Better to be Nothing?

There is an old legend that king Midas for a long time hunted the wise Silenus, the companion of Dionysus, in the forests, without catching him. When Silenus finally fell into the king’s hands, the king asked what was the best thing of all for men, the very finest. The daemon remained silent, motionless and inflexible, until, compelled by the king, he finally broke out into shrill laughter and said these words, “Suffering creature, born for a day, child of accident and toil, why are you forcing me to say what would give you the greatest pleasure not to hear? The very best thing for you is totally unreachable: not to have been born, not to exist, to be nothing. The second best thing for you, however, is this — to die soon.”

-Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy

One rather good metaphysical question is “why is there something rather than nothing?” An interesting question in the realm of value is “is it better to be nothing rather than something?” That is, is it better “not to have been born, not to exist, to be nothing?”

Addressing the question does require sorting out the measure of value that should be used to decide whether it is better to not exist or to exist. One stock approach is to use the crude currencies of pleasure and pain. A somewhat more refined approach is to calculate in terms of happiness and unhappiness. Or one could simply go generic and use the vague categories of positive value and negative value.

What also must be determined are the rules of the decision. For the individual, a sensible approach would be the theory of ethical egoism—that what a person should do is what maximizes the positive value for her. On this view, it would be better if the person did not exist if her existence would generate more negative than positive value for her. It would be better if the person did exist if her existence would generate more positive than negative value for her.

To make an argument in favor of never existing being better than existing, one likely approach is to make use of the classic problem of evil as laid out by David Hume. When discussing this matter, Hume contends that everyone believes that life is miserable and he lays out an impressive catalog of pains and evils. While he considers that pain is less frequent than pleasure, he notes that even if this is true, pain “is infinitely more violent and durable.” As such, Hume makes a rather good case that the negative value of existence outweighs its positive value.

If it is true that the negative value outweighs the positive value, and better is measured in terms of maximizing value, then it would thus seem to be better to have never existed. After all, existence will result (if Hume is right) in more pain than pleasure. In contrast, non-existence will have no pain (and no pleasure) for a total of zero. Doing the value math, since zero is greater than a negative value, never existing is better than existing.

There does seem to be something a bit odd about this sort of calculation. After all, if the person does not exist, then her pleasure and pain would not balance to zero. Rather it would seem that this sum would be an undefined value. It cannot be better for a person that she not exist, since there would (obviously) not be anyone for the nonexistence to be better for.

This can be countered by saying that this is but a semantic trick—the nonexistence would be better than the existence because of the relative balance of pleasure and pain. There is also another approach—to broaden the calculation from the individual to the world.

In this case, the question would not be about whether it would be better for the individual to exist or not, but whether or not a world with the individual would be better than a world without the individual. If a consequentialist approach is assumed, it is assumed that pain and pleasure are the measure of value and it is assumed that the pain outweighs the pleasure in every life, then the world would be better if a person never existed. This is because the absence of an individual would reduce the overall pain. Given these assumptions, a world with no humans at all would be a better world. This could be extended to its logical conclusion: if the suffering outweighs the pleasures in the case of all beings (Hume did argue that the suffering of all creatures exceeds their enjoyments), then it would be better that no feeling creatures existed at all. At this point, one might as well do away with existence altogether and have nothing. Thus, while it might not be known why there is something rather than nothing, this argument would seem to show that it would be better to have nothing rather than something.

Of course, this reasoning rests on many assumptions that can be easily challenged. It can be argued that the measure of value is not to be done solely in terms of pleasures and pains—that is, even if life resulted in more pain than pleasure, the overall positive value could be greater than the negative value. For example, the creation of art and the development of knowledge could provide value that outweighs the pain. It could also be argued that the consequentialist approach is in error—that estimating the worth of life is not just a matter of tallying up the negative and positive. There are, after all, many other moral theories regarding the value of existence. It is also possible to dispute the claim that pain exceeds pleasure (or that unhappiness exceeds happiness).

One could also take a long view—even if pain outweighs pleasure now, humans seem to be making a better world and advancing technology. As such, it is easy to imagine that a better world lies ahead and it depends on our existence. That is, if one looks beyond the pleasure and pain of one’s own life and considers the future of humanity, the overall balance could very well be that the positive outweighs the negative. As such, it would be better for a person to exist—assuming that she has a role in the causal chain leading to that ultimate result.

 

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16 Comments.

  1. s. wallerstein

    It seems that in reality almost everyone votes to continue existing. The will to live is incredibly strong and there doesn’t seem to be much sense in arguing with that. Put a sharp knife to the throat of a philosopher arguing that life is a negative value and I bet that they will plead and beg for their life.

    So, isn’t this an intellectual exercise, without any real existential import?

  2. Doris Wrench Eisler

    One could also take the position that pain and pleasure are not absolutes and are not diametrically opposed: the expression of and perception of pain is implicit in all forms of art and pain/pleasure mix is implicit in actual life experiences whether or not you are conscious of it. Even getting up in the morning can be painful and is often resisted, but that resistance is overcome because indolence and lack of ambition are greater pains, or pains of a different sort.
    Perhaps almost everyone might consider at some point that death is the best solution for him/herself, and there are certainly people one might wish had never been born. But these are somewhat silly as hypotheticals because we are here and if we were not we couldn’t make judgments as to good or evil of any kind: the question is irrelevant to non-existence.
    It makes more sense to wish to have avoided certain unbearable pain and to try to eliminate it from the human experience. Some people claim to have no regrets and that they wouldn’t change any part or experience of their lives.
    But I believe in evolution driven by will, conscious or otherwise, and that reasonable and philosophical regret (more objective and not self-destructive) is important/legitimate in that sense. We can’t change the past but wanting to have done things differently is natural and perhaps even productive in some unknown, unquantifiable, mystical way. It can also affect present experience positively and it is certainly human. All the world’s a stage, and we are merely actors on it, as Shakespeare had it, but a play and actors can change and be changed, and nothingness can’t.

  3. Read the first half of DEBATING PROCREATION by David Benatar, the single best summation of the case(s) for anti-natalism (not for suicide):

    http://www.amazon.com/Debating-Procreation-Wrong-Reproduce-Ethics/dp/0199333556

  4. s.wallerstein,

    A good point. On the one hand, how the philosopher would behave has no bearing on the truth of her theory (hence the inconsistency ad homimen). After all, someone who argues that we should not murder people is not shown to be in error if she murders someone-she is just inconsistent. And a murderer.

    On the other hand, the fact that the folks who argue that it is better to be nothing tend to keep on living does suggest that the matter should be looked into. After all, if they find their own arguments unconvincing, perhaps there is an error in there.

    In terms of impact, there are folks who do argue that people should not have kids because it is better that the possible kids are never actual kids. However, as I am sure you suspect, this is a very small number of people and just about everyone else will keep on reproducing, unswayed by the arguments.

  5. As I recall, he just uses the usual problem of evil arguments linked to a consequentialist calculation. So, you could save $20 by just reading the post. Remember-my posts are free, but worth every penny. 🙂

  6. In DEBATING PROCREATION, Benatar more clearly distinguishes the asymmetry argument from the quality of life argument (which directly challenges the notion that , and adds a misanthropic argument, the cumulative force of which, I think, is harder to dismiss. (He also addresses the common misconstrual of his asymmetry argument as essentially hedonistic.) In my opinion, he handily defeats the arguments of this post, despite it being much better than many philosophers’ responses to Benatar’s arguments.

  7. Whoops:

    (which directly challenges the notion that pleasure might exceed pain in life)

  8. s. wallerstein

    Rob,

    Could you briefly outline which of Benatar’s arguments defeat the arguments of this post and how they do so?

    Most of us are not likely to order Benatar’s book. By the way, I live in Chile and it takes books about a month (or more) to arrive from Amazon.

    Thank you.

  9. Rob,

    How does he handle the alternative value arguments? That is, that the value of existing could be grounded in a way that even with all the pain, it is still better to exist? To use a simple example, my first marathon hurt quite a bit, so the pain was certainly greater than the pleasure. However, I consider the value of running and competition to not simply be a matter of pleasure or even happiness. Running, as most runners (such as Mark Rowlands) will tell you, is good in and of itself. So, a world in which I exist to run is better than one in which I do not exist. 🙂

    Philosophers also like to argue for the value of inquiry and philosophy. If these claims have merit, then they could also ground an argument for why it is better that we (or at least Socrates and Plato) existed than did not.

  10. The expression ‘a better world’ is merely a human viewpoint. Outside of that, whether or not the planet Venus eventually has cognisant life is meaningless. We have no choice as to whether there is perpetual oblivion, or whether a cognisant creature comes to life. Actually, there is a choice as to whether a cognisant creature is created, but it is the choice of already existing cognisant creatures. Individually, it appears we have no choice, we cannot create ourselves.
    Other than at what stage it may happen, there is no choice concerning a return to oblivion. So which is better oblivion, or cognizant life?
    I remember as a child of about five years of age, sitting in the garden and thinking to myself- I have not been here very long (i.e. In this world), my parents have, and they were living their lives whilst I was non-existent. I thought, now I am here, I wonder what will happen to me.- I remember becoming full of pleasant anticipation concerning the adventure which lay before me.
    It seems there are two stances which can be taken in this matter. In the first instance, one would regard being a human being as embracing, so far as is humanly possible, the whole of existence, all that really matters. Were the human being extinguished, or any other similarly cognisant organism, a great tragedy would have occurred. The other stance is that existence in itself has no real need of human beings and the so-called oblivion from which they come and in due course return is of no account. There is no good or bad in this connection things just are, or are not. So far as I am concerned my heart is with the former stance, but my reason favours the second.
    A few days ago I came across a quotation from Mark Twain: – “I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.”
    There is no argument that I can think of which would demand that Reality needs human beings to exist. It got by quite well without them and whilst they appear to be a product of Reality, they are not a necessity for its continuance.

    .

  11. Don Bird,

    The idea that worth is extrinsic (that is, the worth of something depends on it being valued) is certainly an appealing view. But, of course, there are those who do argue that there can be worth independent of valuers (Plato’s theory certainly has objective good that would exist apart from valuers).

    Some forms of phenomenology do require the existence of perceivers, but the perceiver need not be human. For example, Berekely has God do all the perceiving that keeps reality real. But, as you note, the universe would get along just fine without us.

  12. This is a very interesting question : how to refute nihilism? You should read http://www.axiology.org.uk/ about it, but it is a non-professional translation.

  13. I am quite sure that the pain-pleasure dichotomy is not as relevant as presented in the essay. The proper terms are that life is sensory to the threshold of motor moves, which return as sensations along with sensations of our collections from a world. We self-stimulate at a lower attenuated level to feel our own moves, including thoughts by intricate moves, and integrate those with a world of stimulation that we interface at all times by dependency on a world. We represent anatomy in a brain by “thoughts about feelings of interface”. Pain? Pleasure? Very black & white given the fact that anatomy produces all manner of “concepts” within and across those extremes. Some people actively seek pain.

    The importance to the question why there is something rather than nothing has to be addressed using the terms logic & fact, rather than pain & pleasure. What facts, like “feelings” of pleasure and pain as experienced by anatomy using a brain, are important? But also, what logic do we apply to those “feelings” to bear them and use them to shape our experiences of basic pleasure and pain. The key is how we relate “logic” applied in thoughts to “factual” feelings of interface with a world of any kind, to progress within a world for 80 years.

    Looking at logic, rather than the facts of pleasure or pain as felt, the question becomes, if there is something, why would it not be self-consistent logically, and perfect factually (leaving aside whether pain is imperfect, as we clearly necessarily experience it to dissuade us from destructive activities). Respect Gottfried Leibniz, and “disprove” the hypothesis that nature is perfect, given that it exists at all. You won’t be able to refute it despite the hubris of science pretending to “know” nature, including the human mind. Have a read of my free work for more.

  14. I should add on rereading the essay, whether it is better to be something rather than nothing, given that there is something (a universe) and its “perfection” might be irrefutable, why would you opt for “nothing”. I can also turn the essay around using “nothing” as logic guiding the “something” of real feelings of pleasure and pain using logic to guide our actions to create those feelings. Its an interesting point that, being “non-feeling” in themselves, and confined to “shaping” of feelings, logic in thought is a “nothing” that is an incredible “thing” in reality. Logic.

  15. Marcus Morgan,

    My own view is that it is better to be than not be. My main reasons are 1) my life generally has more happiness than unhappiness and 2) I also accept values other than pain and pleasure.

  16. You can be and do something with it or just be dead. Observe the basic living things around you and see what they do. A lot of that is seeking fulfillment. If you can’t do that then seek the end of life as you have no reason to be.

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