Recently I came across two items that have caused me to reflect on what makes me want to keep living.
The first was an article by Galen Strawson, “Why I have no future,” published in The Philosophers’ Magazine (12 October 2009). Strawson’s first sentence says it all: “If, in any normal, non-depressed period of life, I ask myself whether I’d rather be alive than dead tomorrow morning, and completely put aside the fact that some people would be unhappy if I were dead, I find I have no preference either way.” He goes on to explain that, so far as he is concerned, his future does not belong to him in any obvious way, so if it is taken away, he does not feel that he would be losing anything. He calls this the “no ownership of the future” view, or NOF for short.
Strawson explains that it is not as if he has a fancy argument for this view. One might have thought it grows out of his conception of the self, which Strawson has argued is a real entity, but a very short-lived one: each of us sprouts a self every few seconds, inheriting the beliefs and memories of the previous self, and passing them along to its successor largely unchanged, except for whatever changes accrued over those few seconds. One can understand why such a metaphysical mayfly wouldn’t care much about its future descendents; but no, Strawson thinks he’d hold NOF even if he believed selves to be longer-lasting entities. And it has nothing to do with conceiving persons as 4-dimensional objects, or any other ornate theoretical commitment. It’s just that he doesn’t feel his future is his, anymore than you believe your neighbor’s vacation is something you need to start packing for. If your future isn’t yours, then no one harms you by taking it from you, right?
An obvious objection to this view is that it is hard to see why murder should be wrong, setting aside the effect of the murder on other people, like the victim’s loved ones. If I sneak up to you in the night and kill you painlessly in your sleep, and Strawson is right, then I haven’t harmed you. This of course seems just plain wrong. But since it is such an obvious implication, and Strawson is smart, I’m guessing that he disagrees with me in thinking that it is obviously wrong, and is willing to let the wrongness of murder depend entirely on its residual effects: distraught family members, unfed housepets, the (misplaced) fear among the neighbors that they may be the next victims, etc. Basically, if murder is wrong, it’s wrong because of its effect on anyone other than the victim, I guess. That strikes me as perverse, but just saying so doesn’t amount to much of an argument.
So consider the following case. In the German film Downfall, there is a scene in which Magda Goebbels murders her six children before she and her husband Joseph kill themselves. This comes at the end of the Third Reich, and their loathsome aspirations have been crushed, and presumably they do not wish their children to go through the coming agony of an Allied victory. In the film, Magda does not tell her children what is happening. She and a dentist give each of the children some bitter-tasting “medicine,” which is really some sort of powerful knock-out drug, and then in their sleep she places cyanide capsules in her children’s mouths and presses their jaws shut, breaking the capsules and causing them to die almost instantly. But her eldest daughter can see what is coming. She is perhaps fourteen, and she does not wish to die painlessly in her sleep. Magda and the dentist pry open her mouth, pour in the drug, and hold her mouth shut until the girl has swallowed involuntarily. She helplessly drifts off to sleep, knowing she will never awake. It is a painful scene.
But why is it so painful? We should disentangle several factors that might be complicating the example. First, is the scene painful merely because a child is being forced to do something against her will? No. Imagine our feelings if the sleeping potion had really been medicine, or some bitter-tasting placebo, or a sleeping potion not to be followed by cyanide. In any of these cases, watching the child being forced to drink something might be painful to watch (there is a similar scene in There Will be Blood), but it is not nearly as upsetting as when the forced consumption is a prelude to murder. Second, is the scene painful just because we are imagining the child’s family and playmates suffering her loss? No. Her family is dying along with her, as is just about everyone else who has known her or come into contact with her. The tragedy of the scene surely is not merely the loss Magda and Joseph feel in the few moments before they kill themselves. We wish upon those two every pain conceivable.
Why then is the scene so painful? My feeling is that something is indeed taken from each of the children. Not exactly their futures, I would say, since I am willing to agree partway with Strawson that we cannot own what does not yet exist. What is taken from them was something they really did possess while they were alive: namely, a disposition to continue to live. That’s what living things do: they persist in existing, unless something kills them, or they lack food or water, or some disease overtakes them. Just as I have a power to think, and digest, and heal from minor scrapes, I have a disposition to continue living, if all goes right, and within certain limits. If someone were to take from me my power to digest, or to heal, or to walk, I would be very displeased. If they took from me my power to think – well then, I guess I wouldn’t be displeased, but I would hope that it would be widely recognized by others that something had been taken from me. And if someone were to murder me, they would be taking from me another one of my powers, my power (limited though it is) to continue to be. I know that I will lose this power someday, and I can imagine voluntarily renouncing it if I were in a hopeless situation, but none of this changes the fact that it would be wrong for someone to take this power from me without my consent.
The question, “What would it take to get me to renounce my interest in having the power to continue to be?” leads me to the second item which has prompted me to think about what makes life worth living. This second item is the recent suicide of a 35-year-old man in Massachusetts. Mitchell Heisman spent five years of his life exploring the question of what makes life meaningful, or more particularly whether it is better to die than to live. He recorded his thoughts in a work of 1,905 pages, arranged for its appearance on the internet, and then walked into Harvard Yard and shot himself dead. The work itself, entitled “Suicide Note” ranges over matters philosophical, scientific, historical, political, anthropological, and religious. From the very beginning, he sees his project as a radical and severe experiment with nihilism:
My methodology is honesty to the point of absurdity; honesty without mercy; honesty unprejudiced by morals, aesthetics, faith, or hope. When all illusions have been dispelled, at the end of overcoming subjectivities, biases, and prejudices towards life, one encounters the possibility of rational negation of self-interest; rational self-annihilation; rational self-destruction. The experiment in nihilism is to seek out precisely those truths that are most deadly and destructive to me. To will death through truth and truth through death. (p. 30)
What he aims to do is undermine the “rationalist” prejudice that reason itself tells us it is better to survive than not. He will gaze into the abyss, facing the very real possibility that killing himself is no more or less irrational than clipping his toenails or emptying the trash.
I have not read the whole “note,” but a quick skimming reveals a long list of subsections with interesting titles: “Slave-Technology Engineered to be the Purpose of the Universe,” “Between Auschwitz and the Singularity,” “Does Logic Dictate that Artificial Intelligence Requires a Religion?,” “Some are More Equal than Others in God’s Kingdom,” “The Noble Aryan Anus,” “1066: The Death of English England,” “The Peculiar Institution of the Right of Conquest,” “Thomas Hobbes: Philosopher of the Twilight Zone,” “The Puritan Ethnic Conscience,” “The Inequality of Political Reductionism,” “Overcoming Nietzsche in the Creation of God,” “From Faux-fathers to the Race-fallacy,” “Geometry of Thanatology,” and on and on and on. I offer such a long list just to try to give the flavor of a very long book.
Writing the book must have meant a great deal to Mr. Heisman. He needed to read a lot in order to be able to write it, and he needed to think a lot, and he put his own creative spin on everything. It must have been a consuming project over those five years. But in the end he comes to a thoroughly nihilistic conclusion:
Nihilism, noted Friedrich Nietzsche, “represents the ultimate logical conclusion of our great values and ideals”. This is the bankrupt, philosophical disaster area the West dwells in. I see no “bottom”, no limits to stop the freefall into value nothingness. Implicit in nihilism is the collapse of the entire human cause. The ultimate logical conclusion of Western values is the rational self-destruction of the West.
Is this absurd? If this is absurd then it must also be absurd that I rage at the entire cosmos for having no ultimate meaning.
But there is no reason to be pessimistic. There is no justification whatsoever for a negative attitude! There is no justification whatsoever for a positive attitude! There is no justification whatsoever for a neutral attitude!
And so, with the observation that nothing matters, and that he is ready to try anything once, Mr. Heisman decides to try suicide. He has convinced himself that it doesn’t matter. It is no big deal. His note ends with the retelling of a Zen story in which a Zen master admits that he is unable to understand himself.
I do not know enough about Mitchell Heisman to say anything about the relation between his note and his decision to die. I do not know which one caused the other. But I can say that nothing in what I have read in his note makes me want to renounce my own capacity to keep living.
Let me agree with his overall conclusion, that there is no ultimate justification for any attitude whatsoever toward life. I am not entirely sure what this means, but I think it means that, from a totally disinterested (and in that sense purely “rational”) perspective, living things are no more valuable than nonliving things, and indeed nothing is more valuable than anything else. This comes close to a truism: in a perspective lacking all values, nothing is valuable. Knowing this, however, does not offer me any reason not to be interested in living, given that I in fact inhabit a perspective that places values on things. I don’t see why I should have to convince a value-free perspective to share my values in order for me to have values that are in some sense “legitimate.” I think things work the other way around. I value some things, like my capacity to keep living. Now can anyone convince me that I should not have that value? When Heisman declares that there is no justification for any particular attitude toward life, I take it that he is saying there is no compelling argument either for or against this particular value that I have. So, I conclude, I can keep it without violating any sacrosanct laws of rationality.
I hasten to add that my desire to retain my capacity to keep living is not based on any deep metaphysical, religious, or cosmological view of things. Again, it is a lot like my desire to retain my capacity to digest or walk. I would like to continue to be able to digest because I like to eat, and I would like to continue to be able to walk because I like walking. I would like to continue to keep living because I like a whole bunch of things, like reading and music and friends and eating and walking and so on, and I would not be able to do those things if I renounced my capacity to continue to be alive. In this respect my list of what makes life meaningful is a lot like the list given by the character Woody Allen plays in the film Manhattan:
Well, all right, why is life worth living? That’s a very good question. Well, there are certain things I guess that make it worthwhile. Uh, like what? Okay. Um, for me… oh, I would say… what, Groucho Marx, to name one thing… and Willie Mays, and… the second movement of the Jupiter Symphony, and… Louie Armstrong’s recording of ‘Potatohead Blues’… Swedish movies, naturally… ‘Sentimental Education’ by Flaubert… Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra… those incredible apples and pears by Cezanne… the crabs at Sam Wo’s… Tracy’s face…
These all seem to me to be very good things to experience. If they were a short distance away, and I could get to them by walking, I would regret losing my capacity to walk. And since they are available to only those who live, I would regret losing my capacity to continue to live, since then I wouldn’t get to experience them. The universe, I believe, has no values, and so does not care in any way about what I want or do not want. Furthermore, there are probably perfectly good scientific explanations for why I have ended up being a being who values these things. But what in these two admissions should make me reconsider?
Now here are some things that would make me reconsider. Suppose I were diagnosed with some disease like Alzheimer’s which would ravage my mind, leave me with no rational capacity or dignity, and render me nothing but a burden to others. Suppose I knew I was about to be forced to play some critical role in killing those I love. Suppose I were reduced to utter despair, for whatever reason. I can imagine many cases in which I would renounce my capacity to continue living, and I would hope to have a revolver handy, along with the courage to use it. But merely being told that the universe doesn’t care about me, or that people’s beliefs about themselves have evolved over time, is not enough to do it.
So here, in the end, in the last analysis, is what makes me want to keep living. I have a capacity to continue to exist, and I find that I value experiencing many of the things I think I am likely to experience. Of course, I might be wrong about what experiences are coming my way, and in the end my capacity to continue to be will be lost, one way or another. But in the meantime, I find myself agreeing with the sentiment expressed by the ancient skeptic Pyrrho in a story told about him. He once said, “To live or to die, it does not matter.” A follower asked, “Why then do you not die?” And Pyrrho replied, “Because it does not matter.” Of course it doesn’t really matter. But I exist. And things are going well. So why not continue to be?