February 26, 2007

My Name is Anders and I'm Addicted to Existence!

Emergency exitA very silly deathist sentiment was expressed by Professor Richard Nicholson as a response to the birth and survival of Amillia Taylor:

"Should one really be trying at all to keep that baby alive?" asks Professor Richard Nicholson, editor of the Bulletin of Medical Ethics. "Chances are it will require an enormous amount to be spent on it for the rest of its life. We have much less experience of death, so we have become much less willing to accept it. In countries where infant mortality is higher it would be seen as absurd. We live in a society where we have become addicted to physical existence. It's totally unsustainable. Our attempts at the moment to keep every human physically alive as long as possible will make it less likely that the human race will survive climate change."

I still wonder how climate change could kill the human race. But the silliest aspect is that somehow our 'addiction to existence' will make us vulnerable to die out. If we are so addicted, wouldn't we be fighting any threat far more fiercely than mystics accepting their eventual fate?

I guess there is some hint of religion in the term addiction to physical existence - maybe if we learned to enjoy not existing we would be happier? The only way to make that plausible is to assume dualism and that nonphysical existence is OK. If it is better than physical existence we would of course be morally obliged to prevent a descent into matter.

Presumably the real reasoning is the relative simple observation that we are spending resources in ways that are inefficient and doesn't increase human happiness as much as other ways of spending them. Fair enough. There is something excessive in how western societies have enshrined giving birth to a genetic child as a core value, that should be achieved at any cost. Many of the most controversial reproductive technologies are justified this way, and apparently their use is acknowledged even by many sceptics as a valid use. While I can understand the drive for having a child of one's "flesh and blood", going for adoption would (at least where/if an efficient adoption market exists) improve human welfare even more.

Similarly there might be great wins if we learn to be less neurotic about death. A lot of people are so afraid of dying that they are not really alive. Having witnessed death up close, I can't say it is anything impressive. It is simply an awful waste, but it is an unavoidable fact of life. Even with life extension and software backups we will be vulnerable, since we are metastable systems in a universe dominated by randomness and entropy. In the long run we will all be dead, although it might be from death forward. Learning to deal with the impermanence of one's identity and context is important.

But none of this is strong enough to make existence addiction worthy of adding to the long list of addictions we are supposed to cast off!

What about these addiction criteria for existence addiction?

  • Existing more often or in larger amounts than intended.
  • Unsuccessful attempts to quit; persistent desire, craving.
  • Excessive time spent in survival.
  • Feeling existence at inappropriate times, or feeling fear when existence is threatened.
  • Giving up other things for it.
  • Continued life, despite knowledge of harm to oneself and others.
  • Marked tolerance in which the amount of life needed to satisfy increases at first before leveling off.
  • Characteristic withdrawal symptoms (fear of death)
  • Continuing existing to relieve or avoid fear of death.

I would say they describe the normal human condition. Reacting exessively to them might be unhealthy, but clearly a person who tries to commit suicide is not healthy. The first point seems to suggest that human striving for excellence is bad.

OK, I just took the typical addiction criteria and translated them. It is the hallmark of addictification and popular among people attacking e.g. computer games. By putting books into the criteria rather than drugs we can easily prove that academics are addicted and need to be cured. The criteria only demonstrate something amiss when the drive to fulfill the 'addiction' become so strong that human flourishing becomes impaired. But existence itself is a prerequisite for all forms of human flourishing, so it is hard to overdo it.

It seems that as usual the bioconservative position is backwards. If long lives become meaningless, why aren't people in short-lived societies happier? If valuing life and continued existence impairs acting for long-term survival, why do we see the truly short-term strategy of suicide bombing not among the rich westerners but disadvantaged mid-easterners? How come the rich world spends so much on conservation and environmentalism (including a very expensive push for climate control) while the poor world do not appear to make a proportional effort?

Rather than give up existence addiction we should culture it, just as we have done with caffeine addiction. We have created a culture and practical knowledge surrounding when it is approporiate to drink coffee and how much. We acknowledge the downsides while using the upsides, enjoying the drug and its carriers for flavor and cultural attributions. Similarly we ought to culture our existence addiction: we should learn to curb its neurotic components while develop our abilities to prolong healthy, expanding lives and enjoy struggling for existence.

Posted by Anders3 at February 26, 2007 09:10 PM