Sunday, October 16, 2011

Practicalities of antinatalism

Beyond the ontological status of antinatalism, there is an important flip side to consider in the question of the practical implications of antinatalism i.e. what can be done to bring about or to engineer antinatalist outcomes, and having established these, the question of whether those methods will succeed. Indeed, it's one thing to ruminate upon these matters and yet another entirely to act upon them.

We consider first the case of what will happen if no action is undertaken, if antinatalism is espoused no further leaving the human race to carry on unabated. In the short term, people will continue to execute the same genetic program their millions of predecessors did; procreation and life alike continuing indefinitely. However, as nothing lasts forever we seek potential disruptions to this trend.

As for dangers within, it seems implausible that humanity could thinkingly or unthinkingly destroy itself. While the same myopic and selfish human nature responsible for procreation is the same that often ironically works in favour of antinatalism through over consumption and the degradation and destruction of the environment, humanity as it stands is far too resilient to be completely defeated by this mindless virus-like behavior.

If humanity does survive into the foreseeable future, disruptions to the status quo will likely come either from genetic engineering or from technology. If neither ultimately culminates in the destruction of humanity then they may have certain favourable outcomes. With genetic engineering comes the potential for the creation of organisms resistant or immune to suffering thus largely mollifying the adverse impact of procreation. Similar things may come from the technological front through abilities to manipulate conscious states and indirectly via the elimination of resource scarcity. In this case there is a possibility that antinatalism will be rendered largely obsolete disregarding possible breakdowns in these mechanisms.

Beyond these short term affairs, the current laws of physics coupled with cosmological observations suggest that the universe is bound for heat death; a relatively homogeneous state in which no usable energy exists precluding further ordered physical interactions. Because life as we know it depends upon the existence of free energy, such a universe would be incapable of supporting our lifeforms.

This outcome is favourable to antinatalists and more broadly to negative utilitarians yet the possibility of other universes existing cannot be discounted. In particular, as we are currently unaware of the mechanism which gave rise to this universe, we cannot guarantee that no other universes could arise in future, possibly rendering futile the efforts of antinatalists.

There are other speculative ends acting on the local scale that may be worth mentioning here; the possible instability of matter, vacuum metastability, cosmological topological defects, a misguided technological singularity. These have less global impact but could at least for a short time quash life on Earth.

Next we consider the remaining case in which antinatalists, either through collusion or though a collection of individual efforts attempt to bring an end to procreation either directly or indirectly. Is such an outcome possible? The evidence would suggest that the best possible outcome of the spread of propaganda is highly unlikely. As a case in point, we draw our attention to a similar moral position; that of vegetarianism/veganism. The parallels to antinatalism lie in both its support through basic human moral intuition and though its relatively widespread rejection. A key difference however lies in the fact that even though the tenets of vegetarianism are widely rejected, they are also widely known which leads us to conclude that even with greater exposure, antinatalism would suffer the same fate as vegetarianism. It seems that it scarcely matters how well reasoned a position is, humans are generally limited by their inability to perform actions contrary to their own interests.

Given this, the remaining issue is whether humanity can forcefully be brought to an end through the efforts of a small group. If they were to succeed, it would probably be through omnicide; mass forced sterilisation being far too problematic. But as it stands now, I'm not aware of any way in which omnicide is practical. Such plans would probably involve great ingenuity beyond that of which I'm capable in this brief essay.

Even if it isn't possible to completely end humanity, work could still be performed to partially mitigate the current harms of procreation. In accordance with the idea that the harmfulness of procreation is related to harms that life faces, antinatalist efforts would be better focused on the developing world. Programs like this could be suited for poorer people whose fertility could be purchased more cheaply and whose countries have less stringent law enforcement that might impede such philanthropy. Another possibility is to disregard humans and focus on animals instead. I suspect there is room here for more devious schemes to be conjured up in future.

I suppose I should conclude on a lighter note. A simple observation yields the insight that seven billion people can live life in their perpetual hedonic daze yet all it can take is one sufficiently motivated and capable individual to spoil the party for everyone. A converse is also true; that seven billion humans can be eliminated and yet a single surviving couple can ruin things for future generations. But let's not become too pessimistic, shall we?

Friday, August 5, 2011

Unfalsifiable philosophies

When considering issues in philosophy, it's often useful to keep track of the long list of ideas whose veracity can neither be verified nor denied. Indeed, these can often have quite far reaching implications in unexpected places.

For example;

Last Thursdayism:
The idea that the universe was created last Thursday such that it appears exactly the way it would have appeared through the long process of physical evolution in the way that is currently understood.

Simulation hypothesis:
The idea that everything we observe is actually the result of a computer simulation and that we in turn are merely facets of that simulation. This scenario roughly appears in the movie "The Matrix," although the actual existence of one's physical body in some other world is not required.

The idea that you're the only person currently alive; the others possibly being a figment of your imagination. If this were true, morality would be considerably simplified with rights, pleasure/pain, etc. all becoming moot.

Many worlds hypothesis:
The notion that the universe can branch off into separate autonomous universes giving rise to some sort of multiverse. The most common and most plausible variant of this is the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics in which every quantum mechanically possible outcome occurs in its own universe instead of a wavefunction collapse in just  a single universe.

The latter of these is probably the most interesting for the rather spectacular way in which it undermines the efforts of antinatalists and other would be good-doers. Implicit in many discussions of morality is an idea of causality that can't be proven. Typically, one thinks in terms of cause and effect but in the MWI case we may have a single cause that can be linked with many mutually exclusive possibilities had these occurred in a single universe. The result of this is that statements like "if I shoot someone, they will die" are no longer meaningful. Rather, it's "if I shoot someone, they will both live and die no matter how good a marksman I am or how I shoot them with what etc." The notion of free will likewise becomes incoherent for then people no longer have the option to choose between two alternatives as both end up occurring regardless. Note: it's possible to interject here that the two outcomes are not actually associated with the same person i.e. that as people branch off into different universes, they become distinct. I won't pursue this line here.

Many quantum physicists regard the many worlds interpretation as a serious possibility which is clearly bad news for antinatalists. If the MWI is correct, then there are possibly an infinite number of people currently existing and more will continue to come into existence regardless of what anyone does or can do.

In spite of this, one can still simply act as though the world exists as it appears, as though others exist and as though actions can make a difference just in case they actually do in an attempt mitigate potential harms. Indeed, as these theories are unfalsifiable and unprovable, they are more things to be kept in the back of one's mind to serve as counter examples to other arguments.

I'll add more interesting unfalsifiable theories to this list as I think of them.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Questions and thought experiments in antinatalism

The following is a non-exhaustive list of questions intended to either support the conclusions of antinatalism or to develop a line of questioning that might. Sources are given to some of the questions posed by others whenever I saw them presented by those others elsewhere. There are more to be found but they elude my memory presently.

Experiments related to consent and deontology
Is it morally acceptable to, without their consent, infect someone with a disease whose treatment provides some degree of pleasure to the patient?
If not, can one consistently claim that the creation of people is morally acceptable in light of the fact that issues analogous to those above e.g. satiation of hunger and thirst, the satisfaction of sexual desires etc. apply in any instance of human creation?

Is it morally acceptable to create people who want to be raped/enslaved/used in a way detrimental to themselves yet beneficial for (some) others?
If not, is it consistent to claim that the creation of people is acceptable on the basis that people generally desire their continued existence despite that desire coming at a personal cost.

Is it morally acceptable to use a hypothetical device that grants powers of mind control on people to, among other things, make them agree that in hindsight their being controlled was a good thing?
If not, is one's retroactive gladness at having being born a sufficient condition to ensure the acceptability of procreation given that they're effectively subordinate to the whims of their own genetics (which strongly instill a desire for one's continued existence)?

Experiments related to hedonism
Is a world in which everyone is hooked up to a matrix like reality where they experience maximum bliss preferable to this one?
Is it desirable to create arbitrarily large numbers of people simply to hook them up to this bliss world i.e. pleasure farms?

Is it morally acceptable to have tay sachs children etc.?
If not, can one reasonably assert that procreation in the regular case is permissible despite that judgement relying on arbitrary qualia metrics?

(Sister Y) Is the pleasure a heroin addict derives from heroin sufficient to conclude that the heroin is good for them?

(Benatar) Is it regrettable that there are no people living on Mars or similarly elsewhere indulging in life?

(Polerius) You wake up at a certain party, unsure of how you got there. Everyone seems to be having fun. However during your time there you observe that the party-goers are periodically abducted by thugs and return to the party sometime later battered and bruised whence they continue partying. Additionally, every so often some of the party-goers disappear never to be seen again, their destiny unknown. Your fate at the party with regards to the previous is uncertain. You know a friend who has been continuously sleeping for years prior to the party. Do you wake them up to come join the party?
(I'm sure my inelegant presentation of the above metaphor above could be improved/extended to other scenarios)

Misc/to do
Does there exist an axiomatic foundation of morality that's both intuitive to most and that implies antinatalism?
What mainstream ethical theories can be used to imply the conclusions of antinatalism?

If anyone has either more to contribute or any theoretical strengthening of the above scenarios I'd be glad to hear them. I conjecture that in any argument against antinatalism, there should exist a corresponding experiment to highlight the weaknesses of that argument. Note that many of the above questions also extend to suicide ethics.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Deontological antinatalism

In this piece I intend to present a brief discussion on what I believe to be the best argument for antinatalism. Other arguments such as Benatar's asymmetry are too easily dismissed on hedonistic grounds. By taking the deontological route, already present intuitions about what should and shouldn't be legal are taken and used to imply antinatalism as routine consequence.

One might phrase the argument as follows: if it's not permissible to kill people, why is it permissible to kill your children? If it's not permissible to make someone suffer, why is it permissible to make your children suffer? If it's not permissible to infect someone with an incurable yet manageable disease, why is it permissible to impose all the burdens of life on your children? On it goes. In order to maintain the current paradigm of procreation ethics, one must demonstrate an asymmetry between killing other people and killing one's children (note in this case the asymmetry rests on the other side of the equation).

To pre-empt and counter any objections to the above, consider this informal syllogism:

1. Coming into existence is a sufficient and necessary condition for a person to die
2. To kill someone is to cause them to die
3. From 1 and 2, procreation kills people
4. People who don't exist cannot consent to coming into existence
5. It's wrong to kill an innocent person without their consent
6. From 3, 4, and 5, it's wrong to procreate

All the points should be straightforward except 5 and so any counter argument would likely focus on the cases where killing innocents is permissible and would attempt to show that procreation is one such instance.

If it's ever ok to kill an innocent then there must be some higher organising moral principle that trumps the innate wrongness of killing. Not only must this principle only apply in the case of procreation but it must also be so great as to allow the deaths of millions of people for its cause. No such good that most would accept readily comes to mind.

In closing, the accusatory undertones of this argument aren't likely to take an antinatalist very far but from a purely logical standpoint, deontological arguments for antinatalism are what I believe to be the best and are too often under used in these debates.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

On the non-identity problem

A philosophical issue that often arises in situations whenever entities come into and less commonly go out of existence is known as the non-identity hypothesis i.e. that non-existent things lack states and in particular, that a category error has been made whenever a value judgement or moral weight is assigned to such non-existents. Within the context of antinatalism (which is what will be focused on), it's alleged that because one cannot meaningfully compare non-existence to existence, it cannot be either better or worse for the unborn to come into existence or to not. While superficially plausible, I shall advance two problems with this idea: one based on its unintuitive implications and one an attack on this hypothesis' theoretical grounding.

Firstly, and perhaps most pertinently, the non-identity hypothesis suggests that there can't exist any lives for which it's bad for them to have come into existence. Based on my observations, there seems to be a fairly broad intuition shared among many that this isn't the case; that there are indeed lives that are so bad that they aren't worth starting (in particular those with severe genetic disorders or destined to live in extreme external hardships) which immediately suggests that either most people secretly disbelieve the non-identity hypothesis or that they're unaware of its implications.

Of course, we could merely stop at those people who would have severe genetic disorders but we can go further. If it can never be bad to bring a person into existence then it can't be bad even if that person would experience an arbitrarily large amount of suffering. This means that one could effectively inflict an infinite amount of torture on someone else for absolutely no reason at all by having brought them into existence into a situation where that suffering is foreknown. This, I suspect, would be far more unintuitive to most than rejecting the non-identity hypothesis in spite of whatever intuitive support it's believed to have.

Note here that it's important that the suffering of the future individual is known ahead of time. One cannot use the non-identity hypothesis to justify any instance of torture, only those that are caused to occur to a being that doesn't concurrently exist. The reason for this is that as per the logic of the non-identity hypothesis, there are two relevant scenarios that the potential being could face; the first, either they come into existence and suffer, or they never come into existence; the second, they're already in existence and the choice is between them suffering and them not suffering. Supposedly, in the former scenario, the two cases are incomparable and hence neither is preferable while in the second, it's better for that individual not to suffer.

Using this reasoning, we can construct the following hypothetical scenario. An omnipotent killer robot is built that waits until everyone who is currently arrive is dead before carrying out an extermination of the people who came into existence after the creation of the robot. If the logic of the non-identity hypothesis holds, then we can informally show that the creation of this robot wasn't bad for anyone as follows:

1. The wrath of the killer robot is bad for someone.
2. If something is bad for someone, it would have been better for that something to not have happened to them.
3. The only way one could not have experienced the wrath of the killer robot was to never have come into existence, that wrath being a condition of their birth.
4. It would have been better for them not to have come into existence.
5. This contradicts the non-identity hypothesis.
6. The premise is false.
7. The wrath of the killer robot isn't bad for anyone.
8. The construction of the killer robot wasn't bad for anyone.

As far as I can tell, it's not possible to deny point two without undermining the non-identity hypothesis. Although the committed non-identity hypothesist would deny that it's bad to built such a genocidal robot, the above example serves as an exercise of how the hypothesis can be used to justify seemingly improbable situations.

Argument from zeroth order logic
Saving the best till last, the second objection to the non-identity hypothesis lies in an attack against the premise of the hypothesis itself; that one cannot assign states to those who don't exist. But straight away we can see that if someone doesn't exist, then they must be in the state of non-existence. If we want something more formal, we can consider the following example:

If one has hair, then one exists.
If one doesn't exist, then one doesn't have hair.

These statements are logically equivalent. If the first is true, then the second is necessarily true and vice versa. Consequently, given the truth of the first statement, we can infer the correctness of the second and furthermore deduce that a true statement has been made about something that doesn't exist. But the true statement in question applies a state to something that doesn't exist; in this case, the state of hairlessness. Thus the assertion that one can't apply states to something that doesn't exist is false by counterexample.

If one can apply states to something that doesn't exist, then there's nothing stopping one from meaningfully comparing existence to non-existence. A relevant example of this would be an instance of someone coming into existence and experiencing suffering. We could note that had they not come into existence, they wouldn't have suffered and thus as far as that instance of suffering went, non-existence would have be a preferable state in which to be.

All this argument required was a basic application of propositional calculus and subsequently, the only way to avoid the conclusions here would be to either claim that propositional calculus isn't a valid system of reasoning, or that propositional calculus doesn't apply to the situation regarding non-existing things.

Advancing the former has its obvious problems. Advancing the latter begs the question as to why such an arbitrary restriction is being imposed on logic, but more importantly, why that system of logic would be preferred given that it's less useful and less powerful than propositional calculus. All else equal, if one logic can meaningfully talk about something that the other can't, then surely the former is to be preferred.

Though this essay presents two arguments against the idea that states cannot be applied to non-existent things, the denial of the non-identity hypothesis has few implications other than that the positions of pro or antinatalism are not necessarily incoherent nor is it necessarily incoherent to speak of rights of the non-existent.