Anatta and Sunyata: Substantially Different Concepts?

(Did you get the joke?)

Perhaps someone out there with deeper knowledge of the doctrinal subtleties of this can help clear this up for me, but I have to admit that I’m hard pressed to find a big, hairy difference between the two.

Anatta can be interpreted strictly to mean that there is nothing whatsoever that arises in perception that is or is a property of a self, soul, me, etc.  This would be a completely accurate interpretation.  This is also exactly identical to the emptiness of ‘the self’.  So far, so good.  But if we allow a somewhat greater degree of freedom in interpretation, we could say that anatta also applies to all phenomena, not simply the putative self – all things are without their own self-nature (that is, there is nothing that is or is a property of a self of those objects).  How do we know this?  Anicca: if things had their own self-nature, they would not change, now would they?  Which is precisely the evidence brought out to support the supposedly different (and putatively superior) Mahayana doctrine of emptiness.

Now, of course, anatta is (almost?) always used in Theravada parlance to refer to one’s own self, soul, me, ‘I’ (etc.) as a matter of training.  Theravada theory and practice aims to  produce arahants through the clear perception of the emptiness of their own selves – it is not entirely clear whether it follows from this that arahants must therefore have overcome the misperception of inherent existence (or self) in external objects as well.  Regardless, this seems much less different than the sectarian cheerleaders for ‘higher’ yanas seem to suggest – it seems as though Theravadins do not talk about emptiness much because it’s not really relevant to their aims.  Does it boil down to this, or is there a real distinction that I’m missing here?

Rebirth: A Buddhist Doctrine That Doesn’t Quite Make Sense

This is not what Buddhists are talking about.

When people are introduced to Buddhism, one of the first things they are told is that Buddhists believe in rebirth, which is that after death one will live again and again in countless, innumerable bodies (of various sorts, human, godly, and demonic).  Most people don’t really get any further than this but, should they ask more questions, they will have it explained to them that this is not the same thing as reincarnation – how so?  Buddhists, it will be recalled, accept the doctrine of anatta, or ‘no(t)-self’, that there is nothing anywhere in existence that can be pointed to or identified as ‘me’ or ‘mine’ – that is, there is no soul.  Now, reincarnation is the notion that oneself, the soul, moves from body to body and life to life, but since for Buddhists there is no soul, there cannot be anything literally moving from life to life – you cannot literally be reborn since you, properly speaking, don’t exist.  What to make of all this Buddhist talk about past lives, then?

The Buddhist notion of rebirth is bundled with the notion of karma.  Without going too deeply into details, the story is this.  Whenever we act intentionally, through those actions (karma) we are creating metaphysical causes that will have future results (vipaka).  However, since we act constantly and we only live for so long, by the time we die we will have created a bunch of causes that still have to manifest their results.  So what happens then is that these effects do come about by conditioning the psychology/life history of some yet to be born entity –  in a very important sense they are the causes of the existence of that being [1].  Rebirth is not of a person but of a causal process – what makes past lives mine is that they are the ones that directly conditioned the life I am now living.  Similarly, what will make future lives mine is that they are the results of the actions I take in this one.  But this account has some pretty big pitfalls (whatever one thinks about the metaphysical plausibility of the whole affair).

First off, there’s the problem of establishing diachronic identity conditions (which becomes even more complicated across lifetimes).  This is a very familiar problem to philosophy, especially when souls are abandoned – even if my actions cause a future being, in what meaningful sense is that being me if it is entirely different?  Say I am ‘reborn’ as a frog – what about the frog and its mind is similar enough to my own that we can be thought of as being the same in essence?  I should say nothing – the fact (if it is one) that I caused the frog and its mental states to come into being is irrelevant to identifying the frog and this human person as the same thing.  Consider that our parents also caused our existence but they are definitely not us [2].  I cannot see how being the source of the mental causation of some yet-to-exist entity qualifies me for identification with that being any more than its parents are so qualified for being the source of its physical causation.

It says it all.

Which brings me to the next trouble for the rebirth hypothesis – there are innumerable causes for features of my mental life that come from outside of myself.  Perhaps I watch an extremely sad film or I read a profound passage in a book that forever changes my life: in either case, my system of mental causation (and hence my future-life trajectory) will have been irrevocably altered by mental causation arising in other minds.  Similarly, my parents, genetics, and cultural environment all helped to mould my mental ecology.  Why should only one source of mental causation (i.e. ‘my’ past lives) be privileged over all the others in any analysis of future-life causation?  I can’t think of any non-tautological or non-overdetermined reasons to do so.

And looking to causation across lives, there are problems related to that just raised:

The first is that rebirths are presumed to be serial, never simultaneous.  This would, of course, be simple common sense were there a soul or self that travelled from life to life, body to body (“of course it can’t be more than one person at a time because it defines what it is to be a person and it is singular”).  Buddhists, however, deny that there is such a thing as a soul but still maintain that rebirth is serial.  I can see no reason for this – in the absence of a soul it is difficult to see why actions should produce results only within a single body-mind instead of several.  It would be like two billiard balls being struck simultaneously by the Cue Ball but only one of them reacting to the impact.  Surely everyone has committed enough intentional acts to build several future lives out of, so why shouldn’t they happen at the same time?

The second is that, having given reason to believe that multiple-source mental causation is active within one lifetime, there is no reason to rule it out across lifetimes either –  that is, perhaps I am not a consequence of just one individual’s actions, but of the actions of many.  Again, the soul hypothesis would preclude this possibility, but this is not a live option for Buddhists.  Similarly, future lives may in some sense be conditioned by one’s mental acts, and so in that sense are one’s own, but also be conditioned by other people’s mental acts, and so be theirs as well.  Again, I cannot think of any reason why this should not be the case.


[1] Indeed, whereas we consider the causes of pregnancy to be the presence and joining of the mother’s egg and the father’s sperm, Buddhists consider there to be three causes, the third being the existence of karma which must ripen.  Without such karma, mommy and daddy could try all they want but no pregnancy would result.

[2] At least, not at first – there is this utterly appalling tendency to ‘turn into’ one’s parents as one matures.

I considered tagging this piece under ‘travel’. 🙂

Thinking About ‘Enlightenment’

A discussion has erupted over at David Chapman’s blog about that most important of Buddhist concepts – namely, enlightenment.  More specifically, he took as his subject matter the following set of questions:

  • What is enlightenment?
  • Is there such a thing?
  • How can we find out?
  • What is it good for?
  • Why should we care?
  • Who is enlightened?
  • How can you tell?

He also asks what do we want Buddhism for?

These are, naturally, very important questions for Buddhists to ask of themselves and their sanghas since the whole point of the Buddhist path is to take us from wherever it is that we are toward enlightenment (even if enlightenment wasn’t anywhere else to begin with). Buddhism without enlightenment seems a lot like coffee without caffeine – sure, it tastes sorta the same, but what’s the point? Unfortunately, it is a question that very few Buddhists actually pause to give much thought to.  I’ve been thinking about this myself and have concluded that people really are confusing/conflating enlightenment as epistemic event/state, as metaphysical event/state, and as worldly-pragmatic state.

Enlightenment as an epistemic event/state:

This version of enlightenment-as is constituted by some sort of knowledge-that/of or the moment of the acquisition of such knowledge. In Buddhist terms it is relatively straightforward what might count as ‘enlightened’ knowledge: emptiness, universality of the Three Characteristics, dependent origination, karma and its workings, rebirth, etc.  However, there are other possibilities here too – God-like omniscience is surprisingly frequently thought to be gained at enlightenment.  At bottom, any realistic idea about Buddhist enlightenment will necessarily include some epistemic aspects – non-enlightenment for Buddhism just is ignorance about not-self, etc. – but need not include all of these.  For example, Mahayana traditions maintain that arahantship (a sort of enlightenment) is possible without having fully comprehended the emptiness of all phenomena (a point which Theravada disputes).

Enlightenment as a metaphysical event/state:

Metaphysical enlightenments-as are characterized not by knowledge but by a change in the being of the enlightened person.  On such conceptions enlightened beings are freed from the birth-death-rebirth cycle, have gained magical powers, replaced their material bodies with immaterial ones (!), merged with God, etc.

Enlightenment as a worldly-pragmatic state:

Though not as colourful as metaphysical enlightenment-as, this is perhaps the most broadly inclusive category as it can include all sorts of different things.  There is the old Buddhist stand-by of enlightenment as freedom from suffering.  There is enlightenment as moral or ethical perfection.  Enlightenment can be imagined as the total absence of negative mental states and the continual presence of pleasant ones.  It has even been suggested that enlightened beings will have become the ultimate learners, able to learn new languages (or other such novel tasks) with great ease.

Any of these could comprise a reasonable definition of enlightenment (singly or in combination)[1] but one nevertheless has to be really clear with oneself about a few things.  First, one must be clear about when there is some mixing-and-matching happening between different enlightenments-as.  What is important here is that while any picture of enlightenment will likely cobble together different aspects of each of the categories given above, there will generally be something that is thought of as being the core ‘essence’ of enlightenment (say, it’s epistemic but emotional good times follow, or emotional stability is the aim but knowledge is a step on the path to that).  Second, it may be that in reality there is no connection whatsoever between these different enlightenments-as – for all we know, knowledge of the emptiness of external phenomena may be just as likely to lead to a complete lack of regard for others’ well-being as it is to lead to ethical perfection.  Third, one should not be under the impression that it will necessarily be the case that the methods that produce one sort of enlightenment will lead to the production of some other sort.

Based upon what I’ve seen in my investigations, it strikes me that Vajrayana Buddhism (in general?) tacitly acknowledges this – at least, this seems to me the most probably useful way to gloss the three-yana/nine-yana approaches to the path. It seems to me the instructions are to hit stream-entry, defined as epistemic insight into emptiness, as quickly as possible and then to move on to cultivating real-world usefulness and compassion, although not totally ignoring other stuff either [2] – full enlightenment, Buddhahood, being a blending of insight and worldly efficaciousness.  This is very different from, say, Daniel Ingram and Kenneth Folk’s brand of Theravada, where the point is to pound emptiness through the skull as completely and as quickly as possible and then worry about everything else after arahantship, which one will have to do since the method isn’t designed to produce e.g. compassion (this is cartoonish but good enough).  This sort of approach is based on enlightenment as purely epistemic (albeit, with the real-world consequence of suffering being eliminated).

Obviously, these paths are going to appeal to different types of people. Vajrayana (as it is presented to Western lay-folk) makes much hay about compassion and so those with an empathic or ‘real-world’ sort of bent are going to be strongly attracted to that sort of practice. Ingram and Folk are much more INTP in their orientation and so will naturally appeal to those like myself (pure episteme, “knowledge for its own sake”). But if one spends all his time doing compassion practices (e.g. tonglen, metta) he should not expect to ‘get’ emptiness, nor should someone who spends all her time breaking down reference points expect to become temperamentally different from before merely because she sees that her anger is dependently arisen. Of course, most Buddhist teachers either don’t know or won’t say what their brand of enlightenment is aiming at – so we enter Dharma centres and get talks about cutting through self-clinging but are given metta practices, or about cultivating compassion but are given vipasyana/vipassana practice. And since most students aren’t clear about the difference between these or even what they’re after, they can’t get whatever it is that they really need.


[1] Rather, some of these could present a reasonable definition of enlightenment – flying cross-legged across the universe is unlikely to be truly possible.  By “enlightenment” here I mean, of course, ENLIGHTENMENT!!!‘ – i.e. something that is suitably desirable and non-ordinary that it would be a satisfactory aim for a spiritual practise.

[2] Major caveat: I have a suspicion that in monastic settings the aim of Tibetan Buddhism is to produce arahants first and then move along to other things (hence the decades of training).

Building Better Zombies

I’m warning you…

David Chalmers relies in no small way upon his so-called ‘philosophical zombies’ – entities that are like human beings in every respect, physical and psychological, the only teeny, tiny difference being that they are lacking conscious experience – to make his point about consciousness being a basic property, i.e. that it is a mental-kind term that may neither be functionalized nor emergent from some set of physical states of affairs. However, his example doesn’t (and shouldn’t) convince anyone who is not already friendly towards the sorts of consciousness-views offered by the various dualisms and panpsychisms floating about. To pick but one example, Daniel Dennett doesn’t think that Chalmers’ thought experiment does the trick (and is, in any case, very hostile to the proposition that there may be any mental properties which are not emergent from/reducible to physical facts/happenings [1]). And for what it is worth, I don’t think Chalmers’ thought experiment is very compelling either, even though I am more open than is Dennett to possibilities beyond run-of-the-mill reductive/eliminativist physicalist doctrines.

Why should I say this? Chalmers’ uses his zombies thus:

  1. It is conceivable that there might be some possible world wherein there
    are creatures with brains and psychologies such as our own, which are
    functionally identical to our own, but which are lacking conscious experience.
  2. Since it is conceivable that such beings could exist, consciousness is not an emergent property of physical systems assembled (physically or functionally) like our brains, otherwise the zombies in question would be conscious as well.
  3. As such, we may conclude that consciousness is neither simply a product of physical systems arranged in the right way nor functional systems of the right sort. [2]

Obviously, this is a very simplified presentation of his argument (or at least, of the version of his argument with which I am familiar), but it captures something of its thrust. As should be apparent, it is the second premise that causes the argument to fail – simply because something implies no logical contradiction, it does not follow that it is actually possible (in this world or any other). It may well be that in actuality any number of functionally appropriate systems (of which human brains are but one example) will be conscious and nothing else besides – which, not incidentally, is precisely the physicalist position promoted by fellows like Dennett.

The weakness of the argument is unfortunate because I find the (reductive/eliminativist) physicalist’s explanation of consciousness risible [3]. I suspect that the argument could be reworked in order to appeal directly to and make use of the sorts of intuitions held by physicalists of a Dennettian sort, all while avoiding the use of modal arguments (“in some possible world…”). This would make for a more effective argument against functionalist/physicalist accounts of consciousness since, at the outset, it gives them everything that they say they want but leads to the necessary abandonment of some of it. What follows, then, is my own version of a zombie thought experiment that, although leaning heavily on the intuitions Chalmers is mining with his zombies, (I think) does a better job.

Building Better Zombies:

Imagine for the moment that there existed a complete neuroscience. I mean ‘complete’ in the sense that this theory ranges over the entire range of properties of neurons as well as their actions and interactions in the terms with which ordinary science is comfortable (i.e. objectively observable/measurable properties) – there is no hint of ‘woo’ about it.  Moreover, this theory has been subjected to rigorous testing and is as good as proven and is able to predict with near perfection what any particular sort of neuron will do whenever any stimuli one would expect to find in its ordinary operational environment (whether biochemical or electrical) are applied to it in said environment [4]. So, were we to have a single neuron placed before us in a petri dish, we should be able to apply any neurotransmitter or electrical charge under any environmental conditions we should choose to subject the cell to, with absolute certainty that it will react in a specific way. This is all well and good, especially since we would not need to make any reference to mental-kind terms (e.g. consciousness, intentionality, representation) – our neuron is simply caused to produce said effect ‘mechanically’, as it were [5]. Indeed, to make any appeal to mental properties at this low level would be to make a claim which no physicalist would suffer gladly – neurons are just too ‘simple’ to be host to intelligence or consciousness.

From this modest beginning, we should be able to attach a second neuron to the first and to apply some stimulus to one or the other and predict with perfect accuracy what each of them will do, considered individually and as a unit. Once again, this prediction will in no way necessitate a resort to mental-kind terms – we are still firmly in the realm of the objectively explicable – and so again with the addition of a third neuron, and a fourth, and a fifth, etc. With each successive neuronal addition, the behaviours of the whole system will become increasingly complex, but without causing any explanatory or predictive troubles (as I have, after all, stipulated that this is a complete neuroscience). On each iteration, we slowly build a neuronal assembly that is increasingly similar to our own human brains until, soon enough, we will have succeeded in building one that is physically and functionally identical to an ordinary human brain which may then be hooked up in the right way to a (presumably custom-built) body. The zombie is ready.

I told you so!

This zombie will now start interacting with its environment and new stimuli will arise naturally from sensory perception of the immediate environment. This will lead to the zombie behaving in complex ways – e.g. using language and planning its vacation to Maui in the fall – based upon the stimuli it receives. Indeed, its behaviour will seem remarkably similar to our own, as we would expect, given that we designed it to be exactly like a neurotypical human being, but for one crucial difference – its behaviours (ranging from thirst to the writing of forlorn love songs) may be explained entirely without reference to mental-kind terms. After all, why should we explain these behaviours by reference to such terms, since they are just the working-out of neuronal cause and effect, which our ideal neuroscience already accounts for with ease?

Not to do so, however, would necessitate accepting some highly dissatisfactory entailments. If our neuroscience really does explain our zombie’s apparently rich range of behaviours, then because we have built a brain that is physically and functionally indistinguishable from that of a womb-born human being [6], we should seek to use the same theory to explain our own behaviour.  Since everything may be satisfactorily explained without need to refer to consciousness, qualia, thought, etc., then explanations of our own activities will also need make no reference to such things.  The trouble is, we emphatically do have subjective experiences and we are conscious. Given this, there are a number of possible moves the physicalist could make:

  1. Give a reductive/eliminative account of phenomena like volition, thought, consciousness, etc. This is, however, precisely what the stipulated ideal neuroscience has done – it has accounted for all higher-order processes in terms of lower-order neurological functioning – and has led only to the present conundrum.
  2. Deny altogether the existence of the referents of mental-kind terms (or, what is the same, insist on their ‘illusoriness’). This strategy preserves the ‘zombic’ quality of our zombie – our mental-kind term-free explanation is then entirely sufficient – but, because our brains are physically and functionally identical to those of the zombie, we necessarily rob ourselves of consciousness, mind, etc.  This, to me, is a major non-starter [7].
  3. Acknowledge the reality of these higher-order phenomena and give a non-reductive account of their emergence from lower-order ones which don’t exhibit mental properties. This preserves the absence of mentality at lower orders of existence, but introduces problems of its own.  Notably, it requires an account of the precise degree of complexity required for emergence to take place.  Furthermore, ‘emergence’ strikes me as something of a scientific equivalent term for ‘and then a miracle happened’.
  4. Abandon physicalism.  There are plenty of acceptable alternatives (dualism, idealism, panpsychism), although they might not be popular in the faculty lounge.


[1] At this juncture I should say that I am only very generally familiar with Dennett’s take on consciousness. Consciousness Explained is on my to-read list, but I haven’t yet got around to it. If I have said something strictly wrong about Dennett’s position, ignorance is my excuse (albeit, a poor one), but if I have got the gist of his position wrong, feel free to take me to task.

[2] He goes on from there to argue for panpsychism, a doctrine with which I shall not concern myself at present (though I find the idea fascinating, if rather counterintuitive and subject to its own problems).

[3] The problems with physicalist accounts of the mind are, to my mind, several and I should like to do a post dedicated exclusively to them, but this is not the time. NB: I do not discount physicalism in its entirety, however, but only those strains of it which claim to already have provided a complete, adequate explanation of the world and everything in it.  The “near enough” physicalism of Jaegwon Kim or Colin McGinn’s physicalist ‘mysterianism’ do not strike me as problematic.

[4] Necessarily, also, in the lab environment. This is, of course, a highly idealized science, but I’m doing philosophy, so I’m able to stipulate anything I wish in order to explore our intuitions. If magical miniature unicorns could do the trick, that would be fair game – so too with scientific theories which require prohibitively complex computations.

[5] Or, rather, biomechanically or biochemically. Or, for that matter, biophysically (especially if quantum minds are something one finds appealing).

[6] I am assuming here that the causal histories of our zombie brain vs. an ordinary human brain will not be relevant, at least insofar as consciousness is concerned – I think it likely that so long as the brain is up and running it should not matter whether it was built in a petri dish or a mother’s belly.  Of course, the different causal histories almost certainly would be of relevance to matters such as personality or learned skills (to name two).

[7] I can’t fathom how it is possible that consciousness (conscious experience) could be an illusion.  For this to be so, it would be necessary that we experience the illusion of having experience.  This idea is so obviously self-defeating and crazy that I wonder why intelligent people go in for it.

A Moral Presumption in Favour of Private Property

Property rights are a highly explosive subject of political debate in modern Western society (and probably in any human society that did or shall ever exist).  This Manichean debate has, on the one side, those who defend private property as a ‘natural right’ with nearly (sometimes totally) unlimited strength and scope, and, on the other side, those who insist that private property is just another historically contingent social more (the sociological term) designed by humans to facilitate our well-being (which argument is virtually always followed by the claim that said more is not serving human well-being).  All social/cultural/political/moral systems have a property concept of one sort or another for the simple reason that people must have some possessions and security in holding these in order to survive and flourish.  Obviously, these various systems will all differ in some capacity, so left-wingers and anthropologists are right to point out that there is nothing inevitable or immutable about the modern West’s private property views. [1]

And, in honesty, when I look at the arguments upon which Western property-rights are based – specifically, the Lockean theory and its derivatives (especially Nozick) – I do find them to be faulty.  I don’t necessarily blame Locke for this [2], but modern defenders of private property should be careful because, although this account makes property rights extremely strong, they are like a castle built on shoddy foundations – undermine those and the walls will come down, regardless of how sturdily built.  Such individuals may want to consider giving up some height in the walls in order to shore up the foundations.  As for myself, I think something can be said in favour of there being some sort of ‘natural right’ to private property, though I find such language (that is, the language of natural rights) to be unnecessarily strong, not to mention suggestive of an objective moral order of the sort of which I am skeptical.  I would rather say that there is something like a prima facie presumption in favour of private property that (potentially, as we shall see) obtains even in the absence of a legal authority to codify property rights.

But how do I define property?  Property in some object, concept, or territory (and so on) I define as ‘possession by right’.  There are two halves to this formula.  First, possession: whatever is one’s property, whatever one owns, is to be treated as though one is quite literally in possession of it, with all that this entails.  To choose an example, my car is to be treated as though I am literally in it or holding it, even when I have left it parked on the street.  Just as, were I behind the wheel, one would not simply be able to drive off (or otherwise tamper) with it without my say-so, so too am I considered ‘by right’ to be sitting behind the wheel, even when I am physically distant.  This brings us to the second half.  The ‘right’ which secures my possession of my car can be one of two types: legal or moral.  Since legal rights depend, on the final analysis, on the moral case(s) made in their defense, it is the moral right of possession which is of interest here.

Locke grounds the moral case for the creation of private property rights over things found in the state of nature – things previously owned in common as they were a gift from God to the whole of Mankind – in a presumed mixing of one’s labour with some piece of the world.  Even if we include his caveats (the so-called ‘Lockean Proviso’ and the prohibition against wastage) there are two significant stumbling blocks for his theory.  First, is the forging of private property through the mixing of labour, which simply reeks of metaphysics. [3]  Locke’s approach makes property into an ontological relationship between an object and its owner (in some non-trivial sense, the object is subsumed into its owners’ being), but today we correctly understand that property rights are social relations among members of human communities.  Second, it is unclear just what constitutes enough mixing of labour to unequivocally make something one’s own. [4]  For these reasons (and a couple of others aside, relating primarily to ‘common’ ownership of the Earth), I don’t find Locke’s account very compelling.

Still, I do believe that there is a simple enough principle in which we may ground ‘possession by moral right’ that does not necessitate recourse to exotic metaphysics and which comports perfectly happily with current anthropological/sociological accounts of human nature.  It is simply this: humans are purposive creatures – we act for reasons.  Whenever I bring something into my physical possession (whether by gathering, production, etc.), I have done so for a reason.  For example, if I have whittled a flute from a fallen branch I found, I will have done so because I want to play music, or I want to make a gift of it, or I want to trade it, or somesuch.  I have brought it into my possession to serve some end I have in mind.  Now, if someone steals, breaks, sells, or gives away that object, they will have interfered with my plans in a manner analogous to other interferences (say, having one’s hands bound – I did say analogous, not equivalent).  Provided that my plans are not themselves outside the bounds of acceptable action, there is a prima facie obligation on the part of others to refrain from interfering with my plans (since we all find such interferences irksome).  The moral right of possession is really, as I see it, a species of respecting the autonomy of action by others.


[1] However, it does not follow from this, as such people seem to assume, that current arrangements are no better than some (or many) others.

[2] It would be foolish to do so – the basing of such rights in God seemed a perfectly natural thing to do at the time he was writing.

[3]  What is ‘labour’ and how does it ‘mix’ with sticks and rocks?

[4] Is picking an apple from a tree sufficient?  What if the apple fell from the tree and I just happened to catch it?  Would thinking about picking that particular apple be sufficient for it to be ‘mine’ – like calling ‘shotgun’ on the front seat or planting a flag and “claiming this land in the name of King Louis of France”?

Small Thoughts on Anti-Natalism and Potential Persons

Well, I haven’t been a very good blogger in the recent past.  It would seem that recently, when not at work, I have been in a reading and not a writing phase.  I have been working at a longer essay but I have to admit that my enthusiasm for it is low, so that will be done whenever it is done.  Meanwhile, I imagine that I will be keeping to shorter bits (and I suppose that I could get some book reviews in, since I’ve read a few in recent weeks).

Anyway, I was at our local megabookstore yesterday (though I prefer to spend my money at smaller booksellers, I had some gift cards to spend, so no option).  There, I happened to discover a book titled Why Have Children?: The Ethical Debate by one Christine Overall (MIT Press 2012).  I didn’t buy it, though it seems interesting enough to eventually make its way into my tower of books that I have yet to read (besides, I’m on a bit of a fiction kick and Heinlein is calling to me…).  It caught my eye, both because I find the natalist/anti-natalist debate to be a rather interesting one and, further, personally relevant [1].  The author takes the question from a feminist perspective and, somewhat surprisingly for feminists who cover the question of the ethics of procreation, finds in favour of it.  I look forward to reading it.

There was a time when one of my primary ethical interests just was the question of anti-natalism.  Now, it seems that there are two general approaches that have brought most anti-natalists to their position [2].  The first focuses on the ethical impact of child-bearing upon those already living, whether those impacts are related to environment, parents’ hedonistic calculus, etc.  There’s much to be discussed in this vein, but it is the second that I am (and usually have been) more interested in, which concerns itself with the ethical impact of procreation upon the yet-to-be born.

The arguments are various, but usually go something like the following:

  1. Even on the sunniest (credible) review of life’s ups and downs, it’s clearly a mixed bag – though there is much that is good and enjoyable in life, there is also much that is bad and harmful [3].  No one who is born, after all, can escape sickness, ageing, or death (as to whatever compensations come with these, it is telling that we think of them as compensations).
  2. It is uncontroversially granted that causing unnecessary harm is bad and best avoided.
  3. The harms listed in (1) obviously cannot be suffered by someone who hasn’t been born.
  4. Whether or not someone is born is obviously a consequence of his parents’ decisions on the matter (due to modern contraceptives, etc.).
  5. Given (3) and (4), the harms that come from being born are obviously evitable.
  6. Therefore, by (2) and (5), it must be concluded that potential parents should not become actual parents.

Now, there are a couple of ways of countering this argument, should one be so inclined, but I personally think it fails because it seems implicitly to suppose the existence of potential persons.  Harms must be done to someone in order to be harms at all, but how could harms be done to someone who doesn’t exist?  Surely (most) anti-natalists do not believe that there are ethereal little people hovering around women which are then unwillingly trapped in wombs by the procreative act.  If such was the case then, yes, it would be a harm – I highly doubt that it is, though.  More seriously, I cannot see how to make a precondition of one’s own existence into a harm against oneself.  It strikes me as about as plausible an argument as saying that because we must breathe in order to survive, and some of us will at some point have difficulty with that, we therefore would be better off not having to breathe at all.  There’s nothing obviously fallacious about such an argument, but it still strikes me as wrong.


[1]  My wife and I have just passed our first anniversary and as it would seem we haven’t come to loathe each other any more than we already did (joke!), so starting to think about whether and how we might fit kids into the plan seems pertinent.  And since I’m a philosophy nerd, this also means thinking about children and the having-of-them philosophically.

[2]  When that position in fact does have some justifications grounding it, rather than simply being an expression of personal distaste for children or the raising of them (not that there is anything wrong with such an attitude – surely not everyone is of a sort to have children – and not that there is anything necessarily wrong witha posteriori justifications for one’s preferences).

[3]  And this of the best lives available to anyone.  There surely are, have been, and shall be lives in which that which is bad and best avoided overwhelm that which could potentially have been enjoyed (the famine children of late-night television donation drives come to mind).  A related and interesting question: are there lives that are not worth living?

Some More Words on Agnostic Atheism

I was having a conversation with an atheist friend of mine and he suggested (actually, ‘suggested’ is much too weak a description of what he did) that my agnostic atheism is hopelessly confused.  He gave two  somewhat related reasons that struck me as being worth addressing.  The first is that, although he was willing to concede that atheism ought properly to be considered a belief claim, he nevertheless felt that one who believes that ‘there is no God’ necessarily cannot also believe that ‘whether or not there is a God is beyond our capacity to know’ – to do so is to somehow do something that is contradictory.  The second reason was that the agnosticism takes away reasons for adopting the atheism.

The first is actually not that difficult a matter to address.  Obviously, in one sense he was cutting himself off at the knees by granting that atheism ought to be considered a belief claim rather than a knowledge claim.  If the one claim is that ‘I know x‘ and the other is that ‘I cannot know x‘, there is an obvious contradiction there.  But there is nothing at all inherently contradictory if the first of the two statements were to be replaced with ‘I believe x‘.  For example, suppose I believed that I will be receiving a pink slip today (perhaps the company is in some tough times and layoffs have been announced).  This is in no way incompatible with my acknowledgement that I do not know whether or not I will actually receive a pink slip (maybe I sit somewhere in the middle of the seniority ladder and the management hasn’t announced how many they will be laying off).  The same applies to agnostic atheism.

The second criticism is perhaps more damning.  To take a stance on the question (whether that be some species of theism or atheism) is to make quite a strong commitment, even if that stance is ‘merely’ a matter of belief rather than knowledge.  Given that this is so, wouldn’t it just be best to acknowledge that one cannot know and leave it at that?  While it would certainly be a ‘safer’ position, I don’t think that it is a better one.  While the epistemic requirements for knowledge (especially of this kind) are rather high (I am here assuming some JTB+), there are certainly reasons for deciding more or less tentatively in favour of one proposition over another.  For example, I believe (rather strongly) that my house keys are where I left them when I got home yesterday.  Of course, I do not ‘know’ this – perhaps my wife, for what would clearly be a good reason, had occasion to move them – but, nevertheless, I have some pretty good reasons for thinking so.  The same can hold for theism or atheism.  For example, I see Darwinian natural selection as an adequate explanation of apparent design, which makes a designer superfluous to the whole process, while a theist might point to what he sees as the unintelligibility of morality without a lawgiver as evidence in favour of God.

Of course, the coherence of my position really does depend on whether theism/atheism really are belief – but not knowledge – claims.  I think so, but that is a matter for another day.