Richard Dawkins on Death

by Luke Muehlhauser on October 24, 2010 in Quotes

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{ 73 comments… read them below or add one }

Reginald Selkirk October 24, 2010 at 11:35 am

“Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born…”

OK, I understand his point, but semantically, i don’t think you qualify as “people” if you are never going to be born. It’s only a couple sentences later when he talks about possible people that it gets back on track. Spending time arguing over whether a poet who never was and never will be born is/was greater than Keats is like me holding forth on what I’m going to do with the money when I win the Templeton prize.


JS Allen October 24, 2010 at 11:55 am

Pure stupidity.

The unborn don’t feel the slightest bit unlucky about being unborn. And someone who is dead doesn’t feel lucky about having been alive (in a naturalist world). So Dawkins can only be talking about those of us who are alive, facing death. Certainly, if life is good, then death isn’t. If Dawkins really thinks that death is the lucky thing about life, why does he wear a seat belt?

It’s like saying “It’s better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all”, only stupider — because after you’re dead, you can’t even write a verse like that to convince yourself the loss was a good thing.


Derrida October 24, 2010 at 12:10 pm

Life is good, but only insofar as our desires are being sated. When the pleasures of experience become monotonous, when we’ve learnt everything important and improved ourselves as far as we can, when all the good conversations have been rehearsed, life is no longer worth it. So the fact that we die isn’t a bad thing in itself, death is just bad when it’s premature; when we die before we’ve gotten all we can out of life.

It’s unfortunate that we only get eighty or so years, but fortunate that we got any years at all. I don’t think Dawkins was saying it’s lucky that we die, but lucky that we live at all.


Zeb October 24, 2010 at 12:28 pm

Who chooses which of the possible people becomes actual? If they are not chosen but rather determined, then apparently no others were possible.


Jeffrey Shallit October 24, 2010 at 12:39 pm

There is a certain poverty of imagination in those that think the only two possibilities are (1) determinism and (2) an agent “who chooses which of the possible people becomes actual”. It’s almost as if the last 100 years of physics never happened.


Rob October 24, 2010 at 1:17 pm

To fully appreciate how carelessly wrong this panglossian sentiment is, please read Benatar’s accessible and rigorously argued book. The shallow optimism underlying the thought seems to pervades much of the “New Atheism” phenomenon and lends by comparison to its sanguine proponents unwelcome depth to even the lower reaches of the pious hoi polloi.


Zak October 24, 2010 at 1:25 pm

JS Allen,

You really think that “It’s better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all” is stupid?

Regardless, I am not sure why you think Dawkins’ quote is stupid. Clearly, the fact that we exist is pretty amazing, since there are so many people that could have been born instead of us.


Michael October 24, 2010 at 1:36 pm

It is a brilliant point, one which seems to have escaped the above commenters. It is a moral and ethical point, to be sure, but it is a metaphysical one first. It is a corrolary of the anthropic principle, in my mind.

The prior probability that you and I would be here is arbitrarily close to zero. The open-ended set of existential facts which all needed to break our way amount to near-impossibility. If it had been a different sperm of the tens of thousands in that ejaculate that magical moment, you would not be, for example. If merely 1 of your nearly 1 million genetic ancestors 500 years ago (20 generations back) had not had sex that 1 time, you would not be. If the Mount Toba explosion about 70,000 years ago had been more devastating, than perhaps no humans would have survived, rather than the mere 5,000-15,000 who did, if Theia had been even 20% more massive or had missed the Earth entirely, then we would never have been, and on and on and on…

Dawkins is spot on. We are amazingly, mind-numbingly, stunningly, lucky to exist. If the realization that I am and you are and we are against (nearly) all odds doesn’t clear your mind of despair or obliterate the terror of facing oblivion or re-value existence, then there is no hope for you. If that thought does not serve as the encounter with the profound or the divine or the sacred then you don’t understand it. And no vengeful psychotic imaginary magical beings needed.


Jacopo October 24, 2010 at 1:46 pm

Well said^ I basically tried to type something half as eloquent as your comment Michael, but decided against it as I couldn’t be bothered. I’m glad you put your defence into words!


Jacopo October 24, 2010 at 1:50 pm

Incidentally, Luke, I’d be interested to know if you might have a stab at the ’8 questions’ doing the rounds?

Even a brief naturalistic response in the blogosphere would be a good contribution.


Steven October 24, 2010 at 1:53 pm


I have to disagree with you. For anything to occur differently is to fundamentally change the facts of life. Consider how only the fastest, strongest sperm can impregnate the egg. As such, all other sperm were too weak or slow to ever even reach the egg on time; in other words, out of all the sperm ejaculated, only “your” sperm could have won; by their own structure, all other sperm cells were almost “determined” to loose the race. Unless you alter all other sperm cells to give them all an equal chance of getting to the egg, and then being randomly selected, I think your point is moot.


Rob October 24, 2010 at 2:00 pm

Imagine being one of the men facing death in this scene. Think about it, seriously, for a few moments. Would you not rather never have been born?


Michael October 24, 2010 at 2:02 pm


You’re kidding right? If the angle of penetration had been a little different, Yousperm would have been too far behind , if the force of ejaculation had been a little less, no sperm would have made it, if the 30th sperm to hit the egg had been able to inject its DNA then Yousperm in 31st place would never had gotten the chance, if mom had not been ovulating that night, if dad hadn’t felt it that evening, if….

And all of that is for just 1 of an open-ended list of existential facts that broke your way…
Come on. Steven, it’s OK to admit that you are insanely fortunate to be. Then lets talk about the few 6.7 billion of us and this chance we have…


Michael October 24, 2010 at 2:10 pm

It is no contest. Excruciating pain and horror and degradation and dehumanization, no matter how awful, exist in the context of existence. And no amount of those awful things undoes that these human persons got to exist.

This insight does not argue for doing evil or for tolerating it. Here we are: what do we do with our impossible existences? Surely it isn’t to waste this chance or to destroy others’ fortune.


Jacopo October 24, 2010 at 2:13 pm

It’s readily conceivable – I don’t have to imagine anything greatly different, all of what I’m thinking about could possibly* happen given the laws of the universe – that the universe would have been just slightly different in a practical infinity of different ways, which would have resulted in you and me and everyone else not coming to be. This or that astronomical event, this or that extinction event, this or that historical event, this or that event in the history of the lives of your immediate ancestors, you name it.

I think that’s the point. I don’t think it means to delve into any great metaphysical indeterminism beyond that.

*Even if there were some great deep law that meant that the universe as it is, is the only universe that could possibly be, and that the way your dad came when he was having sex with your mother was the only way he could have ever have shot his load – even then, it’s still prima facie pretty amazing that the laws of the universe had to fall in a way that allowed for my existence and your existence rather than some completely different set of people or whatever.


JS Allen October 24, 2010 at 2:15 pm

@Michael – if he had said, “we’re extremely lucky to be alive”, I would agree. But that’s not what he said. He said that death shows how lucky we are. That’s just retarded.

I love how, every time Dawkins says something nonsensical, all the fanboys come out of the woodwork to tells what little Dickie *really* meant. Which reminds me, how is that 747 gambit coming along?


Adito October 24, 2010 at 2:22 pm

Consider how only the fastest, strongest sperm can impregnate the egg. As such, all other sperm were too weak or slow to ever even reach the egg on time; in other words, out of all the sperm ejaculated, only “your” sperm could have won; by their own structure, all other sperm cells were almost “determined” to loose the race.

This is technically true but the development of a sperm is a long process. It acquires it’s DNA “payload” long before the structures necessary to move quickly and accurately towards an egg. It’s impossible to predict reliably which sperm will become the ultra-sperm at the point of it’s DNA formation so which set of DNA makes it to the egg is pretty much random.

Back on topic… I really like this Dawkins quote. A lot of people have some understanding of how unlikely their existence is but the experience of first facing the full breadth of the idea is incredibly unique. Kudos to him for expanding peoples minds.


Mo October 24, 2010 at 2:42 pm

I think the only reason Dawkins worded it the way he did, in terms of death and dying, is because death is terrifying and scary to so many of us and may be one of the most influential factors that play into religious beliefs. People want to believe in life after death, clearly. I think he’s just trying to say that we should accept death as being inextricably linked with life and to consider ourselves fortunate for having a chance at existence. If you consider death to be the very end then it should serve as motivation to make the most of the life you are so lucky to have.


No October 24, 2010 at 2:48 pm

Pure stupidity.The unborn don’t feel the slightest bit unlucky about being unborn.And someone who is dead doesn’t feel lucky about having been alive (in a naturalist world).So Dawkins can only be talking about those of us who are alive, facing death.Certainly, if life is good, then death isn’t.If Dawkins really thinks that death is the lucky thing about life, why does he wear a seat belt?It’s like saying “It’s better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all”, only stupider — because after you’re dead, you can’t even write a verse like that to convince yourself the loss was a good thing.

You’re obviously a bit thick. It’s not about going on after death to say “Ah I’m dead, but I lived once and that’s what counts”. It’s about even having the opportunity to experience life in the first place.

When he says we’re the lucky ones because we’re going to die, he doesn’t mean that death is a good thing. He means, we even got to live in the bloody first place, compared to those less lucky than us. He’s basically saying, “What the hell are you complaining about. Atleast you get to die. Some people didn’t even get to live”.


TaiChi October 24, 2010 at 2:51 pm

Speaking of Dawkins, there’s news..

GLENDALE, Calif. (CN) – Evolutionary biologist and best-selling author Richard Dawkins claims an employee of his Foundation for Reason and Science embezzled $375,000 from the online store he ran for Dawkins’ charity, by claiming it made only $30,000 in 3 years.

That employee is the notorious Josh Timonen of the forum fallout, for those remember. You can read more about it here.


Zak October 24, 2010 at 2:59 pm

JS Allen,

C’mon. Taking things in context in no way makes someone a fanboy (the quote is in regards to what he wants read at his funeral). He then concludes by stating “We are lucky to be alive and therefore we should value life. Life is precious. We’re never going to get another one. This is it. Don’t waste it…”


Hermes October 24, 2010 at 3:05 pm

Everything that was or is alive dies. I don’t see how pointing out that fact is ‘retarded’.


JS Allen October 24, 2010 at 3:24 pm

Death is repugnant precisely *because* life is such an extravagant good. We fight against death and try to postpone it. Having some smarmy demagogue come along and say that “death is no big deal, because life is precious” is just insulting. It’s the kind of sophistry you get from some pervert running an ashram. You can bet he’s fighting death as hard as we are.

We don’t justify murder by telling the victim, “at least you got to live”, as we pull the trigger. We don’t console someone who is in the process of losing his house by saying, “Houses are really nice! At least you had one once, unlike the great unborn masses!”


Bradm October 24, 2010 at 3:35 pm

I have always hated this quote from Dawkins. It makes absolutely no sense to me. Not to mention that he doesn’t actually give any sort of argument for why people are lucky to have been born. It’s a nice thought, to be sure, but that’s about it.


rvkevin October 24, 2010 at 3:37 pm

For those who didn’t get the memo,
This quote is taken from Unweaving the Rainbow, which is Dawkins attempt to weave science and poetry. This is his attempt to be poetic, it is not something to be taken to be factually true or literally.


Bradm October 24, 2010 at 3:43 pm

Yeah, I just re-read he quote in context and Dawkins is using a slight of hand. He’s talking quite reasonably about how improbable it is that any of us is born but he keeps using the word “lucky” to imply “better off” rather than “improbable.” And he does this without argument … it’s pure rhetoric.


Justfinethanks October 24, 2010 at 4:11 pm

JS Allen:

Death is repugnant precisely *because* life is such an extravagant good.

I still don’t think you are understanding what he is getting at. You first need to presuppose that death is an inseparable part of life. That is, you cannot say “life is precious” while discounting that unavoidable component of life, namely, its end. (Well, I suppose you could, but it would a very selective and limited picture of life.) If you think the horror of death overwhelms the wonder of life, then you just disagree with Dawkins and that those who were never born are actually the lucky ones.

So while you may view death in isolation as a bummer, once you realize that it is part of a package deal with living, it seems like a much more wondrous, awesome, and fortunate thing.

To make the same point by analogy, the fact that I got to leave Disneyland makes me one of the lucky ones. Most people never leave Disneyland because they never get to go. But the fact that I got leave Disneyland is awesome, because from that departing it follows that I got to attend Disneyland, and all its wondrous pleasures. Yes, I did fight against having to leave Disneyland (and her alcohol-selling sister California Adventures), but the fact that I had to leave is part of a package deal with me getting to go. And so I am fortunate for the opportunity.


Hermes October 24, 2010 at 4:48 pm

Bradm, life in general is wonderful. That it isn’t always doesn’t negate that general case. So it is lucky in the colloquial sense.


JS Allen October 24, 2010 at 4:58 pm

@rkevin – Thanks. I assumed that he was making a feeble attempt to seem “poetic”. The reference to both Keats *and* Newton in the same breath as his wretched attempt at synechdoche was embarrassing.

Dawkins is aping Robert Herrick, just as Keats before him did, and he apparently thinks of both Keats and Newton when he thinks about his own poetic “genius”. Dawkins the consummate warrior/poet/lover of our age; the culmination of a long line of progress in the Anglo-Saxon race. But just in case you missed the genius of the line highlighted in blue, he spells it out for you, using the resonant clang of math-speak.

It’s almost as embarrassing as when Hawkings wrote a children’s book. I read it to my kids, and didn’t say anything bad about it. But it is just *awful*. Apparently he surrounds himself with sycophants who will never tell him that he doesn’t know how to write fiction.

@justfinethanks — I can see what he’s trying to do. But it’s terrible. You don’t do synechdoce by saying “that makes us”. You don’t link it using causal language like that. Show me any great poet who does it so clumsily. I stand by my assertion that only perverts at ashrams say something so clumsy and stupid. And if you’re going to be poetic, you don’t then explicate with nonsense about “set of all people who could have existed”.


lukeprog October 24, 2010 at 5:13 pm

Which 8 questions?


Jacopo October 24, 2010 at 5:56 pm

Which 8 questions?

I’m guessing you might think that each question is worthy of a whole book or ten, thus not a lot of point trying to tackle eight at once! But on the other hand, if you’re just offering a shortened version of your opinions, then there’s much less pressure to give them comprehensive treatment.


Justfinethanks October 24, 2010 at 5:56 pm

I think he’s referring to the 8 questions initially posted by creationist Michael Egnor on the Discovery Institute’s “Evolution New and Views” website. (The fact that they are challenging “atheists” now instead of “Darwinists” I take to be a sign they have all but given up the pretense of promoting a theologically neutral scientific theory.)

Here’s PZ’s stab.


Bill Maher October 24, 2010 at 6:18 pm

I am relatively certain that Dawkins means the set of possible, not actual people. There are possible worlds where those sperm got to the eggs instead of us.

Not to get too philosophical, after all that is to miss the point of the quote: appreciate life.


Michael October 24, 2010 at 6:30 pm

@JS Allen

I sent Dawkins an e-mail asking why he peed in your cereal. He answered that he didn’t and that he thinks you are angry because he slept with your boyfriend. He asked me to reassure you that he did not.

You are not angry at Dawkins or even at Hindus. You are mad at your poor reading comprehension. Look, I respect anger. But stupid anger just degenerates into spluttering gibberish. Take deep breaths… deep breaths…


JS Allen October 24, 2010 at 6:36 pm

@Michael – I don’t remember having a boyfriend named “Michael”. Is that just a handle?

No need to get so defensive. It’s not like I’m challenging any of Dawkins’ contributions to biology. We can all admit he’s no poet, can’t we?


Bradm October 24, 2010 at 6:38 pm

Bradm, life in general is wonderful.That it isn’t always doesn’t negate that general case.So it is lucky in the colloquial sense.  


Life in general is not wonderful. That it is sometimes doesn’t negate the general case. So it is unlucky in the colloquial sense.

In other words, your personal feeling about how wonderful life is or isn’t tells us very little about whether people are lucky to have been born.


Hermes October 24, 2010 at 6:49 pm

Bradm, OK. I get your meaning. At the same time, I got what Dawkins meant as well. It’s clear to me that you did not get his meaning, though.


Hermes October 24, 2010 at 6:51 pm

Related to my last comment;


mojo.rhythm October 24, 2010 at 7:24 pm

JS Allen,

By your logic, God did not do us a favor by giving us the “gift of life” then. After all we can’t say we were worse off if we were never born could we?


JS Allen October 24, 2010 at 7:31 pm

@Hermes – That’s a good link :-)

IMO, it *is* pedantic to pick on whether or not Dawkins used the word “lucky” properly. Same could be said about whether or not death is truly “part and parcel of life”. Pedantically, death is the *opposite* of life. But I think @justfinethanks captured the spirit of what Dawkins was trying to say — for a naturalist like Dawkins; death could be seen as a part of life, so I can buy it. It’s textbook synechdoche; and there is a clever paradoxical element to it.

But we can be forgiven for making aesthetic judgments about Dawkins. The sentiment he is ineptly trying to express has been expressed far more effectively by Herrick, Keats, and countless others. I could come up with tons of examples which say it better, just from popular music. For example, from this song, where game says, “Whenever I’m in the [message board reading homophobic slurs against me] and I get exhausted; I think ‘what if Marie Bank had got that abortion?’”

The way Dawkins expresses this sentiment leaves one thinking that he didn’t really “get” Keats. Leaves one virtually certain, I should say. It’s as if Dawkins is the precocious sixth-grade literature student who is trying to paraphrase Keats, but misses half the point. And Dawkins is the ultimate pedant; he can’t even resist pedantry in a paragraph that is supposed to reveal his inner poet.


JS Allen October 24, 2010 at 7:35 pm

@mojo.rhythm – You’re probably right, but I’m not sure exactly what you’re saying. Can you elaborate?


mojo.rhythm October 24, 2010 at 7:43 pm

Most conservative Evangelicals muse that “God gave you life, and you spit in his face!” (Calvinists especially). Craig says it sometimes in his debates as response to various arguments.

If your argument is right, we shouldn’t feel lucky or privileged to be born because we simply cannot say that we would be worse off having not existed. It is logically impossible to make that observation if you aren’t alive! Therefore, the “gift of life” is a meaningless concept. We cannot say that we ought to feed gratitude and humility towards God simply for allowing us to be born.



JS Allen October 24, 2010 at 8:17 pm

@mojo.rhythm – OK, that’s what I thought you meant. And you raise an interesting point. You are basically right.

In one sense, both atheists and Christians see human existence as being extravagantly fortuitous. Atheists, because of the relatively low odds that you would exist. Christians, because the human race would have ceased to exist with Adam, if God had made good on his threat in the garden.

However, there is a significant difference between the two. Christianity holds that some are destined for eternal life, and others are not. For those who have eternal life, Adam’s fall was truly “Felix Culpa“, and we can say that life is an extraordinarily fortunate gift — even more than Dickie Dawkins could imagine. But for him who betrays God, the Bible says “it would be better for him if he had never been born“. So at least for the specific fellow referenced in that verse, he wasn’t “lucky to be born”. He would’ve been better off not being born.


Steven October 24, 2010 at 8:38 pm

@ those that quoted me:

I don’t think it’s so much random as just the result of many events. At any rate, I just wanted to point out that not all of the sperm could have made it, so on so forth. Contemplating this “what other people haven’t been born” stuff is just very complicated since everything involving life is very complex.


lukeprog October 24, 2010 at 8:50 pm

Jacopo and Justfinethanks,

Thanks for the links. I’ve written up some quick thoughts for Monday.


Bill Maher October 24, 2010 at 9:46 pm

here is the answer to the DI’s 8 questions:


Haecceitas October 24, 2010 at 10:14 pm

“This is his attempt to be poetic, it is not something to be taken to be factually true or literally.”

What a poor rationalization. You just can’t accept the fact that Dawkins made a mistake. But once you accept that some things in Dawkins’ books are not literally true, how can you know that ANY of them are?!!



Michael October 24, 2010 at 10:30 pm


So… let me get this straight. If you strap an explosives-filled vest on yourself and blow yourself up in a cafe full of infidels, after you die you get 40 acres in Paradise Gardens, a mule and 72 virgins? That is SO worth it!

And if you eat shellfish or sleep with your boyfriend you are eternally damned to suffer the absence of Jesus’s presence in burning fire? Wow, we better send you $19.95 for that Eternal Salvation prayer cloth TODAY!

That Richard Dawkins and those other atheisticals sure are stupid for not believing what you do!


lukeprog October 24, 2010 at 10:49 pm

Bill Maher,

Hahahahaha. I’m making use of that.


JS Allen October 24, 2010 at 11:36 pm

@Michael – You’re going to have to give me more to work with than that. Do I know you?

So far, I have only your blusterriffic and homophobic introduction (these are your exact words): “I sent Dawkins an e-mail asking why he peed in your cereal. He answered that he didn’t and that he thinks you are angry because he slept with your boyfriend.”

If you were ever my lover and got rejected, I’m sorry. Please don’t take it so personal. It wasn’t you; it was me.

I don’t remember any lovers quite as incoherent as you, though — I never would’ve gotten involved with anyone like that. But maybe you weren’t always this messed up? As they say, “Drugs will eff you up!”. If I ever encouraged you to take too many drugs, I apologize — my bad!

If you think I ever told you to “strap an explosives-filled vest” to yourself, you’re mistaken. You’re thinking of someone else. (And if I did encourage you to strap on anything, you can’t prove it.)

And I’m absolutely sure I never asked you for $19.95, or any other amount. What kind of man do you think I am? If you don’t have a contract in writing, I’m afraid you’re out of luck.


Zeb October 25, 2010 at 4:49 am

Wait, I thought Dawkins believes in the multi-verse. On the multi-verse, everyone in the “set of possible people” actually exists, so there is no luck involved. You are a mathematical necessity.

To all those who have said something like ‘if just one little detail had been different, everything else would have been completely different,’ that’s a big ‘IF’. How do you know, (or why should we believe) that one little detail could have been different? I don’t have a ready rebuttal, by the way; this is an open question in my mind.


Michael October 25, 2010 at 7:06 am

@ Zeb

I don’t know that or what multiverse ideas Dawkins thinks best describe reality. I prefer a fully foliated reality which “grows” from the Big Bang: that is a provisional somewhat-thought-through guess subject to developments in string theory, quantum physics, metaphysics and science fiction.

That “multiverse” most certainly does not contain every conceivable person, merely that subset of us which could emerge whenever reality branches. Humans exist in only a tiny hypervolume of that tree, but the number of twigs on the human-containing branches that contain you and I is a miniscule subset of those that contain human persons.

So at least on the version of the multiverse I think best explains reality: no, not every conceivable person exists and you and I are absurdly lucky to exist.

But on your broader point that perhaps determinism is total and quantum theory is incorrect and counterfactuals do not describe actual possibilities and choice is an illusion, I suspect Dawkins, like me, would just stare at you, waiting for the rebuttal that is not ready.

The most promising models of physics have possibility built-in, that is, they describe/allow/cover many more possible universes than the one we observe. And they note that the facts we do observe are, in an important sense, not the ones that are so much as merely the ones we observe. The obvious implication is that possible worlds besides the actual world exist and that the actual world may not exist as a special case until the event of observation.

And human beings feel regret and represent worlds that might have been and process counterfactual claims. I can model the world as it would have been if I hadn’t met my wife or if Kennedy had not been fatally shot or if Toba had killed-off all humans 70,000 years ago. Of course imaginary worlds don’t thus exist any more than Harry Potter and Superman exist except as fictional characters in virtual worlds. But it seems absurd to treat what appear to be contingencies, the results of choice and randomness and accident, as necessities or as determined.

And it feels as if I can decide between live choices. I understand that neurons must actually transmit signals via biological hardware for those decisions to occur. But I am unconvinced that the state of those neurons determines the choices I make, leaves no room for decision, and determines the next moment. And until there is a convincing demonstration that I do not actually make decisions, I will continue to act as if I do. The corollary is that the reality I will observe in the next moment depends to some extent on the decisions I make about which reality to create. Or on my view of the multiverse, which twig of the fully-foliated universe to move onto next.

And if, in the end, the only reality is actuality, if an A-theory of time is correct, if accident,randomness, and choice are all illusions and all is as it must be, then …


Bill Snedden October 25, 2010 at 7:47 am

@Rob: “Imagine being one of the men facing death in this scene. Think about it, seriously, for a few moments. Would you not rather never have been born?”

No, and IMO neither would any other rational person. What I would rather is not to be in that situation. Think about it; if you were in that situation and given a choice: would you rather never have been born altogether OR have been born but be somewhere else at that particular moment, which do you think ANYONE would choose?

People who wish for death, or take their own lives aren’t doing so because they wish to die; they’re doing so to escape something that seems worse than death. If they could have their preference, they would choose life without whatever is it that devalues it.

It seems to me that neither existence qua existence is neither a good nor an evil, but it’s certainly the case that without existence we cannot have the possibility of ANYTHING, much less good or evil. To argue that existence is somehow “harmful”, or that non-existence would be preferable seems absurd, and NOT on the basis of intuition alone, but on the basis of this fact coupled with what seems to me an incontrovertible reality: that no one, ceteris paribus, would choose non-existence over existence.


Zeb October 25, 2010 at 8:35 am

Your tree concept is interesting. But do you think Dawkins is equivocating possible people and conceivable people? And are you? Your tree itself is only a tiny twig of the tree of conceivable initial conditions. What reason is there to believe that any other tree or twig exists, particularly as a possibility and not an actuality?

So you believe in conta-causal free will? My impression is that most naturalists would disagree with you, but that’s mostly just what I have gathered from this blog. It does seem to me that a naturalist stance does not allow room for it. However, as you say, the feeling of free will is very strong, and I don’t find compatibilism a convincing explanation of that, so I chalk my will up as evidence against naturalism.

I have a very basic layman’s understanding of quantum mechanics, and I certainly don’t reject such a successful theory (though I still question how it can be known that quantum events are irreducibly random rather than just of unknown/able cause). But how do you get from quantum randomness to possible-but-not-actual people?


JS Allen October 25, 2010 at 10:00 am

what seems to me an incontrovertible reality: that no one, ceteris paribus, would choose non-existence over existence.

Can you elaborate on this? The empirical evidence shows that, once every 30 seconds, someone on this planet chooses non-existence over existence. And orders of magnitude more people knowingly choose to hasten along their own non-existence.

Isn’t this what the garden story in Genesis was about? Adam and Eve found the only thing in the entire garden that would kill them, and ate it — knowing full well that it would lead to their non-existence.


Hermes October 25, 2010 at 1:16 pm

JS Allen, Bill Snedden emphasized all things being equal; ceteris paribus.


Zeb October 25, 2010 at 1:40 pm

Bill Snedden, what do you make of the Eastern religions that set non-existence as their goal?


JS Allen October 25, 2010 at 2:40 pm

@Hermes – Yes, he did. But something like 7,000 people every hour decide, all things being equal, that existence is the thing they want to escape.


Hermes October 25, 2010 at 3:44 pm

How are their lives equal to all the others that didn’t make those decisions? That’s a hard argument to make, but feel free to do it.


Hermes October 25, 2010 at 3:57 pm

JS Allen, here’s something to get you in the mood; Out the Window.


JS Allen October 25, 2010 at 4:57 pm

@Hermes – Nice choon!

I may have misunderstood what he was referring to with ceteris paribus. It seems he was saying that, all else being equal (i.e. not having a painful terminal disease) people would rather live than die. His discussion of suicide seemed to insist that people only kill themselves to escape some greater pain; that these people are thinking, “If only this pain would go away, I could get back to enjoying life! But, since I can’t beat the pain, I might as well get it over with”. In other words, he’s assuming that suicidal people have a vision of a happier life, but are simply blocked from achieving it.

That might be true for the terminally I’ll, but I doubt it’s true for the vast majority of suicides. In most cases, the suicide happens when the person eventually finds it impossible to see any reason for living. When the person can’t even imagine what it would be like to *imagine* wanting to live.

In that context, I don’t see how we can talk about “all things being equal”. Unless, of course, we assume that “equal” means “not suicidal”, in which case the statement is a tautology.


Hermes October 25, 2010 at 7:56 pm

I took ‘all things being equal’ to include psychological states such as depression not just a social checklist of goods; house, spouse, kids, car, job, status, … . A group of people who are depressed and have a similar set of social goods are the proper group to survey, not the people who own the same things and have similar jobs but may be substantially different psychologically. Conversely, dropping the focus on depression an extrapolation along the same line could be made for personality types and heart attacks.

I do appreciate the realistic focus on existence vs. non-existence as opposed to some mercurial comparisons. (Not that I’m a stranger to the latter.)

I can see why someone might choose non-existence, and that might extend to entirely normal people who usually would do their best to keep on living. Think about your own life. I’ve known people who are at the end of their lives, and they are suffering from some disease that causes them constant pain. I suspect that some of them encouraged death or even planned it. Go back a year or two, ten or fifty, and what do you have? How about you? What do you see that contradicts the spirit of Bill Snedden wrote.


Lorkas October 25, 2010 at 8:06 pm

Stephen Says: As such, all other sperm were too weak or slow to ever even reach the egg on time; in other words, out of all the sperm ejaculated, only “your” sperm could have won; by their own structure, all other sperm cells were almost “determined” to loose the race. Unless you alter all other sperm cells to give them all an equal chance of getting to the egg, and then being randomly selected, I think your point is moot.  

This reflects a fundamental misunderstanding about how fertilization occurs. It’s not the first sperm to get to an egg that fertilizes the egg–the egg is surrounded by a protective coat known as the zona pellucida which the sperm have to get through.

Luckily, sperm are equipped with enzymes that break down the zona pellucida in order to get through… only one sperm doesn’t have enough of these enzymes to get through on their own. So it takes alot of sperm to fertilize just one egg, and it’s not always the fast or the strong sperm who end up being the first to get in. Imagine that it’s like one of those radio call-in competitions where the Nth caller gets a prize, only you have no idea what the value of N is. You can see that this process of fertilization is much more lottery-like than you were implying earlier.

Now, having said that, I side with those who enjoy the quote. Dawkins isn’t saying that we’re lucky to be alive, he’s saying that despite the fact that we die, we’re lucky just to have been able to live in the first place. Obviously those “humans” who never were born aren’t sitting around moping about how unlucky they are not to have been born, but that doesn’t change the fact that we’re lucky to be alive.


JS Allen October 25, 2010 at 8:29 pm

@Hermes – I totally understand the scenario where someone would be in severe, chronic suffering and choose to “accidentally” take too much medication, or “forget” to take a critical medication, or whatever. I’ve known people who I’m pretty sure did that. That to me is a great example of what Snedden was talking about.

And I suppose you could lump “suicidal depression” in with “all things being equal”. But it seems really weird to me. It reduces the whole thing to a tautology: “All things being equal, if people didn’t reject existence, they would choose existence”. Suicidal depression is, by definition, the state where people feel there is no reason for living — where they can’t even imagine feeling that life has any value.

If you’ve known anyone like this, it’s very different from the people who are choosing suicide as an escape from pain. In the latter case, happiness is being thwarted. In the former case, happiness has vanished, and even seems to have never existed.

Whatever the case, though, I’ll admit it’s a hopelessly pedantic point that has nothing to do with what Dawkins said. I’ll just reiterate that Dawkins attempt at poetic synechdoce is fugly.


Hermes October 25, 2010 at 8:50 pm

Well, Dawkins is not a poet, just as few poets are biologists and accomplished in both disciplines.

For example, I’ve developed the ability to speak in rhyme. It’s taken me about a year and a half to be any good at it, and even then the results are crude. I could have spent that effort to learn something else, but then I would not have the same abilities.

As I mentioned to Bradm; ‘OK. I get your meaning. At the same time, I got what Dawkins meant as well.’ Is there merit in pointing out that Dawkins isn’t a member of a very small group of word smiths? It seems needlessly excessive.


JS Allen October 25, 2010 at 9:14 pm

It’s good to call a spade a spade, especially when everyone else is saying that the Emperor’s new clothes are gorgeous.

Dawkins was obviously attempting to be poetic; in a book that was supposed to “celebrate” how science is artistic. He un-subtly tried to link himself to Keats and Newton. And Luke offered up this particular insight in poster form with Dickie’s face gazing beatifically upwards toward the future — and with the “profound” line highlighted in blue just in case anyone missed the profundity.

In such conditions, it’s perfectly appropriate to heckle from the back row. Dawkins is clearly offering up his work as an example of beauty. We’re allowed to point out that it’s kitsch, even if he is “THE WORLD’s best known and most respected atheist”, per his court filing that TaiChi linked.

The quote is vapid nonsense; much like the profundity of HHDL. Maybe we should start a “Richard Dawkins in Bed” stream, like “Dalai Lama in Bed“. At least it would turn the vapid nonsense into something entertaining.

If you want to see how science and beauty intersect, read Goethe or Mandelbrot.

I’m an equal-opportunity heckler of kitsch, BTW. Fundagelicals are equally guilty of producing garbage in the name of beauty as are Dawkins and Hawkings.


Hermes October 25, 2010 at 10:34 pm

Vapid? A bit over the top as an assessment of a top intellectual, eh?

If you are an expert in all situations you apply yourself to, I’d be glad to know what situations you restrict yourself to. Perhaps you have limits? But ignore my comments. Criticism is cheap.

Personally, I’d be glad to invent words that would reach the level of meme, but I guess I’ll have to settle with apnostic till I am able or fortunate enough to do better, and even then if no other claimant shows they were there first.

Good enough?


JS Allen October 25, 2010 at 11:02 pm

The fact that he’s the self-reported “best known and most respected atheist” in the world doesn’t make him immune from being occasionally vapid; and the quote in question fits the bill. Nobody is above vapidity.

I’m not a much better poet than Dawkins is, of course. Writing poetry isn’t one of my strengths. If I ever start writing books comparing myself to Keats, or if I’m ever beatified by fans who make posters of my literary stylings, I hope you’ll be there as an honest critic.


Hermes October 25, 2010 at 11:16 pm

Well, if you are not done, I was.


Bill Snedden October 26, 2010 at 6:27 am

@Hermes/@JS Allen: “It seems he was saying that, all else being equal (i.e. not having a painful terminal disease) people would rather live than die.” is essentially what I meant by ceteris paribus. Some cases of suicide are obviously covered under this as well.

I would agree that suicidal depression seems different however in such cases we’re dealing with psychological/physiological defects and I don’t think it makes much sense to discuss value judgments by reference to the views of those with emotional/cognitive disorders.

@Zeb: As for Eastern religions, they fascinate me. However, the Buddhist goal of Nirvāna is driven, according to the Buddha, because all of existence is suffering, death is merely the beginning of a new existence, and non-existence is the only escape from this cycle (Saṃsāra). So they begin with a declaration that seems to me to mirror that of the terminally ill patient in extreme pain. What if all existence were not to be necessarily encumbered by suffering? What would the Buddha say to that…perhaps, “mu”?

A monk once brought a student to Joshu and said, “Master, this seeker has left his family and traveled here through great adversity to seek your counsel. He wishes to know if existence is of any value.”

Joshu said, “I specifically asked for no foam on my latte! What does it take to get a good cup of coffee around here?”

At once the monk was enlightened.


Zeb October 26, 2010 at 9:48 am


The Buddha’s story suggests that the prevalence of common suffering is what started his search, and I expect widespread common suffering is what makes the nonexistence directed religions of the East appealing to the populations there. But my understanding is that Buddhism would reject even an existence of pure pleasure as a kind of suffering, even if it were shared by all beings. To have the senses and the mind stirred up, and to feel division between self and other and within the world is viewed as suffering.

Personally I might opt for 1,000 years or so of pleasure if it were available, but I don’t want to be trapped in a never ending cycle of experience either.


ildi October 26, 2010 at 4:44 pm

he’s the self-reported “best known and most respected atheist” in the world

more accurately, the attorneys filing the complaint for the RDF use this description.


Matt Monzillo November 9, 2010 at 8:57 am

Personally ,I’ve been dead and have experienced nothing! In my opinion we’re nothing but an infestation on a big rock floating in space and our time is comming soon. Stop all the drama people,GET OVER IT !!!


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