“Something might be true although at the same time harmful and dangerous in the highest degree; indeed, it could pertain to the fundamental nature of existence that a complete knowledge of it would destroy one – so that the strength of a spirit could be measured by how much ‘truth’ it could take, more clearly, to what degree it needed it attenuated, veiled, sweetened, blunted, and falsified.”

 

 Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future, §39

 

 

“In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act;” “the further a society drifts from truth, the more it will hate those who speak it.” Neither the former nor the latter were actual George Orwell quotes: whilst the former is disputed, the latter was identified to be a misattribution. But the equivocal crux of both sentences is this: it is dangerous to be a truth-teller because truth-tellers eviscerate all the lies and deceptions that are not only ubiquitous, but are also responsible – and indispensable – for civilizations to continue untrammelled onward. The truth about truth is, it is never straightforward, often unpleasant and unpalatable, and always contradictory and discomfiting. Christ once said: “Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:32) Since then, the saying was reduced to nothing more than repeated argle-bargle; a renowned cliché; some platitudinous trite that people mindlessly parrot. But when confronted with actual confounding truths that discountenance and deracinate their dearest, most cherished beliefs, individuals would immediately partake in vigorous cognitive dissonance and disembogue vagarious umbrage against those who dare to shatter and uncloak their cognitive biases. After all, cognitive dissonance is a psychological kneejerk reflex geared to safeguard one’s self-concept. As such, no ideology is more rejected and denounced unanimously than anti-natalism.

            Simply put, anti-natalism remonstrate its opposition to procreation, the substratum – the very foundation – of all life, and its believers and proponents justify their motif, respectively, on two considerable issues: in relation to consent and compassion. Since the unborn cannot consent to their birth, and since suffering ultimately outweighs satisfaction in life; it is, henceforth, utterly immoral to reproduce further: by definition, a non-existent non-being does not feel pain, does not suffer, cannot be harmed, and has no wants nor desires to be born. No-one has chosen who their parents are, when and where they were born, nor the (pre)conditions and circumstances which they were born with. C’est la vie: une roulette russe. As “postmodern” as it sounds, anti-natalism is anything but: it has existed for aeons. From Job’s elegiac disgruntlement, to the chorus’s recitation at Oedipus at Colonus, to Hamlet’s sombre soliloquy in Act III, to Schopenhauer’s Studies in Pessimism, for thousands of years anti-natalism has questioned the validity; the raison d’être; the quid pro quo of procreation: what roles, exactly, do humans play from the guise of nature; what natural, save cosmic, significance do we have; and “So what if humans cease to exist?” thereby became the most abject and objectionable question ever muttered. Such sentiments have, nevertheless, been encapsulated perfectly by the Young Man in Kierkegaard’s Repetition:

One sticks his finger in the ground in order to judge where one is. I stick my finger in existence – it feels like nothing. Where am I? What is the “world”? What does this word mean? Who has duped me into the whole thing, and now leaves me standing there? Who am I? How did I come into the world; why was I not asked, why was I not informed of the rules and regulations, but thrust into the ranks as if I had been forced by a Seelenverkopper? How did I come to be involved in this great enterprise called actuality? Why should I be involved in it? Am I not free to decide? Am I to be forced to be part of it? Where is the manager, I would like to make a complaint! Is there no manager? To whom then shall I make my complaint?

Similarly, the Narrator from Sartre’s Nausea excogitated:

There were fools who talked to you about willpower and the struggle for life. Hadn’t they ever looked at an animal or a tree? That plane tree with its scaling bark, that half-rotten oak – they would have wanted me to take them for vigorous youthful forces thrusting towards the sky. And that root? I would probably have had to see it as a greedy claw, tearing the earth, snatching its food from it.

Impossible to see things that way. Weaknesses, frailties, yes. The trees were floating. Thrusting towards the sky? Collapsing rather: at any moment I expected to see the trunks shrivel like weary pricks, curl up and fall to the ground in a soft, black, crumpled heap. They did not want to exist, only they could not help it; that was the point. So they performed all their little functions, quietly, unenthusiastically, the sap rose slowly and reluctantly in the canals, and the roots penetrated slowly into the earth. … Every existent is born without reason, prolongs itself out of weakness and dies by chance.

From the cited excerpts above, the two philosophical founders of existentialism did not disseminate anything arcane, contentious, abstruse, or even cogent; in any case, both excerpts were deduced from everyday empirical observations. Both excerpts are, in other words, stating the obvious. But many alike find them depressing, enervative, gratuitous, and redoubtable. Everyone has experienced anguish, despair, and torment – some more than others – but most cannot degust and thence, refuse to accept that such are the fuscous, beclouding verisimilitudes of our precarious existence: that we are all born – and destined – to die; that existence is intrinsically futile, directionless, and counter-intuitive; and that we only exist because our ancestors had reproduced. It is precisely due to how incontrovertible these facts are which makes people both fractious and solicitous at the same time: we hover in fear, but we cannot cower anywhere. We are not, in any way, “idiosyncratic:” idiosyncratic in the way that we are made in the image of God, nor that in the way that we are on a mission from God; we are, however, “idiosyncratic” in the way that we remain the only known species conscious enough to comprehend our burlesque existence: an ambivalent quandary; a cursed continuum; a tellurian pastiche; a lollygagging flesh beast.

            Thomas Ligotti, the literary iconoclastic heir of H. P. Lovecraft, reduced our burlesque existence transpicuously to its bare skeleton in his wholly updated The Conspiracy against the Human Race: a mirror that allows us to see our own swarthy, execrable, monstrous veneer. Ligotti’s intransigence and veracity in pointing out that procreation is an abominable mumpsimus did not garner him a mass following, but as per Plato, no-one is more hated than he who speaks the truth. Humans are inchoate funambulists teetering aimlessly between fierce mountains and hypnopompic noctambulists haplessly voyaging across treacherous morasses. Is being alive all right? Are you happy? Most would concur, but deep down what we have said differs from how we actually are, and none are more habile that us, the British. Analysed meticulously by Ligotti, nay-sayers, myth-busters, killjoys, and angsty emos will not go far: reiterate your pessimism enough and a cordon sanitaire will be built around you – from your social circle. Everyone knows that life is suffering, but it is no use into immersing and eliciting ourselves in it; hence, we limit our cognizance and consciousness to expunge extraneous and pernicious knowledge. We phlegmatically say: “I’m fine” or “I’m okay,” whilst we confide only to our most beloved about our agonies and mishaps.

            In 1995, the astrophysicist Carl Sagan and the evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr debated the existence of interstellar intelligent lifeforms. Sagan argued since the vast, boundless universe is occupied by an infinite hodgepodge of galaxies, so long as we extend our telescopes and electromagnetic signals distant enough, we might be able to intercept – and interact with – extraterrestrial species; Mayr, on the other hand, was more cautious and apocryphal: the chances of intelligent lifeforms in outer space is near zilch. Bar the probability of life elsewhere, amongst all the species that have existed and gone extinct on earth, only one has evolved to such predicaments where scientific knowledge and technological advancements could be made possible. As attested with extemporaneous evidence, we most probably live in a cosmic void, despite all spurious wishful thinking. Similar to how we cannot fathom our non-existence, let alone extinction, equally we cannot conceptualize our cosmic solitude; and our burlesque consciousness – an evolutionary anomaly and liability as per the Norwegian metaphysicist Peter Wessel Zapffe – is to be reproached. Ligotti referenced and summarized Zapffe’s zetetic on human consciousness with four main points: isolation, anchoring, distraction, and sublimation; each and every strategy to minimize our cognizance. We isolate and become callous, relegating and bottling up thoughts of grief, lacerations, and melancholy, thereby limiting how supraliminal we are; then we anchor and reposition ourselves in materialistic “verities” – religion, politics, morality, nation, family, et al. – to approbate and justify our existence; then we distract ourselves with tawdry, ephemeral offal, or as Ligotti puts it, “Better to kill time than kill oneself;” finally, as rare as it may be deployed, we sublimate through the creation and contemplation of high art, all to shrink and dispel our levels of consciousness.

            “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times;” such were the opening lines of Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities. Undisputedly true, the “postmodern” effort to deny scientific and technological progress has faltered: “now” is objectively “better” than “then.” But that does not negate nor refute the fact that children born today are still in misery, in spite of relativeness. Then comes the counter-argument: all children have been born at the best possible time in human history, and we should be grateful for what we have. Interestingly and ironic enough, a paradox arises: had those who adopt such a counter-argument been born during previous eras, eras with considerably less education, poorer qualities of healthcare, higher levels of destitution, etc., would they be consistent enough to convince themselves to espouse such a rebuttal? In fact, one need not have to brainstorm nor time travel: ask anyone who toils and pains through day after day to sit and ponder vigorously enough, “Is there a reasonable justification to continue one’s hardship unto future generations besides a pragmatic and self-serving one: that children are to be their parents’ caretakers and safety net when their parents grow old?” Then comes a furore, accusing the questioner of “eugenics advocacy.” But such accusation is an impetuous and mawkish one: eugenics is the authoritarian belief that a particular denominational constellation – be it class or creed – is superior than all else; henceforth, eugenicists actively evince the accretion of “our people,” whilst simultaneously promoting the culling of the population of others, be they the poor, the crippled, the blind, or the lame; whereas, oppositely – antithesis to the greatest extent – anti-natalism calls for the cessation of all existence, as per the teachings of Buddha: with the First Noble Truth being “Birth is evil.” From Garbhavakranti Sutra, Buddha taught that:

Nanda, I do not extol the production of a new existence even a little bit; nor do I extol the production of a new existence for even a moment. Why? The production of a new existence is suffering. For example, even a little (bit of) vomit stinks. In the same way, Nanda, the production of a new existence, even a little bit, even for a moment, is suffering. Therefore, Nanda, whatever comprises birth, (namely) the arising of matter, its subsistence, its growth, and its emergence, the arising, subsistence, growth, and emergence of feeling, conceptualization, conditioning forces, and consciousness, (all that) is suffering. Subsistence is illness. Growth is old age and death. Therefore, Nanda, what contentment is there for one who is in the mother’s womb wishing for existence?

“No philosopher has ever satisfactorily answered the following question: ‘Why should there be something rather than nothing?’” Ligotti wrote. Similar to the psychological inability for humans in general to process eternal nothingness, we like to pretend eviternal eucatastrophes are the rule when the opposite dominates: another attempt to thwart our consciousness, to apply emollient onto our contrition. But maybe there might be one philosopher, who came close into answering Ligotti’s rhetorical question: the Romanian-French philosopher Emil Cioran. Cioran lived a life without hope, and told his mother he wished he had never been born at age 24. His mother, in response, retorted that she would have aborted him had she known he was unhappy about his existence. Unperturbed, Cioran admitted that his existence was merely accidental, and asked, “Why take it all so seriously?” A year prior in 1934, the young philosopher had already written and débuted his first book: On the Heights of Despair; in it, his aphoristic jeremiads had established his reputation as a lugubrious pessimist. With inexorable fortitude, Cioran propounded:

If I were to be totally sincere, I would say that I do not know why I live and why I do not stop living. The answer probably lies in the irrational character of life which maintains itself without reason.

Vindicating Ligotti’s observations of the a priori optimistic biases regnant amongst individuals, Cioran remained an obscure, maligned figure due to his overbearing pessimism, in spite of the prepondering quality – and quantity – of original philosophy he had imputed and theorized. Validating Zapffe’s examination in relation to vain efforts to minimize consciousness, in A Short History of Decay Cioran conjectured that:

All truths are against us. But we go on living, because we accept them in themselves, because we refuse to draw the consequences. … We can act only against the truth. Man starts over again every day, in spite of everything he knows, against everything he knows.

Similar to Ligotti, the English philosopher John Gray recognized the indispensable illusions which served as linchpins to consolidate societies. Nominated as the “Book of the Year” by various national titles in 2002, ­Straw Dogs, referencing the fifth chapter of Tao-te Ching: “Heaven and earth are ruthless, and treat the myriad creatures as straw dogs,” was Gray’s magnus opus into dissecting the bane of consciousness through pellucid, trenchant aphorisms. Slightly more congenial but no less powerful than Ligotti, Gray examined and scrutinized all the discombobulations of man: we need illusions – irrespective of whatever they happen to be – in order to live, with old faiths in religion replaced by new faiths in “progress” and science – dashed in with the hypnotic ointment of hope in a better future – so as to resist the deleterious ramifications of nihilism; and to enable us to go on, as individuals and as a species. We do not have free will, do not – and cannot – control our destiny, are not more argute nor “unique” than other animals, cannot rid ourselves from the untruths we soothe ourselves with, nor the purpose of life we fecklessly search for.

            Esteemed academics such as Yuval Noah Hariri, Steven Pinker, Sam Harris, and Jordan B. Peterson must be accredited for their strenuous assiduousness: both in their respective intellectual rigour, and their determined, passionate advocacy of free speech and expression. Similar to the sterling work conducted by the Cato Institute’s Human Progress project, the aforementioned academics believe in a better future through empirical evidence of incremental progress – be it societal and economic, or scientific and technological. Gray did not deny progress per se, but the faith in progress:

Progress is a fact. Even so, faith in progress is a superstition.

Science enables humans to satisfy their needs. It does nothing to change them. They are no different today from what they have always been. There is progress in knowledge, but not in ethics. This is the verdict both of science and history; and the view of every one of the world’s religions.

The growth of knowledge is real and – barring a world-wide catastrophe – it is now irreversible. Improvements in government and society are no less real, but they are temporary. Not only can they be lost, they are sure to be. History is not progress or decline, but recurring gain and loss. The advance of knowledge deludes us into thinking we are different from other animals, but our history shows that we are not.

The fact that humans are capable of reason does not mean humans are, by default, reasonable; and the belief that humans are, by default, reasonable is all that it is: a belief. Utilizing the Narrator in Under Western Eyes, Joseph Conrad noted that “the belief in a supernatural source of evil is not necessary; men alone are quite capable of every wickedness.” It was not Godzilla that plundered Europe into slaughterhouse, but an acrimonious, tempestuous relationship within an incestuous monarchical family, which forced the mobilization of more than 70 million individuals who did not know each other, who (most probably) meant no harm to each other, yet were forced to partake in supreme carnage and bloodbath one way or the other. It was not some extramundane mutant, neither, that ended “the war to end all wars,” but as Orwell described them in The Lion and the Unicorn – “truly modern men, the Nazis and the Fascists” – who instigated a tumultuous pandemonium through the exponential advancement in technology and science: forced sterilizations and mass exterminations that could not be made possible without railways nor poison gas, and gulags and concentration camps that would not exist without modern transport and communication. As technology has befallen into the hands of the unreasonable man, Gray remarked:

Mass murder is a side effect of progress in technology. … Humans are weapon-making animals with an unquenchable fondness for killing. … Progress and mass murder run in tandem. As the numbers killed by famine and plague have waned, so death by violence has increased. As science and technology have advanced, so has proficiency in killing. As hope for a better world has grown, so has mass murder.

Henceforth, in relation to the constructive criticisms – be they moderate disagreements or vociferous opposition – from hitherto listed academics, anti-natalism is not inherently “nihilistic” nor “self-destructive;” rather, it is a response; a reaction; a rumination to a truly nihilistic and self-destructive world. Such sentiments have retrospectively been realized in La Grève des Mères. Confucius and Rousseau considered in every birth man emerges as a clean slate; a rereading of Xunzi and De Sade, respectively, rebukes their wishful thinking.

In conjunction, “progress” would indubitably stall in the future, and it must be understood that a world with finite resources cannot sustain an infinite population: by 2050, there will be an additional two billion people alive; commensurately, 4.1 billion people will be residing in areas with water shortage, let alone water scarcity; by 2030, five and a half billion people will suffer from the lack of adequate sewage; by 2048, overfishing will likely mark the evanescence of seafood; and it is approximated that half of all food produced is dumped, fresh and uneaten. A Malthusian catastrophe awaits. Those who admonish the calamitous consequences are repudiated as noisome alarmists, but the comminatory repercussions are no less real; and no amount of belief in “progress” could resolve the conundrum of a logarithmic decrease in resources with an exponential increase in population growth. In The Life of Mammals, Sir David Attenborough summed up the programme by saying: “Instead of controlling the environment for the benefit of the population, perhaps it’s time to control the population to allow the survival of the environment.” If everyone decides to have six or eight children simply because they can and they want to, the adverse effects of overpopulation – war, famine, and climate change – will undoubtedly be accelerated and exacerbated, which would, ironically but definitely, ensure mass extinction, as per evolutionary biologist E. O. Wilson and earth scientist James Lovelock apud John Gray.

Hope – whatever endeavours it contains – is innate and indispensable to humans, even if untruths will have to be told so as to secure a “meaningful” life. From the canorous, miscellaneous poetry of Emily Dickinson, “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers/ That perches in the soul/ And sings the tune without the words/ And never stops at all.” It requires insurmountable hope, faith, and belief in a “better tomorrow” for humans to endure extraordinary circumstances and remain equanimous, but it need not take such extremities to illustrate the importance of illusory hope. We are not consistent, but contradictory creatures: we exhaust all means to blend into society, yet we covet to be idiosyncratic; we toil and work for contentment, yet we are discontented to toil and work; we have no reason to listen to anyone, yet we obsequiously follow orders and commands; we demand evidence for morality, yet we experience compunction over immorality; we understand life as it is cannot sustain any further without change, yet we refuse to change to sustain life further; we pass on epistolary messages of valour and resilience unto others, yet we lack valour and resilience ourselves; we desire safety, yet we want to be challenged at risk; we make “humanity” synonymous to “altruism,” “compassion,” “friendship,” and “goodness,” yet throughout history, “humanity” was anything but; we are not fond of ruminating and philosophizing, yet we cannot comprehend how other animals could survive without the ability to think, cognitively and consciously; and, of course, we acknowledge life is suffering, yet we continue to procreate. Then comes the last line of counterassault, masquerading a logical fallacy as logic: that anti-natalists should kill themselves in order to be “consistent” with their beliefs. One could reach the conclusion that suffering exceeds satisfaction in existence, and that one is better off unborn without killing oneself: neither reductio ad absurdum nor argumentum ad hominem are valid, logical rebuttals.

Sisyphus was condemned to roll a huge boulder up a steep hill, only to have the boulder tumbling down when he was near the top of the hill; thus he was subjected to repeat the course of action ad infinitum. In The Myth of Sisyphus, Albert Camus theorized that Sisyphus rolling the overwhelming rock up the hill daily symbolizes the underlying absurdity in human existence, and though as meaninglessly laborious as it is, “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” A friend of mine, however, sardonically remarked: the problem, he digressed, was not Sisyphus being condemned to roll a huge boulder up a steep hill; rather, it was that he was unable to get crushed to death. Similar to the dilemmatic quandaries which have been explored by Kierkegaard in Either/Or, he emmetropically pinpointed the perplexing paradox of existence: to roll an overwhelming rock up the hill every day is agonizing; getting crushed to death by that overwhelming rock is also agonizing. As per the title of this essay – “better not to have been born” – it is in reference to Ecclesiastes 4:1-3:

Again I looked and saw all the oppression that was taking place under the sun:

 

I saw the tears of the oppressed – and they have no comforter; power was on the side of their oppressors – and they have no comforter.

And I declared that the dead, who had already died, are happier than the living, who are still alive.

But better than both is the one who has never been born, who has not seen the evil that is done under the sun.

Ergo, is it not the best not to add more neophytes into the conflagration of life? John Stuart Mill outlined the only time where power can justifiably be put to use to squelch an individual’s rights and freedom is when that respective individual does acts that pertain harm to others; as such, why should procreation not be considered as an act that pertains harm to others, therefore liable to appropriate restraining due to all the documented, probable, and possible ramifications thereof? Because we cannot envision our demise actively and flagrantly; but as per history, we certainly can gullibly tolerate it through the disguises of pestiferous façades and mischievous legerdemains: holy wars, racial conflicts, class struggles, jingoistic nationalism, et al.; all of which were done under the banner of a “better future.”

            When straw-manned by an audience member, accusing Christopher Hitchens of attempting to take religion away from individuals, the contrarian polemicist rebuffed that religion cannot be done away with, so long as the fear, apprehension, and presentiment of mortality exists: it is what gives hope, meaning, and guidance to the many. Similarly, and rightly so, fertility – and sexuality – cannot be restricted arbitrarily; and all efforts to muffle them will not only fail, it will unquestionably backfire. Anti-natalism can only be discovered independently, and never through proselytization, because it is preclusive, quixotic, and tangential: open advocacy will only be met with public truculence, reprobation, and ostracizing. A post-fertile dystopia, as depicted in The Waste Land and Children of Men, is no less realistic: hope – illusions and delusions in a “better future” through societal “replenishment:” birth – cannot be relinquished; otherwise, a violent, apocalyptic debacle will soon follow. Be that as it may, cataclysmic events unfold themselves irrespectively; more likely so in relation to a future with an expanded population facing shortages – and scarcities – in resources: men are demoted and debased to their natural condition as per Hobbes just to scavenge for food, water, safety, and shelter: bellum omnium contra omnes. Unlike humans, other animals do not know what it means to be alive, in pain, or to die, because they lack cognitive cognizance; hence, they need not have a will to live, nor a meaning in life. As Gray punctiliously elucidated:

Other animals are born, seek mates, forage for food, and die. That is all. But we humans – we think – are different. We are persons, whose actions are the results of their choices. Other animals pass their lives unawares, but we are conscious. Our image of ourselves is formed from our ingrained belief that consciousness, selfhood and free will are what define us as human beings, and raise us above all other creatures.

To rephrase, non-human animals are like sand – in deserts and at beaches – unvarnished, unperturbed, without a purpose, and flows along with nature; humans, on the other hand, are like a sand mandala – we strive to become as grandiose and splendiferous as possible – before our imminent destruction. “Let there be a thousand blossoms bloom!” Australian Senator Bob Katter exclaimed, but to sum up existence in one pithy maxim, it is this: whereas non-existence harms no-one, existence almost indubitably harms everyone.

 

 

Philosophical Review (Trigger Warning) – Better not to have been born: a philosophical investigation into anti-natalism