Friday, February 24, 2012

Monothematic Delusions and the Perception of Identity

Patty Keene was stupid on purpose, which was the case with most women in Midland City. The women all had big minds because they were big animals, but they did not use them much for this reason: unusual ideas could make enemies, and the women, if they were going to achieve any sort of comfort and safety, needed all the friends they could get.

So, in the interests of survival, they trained themselves to be agreeing machines instead of thinking machines. All their minds had to do was to discover what other people were thinking, and then they thought that, too. (Kurt Vonnegut, Breakfast of Champions, 1973)

People are not truth-seeking machines; we are fitness-maximizing machines. Vonnegut invites us to consider the adaptive advantage of agreeing with our fellows, even if our fellows are wrong; to the extent that we are fitness-maximizing machines, we must necessarily be agreement-seeking, even if it means denying the objective truth or the evidence of our own senses. In addition to avoiding violence, agreement on basic matters enables us to effectively pursue our communication goals, including relationship building and self-presentation as well as information transfer. Agreement on basic matters is essential to the use of language. The messages we pass each other in language are short and dense and require a whole world of shared context to be understood. (This is why language that is to be interpreted hostilely, such as legal language, is notoriously incomprehensible: mutual context-assumption serves comprehensibility.) Something as basic as the identity of people must be assumed in order to understand what others are talking about.

It's almost impossible to maintain a belief or set of beliefs when not surrounded by others who share those beliefs. In the laboratory, subjects will fail to report their true perceptions, and instead report that they share the reported perceptions of the group - especially when the task is defined as important (Baron, 1996). In the real world, religious people who leave their communities generally alter their beliefs toward those of their new communities. Agreement, not truth, is the most important function of a human brain.

In the field of psychiatry, a delusion is a fixed, false belief that does not respond to evidence - importantly, not counting widely shared false beliefs, such as widely-shared religious or nutritional beliefs. Delusions are usually a symptom of schizophrenia or another thought disorder. However, a few very specific monothematic delusions - delusions that relate to only a single theme, rather than being wide-ranging - often present in people who are otherwise normal, but have suffered brain injury, such as from a stroke. To me, the monothematic delusions are the scariest delusions because they are the kind of delusion that often afflicts otherwise sane, rational people - that is, people with whom it is easy to identify. The presence of a delusion in a mind like ours forces us to imagine our own minds coping with a delusion. But the content of the monothematic delusions is also profoundly creepy on a deep and probably foundational level. It is creepy that these particular delusions, these particular false beliefs that are not changed by any amount of evidence, occur in just these patterns all around the world.

For example, there is the Capgras delusion, in which the deluded person believes that his close relatives (but not acquaintances) have been replaced with identical-looking duplicate copies,Invasion of the Body Snatchers-style. The most famous example is the patient known as "DS," described in a 1997 paper by V. S. Ramachandran (Hirstein, 1997); DS developed the Capgras delusion after injuring his head in a traffic accident. His delusion was creepily specific: he believed his parents had been replaced by doppelgangers when he observed them visually, but he did not have this belief when he spoke to them on the phone.

The creepiness seems to have a tidy neuroscience solution: DS (and by extension Capgras patients) can recognize faces, but cannot connect the visual recognition with the appropriate emotional response. Auditory recognition and its appropriate emotional response are not so affected. DS sees his mother's face, but doesn't feel the familiar emotions he should feel when looking at his mother; therefore, his senses scream at him that this person is not his mother. The doppelganger story is the only thing that makes sense, given this direct perception.[1]

Most likely, the Capgras delusion is an organic, physical brain situation, like color blindness. Color blindness is not generally held to be a delusion, as it is a disorder of perception, rather than of reason or belief. The apparatus that the self uses to sense the world is broken, one might suppose, but the self inside is unaffected.

But just as a colorblind person may admit that others seem to see colors he does not, the person with a monothematic delusion may admit that his beliefs are bizarre and not held by the rest of the population. Nonetheless, the bizarre perception remains and informs all his other processes, including his internal narrative.

Another monothematic delusion occurs when the afflicted person believes one of his limbs doesn't belong to him - and often wishes to have it amputated. When this bizarre belief was seen as a sexual perversion, perhaps contagious and definitely transmitted via the internet, it was called apotemnophilia (Elliot, 2000). But once it became clear that this, too, was a specific brain wiring issue and not a more general "failure of reason" - when it became clear that affected patients' brains failed to "map" the limb in question onto their internal self-representations (Vallar, 2009) - then the delusion came to be called by the less prurient name somatoparaphrenia.

Here are the rest of the monothematic delusions, from Wikipedia ("Monothematic delusions," 2011):

  1. Fregoli delusion: the belief that various people who the believer meets are actually the same person in disguise.
  2. Intermetamorphosis: the belief that people in one's environment swap identities with each other whilst maintaining the same appearance.
  3. Subjective doubles: a person believes there is a doppelgänger or double of him or herself carrying out independent actions.
  4. Cotard delusion: the belief that oneself is dead or does not exist; sometimes coupled with the belief that one is putrifying or missing internal organs.
  5. Mirrored self-misidentification: the belief that one's reflection in a mirror is some other person.
  6. Reduplicative paramnesia: the belief that a familiar person, place, object or body part has been duplicated. For example, a person may believe that they are in fact not in the hospital to which they were admitted, but in an identical-looking hospital in a different part of the country.

I feel a sinking sense of creepiness in reading these descriptions, of the uncanny. For all these delusions have one thing in common: they are all scary mistakes relating to identity, whether the subject's own identity or that of others. The subject's beliefs violate our own heretofore-unquestioned beliefs about identity - that identity is stable, that its boundaries are those of a body[2], that other people are really out there and are the same people they were a minute ago. The monothematic delusions represent specific breakdowns in our system for keeping identity straight. But in examining these breakdowns, we must gradually come to realize what it means: our system for recognizing ourselves and others, for keeping the characters in our stories straight, is a physical, biological system, just like our eyes. It is a bit of a Rube Goldberg contraption, as we can see from the ways in which it breaks.

Our perception of identity is, to a large extent, direct perception. When we understand this, we must admit that there is no longer a safe "self" nestled inside our brains, reaching out into the world through (sometimes faulty) sensory equipment; even the self itself is made of sensory equipment, which by its nature may be innacurate.

Perhaps when we perceive ourselves and others, we are not perceiving something real, but we are watching our brains constantly manufacturing an illusion.

The monothematic delusions are scary because they force upon us the realization that we perceive identity the way we perceive color: directly and without reason's assistance.

Now the difficult task of the non-delusional person, who perceives his own identity and that of others with as much clarity as he perceives the blueness of a clean sky, is to nonetheless realize that selves and identity do not really exist, but are constructed by the elaborate brain he has the sense of occupying.

As I mentioned earlier, in the discipline of psychiatry, delusion is defined in contrast to the beliefs that exist in the background culture. When being tested for delusion, one is being tested not against some abstract standard of veracity, but against the perceptions of the majority. But we must wonder: even if almost all of the thermometers in a room read 72 degrees, does that really make it 72 degrees inside? Could all those thermometers be wrong together? (Perhaps because they all malfunctioned in the same way?)

Underlying the perception of identity is the brain's capacity for face recognition. Since organic brain damage may result in the loss of the ability to recognize objects, but not faces, or faces, but not objects, it is believed that there is a whole separate machinery in the brain dedicated to nothing but processing faces. The quickest glance at a person's face allows us to immediately perceive the person's identity, sex, mood, age, race, and direction of attention, all crucial information for social animals (Tsao, 2008).

An interesting observation about our facial recognition machinery is that we recognize caricatures (cartoonish portraits exaggerating unusual features) better than we recognize the actual faces that the caricatures represent. Some researchers suggest that this might mean there is a sort of hard-coded "prototypical face" in our brains to which we compare all other faces (Leopold, 2001); others suggest that there is no neutral "norm face" seared into our brains, but rather that we each form our own norm face prototypes based on the faces we are exposed to (Lewis, 1999). (This latter explanation would make sense of the fact that people can generally recognize members of the race of people we were raised among better than members of another race.)

When human faces are rendered in art, they may be endowed with varying degrees of detail, from photorealism to cartoonish minimalism. The drawn heroes of comics are often rendered with especially little detail; Scott McCloud, in Understanding Comics, suggests that this kind of minimally-sketched, cartoonish face, bare of anything but expression elementals (eyes, eyebrows, mouth), is easier for us to identify with than a more detailed, specific representation of the character (McCloud, 1993). It is as if all we need to mentally render the character, to imagine it having an inner life like our own, are the most basic cues to facial expression.

The fact that cartoons are so easy for us to process into meaningful representations of beings (with inner lives) suggests that our facial recognition processes, perhaps even our keeping-identity-straight processes, are themselves cartoonish. We focus on certain information and the rest is elided. And that's the scary part: we don't perceive this elision. With our fragile but self-important conscious awareness, it is as if we have bright flashlights strapped to our heads, so that everywhere we look is well-lit; meanwhile all around us things squirm in the darkness outside of our perception.

Our mechanisms of perception are some of those dark, squirming things. Visual blind spots are well-studied. But there are analogous blind spots in the perception of identity.

The perception of identity, of ourselves and others, underlies not only ethics but all meaning that we perceive or impose. Everything that is important to us rests on a foundation of the perception of ourselves and others as experiencing beings, with personalities and histories and roles to play within our stories.

Stories themselves may be thought of as a kind of cognitive bias. We imagine ourselves in stories to give our actions and relationships a context within which to be meaningful. Creating an internal narrative is the essential function of the conscious self, and one's internal narrative is by definition what feels most real to the individual. But narrative is itself a kind of primary perception, rather than a process of reason; the person experiencing the Capgras delusion creates the doppelganger-replacement story not through conscious, rational processes, but rather driven by the need to come up with an (emotionally) acceptable explanation for the primary perceptions of face recognition minus appropriate emotion. Believing our own narratives is like the colorblind individual believing his color blindness.

However, the colorblind individual has a strong reason to deny that his perception reflects objective reality: the testimony of those around him. Perhaps the highest-level rational process of all, in humans, is "check your conclusions against those of your peers." The colorblind individual who can (at least intellectually) admit that his perception of colors in inaccurate assures us that he is still one of us - despite his perceptual difference, he can function as our epistemic peer. His mind is working. What worries us most about the Capgras individual is not so much that his brain is "wired" wrong - it's that he will not change his beliefs when confronted by the testimony of others. If he has no "insight," as psychologists call the ability to perceive one's own mental malfunction, it is as if he has no mind - there is, clearly, no "self" safely ensconced inside his brain for us to relate to. So, perhaps the Capgras individual has lost his ability to rationally weigh the testimony of others. Or perhaps his sense that people are not who they seem is so intense and undeniable as to weigh a hundred times heavier, to him, than even visual perception (as those with merely visual disorders generally have insight into their condition).

We must understand the convincingness, the undeniability, of the Capgras individual's delusional perception of identity in order to understand our own white-knuckle death grip on our non-delusional perception of identity. For the Capgras delusional individual experiences opposite processes: perceptive pressure toward believing his delusion, and social pressure to deny it. Not so for the rest of us. For non-delusional perception - ordinary, neurotypical perception - perceptive pressure and social pressure align to enforce belief. That's great - as long as perception reports reality. If there are instances in which individuals almost all perceive wrongly, and there is no widely compelling explanation as to why (as with optical illusions), we are screwed. This process would be expected to fail to report reality in certain situations, leaving us with incorrect beliefs and no clear way to identify and correct them. We might expect misperceptions of a foundational nature to be even more difficult to correct than more superficial counterfactual perceptions.

Science (a sort of "beginner's mind" toward the world) suggests that our alleged selves do not possess the properties they are almost universally perceived to have (such as existing separately from, and on a higher level than, sensory perception). It is exciting for intellectuals to suggest the same. But in practical terms - in social terms - we cannot do other than to assume the existence of the perceived self. We can prove, but never know, that regarding the self, the only part that is real is the feeling of it.



Baron, Robert S.; Vandello, Joseph A., Brunsman, Bethany. "The forgotten variable in conformity research: Impact of task importance on social influence.". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 71 (5): 915–927  (Jan. 1, 1996).

Hirstein, William, and V. S. Ramachandran. "Capgras Syndrome: A Novel Probe for Understanding the Neural Representation of the Identity and Familiarity of Persons." Proceedings: Biological Sciences, Volume 264, Issue 1380 (Mar. 22, 1997), 437-444.

Elliot, Carl. "A New Way to be Mad." The Atlantic (December 2000).

Leopold, D. A., O’Toole, A. J., Vetter, T., & Blanz, V. (2001). Prototype-referenced shape encoding revealed by high-level aftereffects. Nat Neurosci, 4(1), 89–94.

Lewis, M. B., & Johnston, R. A. (1999). A unified account of the effects of caricaturing faces. Vis Cognit, 6, 1–41.

McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics. Northampton, MA: Kitchen Sink Press, Inc., 1993.

Monothematic delusions. (n.d.). In Wikipedia. Retrieved November 3, 2011, from

Vallar, G., and R. Ronchi. "Somatoparaphrenia: a body delusion. A review of the neuropsychological literature." Exp Brain Res. 2009 Jan;192(3):533-51.

Tsao, Doris Y., and Margaret S. Livingstone. "Mechanisms of face perception." Annu Rev Neurosci. 2008; 31: 411–437.

Vonnegut, Kurt. Breakfast of Champions. New York: Laurel, 1973.

[1]In a similar vein, we might doubt the atheism of an atheist who has never, himself, spoken in tongues or used psychedelic drugs. He or she has never experienced phenomena that subjectively feel like the direct perception of gods; upon exposure to this experience, his or her reasoned atheism might very well fall victim to this incredibly tempting sensory data. A weak atheist sees gods and begins to worship them. Only the atheist who has managed to get himself through the direct experience of gods (perhaps lashed to a boat Ulysses-style) and has come out still an atheist can be trusted to remain so in the face of the brain's many entheogenic tricks. Luckily, atheists now have communities of people with similar beliefs to interact with and check themselves against, a necessary condition for belief maintenance; not so for those who doubt the external-world reality of other tricky phenomena generated by the brain, such as the self.

[2]Body envelope violations making up a class of universally "disgusting" stimuli.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Cooperative Female Sexuality in Humans?

Bonobos, like Burners, enjoy sexual activity with same-sex and opposite-sex partners for a variety of non-reproductive purposes. The "hippie ape" seems to make for itself an ideal society, high in sex and low in violence.

Unfortunately for humans, evolution has taken us down a different path from the funtime orgy we'd all be having if we were bonobos. Humans, compared to bonobos, exhibit significant adaptations to monogamous pair bonding, or at most mild polygyny, and use a variety of tools (including violence) to control the sexuality of their partners and other conspecifics.

We're not hippie apes; we're jealous apes. Human heterosexual sexuality is simply not analogous to bonobo heterosexual sexuality.

But the question I have not seen addressed, much less resolved, is whether human female-female sexuality has played a significant role as a cooperative mating strategy.

Evidence Suggestive of a Role for Female Cooperative Sexuality

The first piece of evidence for an adaptive role for female-female sexuality is the existence of female-female sexuality in humans. We can do better than the existence case, though: there is evidence that the capacity to be sexually aroused by women is near-universal in human women. Female sexual response is much more bisexual (and even bestialist!) than male sexual response, regardless of self-identified orientation.

Second, there is evidence that life history affects female sexuality in a manner consistent with the predictions of evolutionary psychology. One study found that lesbians with prior hetero experience were more likely than heterosexual women to have experienced physical and sexual abuse by men. To the extent that heterosexual sexuality is found to be dangerous, through early rape or severe abuse, one might be expected to look for a different strategy to survive and reproduce than heterosexual pair bonding.

Third, human males are highly aroused by images of female-female sexuality. In that vein, nominally heterosexual women often engage in public situational bisexuality in the context of (presumably) heterosexual mate selection, such as sticking their tongues down my throat on the dance floor at a heterosexual club. Female-female sexuality is more widely displayed in heterosexual contexts than male-male sexuality. (I have only rarely observed situational male-male sexuality in a largely heterosexual context, and in all cases a number of females had expressed their arousal over, and approval of, this type of sexuality.)

Fourth, female-female sex is "costless" in evolutionary terms, whereas female-male sex is very costly to females. Being costless, female-female sexuality fails to cry out for an explanation the way fitness-damaging behaviors do. A low-cost tool is one we might expect to see used as part of a variety of strategies. This post was inspired in part by Dain Fitzgerald's An Ev Psych Standard Gets a Twist, in which he relates the curious case of Terri Conley. Conley, in a serious of papers, attempts to challenge Sexual Strategies Theory (i.e., that women aren't as interested as men in casual sex because duh pregnancy) for a variety of stupid reasons. The stupidest alleged attack on SST is that women are shockingly willing to engage in casual sex WITH ANOTHER WOMAN, just not with a man. She (and the popular press) attribute this almost completely to women getting greater sexual satisfaction from women as opposed to men.

While appealing to male fears of sexual inadequacy is totally hilarious, the proposition that a girl is going to sexually satisfy you better than a guy is hardly a given. There are two much more salient features of girl-on-girl action, and they both relate to it being relatively costless.

One aspect of costlessness is material: girls don't fertilize you. This has two consequences: first, you don't incur the costs of pregnancy and childrearing; sex can be just sex. Second, you don't incur the jealousy (or reputational) costs inherent to a fertilization risk; there's no risk of paternity confusion, so none of the negative consequences that might flow from paternity confusion need be realized.

The second aspect is more purely one of signalling. Men are easy; girls are hard. As Eliezer Yudkowsky has noted, the size of a nerdy female's harem is limited only by the stress tolerance of her clit ring. Sleeping with men is not an indication of high mate quality; it may be the opposite, given the value of a woman's reputation for chastity (at least sperm chastity). But having sex with women is an indication of quality and status; I for one am about four thousand times more likely to brag about an all-girl fivesome in the shower of Senior House than about any sexual act involving males, even though I'm predominantly heterosexual. In a dyadic situation, female-female sexuality may even signal to males that sexual access to one means sexual access to both.

Polygyny and Its Discontents

Does the idea of cooperative female-female sexuality conflict with the high levels of conflict (and presumably low levels of scissoring) observed among co-wives in polygynous societies? From the abstract of the 2005 paper "Co-Wife Conflict and Cooperation":
Conventional wisdom holds that the polygynous family system is as sexually and emotionally satisfying as a monogamous one. Ethnographic accounts of 69 polygynous systems, however, provide compelling evidence that the majority of co-wives in a polygynous family prefer pragmatic co-operation with one another while maintaining a respectful distance. Moreover, there is often a deep-seated feeling of angst that arises over competing for access to their mutual husband. Co-wife conflict in the early years of marriage is pervasive, and often marked by outbursts of verbal or physical violence. Co-wife conflict may be mitigated by social institutions, such as sororal polygyny and some form of "social security" or health care. Material wealth may be divided more or less equally, but as a husband's sexual attention (a primary source for increased fertility) and affection cannot always be equitably distributed, there is ongoing and contentious rivalry among co-wives. [NSFW link mine.]

The high-conflict, high-stakes environment of polygyny is not a happy lesbian love-fest. But this environment might be just the place for pockets of sexual cooperation between females (what better hack to get the patriarch's attention?); do female-female sexual relations exist in these societies, and under what circumstances? I am not aware of the answer to this question.

But if girl-on-girl bonding sex isn't used in modern polygynous societies, that doesn't mean it isn't used in other contexts relevant to our environments of evolutionary adaptedness. "Unicorn polyamory" is the pejorative term used to describe a male-female couple in search of a second female to complete a three-person relationship; such females are located about as often as is the concept's namesake. Unicorn polyamory, in my view, is similar in sexiness to the idea of entering somebody else's polygynous marriage: not fucking very, mister patriarchy. There's not much advantage to banging your co-wife, unless the two of you can out-compete the rest of the co-wives that way. Similarly, there's no advantage to sharing a male with another female if you could reliably get your own, assuming high paternal investment.

But when the female-female sexual cooperation comes first, the female dyad is more powerful, and sexier, than either female individually - perhaps more than both put together. I would expect cooperative female-female sexuality, to the extent that it exists, to be geared toward the formation of female-female sexual dyads for the purposes of (a) attracting the attention and investment of high-quality males and (b) pooling resources to raise children safely.

Happy Valentine's Day!

Monday, February 6, 2012

The Pleasure You Have Been Denied

This is the second post in a series exploring the moral and practical importance of pleasure and meaning; the first is Enhanced Running.

My best friend's name is Lennon. She has an unusually high capacity for aesthetic appreciation, which sometimes produces strange results. When we take her to a great restaurant she has never tried before, she experiences at once great pleasure and great irritation: pleasure with the food, and irritation that we've never taken her there before. "Do you hate me?" she will ask, implying that ill will toward her is the most plausible explanation for failing to share this particular intestine hot pot (or whatever) with her. We have named this phenomenon "to Lennon," as in "Wow, it was so good I Lennoned!"

To "Lennon" is to become aware, by experiencing a new pleasure, that one has heretofore been denied that pleasure. At least some people seem to experience the awareness of having been denied pleasure in the past as a painful experience. My question: what is the moral importance of pleasure denied?

Asymmetry Redux

The antinatalist asymmetry, posited by David Benatar in Better Never to have Been, rests on an alleged difference in our moral intuition between unfelt pleasure and unfelt pain. Most of us agree that pain experienced by a living being is bad, and the pleasure experienced by a living being is good. Similarly, most of us agree that the pain avoided by not coming into existence is good. What is contested is the value of the pleasure foregone by a never-born person; some say it's bad, but Benatar makes the case that it's merely neutral. Let me for now label it "contested," thus:

Never BornBorn
No Pleasure (contested)Pleasure (good)
No Pain (good)Pain (bad)

The intuition supporting the asymmetry is that there is nothing particularly bad about pleasure denied to a being, if that being never comes into existence. What the simple formulation above elides is the reality that most of the pleasure that's possible in a given life is not actually experienced. Most living beings experience some pleasure, but most pleasure is denied to living beings that come into existence just as it's denied to those who don't. Coming into existence changes the quality of this denied pleasure from a deprivation never felt into a deprivation that may possibly become the subject of Lennoning.

On the other hand, never-born beings experience no pain; born beings all experience some pain, but no one experiences all the possible pain he might experience. Is there a "reverse Lennon" phenomenon that makes us happy when we realize we have avoided some possible pain? How did we feel when told to eat our food as children because there were some children who had no food? Did that increase our pleasure or decrease our pain? To me, it has always seemed cold comfort and of no particular value to know that others suffer more than I, or that it might be worse for me in a counterfactual situation. Pain not experienced by living beings is good, but is it better than pain avoided by never-living beings? Intuitively, it seems not.

A diagram representing this more complicated situation might look like this:

If the category of "pleasure denied" is indeed morally important, as those who deny Benatar's original asymmetry assert, then this counts against life to a great degree, because the space of "pleasure denied" is great for a living being, This is especially true if we give weight to the intuition of "Lennoning" - that pleasure denied to an existing being is worse than pleasure denied to a never-existing being. We could create even a third category, as I hinted in my previous post: pleasure denied to a being who is aware of the denial, which must be the worst kind of denied pleasure, and which correlates tightly with inequality.

Pleasure, Pain, and the Privileged Inside View

Is being born a good thing? Those who consider the question from the "hell yes" side tend to privilege individuals' own judgments as to whether they are personally happy to have been born (see imaginary survey justification), and frequently take the alleged rarity of suicide as strong evidence that most people privately feel benefited from being born.

Assuming arguendo that most people both report and act like they are happy to have been born, can we infer that the pleasure of life generally outweighs its pain?


It is a clear fact of the world, from studying actual suffering, actual happiness, actual suicides, actual hikikomori refuseniks and actual happy people, that the balance of pleasure and pain has almost nothing to do with the perceived value of life.

For instance, one of my friends suffers from almost constant migraine headaches, and has for most of her life. She suffers unimaginably, but she is very religious and takes a great deal of meaning from life. She would identify herself as glad to be born if asked, and I would be amazed if she were suicidal. Clearly, she is not weighing the benefits against the harms of life; rather, she is playing a part in a meaningful story, and that experience of meaning is what makes her want to get up in the morning. It is often those who suffer greatly who take the most meaning from life, and it is often the physically comfortable who reject it.

To the extent that we privilege an individual's self-reported happiness to be alive over some kind of objective analysis of costs and benefits, we are privileging that individual's theory of the goodness of life. In almost no case that I am aware of is an individual's theory of the value of life tied to having more pleasure than pain in life. In almost all cases, it is story, meaning, and social belonging that convince us that life is worth living.

People do not endure pain because pleasure makes up for it. People endure pain because they feel themselves to be the protagonist in a story, and enduring the pain of life is worth something meaningful to them. To the extent that their stories of meaning (religion, liberalism, etc.) have objective truth values, it may be that most people who judge that life is worth living are wrong.

What I mean by "wrong" is not that they should immediately kill themselves; what I mean is that each person's theory of why life is worth living is not objectively correct in a manner that may be proven in some way to a sad person who wants to die. The creation of people necessarily means the creation of both happy and sad people - people who are happy to have been born, and people who aren't. Creating the people who aren't happy to have been born is a serious wrong that requires justification. (Note that this is a different statement than the statement that the creation of any person is a serious wrong.) If the justification is that it's necessary to create sad people in order to create happy people and creating happy people is somehow good, then the happy people owe the rest of us something to make up for putting us through this bullshit - specifically, they owe us the freedom to alleviate our pain, since we don't share their meaningful story, and in fact judge it to be wrong, just as they judge the meaningful stories of most others to be wrong.

On Doing Good

The fact that it is a (probably objectively untrue) story of meaning, rather than a cold analysis of pain and pleasure, that causes people to want to live and go forward in their stories, has implications for how we might do good for others, if at all.

I have long considered Mother Theresa to be a villain, because she famously privileged her counterfactual story of meaning (Catholicism, afterlife, salvation) above the suffering of real people. However, in refusing anesthetics to patients in her clinics in deference to her story of meaning, she may have reinforced the story of meaning for those miserable beings in her care. Is it better to suffer miserably but still want to go on in life, or to be basically comfortable but want to die? I am in the latter condition and would consider it a tragedy to be placed in the former condition. But on the other side of the looking glass, it may be seen as a great good to give someone a sense of meaning, even if the meaning isn't factually correct.

Is it good to give someone a sense of meaning that makes him continue on in life, even though he suffers massive pain? Or is it bad to "trap" someone in a story that he will feel compelled to pursue, even to his great detriment?

On the other hand, is it good to give people pleasure, even though it won't make them want to live any more than they already do? Is it bad to cause people pain, even if the pain gives them a meaningful reason to live?

I do not have a tidy answer to these questions (except my usual Debbie Downer rhetoric), and raise them to point out that the "everybody seems pretty glad to be here" argument in favor of birth is morally problematic precisely because it fails to examine the reasons we might feel "glad to be here."
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