Saturday, September 24, 2016

Pessimism as an argument for pessimism

In general, pessimism holds that there is something fundamentally problematic with existence, i.e. there is some sort of structural insufficiency at play when we consider life or existence at the metaphysical sense, a permanent, necessary, and un-removable component, a "worm at the core" that tends to rotten the whole thing. Typically the worm is seen as suffering, whether that be strife, boredom, intense pain, infirmity, decay, lack, dissatisfaction, illusions, fear, etc.

But say the pessimist is wrong about all this. Say the bleak yet honest perspective of the pessimist is entirely off-center. Say the universe is actually overflowing with goodness, or at least not nearly as bad as the pessimist makes it out to be.

Where does that place the pessimist?

If the universe really is such a great, fantastic place to be, how could the pessimist be so wrong in their evaluation? Essentially, this would require the pessimist to be under some sort of illusion - and yet, illusions are precisely what the pessimist is focused on removing. The pessimist explicitly believes that there are illusions at play.

The same cannot be said about the optimist, who cannot believe that illusions are at play on pain of contradiction. If the optimist is wrong, then their thesis is discarded as naive and wrong - and illusion. Their thesis was an illusion. But the failure of a pessimist's thesis simply vindicates their thesis - that there are illusions, dangerous and misguided illusions. There is a clear asymmetry between optimism and pessimism.

Discarding pessimism without considering the metaphysics of doing so essentially boils down to victim blaming - it is the fault of the pessimist for being so misguided, when in reality it is the fault of the universe itself for having the ability to produce and sustain such brutally dark yet misguided ideas. The existence of negating-pessimism is incompatible with any affirmative ideology. A truly holistic affirmative ideology requires the non-existence of illusions, especially such apparently-misguided illusions as pessimism.

Any sort of fascist state requires obedience, servitude and assimilation. Fascism is built around fear - fear of the unknown, fear of the unnatural, fear of the other. This ideology places a rift between the state and the barbarians, the good and the evil. It is, fundamentally, a dualism that ignores any sort of unifying, holistic picture of the world. It cuts Being down the middle, separating what is seen as good as entirely ontologically different from what is evil. It builds walls around the good to protect from the evil, without recognizing that this is an act of cosmic self-mutilation, i.e. an act of war between the universe and itself as it forgets the common heritage between its parts. Like an arm fighting its opposite without realizing they're connected to the same body.

This is what any sort of optimistic, affirmative ideology ends up being: a quasi-fascist attempt to keep out dissent, as if contrary opinions were a strange alien to the landscape and not fundamentally derivative from the landscape itself.

And we can see this quite easily when looking at, for example, a PTSD patient. PTSD patients have to learn to "move on" from their past, come to terms with it and heal their wounds. While an honest, yet painful, perspective is one that recognizes the problem and doesn't pretend it's not there. It's one that knows that any sort of shift in perspective is going to require a sequence of forgetting what happened.

That is why pessimism is virtually undeniable: the very existence of pessimism confirms its thesis.

The only alternatives that I can see require theological convictions, such as the belief that all evil is simply the absence of God. This places the good outside of the world, transcending the bad. This is exactly what see in certain Biblical books, such as Ecclesiastes, which tell us that life cannot deliver what we seek and that we must turn our heads to the transcendental, to God. But this is hardly "optimistic". If anything it's just another flavor of pessimism - it rejects the world as a decaying slab of mediocrity for an idealistic realm of possibility. The difference here is in the existence of hope, which is sustained by yet another dualism - a split between the world and God, the cave and the World of Forms, dukkha and nirvana, etc. It's a philosophy that dresses up escape as redemption and hope, one that accepts everything the pessimist has said but anchors hope in the other-wordly as a last-ditch effort for comfort.


  1. I've been thinking about something similar, perhaps interrelated. I tend to think that the absence of metaethical realism no longer troubles me... when I'm left alone with my thoughts, that is. Alas, tranquility vanishes the moment I cross paths with a moral rival. Especially if the rival is someone like Walter Block, who holds polar opposite views (all of which are bizarre to me) despite being well acquainted with my own views. I'm left with nothing to say. The guy seems introspective and can recite the arguments of his opposition, just as I can recite his (seemingly) inferior ones.

    This is devastating. It wasn't always like this, back when I held out hope for robust realism. Back then, one interlocutor had to be wrong with a capital W. Those were innocent times. And still, that's no reason to contrive realism.

    The resultant moral fog... the fact that a person can believe a Just World Fallacy is no grounds to even slightly relax the doing/allowing demarcation... and that endless torture is morally permissible if the counterfactual entails someone stealing a single red cent from him... that this person can go around promoting these values without being wrong-apt in the slightest... THAT THIS IS THE WORLD WE FIND OURSELVES IN... is pessimist-inducing indeed.

    Perhaps this is one way to advance pessimism; convince metaethical realists that the worst imaginable horrors weren't a truth/falsity ordeal all along. What a world.

    Of course, when I say realism in ethics fails, I'm referring to positions striving for moral ontology in some mind-independent sense, not the fancy word-play sense of realism (often argued for circularly).

    1. It's funny you bring up the moral realism vs anti-realism debate. I've been thinking a lot about it recently as well, especially in regards to how logic plays a role in normative debates.

      For example, if we're emotivists and believe morality comes from our approval/disapproval of a certain state of affairs, does logic have any place in a normative debate? Can we legitimately make fancy logical arguments attempting to prove something as moral or immoral, harmful or beneficial, etc. AS IF we're actually talking about a real, objective morality (when secretly we're anti-realists), if our morals are derived from illogical emotions and not an objective fact of the world?

      If moral anti-realism implies that the semantic content of our normative propositions is different from non-normative propositions, then how can we continue to argue for something as being of value by utilizing non-normative semantic content? I'm becoming increasingly skeptical of anti-realist ethics masquerading as it's own science - it acts as if its subject matter is the real world outside of our minds but nevertheless denies this meta-premise. Is this not inconsistent?

      You know how much I've obsessed over the Benatarian asymmetry, and you know that I don't accept it. I don't accept it because I think it's logically problematic and begs the question, yada-yada. Yet does any of this matter in the long run? If we're anti-realists, then shouldn't the asymmetry not even matter at all, since it's attempting to construct a framework of value imposed on the world AS IF this framework is actually present in the world (i.e. a FICTION)? Shouldn't it only matter to moral realists?

      That is why I am entertaining the idea that our personal dispositions play a larger role in ethical discourse than any sort of logic. Some people just aren't gonna be convinced of antinatalism, for example. It just won't happen. People can understand each others' positions perfectly and yet not miss a blink. That's why we have people like Walter Block, like you said. Fan-fucking-tastic.

    2. This is also why I suspect many of the classical pessimists didn't try to proclaim something like birth as morally wrong. They approached it from an empirical, material perspective, pointing out the reality of life and allowing people to come to their own conclusions. They knew people weren't going to be convinced by logical arguments or anything like that. Analytic, logical arguments would be unnecessary and wouldn't work anyway. Just look at how many people have tried to dismantle Benatar's conclusion but have only focused on the formal asymmetry - they hardly touched the material argument. It's empirical, only subject to change by an addition of new empirical data. And it stands on its own, requiring only perceptual honesty, no fancy counterfactuals or axiological tongue-tiers. Indeed the formal argument depends on the material argument anyway. A conclusion from pessimism, such as an antinatalism of sorts, flows naturally from the data, assuming we are rational and level-headed people.

      If you add morality into the equation, though, you end up also adding convictions; people denouncing each other as immoral and accomplishing absolutely nothing. If multiple frameworks exist, then there are multiple beliefs about the same subject that all come out to be true despite being incompatible. What a mess.

      Perhaps there's a sort of constructivism we can appeal to here by using counterfactuals, i.e. IF we accept x as a premise (such as an empirical view), THEN we will accept y. This maintains an anti-realism while simultaneously making a framework in which we can operate. This might work well with the empiricism of the pessimists, since we can say that IF we accept that life is x, THEN we will come to believe y in relation to x (such as the net-loss of birth). It also seems to work well with the slogan of this blog: unless you have a reason to deny it, the statement seems to stand as self-evident, yet is inherently non-normative. There is no ought involved here, only a definition. You either care about suffering or you don't, pick one.

      This constructivism would be a cognitivism and thus truth-apt so long as we accept the premises of the framework, which can potentially be seen as universal among all level-headed and rational folks. The data of this anti-realism would not be the world as realism would have it but rather our mental states acting as a relationship to the world.

      But alas metaethics isn't particularly my strong suit. It's quite a stagnant field as of late.

      "Perhaps this is one way to advance pessimism; convince metaethical realists that the worst imaginable horrors weren't a truth/falsity ordeal all along. What a world."

      Yes, indeed, good point! That there is no objective justice to the world. A startling and alienating conclusion, that a torture is equivalent to a honeymoon.

    3. ...and you are a fucking stupid idiot.