The Case for Pessimism

philosophical pessimism

I have made no secret about the fact that I am a philosophical pessimist. Hell, my blog, the one you are reading right now, is called the cynical philosopher. My general disposition is one of nihilism and general misanthropy. This grim view of things is often considered one for the weak. For those who can’t hack it and have given up. I couldn’t agree more with this assessment. But I think there is a case to be made that giving up is a sensible position to take.

Most likely this post is motivated by a pitiful attempt to rationalize my own emotional frailty. But the fact that I spend a great deal of my own thoughts desperately trying to convince myself that I’m not so awful as an impartial examination would lead me to believe is why I think I’m onto something. Evolution afflicted us humans with a parasitic consciousness that at best confers zero fitness, and more likely succeeds only in plaguing us with unnecessary suffering. Chimps don’t spend most of their time navel gazing and wondering why they exist, erecting grandiose myths to stroke their own ego about how important they are; nor do they wallow in frothing pits of despond discharged by their own mewling consciousness. Our humanity is itself what makes us terrible, because without it we would not even possess a concept for evil. Nor would we struggle in vain to convince ourselves that we are good.

Humans have not evolved to occupy the world we have created for ourselves. We have constructed a prison for the mind and then locked ourselves within it. This planet is a dungeon rapidly filling with our own filth. We pump our jailhouse so full of this Stygian miasma of environmental toxins and grotesque ideologies that we can’t even see that loneliness and shame are the common shackles shared by us all.

The air fills with toxic particulates, greenhouse gases, and harmful emissions. The oceans, rivers, and ground fill with plastic, heavy metals, and pharmaceuticals, all while being emptied of their lifeforms. Efforts to stem these problems are futile. It’s barely possible to even arrive at a general agreement that these things are happening. This skepticism is not that surprising, given that powerful interests pollute the discourse as much as they do the environment, spreading misinformation while eroding trust in institutions. Institutions, by the way, that do little to help their own case when they are as biased, ideological, and dishonest as anyone else.

This toxic discourse is possible because human minds are little more than a pliable substrate through which ideas can spread like maggots in a corpse. We humans designate certain ideas as good or bad, but neither of these assessments alter the virulence of the ideas. Conspiracy theories, bigotry, and superstition carry a venom that allows them to penetrate consciousness easier than the truth. These ideas have adapted to prey on our frightened primate minds and cause only divisiveness and suffering.

Our capacity for rational thought – or at least that rational thought is conceivable to us, though perhaps not achievable – is like a sick joke played by our cruel executioner. We are submerged beneath the surface of our animal disposition, able only to glimpse the light of rationality above us, forever out of reach as we drown in the cold darkness of troglodytic savagery.

We are controlled by emotions that evolved to survive in a world we have relegated to obsolescence. Very few of our thoughts could ever be said to be our own. We latch onto ideas indoctrinated into us by our culture, filtered through genes wholly unfit for this environment, and then proceed as if what we take to be commonsense is not nonsense. We seek fame, even while the famous constantly tell us how miserable they are. We detest the rich all while wanting to ascend to their ranks, working to exhaustion to reach the lofty heights of the very conspicuous wealth we denounce in our desperate signals of virtue. We surround ourselves with material things while rejecting any obligation that would bind us to others, and then complain about isolation and loneliness. We turn ourselves into consumable brands, advertising our “authentic” selves on social media, and all we get are feelings of emptiness and alienation. We shout our identities from the rooftops in a doomed attempt to feel some connection – to ourselves and to those who share our identity – only to find that just being something is hollow and unfulfilling, nothing more than another avenue of shallow consumerism. We watch reality TV shows and people online playing video games to gain some simulacra of companionship, ASMR videos that simulate intimate connection, and follow influencers like they’re close friends, all while eschewing any human connections in the real world that might infringe on our ability to do what we want, when we want. Our own freedom is considered as an end in-itself, even while we strive to impose our own worldview on everyone else.

This is a great diagnosis and all, but what really makes pessimism a sensible position is that none of this will change. No matter how much effort we put into things, this will always be the case. Even if by some miracle we arrive at a solution to just one of our myriad problems, it will probably only cause another eruption of unforeseen or covered-up problems. These problems aren’t externalities that can be fixed. They are problems built into the operating system. They are a part of human nature. Especially when that nature if placed into an environment it is unsuited for. We can continue fighting these issues we face, but it is a hydra, with two heads sprouting for every one we defeat. And this hydra will inevitably defeat us.

So, what does giving up look like? Hedonism is the usual go-to answer. My issue is I tried this. At least with alcohol. I spent my twenties as a (barely) functional alcoholic before descending into non-functional alcoholism. It wasn’t pleasurable. Of course, sobriety is not pleasurable either, but it is at least less unpleasurable. What I now do is a sort of “high minded” hedonism. I find learning science, philosophy, and history interesting, occasionally even pleasurable, so that is how I spend much of my time. I spend the remainder whiling away watching ridiculous Youtube videos, or reading the even more ridiculous news.

But what is a long-term version of giving up? To me, long-term giving up means giving up on humankind itself. On the political front, I’m fine watching the world burn. But on the scientific front, I think we ought to play a part in designing whatever it is that usurps our place as self-designated masters of this world. Whether it is some kind of biologically upgraded humans or artificial intelligences, if we insist on clinging to our concern for posterity, we may as well give the future something more suited to the world we have created for ourselves. We may as well adopt something like Extropianism, because even if we fail, what does it really matter in the end, anyway?