I'm writing to express my sincere gratitude for the work you've done on your blog. I discovered it a few weeks ago and have since spent a great deal of time combing through your intelligent, thought-provoking, and often challenging pieces. I apologize for what might prove to be a whiny or indulgent message here, but I feel the need introduce myself and some of the issues that brought me to your blog, at the very least to illustrate my gratitude for your writing and also to selfishly ask for some advice and clarification, which I could truly use at the moment. I appreciate your time in advance and hope this isn't inappropriate or a large inconvenience.
I'm an 18 year old college freshman who began this school year generally content with life and operating within the typical atheistic secular-humanist philosophy of life you frequently target in your pieces, inspired by a convenient reading of Camus in my 10th grade English class and some baseline philosophy reading. College and the general change in social and environmental context quickly got me reevaluating my perception of life, and soon a whole host of grave existential dilemmas began finding their way into my thought; questions of value, meaning, consciousness etc. that I thought I had figured out in high school, but whose rationalizations seemed to be quickly deteriorating--suddenly, I was finding scathing critiques of Camus's and Sartre's philosophies, describing them as childish and wholly inadequate to the true challenges posed by existentialism and nihilism. My reasonable justification of my morality and sense of purpose quickly fell apart. My resulting obsessive research demonstrated that older thinkers like Nietzsche and Schopenhauer were onto the same ideas I was, which I found momentarily comforting, but the questions of suffering, suicide, and whether there might be any possible way of rationally justifying my continued existence weighed like hell on me, and for every piece I found describing some fix to these philosophical problems, I found another contradicting it.
Thus far, my year has been a continuous series of existential crises. They've been marked by alternating periods of some vague hope and debilitating despair while I attempt to maintain my grades and a normal disposition for friends and family, most of whom can't seem to understand why I think the way I do, excluding a few who do but don't take their thought processes to these extremes. As a friendly, cynical-yet-idealistic kid who loves the Colbert Report, absurdist literature, Talking Heads, and was hoping to finally kiss a girl at some point in the near future, I have never felt so terrifyingly alone. I did begin seeing a school therapist last semester (to pacify the worries of my parents), who ultimately hasn't been much help with these particular philosophical issues (I identified quite a bit with your article on psychiatry, her professional assumption seems to be that angst is bad regardless of the philosophical justification). Our discussion about the philosophical debate over suicide has, as you might expect, been completely unhelpful. I've spent countless hours in the last several months huddled over my laptop trying to find answers, frantically bouncing around countless links and websites and forums, in the process becoming acquainted with a basic groundwork of philosophy, which led me down the ropes into nihilism, naturalism, materialism, pessimism…the works--Google and Wikipedia are wonderful and terrible things. At this point, finding motivation every morning is a struggle, and the daily anxiety is constant and overwhelming.
At my most horrific point, I found myself drowning alone in my dorm one late night in compelling YouTube videos and blog posts about anti-natalism and the rationality of suicide, arguments made by people who seemed highly intelligent and philosophically educated, who had considered all possible counterarguments and debunked them before they could get off the ground. I couldn't seem to find any coherent arguments against such a terrifying conclusion that weren't swiftly answered by ANs, and even scholarly responses to the issue seemed to be dismissed by other undeniable compelling sources (for example, David Benatar wrote a response article to criticisms of his book, addressing his most prominent critics--including the one you cite in your article about AN--and concluding that his theory still stood). Thinkers like Zapffe and Schopenhauer and Ligotti came up, and the reason behind their thought was compelling enough, only to have modern bloggers and philosophers push them to an even further point of pessimism. I found Nietzsche's life-affirming ideals, which had previously provided me with some hope, blindly dismissed as grotesque and as resorting to the romanticized, unintelligible tough-guy existential rebellion that no rational or realistic person could possibly accept. And though many of these anti-natalist thinkers seemed not to advocate suicide, their rationales against it never appeared more than flimsy and unsatisfying to my eyes. So essentially, I found myself cowering in the most horrific nihilistic despair, utterly hopeless, unclear as to why I should continue my life.
I found your blog the next day, the link to your anti-natalism article popping up on google. To say it was a relief is an understatement, as it was the first intelligent response to the issue I had found that seemed to approach the issue from a slightly different perspective. Your arguments bought me some piece of mind, and I quickly began exploring the rest of your blog. Your writing was a breath of fresh air-- level-headed, highly educated, and comforting, dealing with difficult issues that other mainstream philosophers I had read about glanced over without resorting to any nasty, emotionally-charged attacks of zealous blog philosophers...in retrospect, I suppose the fact that your pessimistic arguments were a cause for my optimism at the time is indicative of how hopeless I felt before.
Certainly, some of it was problematic for me, primarily your dissection of love as being aesthetically negative--my closest friends were my only comfort during darker times, even as I kept them largely ignorant of my issues (I wonder if you think some concept of companionship, like Nietzsche's description of marriage as rooted primarily in "friendship," might be a possible substitute, or if I'm doomed to live the rest of my life--and pass through college-- in self-imposed isolation to escape existential inauthenticity. I'm surely more of a thinker than many of my friends, and have always considered myself more an observer than blind participant in society, but I am by no means an introvert who finds it easy or desirable to avoid friendship and social situations (or what I suppose you might refer to as delusional social games). Perhaps my hormones and wishful thinking are coming into play here, but I desperately want to avoid finding genuine friendship to be aesthetically wrong, even as your logic of rebellion against our natural tendencies makes a great deal of sense. In other, more honest words, can I ever feel okay about wanting that first kiss if it's rooted in a mature intellectual relationship rather than simple sexual impulses that reduce to evolutionary programming? Is this possible? Or even just a close friend? Is the inspiration we can find in art any different than the inspiration we can find in other people? I apologize if these questions are redundant, and I realize this is quite a loaded topic for you to respond to, especially with someone my age, but I hoped you might have some encouraging words about it outside of what you've already posted on Rants. Or perhaps I'm simply too cowardly to abandon these desires. But I am desperately hoping there might be some manner of finding a middle ground). I really don't mean to pinpoint one of your arguments here and whine about how I don't want to accept it, as some commenters have, I just hope that there might be some chance for a slightly more positive alternative to this specific idea.
In general, I've mostly found myself immediately identifying with your ideas while (perhaps contradictorily?) hoping to rationalize them in a manner that doesn't completely cut me off from the life I know. I probably don't mean to sound so negative at this point, I've certainly gotten significant pleasure and hope out of the great majority of your writing, such as your discussion of Brassier and your dialogues with R. Bakker, as well as your whole discussion of aesthetics. I've also greatly enjoyed your new satirical articles and videos. However, as you might imagine, my other troubling concerns tend to overshadow these positives.
In relation to the anti-natalism issue, your writing certainly provided me with some immediate comfort after that dark experience. However, as desperately as I'd like to, I can't seem to conclusively put to rest their arguments and be fully content in accepting yours rejection of AN. Like I wrote above, even the most compelling arguments against it seem to find opposition from intelligent anti-natalist thinkers. As such, I wonder if you've kept up with any new writing on the issue? (Here’s one website that’s highly comprehensive, and which I noticed another commenter posted before; I believe it would be worth your time if you haven't visited yet). I've noticed your blog mentioned on a few of these AN sites, and the line typically goes something like "this guy seems to have some pretty intelligent views about the horror of existence and all, but then he tries to fix it with some BS romanticized existential rebellion ...he'll come around to AN eventually."
Now, I certainly see comments like this as oversimplifying the nuances of your aesthetic response to cosmic horror, but at the same time I can't help but entertain the disconcerting thought that they might be correct, in some sense and that one might be able to rationally dismiss your views for the same reasons they reject Nietzsche's, or the simpler Camus (i.e. an inadequate justification of suffering, silly idea of existential rebellion), leading ultimately to a suicidal nihilism that might result if you confront the conclusions of AN truthfully. Perhaps this doubt is the mark of my being a young, impressionable thinker who hasn't fully internalize the arguments for himself yet. While part of me wants to assume you've accounted for these objections in your work, another part worries that it might fall victim to these criticisms anyway. To clarify, I have read your articles on AN and suicide (I've read most of the blog), but let me stress that I don't profess to fully comprehend the complexity of your ideas, which I suppose is why I'm asking you about these criticisms, and I genuinely hope you don't take offense to my possible unintentional disregarding of important points in your work that may already have addressed these concerns. However, if you could ease my mind on these issues, it would be greatly appreciated (Again: I don't mean any offense or disrespect to you or your thought whatsoever! I'm simply superficially cynical and can't help but bring my pessimistic bias into things. I imagine you can relate. I'm positive my ignorance is also a significant factor).
In a more general sense, I wonder if you might have any tips for an 18 year old college student trying to balance a fulfilling intellectual and emotional life with an enlightened and despairing understanding of our existence and the many troubling ideas that come with it, ideally one that doesn't force him into complete seclusion and depressing isolation. Again, I don't mean to overstep my boundaries in asking such questions, as I know you are simply an intelligent thinker posting his thoughts on the internet rather than someone volunteering philosophical therapy for troubled kids. Yet, the nature of these issues being what they are, I find myself feeling utterly alone in figuring this all out and would greatly appreciate any help you could provide. I do have plans to meet with my philosophy professor (just started philosophy 101--the irony) to discuss your writing, and am set to meet a philosophy grad student with a specialty in Nietzsche in a few days to discuss generally, if only to get out of my head a bit. Even so, I thought it might be smart to reach out to you directly.
Ultimately, I'm a young person trying to find a way to genuinely cope with these terrifying ideas in a way that won't rob me fully of everything I hold dear. At times, I wish I could fall for the delusions that direct much of society, but such a possibility is quite far gone by now, and perhaps after all, as you've pointed out, unethical. Maybe my hope in this situation is foolish, but I don't want (can't bring myself?) to give up on some salvaging of my old values just yet.
Again, I want to thank you for the work you've done, and for taking the time out to read this obnoxiously long, overly personal letter. I've noticed a few comments on your site of late carrying a similar "help me I'm scared!" tone, and I don't mean to add to them unnecessarily or be a burdensome stranger. I was nervous to write to you for these reasons, but I don't feel I have many other viable places to turn. I would greatly appreciate any sort of response you could provide, although I understand if this is an inconvenience. I truly apologize if any of this has been distasteful or immature or poorly written, or if I have expressed gross ignorance on the subjects discussed.
A Reader [name redacted]
There’s no need for such formality in writing to me. I’m always intrigued by readers’ comments on my writings, partly because I haven’t expunged my ego and am glad to know some people find my blog useful, but also because I learn from those comments and am happy to help fellow travellers. Your engagement with the blog is particularly moving and challenging and I thank you very much for your thought-provoking comments and questions.
You write very well for an 18-year-old. Indeed, I doubt I knew half as much as you seem to when I was your age. I’m sure you’re aware of the stereotype of the teenager who goes through a period of angst, because the teen is between being a child and an adult. That’s often the time for philosophical exploration before the teen gets a life, as they say, to fill his or her time with meaningful distractions, such as family and employment. Philosophy can be a trap in this respect. It’s the curse of reason, but more specifically it’s the obsession with discovering the absolute truth however subversive that truth may be. There’s the sense that those who confront the truth are heroic while everyone else is cowardly and infantile. I too have that sense, but there are other things going on here too.
The fact is that when you take philosophy to its limit, as Scott Bakker seems to be doing, in his way, truth itself dissolves in the mystical perception of nature’s unity and fundamental physicality. There are no more texts or symbols or theories or arguments. There are natural processes that just happen, and our pondering and talking are parts of those processes. And another fact: nature is horrifying but also sublime. That’s what the antinatalists miss. They focus on the suffering and they think their moral obligation is to end it at all costs, but suffering isn’t inherently bad. Morality is practically epiphenomenal, so suffering too is part of what nature’s becoming--through living things like us.
Incidentally, you’re in luck on two fronts. Even as I type these words I’m just now uploading a 55 minute YouTube video I made the other day responding to Inmendham’s antinatalism and ultra-pessimism. You can find that video on my YouTube channel. It’s hard to respond to antinatalist arguments without going into them in detail, but I’d be suspicious of overly-technical arguments in philosophy in general, since philosophy is at least as much art as it is science. The problems with antinatalism are much more fundamental and glaring than technical. The antinatalist claims to be hyperrational and naturalistic, but then you hear them talking seriously about morality and utilitarianism. Unfortunately, there’s a clash between naturalism and morality. Morality is supported by myths and we should judge myths largely on their aesthetic merits, because they’re fictions and the relevant natural process that’s passing through is a creative one: we relatively autonomous beings are creating ourselves and our societies, using moral and religious ideas as artistic inspirations.
As for heroic rebellion, I say in the video that palpable evidence of it is provided by all culture and artificiality which distinguish us from the lower animals, which indicate our limited freedom from the degrading cycle of life, and which have been going on for thousands of years. So there’s plenty of evidence of suffering in nature which should indeed horrify us, but there’s also tremendous evidence of transcendence in the cases of personhood, culture, and the creation of our artificial worlds which replace the old, genetically-determined order. Antinatalists need to pay more attention to the latter and stop harping so much on the birth pangs.
Also, I plan to write soon on the choice between misanthropy and personal intimacy. I got the idea to do so after I was moved by seeing the movie Her (and then to a much lesser extent, Don Jon). So you might want to check that article out. It will likely be up within a few weeks.
To address one of your questions, then, yes I do think there’s a middle ground, but I’d prefer not to characterize it as such because that would assume we’re all on the same continuum when it comes to our values. It’s like comparing artworks (paintings, movies, and so on). We can do so, but the works are actually independent since to understand them you need to appreciate the contexts in which they’re made and there’s great variety in those contexts. This isn’t to fall back on postmodern relativism, since there are universal truths--but that’s only with respect to the facts. When we’re talking about values such as moral or aesthetic ones, we should be wary of deferring to social conventions or to other kinds of received wisdom. Values are just emotionally-compelling ideas that lend coherence to our worldview, and a worldview is a set of ideas that makes sense of our experience, memories, character, and other circumstances. So there’s a lot of variety here to account for.
Anyway, no, I don’t think we should all be ascetic introverts. I do think there are honourable and existentially-responsible ways of having social relationships. I’m still thinking about this, though, so hopefully I’ll have more to say in that coming article.
But one question I’d ask you is whether philosophy is the primary cause of your angst. Maybe, instead, your interest in philosophy is an effect, something you turn to for consolation because of personal troubles in your life. If you have such troubles, you might consider dealing with them directly rather than using philosophy to rationalize them or to distract you. Maybe you just fell into philosophy because of the teen phase I spoke of or because you’re particularly bright or bookish. In that case, I’d say that you’ve got many years ahead of you for brooding and pessimism. Don’t waste your youth on an old person’s worries. I know that might sound condescending, but I’m not saying you should put aside philosophy entirely in an egregious act of intellectual cowardice. Instead, you might arrive at an interim conclusion of agnosticism about some of these issues.
Instead of brooding so much now, you should find something that really inspires you, something you personally find sacred (ultimately important and emotionally stirring), and something that challenges your rational, philosophical conclusions on a gut level. If we pretend that our philosophical beliefs are purely rational, we wind up being perhaps apparently godlike, like Sherlock Holmes or Data or Sheldon Cooper (from The Big Bang Theory), but we also become fundamentally clownish and incomplete. Antinatalists (or ultra-pessimists in general) are fuelled not just by reason, but by loathing, bitterness, and so on. I know about the genetic fallacy of reducing a statement’s epistemic status to a psychological factor, but that’s not what I’m doing here. I’m saying our picture of the world should be as complete as possible. Again, philosophy has an artistic side and that’s where emotions enter the picture. Antinatalists like Inmendham move us with harsh rhetoric, but we can be moved in positive ways as well, such as by uplifting art.
Emotions are matters of mood and our moods change over the years. At 18 you’ll be preoccupied with sex and be moved by the thrill of anticipating naughty entanglements. What I’m saying, then, is that you should focus on philosophical reflection now only if you have few or no opportunities to live as a happy-go-lucky teenager. If you’re obese or impoverished or mentally ill, for example, nature may have already pushed you in a philosophical direction. But if you have opportunities to enjoy yourself more, don’t let them go to waste just because the truth seems bleak. The truth of what we should value depends partly on what we put into it, because unlike scientific truth, the normative kind is subjective. Again, our values have aesthetic roles in that they literally shape our lives. You should want to become something awe-inspiring, sublime, and beautiful, not something hideous or clichéd. We should try to have the last laugh against nature’s monstrous creativity, by using that creativity against the undead god. Be original in how you reconcile your reason and your emotions, your philosophical doubts and your aspirations and ideals.
Suicide isn’t remotely the answer unless you’re literally living in hell. Remember that if you dwell in a modern society, there are millions of people elsewhere in the world who have it much worse and they’re not killing themselves. Those poorer folks aren’t simply stupid, either; instead, they’re swept up in world-spanning social and evolutionary processes that seem to be creating higher orders of being (the noosphere, technosphere, and so on). I do think that happiness is unbecoming for anyone with a passing interest in the natural truth, but there are more than just the two choices of delusory happiness and debilitating angst. I think we should struggle to find our ways of reconciling these issues and of bridging the old divisions between reason, emotion, and instinct.
We should understand that nature is an undead god, which means that the world is primarily a sublime creator and that our glory then is to create with honour, integrity, and artistic inspiration, if not necessarily with world-shaking genius. We should create our worlds partly to rebel against the natural horrors and to honour our godlike potential. And those artificial worlds can include networks of friendships and of more intimate relationships. Just try to do justice both to reason (science and philosophy) and to your nonrational side. Great art requires inspiration, so we have to let our emotions move us. But if we find all our emotions are dark, that’s because our experience is too limited. Again, our moods change as soon as we encounter different aspects of the world. So shake things up and work hard and have some fun!
I’m not saying we should strive for what I’ve called a rich, full life, as infantile consumers and philistines, because the quantity of experiences isn’t as important as the quality. My point is that you need to find something in the world that arouses your passion since that will motivate you to produce great art (to live well in aesthetic terms). Again, because nature is the undead GOD, it’s bound to have created a great many things, some of which will surely awe you in a constructive way rather than just disgusting or shaming you. Go out and find those things in the world and then, as Joseph Campbell said, follow your heart.
You seem to appreciate that I’m not a social worker and that I’m not especially wise, but I’ll close by reminding you of those facts. I’ll help my readers as I can, but I don’t have the ultimate answers; on the contrary, I’m using my blog primarily to work out some answers for myself. The internet is full of people doing likewise. But don’t follow anyone. If you find something inspiring, something that moves you on a gut level and that motivates you to try to put your stamp on the world, you’ll have done the best you could with what you’ve been given.