Suffering & death everywhere

Since the universe seems destined to die out in the end, it sure looks like we are wasting our time trying to perpetuate ourselves on an ever changing landscape that just won't allow any life to survive. There seems to be a recurring theme in some contemporary pessimistic and nihilistic thought: according to our current understanding of cosmology, the universe is destined to die one way or another — likely, it will end in heat death, with entropy reaching a maximum point everywhere and work, in the thermodynamic sense of the word, can no longer be performed.
Tibetan Bhavacakra

That's pretty bleak, sure, and it can contribute to a pessimist view of existence. But universal finitude isn't required when it comes to cosmic pessimism. In fact, it might even offer a glimmer of hope if we think about it. It presents us with the notion that, no matter what happens, no matter how many times sentient life arises and evolves in the universe, one day it will all be over. In the end, there will be an end — for everything, forever. But that might not happen. What then? Well, philosophical pessimism has existed for quite a long time, even among those who considered the universe to be cyclical or otherwise infinite in time, at least spiritually.

For example, the thought that this world is a terrible place was present in ancient Jewish, Greek, and Hindu writings, just to name a few of the ancients who dabbled in it. And at least in the case of Greeks and Hindus, the predominant view was that the world recycled itself after a long time. It's important to note here that the word “world” means everything there is, which is basically the universe. And Jewish writers most likely didn't think death was the end of life, so even if the material world was bound to end one day, a spiritual world would remain. The notion of something enduring forever, be it in material form or spiritual, was present. Even so, there were pessimists among the ancients.

If we consider Arthur Schopenhauer as the first modern pessimist thinker, then he too wasn't familiar with the concept of a universe bound to achieve maximum entropy and staying that way forever. He lived and worked most of his life during the first half of the 19th century, even before Darwin and Wallace came out with the theory of evolution of the species, and way before advanced 20th century physics. Schopenhauer was greatly influenced by Hindu philosophy, particularly Buddhism, which became a philosophy in its own right, separated from the ancient Vedic religion. In Buddhism, the notion of a world that always recycles itself after a long time is present and plays a crucial part in its soteriology.

Although an admirer of Buddhism, Schopenhauer didn't really went along with the supernatural aspects of that — or any other — religion. Nevertheless, the philosophical aspects of many different religious views interested him, particularly those doctrines that regarded the world as a terrible place from which we must somehow escape — generally by renouncing the world itself and becoming an ascetic. Besides him, Peter Wessel Zapffe and Emil Cioran were two 20th century pessimist philosophers who also didn't rely on the death of the universe in order to embrace their dark views of reality.

Contrary to the ancients, these three philosophers lived in a world where empirical science was prized above faith when it came to expressing a philosophical view. They were all post-Enlightenment thinkers. Even Schopenhauer, who lived in the 19th century and was transcendental idealist like Immanuel Kant, didn't base his philosophy solely on unbounded reason or faith, but on experience and observation of the world. What made them pessimists was not the idea of an end that would somehow nullify everything, but sentient and conscious life itself. An eternal or cyclical existence were sentient and conscious life arises and suffers over and over again is not somehow endowed with meaning compared with a finite universe that ends in an never-ending maximum entropy.

From the pessimist standpoint, both universes present themselves as places where suffering and death do not matter in the higher scheme of things. Existence in both types of universe is meaningless. The difference lies in one being an eternal freak show of potential and actual suffering, and the other being a place where eternal darkness will eventually reign. The ironic part is that some physicists — and some laymen — believe that a cyclical universe is less bad precisely because it offers a glimmer of hope in continuity. They don't account for suffering, of course, because they follow a program which dictates that conscious life is an unquestionable blessing.

I have written about Roger Penrose's Conformal Cyclical Cosmology before. I briefly addressed the implications that an eternal cyclical universe would have on pessimist thought. In that text I expressed the view that, from a philosophical pessimist point of view, a universe that has a definitive and eternal end is better than an never ending universe, be cyclical or static. I still argue for this view. The smaller the window of time that allows for the existence of sentience, the better. That doesn't make it okay, of course, but it is less bad. Death will always be everywhere, be it in an never-ending universe, or an universe that ends one time. After maximum entropy is reached, barring the possibility of some type of recycle, heat death will be an eternal cemetery full of dead particles moving chaotically throughout space. The advantage will be that suffering will no longer exist. Only a reminder (to no one) of what once was.

One aspect of this discussion we might note are the implications regarding the antinatalist ethic. Some can view the act of not perpetuating life in a universe that dies one time “for good” as a more impactful act, whereas not reproducing in a cyclical or eternal universe might be viewed as a helpless and meaningless act, since there will always be someone reproducing and perpetuating suffering at some point in eternity. But contemporary antinatalist philosophers do not base their ethical views on the type of universe we might live in, rather, they base their views on how one acts in order to perpetuate suffering here, now, and in the foreseeable future.

There comes a point that, yes, our actions have little impact in the grand scheme of things, but this shouldn't be the basis of ethics. If it were so, then we could argue that murder also has little impact in the grand scheme of things, and that therefore it is neither wrong nor right. We can construct another similar argument against antinatalism that uses space, rather than time, to argue that it is meaninglessness to abstaining from reproduction. The argument goes like this: sure, we can all end suffering of our species here on Earth, but what about the (possible) alien life forms on different planets? Forget about that, what about different sentient life here on our planet? They will keep on living, and because of that, our actions will have little impact overall on suffering. Note that these types of arguments can be used regardless of the type of universe we happen to live in.

Again, the overall impact of following an antinatalist ethic on universal existence is not what makes one an antinatalist in the first place — or, at least, it is not the only reason why one might become an antinatalist. Yes, we can theorize the number of potential descendants of ours that would suffer in the next ten thousand years if we have one or two children. This figure might factor in our choice of abstaining from reproduction, of course. We can also try to figure out how much our antinatalist stance would contribute to the reduction of future suffering. But even if we do all of that, we should always have in mind that those people, by not existing, will have little impact on a planet with billions of different species that kill each other trillions of times everyday in order to survive. The impact is even smaller when we consider the possibility of life on other planets, and smaller still when we consider the possibility of a cyclical universe.

Precursors of antinatalist thought, thinkers such as Schopenhauer, would certainly agree that the overall impact on eternity of our abstention should not be the basis of ethics. For Schopenhauer, compassion is the basis of ethics. That is, the act of seeing ourselves in other sentient creatures is what allows us to act morally. According to him, all of us are animated by a universal force he calls the Will. This metaphysical Will is what makes the galaxies turn and cells divide. It is also what makes animals kill one another in order to survive — or in order to profit financially or emotionally, as in the case of humans. Since humans are endowed with reason, denying the Will that animates us is a victory in the face of the Will's chaotic and meaningless universal program. It might be a small victory, but it is a victory, nevertheless.

Regardless of how our universe will behave in the far future, whether or not it will end or recycle, sentience will come into existence and suffer an unimaginable amount of times. Even if sentience exists only on our planet, by the time the Sun destroys the Earth in the next few billion years, suffering and death would have occurred everyday for many millions of years. Possibly, suffering has been going on our planet ever since the appearance of the first animals endowed with nervous systems — which indicates that they probably were capable of feeling pain — hundreds of millions of years ago, during the Cambrian period.

How each of us act should not be based on how big or small our contribution will be. From the universe's point of view, even Napoleon and Jesus didn't cause a great impact, let alone us. Let us not think of the far future and the possibility that the universe might recycle over and over, allowing for sentience to arise again and again, forever. Let us not be preoccupied with life on other planets or even with how other sentient animals will remain alive after humanity goes extinct on this planet. Let us just deny the universal program ourselves and know that we saved at least one person from this hell. Regardless of what happens, by not reproducing, we will have this one certainty. By abstaining from procreation, we will have saved one person from suffering and death by letting them remain in a never realized potential state.

by Fernando Olszewski