Sunday, January 10, 2016

Won’t Get Fooled Again


I have often considered that some big philosophical questions lend themselves to sociological investigation – a simple poll, if such were possible. But two things stand in the way of this kind of poll. One is the sheer immensity and complexity of finding a sample that is truly representative of all of humanity (not to mention, humanity past and future). The other is what makes these truly philosophical questions, which is being sure the relevant concept has been analyzed and operationalized validly (it really does pick out the meaning of the concept) and reliably (all of those being polled really do share the same concept).
Perhaps the main example of this kind of question is this: Is (human) life worth living? I am suggesting that this question could be addressed in poll-like fashion by asking a suitable sample of humans if they find their own life to be worth living. Again, the practical implementation of this poll would be daunting. For instance, would we want to poll only elders who could view their life as a whole? But many people do not reach old age. Furthermore, elders’ views may be skewed by their temporally local circumstances as much as by their presumed panorama; they may be biased by their current ailments, or alternatively by their reduced need to struggle about so many things, supplemented by simply forgetting how difficult so much of their life had been at the time of those struggles.
In The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus famously dubbed my question the one truly serious philosophical problem,” but he equated it to the question of whether to commit suicide. I have a different idea. I think the question of suicide is somewhat of a diversion since there can be all sorts of reasons to stay alive, once one is already alive, that have little to do with one’s overall assessment of life’s value … beginning with simple fear of death or dying, but including also obligations to or caring about others and, for many, insufficient pain or angst to want to bother ending it.
My thought is this, then: Simply ask yourself whether you would like to, or mind being, born again.
Ah, but this is not so simple either. I think I can make it reasonable enough, however, with a few clarifications. Thus, I am not asking the metaphysically fraught question, “Do you wish you had never been born?” Besides being difficult to wrap one’s mind around, the question is too particular to the circumstances of one’s own actual life, whereas I am looking for a broader assessment of human existence as a whole.
So in considering your attitude toward the prospect of rebirth, what I have in mind is this. You are to imagine that you might be reborn as anyone whomsoever, in any era, past or future (though you are also free to limit some of this vast scope as being simply beyond the realm of conceivability; so perhaps it would be better to say, anyone whomsoever in past or present and near-future, or even just present). You might be rich or poor, hale or sickly, generally happy or melancholy or tortured, English or Chinese, even male or female or hermaphroditic, etc.
(I am adapting a thought experiment used by John Rawls in A Theory of Justice, but in such a way as to remove some of its problematic features. I admit, however, that my thought experiment still has problematic features of its own. For example, in what sense is it the same person, myself, if I would have no recollection of who I am in “this” life, and could be utterly different in the next one? Nevertheless, I find this no more problematic than deciding whether it is the same person after amnesia, or during dementia, or even between infancy and maturity, etc.)
Considered thus, I know that my own answer to the question, “Would you like to be reborn?” would be an emphatic “No!” My intuition is still no doubt heavily colored by my feelings about my own actual life. But it also seems to me as close to an objective assessment of human life as a whole that one would be able to make. Just considering the statistical odds of ending up in dire straits of one kind or another might be enough to reach this conclusion. But even assuming non-dire straits for the mass of humanity, I see little enough in human existence to entice me to go through it all over again. Just think about it!
Nietzsche posed a similar challenge with his eternal return. Meanwhile, the Buddha and most Buddhists – and unlike the typical New Ager -- agree with my assessment and seek precisely to avoid reincarnation (although there are Buddhist saints or bodhisattvas who put off Nirvana until they have helped everyone else reach that state of non-being). Nevertheless there are also people who say “Yes!” to life no matter what.

P.S. Already I begin to see further complications, but also interesting implications, of this thought experiment. For instance, there may be a contamination of the question by thinking of it as a case of being reborn. For suppose one’s attitude toward the value of living a human life were “It’s good, but once is enough”; then one might refuse the offer to be reborn, and yet this would not be an indicator that one did not think life worth living. On the other hand, there is paradox here, since even though reborn, one would experience life as if for the first time; so if one did truly find life worth living albeit only once, then why not be reborn into a new life that would seem to be one’s one and only life? I wonder also about how one’s answer to the question would stand up to one’s thoughts and feelings about having children. Suppose one decidedly rejected being reborn; would this mean one would reject bringing children into this world? I’m certain the answer is “No.” I doubt very much that our reason for bringing children into the world has much to do with a consideration of the value of life. People bring children into the world for themselves, not for the children! (Although once here, of course, we may devote ourselves to their welfare.) Indeed, I am sure many parents see children as a way to boost the value of their own life; certainly many of us would feel our life much diminished without children. But as for whether we have done them a favor by bringing them into being … well, that can now be seen not only to pose a question, but to raise a moral issue. There is also the question of to what degree in bringing a child into the world we are in a way being reborn ourselves, since childbearing is indeed our genome’s way of persisting; in which case, wanting children but not wanting to be reborn may appear paradoxical. So you can see that however philosophical this thought experiment may be, it would certainly make a good parlor game!