Is It Better to Have Never Been Born?

A couple days ago, someone sent me an article from the New Yorker called The Case for Not Being Born. It’s about a guy named David Benatar who wrote a book called Better Never to Have Been Born: The Harm of Coming Into Existence.

I haven’t read the book itself, just one article about it. So, I’m only responding to what’s in that article. If this seems unfair to Mr. Benatar or his book, I apologize.

According to the article, “In Benatar’s view, reproducing is intrinsically cruel and irresponsible … because life itself is ‘permeated by badness.’ In part for this reason, he thinks that the world would be a better place if sentient life disappeared altogether.”

Further along the article says, “Nic Pizzolatto, the screenwriter behind ‘True Detective,’ read the book and made Rust Cohle, Matthew McConaughey’s character, a nihilistic anti-natalist. (‘I think human consciousness is a tragic misstep in evolution,’ Cohle says.)”

According to the article, Mr. Benatar “provides an escalating list of woes, designed to prove that even the lives of happy people are worse than they think. We’re almost always hungry or thirsty, he writes; when we’re not, we must go to the bathroom. We … are too hot or too cold—or are tired and unable to nap. We suffer from itches, allergies, and colds, menstrual pains or hot flashes. Life is a procession of ‘frustrations and irritations’—waiting in traffic, standing in line, filling out forms. Forced to work, we often find our jobs exhausting; even ‘those who enjoy their work may have professional aspirations that remain unfulfilled.’”

The author of the article interviewed Mr. Benatar and quotes him as saying, “Human life is cosmically meaningless: we exist in an indifferent universe, perhaps even a ‘multiverse,’ and are subject to blind and purposeless natural forces.”

When asked about making the world a better place, Mr. Benatar says, “It’ll never happen. The lessons never seem to get learnt. Maybe the odd individual will learn them, but you still see this madness around you.”


It seems to me that Mr. Benatar is familiar with the reality of Buddha’s First Noble Truth, though he seems not to know that the Buddha talked about all this same stuff over 2500 years ago. The Buddha said, “Birth is suffering, aging is suffering, sickness is suffering, dissociation from the loved is suffering, not to get what one wants is suffering: in short the five categories affected by clinging are suffering.” The Buddha went on to say that even getting what you want is suffering because you will always lose that thing.

The difference between Mr. Benatar and Mr. Buddha is that Mr. Buddha did not stop there. Instead he went into the causes of suffering and proposed a way to do something about it.

Me, I take everything with a grain of salt. Even Buddhism. So, I’m not here to tell you that Buddha was right and David Benatar can go suck it. I think this deserves digging into a little more deeply.

Without Buddhism, I’d be right with David Benatar. His feelings mirror my own for most of the early part of my life. I resented even having been born. And that resentment only grew when I was told that a horrible genetic disease runs in my family and that my parents had had me anyway, even knowing I might spend a considerable portion of a short life in agony and pain just like my grandmother had, and just like my mom did beginning only a few years after they told me this.

What the fuck?

I made my own decision not to have children after learning that. But, even someone without that kind of sword hanging over their head must often think that simply having been born is a tragedy.

The thing I want to address here, though, is those ideas about the cosmic significance of sentient life. Is human life cosmically meaningless? Do we live in an indifferent universe subject to blind and purposeless natural forces? Is human consciousness a tragic mistake?

I don’t think so.

My feeling, based in a large part on things I’ve encountered through intensive Buddhist practice, is that what we call “consciousness” is a fundamental force within the universe. Consciousness — which, I think, is kind of a rotten word for it, but we’re stuck with the word — is as fundamental as gravity, electromagnetism, and the strong and weak forces of nuclear attraction. Consciousness is not something we generate in our brains, but a fundamental natural force that we experience through our brains as well as through our other senses, much the same as we experience gravity and all the rest.

Sentience is one manifestation of this force, but it’s not the only one. Every thing we encounter is, in some way, alive. It is all just different manifestations of an underlying something. Dogen writes about it in his essay Inmo (It), which I retitled It Came from Beyond Zen in my book of the same title (how’s that for a shameless plug?). Dogen decided it was better not to name this something, which is why he uses a word that roughly translates as “it” to refer to it. Others call this something “God,” but that word has a lot of baggage.

The fact that I exist as a sentient being indicates to me that this underlying something desires to know itself through the existence of sentient beings. To me, human life, therefore, is cosmically meaningful. The universe is not indifferent. Natural forces are neither blind nor purposeless. And human consciousness is not a mistake.

I know this is a difficult position to defend. I know that it’s easy to appear to demonstrate that what I’m saying is wrong. Yet I know it isn’t.

The problem is, unraveling the ultimate purpose of life, the universe, and everything may be forever beyond the reach of the human mind. I can’t know what the meaning of life is because the very nature of the meaning of life is unknowability. Knowing is a way of limiting things, yet the meaning of life, the universe, and everything is limitless.

But this limitless something that is not only the universe but is the meaning of the universe is intimately connected with you. In fact, it is more you than you could ever be.


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