I recently listened to a podcast on Sam Harris’ website in which he discusses anti-natalism (the view that it is morally wrong to have children) with David Benatar. You can find the podcast here. The core of Benatar’s argument rests on what he calls axiological asymmetry, a concept much easier to explain than the name might at first suggest. In this article, I will outline axiological asymmetry but argue that it doesn’t lead to anti-natalism.
Axiology is nothing more than the study of value so axiological asymmetry refers to an asymmetry in our values. Specifically, Benatar argues the following:
It is uncontroversial to say that
1) The presence of pain is bad
2) The presence of pleasure is good
However, such symmetrical evaluation does not seem to apply to the absence of pain and pleasure, for it strikes me as true that
3) The absence of pain is good even if that good is not enjoyed by anyone,
4) The absence of pleasure is not bad unless there is somebody for whom that absence is a deprivation.
Since (3), then the absence of pain associated with any currently unconceived child must be accorded good. Since (4), then the absence of pleasure associated with any currently unconceived child must not be bad. The conclusion is that it is better not to conceive any child.
In its grandest conception the world is simply the whole of the physical universe. If this sounds about right, then you have probably accepted the scientific/materialistic paradigm that saturates the modern intellectual atmosphere without realising there are any alternatives aside from crackpot religious or new age ones. This article will challenge this prevailing scientific/materialistic notion of world, specifically arguing that it is neither (1) fundamental nor (2) complete, and is, in fact, both (3) meaningless and (4) misleading.
Of course, there is nothing incoherent about defining ‘world’ as the totality of physical matter in the universe. The problem isn’t one of coherence, but of scope and relevance. Given its limitations, my argument is that despite being coherent in an insular kind of way, it isn’t the best definition of the word, and doesn’t even reflect what we typically mean when we use it.
So, for this article, I’m assuming that you have read Sam Harris’ book, Freewill. If you haven’t, it’s very short, more essay than book, and well worth a read because it raises some interesting points that any proponent of freewill needs to address sooner or later. In lieu of this, you could read my previous article which briefly outlines what I took to be his main ideas.
Somewhat surprisingly, I agree with much of what Harris says… if we assume determinism to be true; specifically, what he has to say about fatalism, quantum indeterminacy, compatibilism and moral responsibility. All of the above are often given as reasons for resisting determinism and Harris, quite correctly in my opinion, rejects them in this capacity. Continue reading →
In his short book, Freewill, Sam Harris mounts a concerted attack on the notion that we are free. He argues that our universe is predicated on some mix of determinism and randomness that doesn’t stop somewhere just outside our craniums, but rather penetrates all the way in to our thoughts and intentions carrying an inert ‘conscious witness’ along for the ride.
Past Behaviour and Thoughts
He starts out by identifying two assumptions that will serve to define freewill: 1. We could have behaved differently than we did in the past and, 2. We are the conscious source of our thoughts and actions. He asserts that both of these are false. Continue reading →
At just 90 pages, Free, by Alfred Mele, is a light, easy to read, accessible refutation of the idea that scientists have proven freewill doesn’t exist. Mele tackles some of the scientific arguments typically offered in defence of determinism and succeeds in, while not strongly making a case for freewill, definitely dismantling the scientific case against it.
He begins by looking at Benjamin Libet’s now infamous experiments from the 80s in which he asked subjects to flex their wrists whenever they felt like it and report when they first had the intention to do so. On average, participants reported the urge to act around 200 milliseconds before the muscle burst. However, through EEG, Libet detected activity in the brain (called the readiness potential, (RP)) around 350 milliseconds before the subject reported the conscious intention. Libet concluded from this that our brains ‘make’ our decisions without any conscious input. Continue reading →
The twentieth century French existentialist philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre, was astonishingly popular in his day. He wrote novels, plays, dense philosophical treatises, was a part of the French underground resistance during the Nazi occupation, an influential political activist and even awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature (which he turned down). If you still doubt Sartre’s popularity and influence, the fact that more than 50,000 people turned out for his funeral should seal the deal.
He is (arguably) the philosopher you must engage with if you want to learn about existentialism and it is his long and difficult magnum opus, Being and Nothingness, that is (arguably) the principal text of modern existentialism. B & N is a very thorough enquiry into existential philosophy that warrants, and rewards, a close reading. Unfortunately, it is this very 800-page thoroughness that surely winds up discouraging all but the most determined of students. And doubly unfortunately, in 1946, three years after publishing B & N, Sartre gave a talk to the general public on the subject, (now a book, Existentialism is a Humanism) in which he laid out some of the key consequences and insights of existentialism. I say this was unfortunate because, while it well and truly brought existentialism into the public eye, it also reduced it to a handful of trendy slogans and pithy quotes. Existentialism went from a serious, philosophical investigation into the human condition to a popular cultural movement characterised by black-clothed, non-conformist, anti-bourgeoisie, chain-smoking coffee drinkers loitering in and around cafes and declaring that life is meaningless and absurd. Continue reading →
The universe and everything in it is physical. Despite there being no shortage of supernatural, religious, new age and downright crackpot notions of some kind of non-physical ‘stuff’, not one of their claims, from crystal healing to ghosts to the effectiveness of prayer to out of body travelling, has ever been empirically verified, despite many efforts to do so. It certainly seems sensible to conclude from this that materialism (the hypothesis that the physical is all there is) is true. But does closing the door on ghosts, fairies and energy bodies necessarily consign us to materialism? I argue in this article that it doesn’t.
Let me begin by asking you a very simple question. Are you a robot? Surely, you will have answered this question in the negative. Of course you’re not a robot. You’re a human being. Continue reading →