of what’s in our immediate--mental as opposed to bodily--capacity to affect, we find that as far as biologists are entitled to say, life has no value one way or the other. There would be no more objective loss were life to wink out of existence than were an asteroid, traveling along its path for millions of years like the DNA river, to be suddenly blown apart. Again, what’s at stake here is that, roughly speaking, if life isn’t precious there’s no failure in dying without procreating, in the sense of any dishonour to the ancestors. More precisely, if there’s no objective fact that makes life precious, the high value we put on life would depend entirely on our life-affirming interests which we’d be free to change.

But this suggests another basis for thinking that life has a kind of objective value. Instead of biology, we can turn to society. Even were life’s value to depend entirely on our minds, we have limited control over them. In particular, we have the most control over merely our own mental states, and few if any people can affect how everyone in a society thinks or feels. So if life’s value derives from a social convention, the value is objective and factual in that the value persists regardless of what each person individually has to say about it. Only were the social convention widely rejected and were most of a population thus to regard life, say, as profane rather than sacred, would life’s corresponding value change. Presumably, such a society would implode and so wouldn’t remain long to influence other peoples’ attitude toward life, which is a Darwinian reason why social conventions tend to be life-affirming. 

Still, a convention can be more or less justifiable. Some conventions can even be absurd, so while the true source of the third pressure on people to procreate may be that of mass preference, this doesn’t afford much of a reason to procreate. As I said, we’ve decreased the first two pressures, and an individual, if not society as a whole, can shrug off the third by reminding herself that just because someone else acts questionably doesn’t mean she has to follow. For example, just because non-Nietzschean secularists cling to outmoded theistic values doesn’t mean all secularists should do so.
Evolution as a Ponzi Scheme

If life isn’t precious, and thus the river of DNA doesn’t make for a good reason to have and to raise children, how should we regard life? There are more than the two possibilities I’ve so far discussed, that life is either precious or of no value at all. If we assume that life has no objective or factual value, because it exists ultimately as a brute fact, there’s still the question of whether life should be subjectively valued and if so, what that value should be. I’ll assume that life should somehow be so valued or at least that most people can’t help but be somehow interested in their own and in other creatures’ lives. And I’ll assume the post-Nietzschean context in which theistic values are for clueless zombies. Instead of deluding ourselves with faulty evaluations that no longer make sense, what story should we tell ourselves about the strange existence of living things? What myth about the value of life has a chance of compelling authentic nontheists?

I’ll assume also, as a starting place, the existential conviction that human life especially is absurd and tragic. We’re the victims of a perfect cosmic storm: we’ve evolved to be social and thus to be skilled mind-readers, and so we think in anthropocentric terms, positing not just gods but meanings and purposes where there are objectively none; we instinctively delude ourselves, clinging to comforting, politically correct fairytales even while our consciousness, reason, and freedom alienate us from the rest of the world; we’re self-conflicted, and the culprits, natural selection, the genes, and the laws of nature have no ears to hear our complaints. Job could call on Yahweh to answer his accusations, but we who understand such anthropomorphism as childish or lazy have no such recourse. Ultimately, we’re destined to be unfulfilled, to prefer what can never be, to be pawns in a game played by impersonal forces that we can’t help but personalize. In these facts lie the ridiculousness and the grotesqueness of our existential situation. (See Happiness.)

With these assumptions in mind, I’d say that instead of a river or a sport of passing a torch that holds the precious flame, a more fitting metaphor for the profound continuity between sexually reproducing creatures in a genetic lineage is that of the Ponzi scheme. In this fraud, insiders steal money from a multitude of ignorant followers, by selling them on a false promise that if they invest, they’ll each receive a high return. As long as enough people continue to believe the promise and to invest their share, the insiders can temporarily siphon funds for their own enrichment and pay back a limited number of contributors to maintain the appearance of a thriving business. What makes this a fraud is that the promise to the mass of investors is a lie: were everyone to be rewarded as promised, the business would collapse, and indeed the business can’t sustain itself in the long-term. The scheme requires that there be a minority of insiders with secret knowledge who manipulate fresh legions of fooled outsiders whose investments replenish the system.

The proliferation of creatures by sexual reproduction can be likened to a Ponzi scheme. The fooled majority are those who in nonhuman species have no conception of their existential situation or, in the case of humans, who are misled by theistic delusions into believing that living things are precious. The same neural mechanisms that cause the projection of psychological categories onto inhumane natural processes compel the majority to anticipate a lavish payoff in heaven if they follow divine commandments, by multiplying and respecting God’s creatures. Some can interpret their relative success and happiness on Earth, at least, as preliminary rewards for their contributions to the kingdom of heaven, while unhappy folk obey and are seemingly punished for no known reason. But if there are no gods, who are the sophisticated insiders that exploit the system? I submit that the authentic nontheists can occupy that role. Granted, they don’t direct natural selection or even necessarily concoct the religious narratives that propel the fraud, but they can exploit the system in which we all find ourselves. This is because only the authentic, post-Nietzschean nontheists understand the absurd, tragic nature of that system. Only the insiders realize that human life has persisted despite our exclusive ability to comprehend the horrifying truth, because of our compensating capacity for self-delusion.

How, though, can the existentialist profit from nature’s Ponzi scheme? Some charlatans exploit people’s gullibility as cult leaders, televangelists, or politicians, literally stealing from them and setting up classic mini Ponzi schemes within the greater one that perpetuates our species as a whole. I reject that option as distasteful. A more minor but aesthetically more refined payoff for the secular insider is schadenfreude, amusement at other people’s expense. The value of life is that in the minds of insiders, our tragedy can be transmuted into a comedy, and the profit for sophisticated observers who exploit the victims of the evolutionary Ponzi scheme is their extraction of humour from the haplessness of their more ignorant fellows. Insiders should laugh inwardly, if not also outwardly, at the expense of adult humans who, despite their godlike cognitive powers, act like hallucinating children.

What does this mean for procreation? On the one hand, the insider can bear children and raise them as insiders, spreading the wealth of schadenfreude. Should the offspring wilt under social pressures and become duped outsiders, victims of the cosmic Ponzi scheme, the parent may be forced to pass them off as hot potatoes, exploiting them too for bittersweet pleasure. Here, then, is a mixed reason for even the authentic nontheist, who regards life as objectively worthless and as subjectively ridiculous and largely tragic, to procreate. On the other hand, merely coping with knowledge of our dark existential situation requires great stamina and toughness. Facing the prospect of bursting a child’s balloon by informing her that most people who ever lived have lived as unknowing clowns or puppets, as victims of a monstrous system of natural forces that renders the whole human endeavour laughable at best, may be daunting for even the stout cosmicist. Then again, facing the potential tragedy that your own child may be mesmerized by politically correct fictions and join the unknowing mass of cosmic victims has a silver lining, since ignorance can be bliss. I see, then, no obvious implication as to whether an authentic nontheist, a post-Nietzschean cosmicist and existentialist should procreate. This depends on the individual’s fortitude and capacity to derive pleasure from circumstances that might just as well be interpreted as exquisitely painful. 


  1. Since you directed me to this after my mention of Benatar, a few comments:

    - In order to but into the worth of continuing human existence, "Joe Blow" does not have to personally recreate, he just has to aid those who do.

    - Even if theism were still a live option (which you assume as a matter of course but I actually do not), it would not solve the problem. Just because God endorses the continuation of humanity would not make it good. You would also have to assume moral cognitivism along with God's omniscience, I think.

    - I don't think the value of continuing human existence has to be tied at all to "honouring ancestors". If human life is a good thing it would make sense for it to continue, regardless.

    - In a Ponzi scheme, I think the perpetrators usually know it is a scheme. This isn't usually the case here. Also, it need not be a Ponzi scheme if it *could* continue forever. Rather it is just more like the idea that as the GDP of a country goes up, it can sustain a larger debt load, indefinitely. Of course there is always the heat death of the universe to worry about (or maybe not -- Freeman Dyson has something on this).

    But it surely is true that as things are now, we need new people coming in to support old people. Right now it seems to be a crucial problem, but perhaps that is just because of the baby-boom demographic blip, and maybe it will resolve itself. However, perhaps there is the possibility that as technology improves, we will be able to ramp down the creation of folks to support us in old age, and so on. Then humanity could scale down gradually, and end with a whimper and not a bang. (Assuming that the most moral among us would otherwise have opted for exploding the earth, if possible).

    Mention of the earth brings up the issue of all the non-human animals. Surely if we wanted to end it all, we should also take care of them as well.

    Here I recall Schopenhauer claim that "A quick test of the assertion that enjoyment outweighs pain in this world, or that they are at any rate balanced, would be to compare the feelings of an animal engaged in eating another with those of the animal being eaten".

    I don't know if this is really correct, though. Alfred Russel Wallace thought it was not. What do you think? What does David Suzuki think (nature, a wonderful harmony)?

    1. Thanks for your comments. I don't advocate antinatalism, the intentional termination of our species by ending sexual reproduction. Nor do I advocate suicide. This is because I think there's a more encouraging way out of the horrors I talk about on this blog. The way out is the philosophy/religion I'm exploring here.

      From what little I know of Benatar's view, I don't find it compelling. He seems to argue by way of utilitarianism, but this requires measuring the total pleasure and pain of human life, to see whether that life generally produces more pain than pleasure. I don't see how that measurement could be made. Moreover, as I argue in "Happiness is Unbecoming," I don't think happiness should be our highest goal, in the first place.

      The point about the Ponzi scheme is just to raise that scheme as an analogy, and all analogies are limited, which is why they're not identities. I don't remember saying that the value of human life *must* be tied to honouring our ancestors; instead, I'm just responding to this one argument in favour of procreation. And I don't think exoteric, literalistic theism is a live option. Still, I don't think hyper-rational New Atheism is much of an improvement. See, for example, "Theism: Does its Irrationality Matter?" I know I'm referring to a lot of my writings in these comments, but the fact is that I've been busy laying out what I think of many of these issues.

  2. Yes, this page isn't really relevant to anti-natalism like Benatar, especially if (as it not clear to me despite the title) it is only dealing with the one argument for reproduction that involves "honouring ancestors". In fact, anti-natalism is not about obligations to do something at all, but the opposite, arguments to refrain from doing something, a totally different thing. (And it has nothing to do with suicide, a comomon straw man brought up by pissed-off anti-anti-natalists) But you referred me to this page, so...

    I think even if happiness isn't the HIGHEST goal, goals are such that enough severe unhappiness could overwhelm other goals. Utilitarianism with a common currency is too simplistic for sure as a positive program, but considerations of degrees of happiness and their distribution could still be part of a non-utilitarian moral theory in such a way that arguments like Benatar's have some weight.

    Anyway the only question I explicitly asked was about animals. To me (with S) it seems pretty obvious that the suffering is severe and may outweigh the pleasure. But Wallace thought lower animals actually didn't feel so much pain, so that in the end, it was not so bad. Do you think that is so? It seems unlikely to me. I do believe it for things like cockroaches and bedbugs, but could that just be a very convenient falsehood?

  3. Oh yeah, I wanted to add, if you want a head-bangingly technically incomprehensible theory that combines pluralistic values into one motivational structure where it could be true that happiness is not the "highest" goal yet could override higher goals if there was enough of it or its opposite, I would recommend looking at UToronto's Professor (Emeritus) Danny Goldstick's paper "Motivations" (

    Actually, if the main few sentences were re-parsed into about ten sentences each, and some auxiliary variables were added, it probably would be comprehensible...

    1. Well, I don't know about Benatar, but as I understand it, antinatalism is supposed to be a hardcore implication of cosmicism, pessimism, or misanthropy. As Schopenhauer and Ligotti put it, the point isn't that humans are so precious that we must be spared any pain, and thus that since living at all entails some pain, we should refrain from procreating. That's not their argument anyway; instead, they say that humans are such bad creatures and the universe is such a horrible place that our species deserves to be extinguished even while the universe doesn't deserve to be inhabited. So I pointed you to this article of mine because it's relevant to those questions.

      Since humans are animals and we feel pain, I see no reason to think we're the only ones that do so. Humans probably feel the most and the worst pain, though, because we're the most self-aware: we have the most cognitive tools for poking around in our minds, so that we don't just feel pain but we brood, hold grudges, and over-analyze, looking at the pain from all directions and remembering it for decades. Moreover, we're the most intelligent species and thus we've learned the worst of what nature has to offer. This is what I call the curse of reason, which enables us to feel special varieties of pain: existential angst, horror, and despair.

      The first page of Goldstick's paper doesn't seem as incomprehensible as his abstract. Compressing an academic paper into a couple of sentences can force the author to write badly. Still, many analytic and continental philosophy papers themselves are filled with jargon and they're both unreadable and not in fact much read. The argument in Goldstick's abstract seems to be that we have desires that are like unquenchable thirsts: they can't be fulfilled and thus we don't think algorithmically.

  4. Never heard of Ligotti but he looks very interesting, will add to list. I am not a Schopenhauer scholar but I didn't know he though all humans were bad or evil. I would gather that at least when counting pains he considers some animals as innocent enough to be non-deserving of pain. It is not a matter of being "precious" at all. Pain can be a very bad thing (I think ceteris paribus it is) even if its sufferers are not "precious. Benatar I am pretty sure doesn't think potential or actual sufferers are precious nor does he think they are "bad creatures" either on the whole. And although it seems that to most people his conclusions are dramatic (and ridiculously beyond the pale, or disgusting), his arguments do not seem to be based in these hugely dramatic concepts of "evil" and "precious", just prosaic issues of suffering (Although a major cause of suffering for him seems to be awareness of death).

    What you say about humans and other animals seems correct. But without filling in some more details, it doesn't seem that it is that useful in helping us decide what to do. Existential angst is bad for some people for sure, but severe physical suffering can be pretty bad too, right? And we should consider that when we consider what we ought to do, right? And that means all the suffering in the animal kingdom, and the interests animals have in avoiding it, should be a moral consideration, right? Not just our own actions toward animals, as most animals rights people seem to emphasize? It seems to me like Peter Singer and the like should be recommending virtual realities for each animal so that they can get all the good of their lives and avoid most of the bad. No one seems to be talking about this any kind of moral imperative at all. But this is why I asked you: if all animals including all the insects we kill all the time are experiencing great suffering, we are really screwed when it comes to furthering the good. Anti-natalism starts to look pretty good then, ironically because of the dumbest and not the smartest more existential angst ridden.

    The abstract of Goldstick's paper is not so bad, nor the first page (if I recall). It is the formal definition of motivation he gives, in English, in terms of probability distributions and the like. I am getting a little motivated to once again try to parse it out into mathematics and see if that makes it more comprehensible to me but I doubt it is worth the trouble.

    (By the way (adding this after another captcha failure) when I said I had trouble with your captchas "like many", it was probably not clear that I meant that I had trouble with many other captcha systems, and not that many others (I might have seemed to be claiming) have the same trouble with yours. I am sure nearly all people can do them with ease, but I have to remove glasses, get up close to monitor, and study them carefully. Talk about a terrifying, horrifying and immanent-within-keystrokes prospect).

    1. By Ligotti, I meant specifically his book, Conspiracy Against the Human Race.

      I think you're right that it's hard to retain pride in our species when we take into account all the suffering we cause, just as it's hard to feel proud of our natural home when we consider all the suffering that occurs in it that we don't cause. These are the intuitions behind the mystical Eastern ideas of maya, samsara, and moksha, which I write about on this blog. Are you an antinatalist, then? What about some kind of asceticism (abstinence, denunciation, and renunciation) as a solution?

      I'm not sure which captcha you're talking about. I don't see any captcha on this blog. I sign in through Google, though. I guess you're signing in as Anonymous, so maybe the captchas are reserved for that entrance. But if it's really annoying for you, it might be worth it just to open up a Gmail account, since it's free. Then you could sign into these sorts of blogs and avoid the captcha altogether.

  5. Right, that's the book I meant, that I managed to find copy of and read a little.

    I don't believe I brought up the issue of "pride" at all. Just trying to raise considerations about the overall good and what we should try to do in light of that. I do not tie myself so tightly into our species and the rest of our world that I feel pride for what they do or do not do, but in the case of members of our species that make moral arguments, I try to consider them and see how good they are so I can decide whether to adopt them or not. A utilitarian like Singer who considers only what people to do non-human animals and not the overall suffering of animals for any reason seems to be not arguing at all from his alleged first principles. If he made an argument on utilitarian grounds that the cost of trying to help *all* animals was too high and would even have counter-productive consequences, that would be different, but I haven't seen such a thing. On the other hand, on utilitarian grounds he might believe even bringing up the issue would be counterproductive, so that could explain it as well. He has written a paper defending what he calls "esoteric morality", after all.

    I don't think I am an anti-natalist. And certainly "asceticism" is not attractive on the whole, since for the most part it does nothing to improve the lot of others (in the "Eastern" terms you mention above, there is no necessarily conceptual connection between an ascetic and a bodhisattva). It has as a side-effect, I guess, that at least no extra harm is done, but we should organize and do better than that insofar as it is possible, while not expecting too much of individual people. I don't expect individuals to go it alone (Martha Nussbaum's review of Peter Unger's book "Living High and Letting Die" is instructive in this regard I believe). Generally, in addition, asceticism seems like overkill from the purely personal point of view, and not likely to work except maybe for some whose persoanalities gives them a temperamental and romantic attachment to it.

    I will try logging in, but it still asks for a captcha the first time. It is the gmail captcha one occasionally gets, which is hard enough, plus another one which can be even impossible (but one can request another one). It's not a serious issue of course in any case...

    1. Thanks for your thoughts. There are different degrees of asceticism, and as you say, some are selfish while others are selfless. Indeed, altruism is hard to understand on a radically mystical view of the unity of everything: if the difference between people is an illusion, why worry about the illusory suffering of illusory individuals?

      I don't have to fill in any captcha when signing into Gmail. My computer remembers my login info so it skips the captcha. Only if I accidentally hit a different key, so that Gmail thinks someone else is trying to login in, does a captcha pop up. You might want to look into that. I also find certain captchas very annoying, especially the ones that are literally ambiguous. But I find that they're easier to fill in if you judge them letter by letter instead of trying to read the word as a whole.

  6. I don't think so: if the difference between people is an illusion, then everyone else's suffering IS your suffering, and under most theories of practical reason you will have even stronger reason for caring about their suffering. Major moral theorist Derek Parfit acquired most of his fame by developing this idea ("Reasons and Persons")

    Personally though, I don't buy this mystical unity stuff and haven't seen any real reason to do so. Nor do all grounding theological theories of "Eastern" religions buy this, Dvaita Vedanta being one example.

    Also, I think we have to be very careful about the idea of "illusory suffering". I think no suffering is illusory really, even though it may be based ultimately in illusion. Suffering is real suffering. You don't remove the illusory nature of the suffering to remove the suffering, you remove the illusion at its base. Although when a person has serious cancer causing great pain, I really thinking blathering on about how the cancer is really an illusion is not a very good idea. I would rather see research on curing and scientifically managing cancer (where not all of the latter is pushing mindfulness meditation and the like although I am not trying to belittle that as a component).

  7. Why live?

    The only real answer I can think of is because we've made a habit of it.

    From the moment you're born, before you've even become self aware, you have been committed to life. Life and death are objectively equal. There is no reason why one should prefer life to death or death to life. But all things being equal, you've commited yourself to life. By the time you've grown old enough to become self aware, you've also become aware that every instant of your existence so far you've chosen to live rather than die.

    In this one aspect life and death are not equal. Commitment. You've been commited to life, involuntarily and unknowingly for sure, all your existence. So to continue living requires no real choice, no justifications. But death would. In fact, to choose death over life would require you to justify denying every choice you've ever made. Furthermore, there is no justification for that choice considering that life and death are both equal.

    In other words, we choose to live because we've chosen to live. Because there is no basis on which the decision can be made, we're stuck with our original choice, even though it was not of our choosing.

    The justification for procreation follows similarly. There is no basis for the ontological distinction between the self and the other. At the same time, we are aware that the ostensible other will survive the ostensible self, in the same way that the ostensible self has outlived ostensible others. And because the 'other' is the 'self', and the 'self' is commited to life, the 'self' is commited to the continuation of the 'self' through the 'other'.

    Procreation is one such viable continuation.

    1. Thanks for your thoughts on the matter. I certainly agree we make a habit of choosing life. Instincts and distractions both come into play here. I'm not sure I agree, though, that life and death are objectively equal, that there's no reason to choose one or the other. They're objectively different, just as any two things are so. I think you're saying there's no *ultimate* reason to favour anyone's life over that person's death, since the universe doesn't care one way or the other. This may be so if we assume atheism, but there can still be non-ultimate, objective reasons why living is better than dying.

      In any case, this article isn't really about suicide. It's about whether we ought to procreate to honour the habits that all our ancestors fell into, namely the habits of living and raising a family. Do we drop the ball in some cosmic sense if we don't, letting down our ancestors or the eyes of the world? Or are they all dead so they don't get a say in our decisions?

      I suspect the common preference to have kids is still based partly on a kind of ancestor worship. We feel the weight of history on our shoulder like we're playing on Team Humanity and we don't want to disappoint our fellows. It's a kind of camaraderie.

    2. I'm not sure that you understand what I mean. I'm not talking about suicide. I'm trying to explain why we are bound to the continuity of life, an instance of which is procreation. We procreate because we've made a habit of living, and procreation is one way in which we make a habit of living.

      What I'm saying is that there is no valid objection to death, simply because death invalidates all objections. You can't object to death when you're dead (as far as we know).

      And for the same reason, there is no valid objection to life. Objections are only valid as long as one is alive, so objecting to life is objecting to the very conditions that are necessary for objection. Therefore, the objection to life invalidates itself.

      It is in this way that life and death are equal. There is no basis for preference of the one over the other. You only choose life over death is because the choice has already been made for you, and because there is no valid objection to life, there is no valid reason to change your mind.

      How does this relate to the question of procreation?

      Procreation is one way of living, of continuing existence, of sticking to the choice of life that has been made for you. It is only one way, though, and as such, not a necessary choice.

      I agree with you that there can't be any valid universal reason that demands that all human beings must procreate, and that all such arguments are fundamentally inauthentic. But the choice of life does demand that we live, and if an individual's own unique circumstances demands that that person procreate in order to live up to his or her commitment to life, then it is a valid reason.

      In other words, I agree with you in the part regarding the fallacy of a universal obligation to procreate. But I think you overlook the question of valid reasons arising from unique individual circumstances.

    3. Thanks for the clarifications. I should say that I'm not arguing here against all procreation. I'm not saying there are no good reason to have kids. I'm considering only one reason that might be given, which is that we should honour our ancestors and our place in our species.

      You seem to be saying that having kids is one way of expressing the fact that we're bound to favour life. Suicide shows that we're not so forced, though, and the drop of the birth rate in modern societies shows that procreation isn't so important to the elite consumer's way of life.

    4. Suicide is difficult to explain. Rationally speaking, there rarely any good reason to commit suicide. Certainly circumstances may arise where suicide is the only reasonable option, but somehow, even then people often insist on irrationally continuing their existence.

      For most cases, in my experience, suicide is an irrational impulse, in a sense a perversion of the will to live. To explain my point, most human beings live for a purpose, say a father who lives to see his children provided for. But then circumstances change, and the father finds he has become a burden on his children. The longer he lives then, the more of his life's work he undoes, and the only way to preserve what he has achieved in his life is to take himself out of the equation.

      Suicide then may seem like a perfectly logical conclusion within the logical framework. I personally would argue in such a case that the framework of assumption is flawed, and therefore the conclusion as well, but as such, suicide doesn't necessarily contradict the will to life. In this case it actually supports it.

      Do all people have the will to live? I think so. After all, when do you ever hear of someone killing themselves for no reason at all. And in terms of my argument, any purposeful act of self-annihilation is an expression of the will to live.

      However, I think that all people also have an inherent 'will to unlife', a natural self-defensive instinct which serves to curb the natural will to life from overwhelming us. In this constant battle between the will to life and the will to unlife, often the will to unlife wins. We succumb to a meaningless existence of living death, an life reduced to empty self-sustaining routinized existence.

  8. My take is that no therapsid, troglodyte, hominid, or ancient tribesman of my lineage can express "disappointment" in my very likely lifelong un-childed state , unless he undertakes to explain just wtf I was 'appointed' for as lord and master of some earth and water (plenty of that, down here!).. Yeah, unlikely. BUt just looking around, come on. It can't have been that important.

    1. Have you read Cormac McCarthy's book The Road or seen the movie? There's a metaphor in that book about the need to pass on the torch of life, especially in a postapocalyptic world in which most people have died. This metaphor is borrowed from the Olympics, I suppose, but it nicely illustrates the feeling that there's an obligation to procreate, to pass on the torch and do our part to preserve our species. I'm not saying I agree with this obligation, but I do think this is a real pressure we should all come to terms with.

  9. Benjamin, do you have children?

    1. No, I don't have kids nor do I think I'll likely have any, but I have a couple of nephews, one of whom I've written about in a few articles here.