The View from Hell

Just another site

I have the flu

with 14 comments

. . . and it interferes with my ability to hold abstract thoughts in my brain, much less express them. I’ll be back next week.

Meanwhile, this episode of This American Life from 2004 features a sensitive interview with a suicide – a real suicide, not a wishy-washy one like me.

Update: Here’s Fiat Lex’s post about the episode and about her father’s suicide.

As a side note, I think it’s interesting that Brian (the interviewee) expresses a somewhat antinatalist idea about children and meaning (at 18:47):

I don’t get the impression that most people are that happy anyway, you know? They just kind of grind their way through life and they, they’ll have kids and that’ll give them an artificial reason to live for a while, and then the kids grow up and forget about them, and . . . [audible sigh] . . . I know the mind is a really powerful thing, you know it’s . . . people can . . . do just about anything they really put their minds to, but it’s, um, it also takes a tremendous amount of self-motivation. As my therapist says, it has to come from within. And it doesn’t feel like there’s much within, you know?

Later, by way of advice, he says (at 26:00):

Don’t have kids unless you had a good relationship with your own parents, I guess. ‘Cause you can seriously screw them up . . .

As much time as I spend clarifying that antinatalism doesn’t logically require suicide, it does seem that suicides as a group are particularly likely to express antinatalist ideas. Brian’s earlier ideas – that people have children to give them an “artificial reason to live for a while” and that, in his case, “it doesn’t feel like there’s much within” – fits with what I’ve written on the mismatch between the human desire for meaning and the lack of inherent meaning in the world, and also on evolutionary biological aspects of suicide (the special pain of failed belonging and feelings of burdensomeness – a particular kind of meaninglessness – that is mitigated by having children, at least for a while).


Written by Sister Y

January 29, 2009 at 12:30 am

Posted in Uncategorized

14 Responses

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  1. I want to thank you for posting this. Listening to it was kind of a surreal experience, but I think a useful one as well. I hope to be posting about it in the very near future.

    Fiat Lex

    January 29, 2009 at 8:04 am

  2. I’d think concrete thoughts would be just as difficult. Any, feel better.

    Michael Drake

    January 29, 2009 at 2:54 pm

  3. My thanks as well Sister, a very powerful recording.Feel better,Frank

    Francesco Bellafante

    February 1, 2009 at 1:31 am

  4. I’m struck by the circumstance that Brian believed in an afterlife, and that he had given some serious thought to the question of whether suicides go to heaven or hell. Presumably, there is some sense in which he didn’t equate suicide with the total extinction of self, as might an atheist who is contemplating suicide.


    February 4, 2009 at 7:30 pm

  5. Yes – as a suicide, it’s hard to imagine wanting to die if I thought there was a chance that it would just mean an infinite continuation of my subjective experience. There would be no point.Poignantly, poor Brian hopes he goes to heaven.

    Sister Y

    February 4, 2009 at 9:57 pm

  6. Which, for me, raises the question of whether there isn’t an important distinction to be drawn between suicides who believe in (at least some forms of) an afterlife and those who don’t. Although I doubt any positive cultural and legal reforms pertaining to suicide could viably incorporate the distinction in a society like ours which (officially, at least) puts a premium individuality, I know that for my part, as one who doesn’t believe in an afterlife, I would be more hesitant to respect or abstain from interfering with an afterlife-believer’s suicidal intentions than with an unbeliever’s. so I wonder if there aren’t duties or obligations among nonbelievers to prevent or discourage suicides among people who hold such beliefs; or if some of your calls for reform shouldn’t be circumscribed by these considerations. (I’ve still not exhausted your blog, so please redirect me if you’ve already addressed any of these issues.)


    February 4, 2009 at 11:24 pm

  7. It’s interesting and it’s not something I’ve considered before.I think that there are many actions that have special consequences depending on whether there’s a magical sky god or not. Suicide is one of them. I guess genitally mutilating your daughters and stuff is another. I do think that nonbelievers have a duty to try to prevent believers from doing stupid stuff in the name of the magical sky god, but the suicide case is special in that it’s the believer doing something unintended <>to himself<> based on a mistaken belief, rather than doing something to someone else. I will have to think about it.

    Sister Y

    February 5, 2009 at 8:02 am

  8. My concern, as a non-believer, is that a suicidal after-life believer is not grasping the true magnitude of what they are considering, and that this deficiency put constraints on the degree of permissiveness with which afterlife-believers should be regarded in pursuing their suicidal intentions. One perhaps unwelcome implication of this line of thought, given the enormous number of Americans who believe in an afterlife, is that, all things considered, the existing cultural taboo on suicide should remain in place within the U.S.(I wonder, though, if a cultural revaluation of suicide in the spirit of your blog would not actually contribute to a decline in the proportion of afterworld believers in the U.S., given how much the taboo is bound up with Christianity.)


    February 5, 2009 at 12:05 pm

  9. The afterlife-believer suicide situation seems similar to the situation where an afterlife-believer theist refuses life-saving medical intervention (e.g., a Jehovah’s Witness refusing a blood transfusion or Christian Scientist refusing any medical care) based on the (obviously mistaken) belief that the refusal will lead to some kind of religious benefit – extra points in the afterlife, pleasing one’s god, etc. While such behavior represents a mistake with serious consequences, I’d be slow to say it justifies forcible intervention.I am interested in figuring out what mistakes of fact <>would<> justify forcible intervention to stop a suicide (or other voluntary death, as with religious treatment refusers). There seem to be some clear cases where it would be justified – e.g., a false belief that could be easily remedied with evidence. The traditional Christian solution to the suicide issue – tempting afterlife, but you don’t get it if you suicide – is problematic. People like Brian just dismiss the second half of the lie, but they’re still vulnerable to the first half. But even believing both halves of the lie is still a bad situation compared to believing the truth.

    Sister Y

    February 5, 2009 at 6:03 pm

  10. This is my current position on issues of this kind: When justifying our actions to a person A, we must, for this purpose, assume that the world is as A thinks it is, unless we can actually come up with evidence – which we then have the duty to produce – that we can reasonably assume will alter A’s beliefs. If, upon presentation, it doesn’t change anything, we have to accept the belief it was against as well.I think that, if we don’t assume this principle, we won’t find any universalizable maxim on which to deal with conflicting beliefs. There will be a lot of epistemological presumptuousness, and a lot of ressentiment against it.I’m not sure how considerations of overdemandingness fare on this view. It might have some impact on them, although I haven’t yet discerned any concrete example…


    February 7, 2009 at 11:02 am

  11. I am sensitive to the necessity for the existence of conflicting intuitions to raise doubt. I think your procedure has a central strangeness – “only act to protect people from their ridiculous beliefs if you can produce evidence <>you can reasonably assume<> will change their beliefs” is different from a requirement that it actually <>change<> their beliefs. But if you are reasonably justified in holding a belief based on evidence in the first place, aren’t you also reasonably justified in assuming your evidence will change the other’s ridiculous belief? Still, clearly it doesn’t. I am not at all sure we should act to protect people from harmful actions based on their ridiculous beliefs even when we have <>good evidence<> against those beliefs which we <>could reasonably expect<> would convince them. But I’d also draw a distinction between religious beliefs, no matter how silly (entitled to a lot of deference, I think), and simpler mistakes of fact (not entitled to much deference). The former are more peculiarly psychological and not usually subject to rational examination – therefore a religious belief is more bound up with the identity and psychology of a person than a belief about what time the train is leaving.

    Sister Y

    February 7, 2009 at 8:53 pm

  12. I’m sympathetic to Constant’s point, though it is not <>the belief <> I think we perhaps must accept after having failed to persuade with the evidence we’ve presented, but rather <>the action(s) in question which proceed in the light of that belief<>.I wonder though, if a practically significant distinction could be sustained along these lines: (1) There’s no afterlife or continuation of personal identity after death.(2) A suicidal after-life-believer believes in some kind of continuation after death of at least some aspects of her personal identity.Thus, in killing oneself, an afterlife-believer is either never doing what she really intends to do (i.e. escape actual existence for some more or less enhanced or refined posthumous form) unless she really does in fact want complete extinction, but because of her religious beliefs holds that, though it won’t fully satisfy her desire, it’s nevertheless worthwhile as the closest approximation to the real thing.(3) Deference to the wishes of a suicide wannabe is based on respect for her autonomy.(4) By her failure to appreciate the full magnitude of suicide, the deliberations of the after-life-believing suicide wannabe fall short of such autonomy on which the aforemented respect is appropriately is based. Suicide would, in her case, be a form of self-harm rather than a final act of personal freedom. Just thinking aloud. I guess I’m styling her a victim of false consciousness in matters of ultimate concern, and trying to import some of associated concerns.


    February 7, 2009 at 10:02 pm

  13. I fully agree that an afterlife-believer who commits suicide in hopes of waking up in heaven <>is<> thereby <>harming<> himself. (I largely accept Nagel’s argument that death can be a harm even though it is not experienced.)However, I would say that the freedom to engage in this sort of unfortunate “harming oneself” <>is<> an aspect of autonomy. I’d take the position that it is not <>promoting autonomy<> to restrict someone’s actions because the deeply held beliefs motivating those actions are incorrect, and if he <>could only be persuaded<> to understand that (which he can’t), the action would not be in line with his values. Some incorrect beliefs take the <>form<> of values.

    Sister Y

    February 7, 2009 at 10:31 pm

  14. Yes, I seem to be focused more on an ‘internal’ condition of autonomy — the conforming of action to beliefs that pass some (admittedly, unspecified) kind of rational or reflective muster — in contrast to your emphasis on freedom as a relational matter to external powers (of the state, other people, etc.). And I think this difference may well incline me to a more restrictive view of what the promotion of autonomy consists in. Your point about false beliefs sometimes taking form of values is a fine one (and one that definitely bears reminding), but against such values stand other procedural or second-order values, like consistency and, perhaps preeminently, truth, on behalf of which my ‘internally-fixated tack might seize upon as a basis for restriction, interference or discouragement. But of course those false-belief-instantiating values probably bear a specially intimate relation to a person’s identity, and this fact might well, as you’ve suggested, trump my resistance.


    February 7, 2009 at 11:14 pm

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