My recently-renewed interest in Roman history led to a philosophical rumination the other day that I think might be worth writing down.
A lot of profoundly horrifying things happen in the world today, but these horrors sometimes seem small in comparison to the kinds of things that used to happen on a regular basis—people being tortured, children being sacrificed to the gods, chattle slaves being worked to death by brutal masters, and so on. Ancient history is littered with gruesome, sickening tales that will keep you up at night if you ever stop to ponder them.
Few things are more disturbing to think about than the sacking of ancient cities. Tens of thousands of armed soldiers rampaging through your streets, slaughtering all the men and raping every woman, girl, and young boy they can get their hands on before either enslaving or murdering them as well. It’s almost impossible to really wrap your mind around it and imagine what that must have been like from the perspective of those victims. Imagine being the father watching his wife and daughters raped in front of him as he’s beaten to death. Imagine being the little girl who had no concept of war, violence, or sex and is now suddenly subject to a brutal rape and killing. Imagine being that girl’s mother or brother looking on but powerless to do anything about it, knowing you’ll be next. Imagine the despair of knowing that you are not only about to endure such a painful end but that your entire city is being destroyed, everyone you’ve ever known or cared about is suffering the same fate and everything you or your ancestors have ever accomplished is being wiped away forever.
This is by no means a rare scenario. It’s happened tens of thousands of times in human history throughout the entire world. Hundreds of millions of human lives have ended in such a way.
I find myself contemplating such things, getting absolutely sick about them, and then pausing to ask myself why I’m doing this. Why not just accept that it happened and that I’m lucky to live at a time when this kind of thing doesn’t happen anymore? What use is there in dwelling on it?
And I realize that the reason I’m trying so hard to picture what it must have been like for these people is because I’m asking myself a very deep question—a much broader version of a question I’m always asking regarding only my own life: is it worth it?
We all have moments of great despair when we look at our lives and wonder whether we’d rather have never been born. We weigh all the negative experiences against the positive, the pains against the pleasures, the joys against the horrors, and try to determine whether the whole experience is really worthwhile.
When it comes to my own individual life, there was a time when I didn’t think the good outweighed the bad and I wanted to end it, but many good years filled with many great experiences in the mean-time have completely reversed my assessment. Not that I still don’t have moments when I wish I’d never been born, but if I were to die tomorrow I know I’d feel as though my life had been worth living.
Certainly compared to the lives of most ancient people, I’d have to consider myself extremely privileged. Even as an obscure individual with relatively tight financial constraints on my freedom, I’d have to admit that the quality of my life as compared to most ancients is like the quality of the lives of today’s super-rich as compared to mine. If you could take a simple pleasure/pain ratio of the lives of every human being who has ever lived and put them on a spectrum from most pleasurable to most painful I know mine would certainly be close to the high end.
But when I consider the nasty, brutish, and short lives of the masses throughout history and all of the horrors that so many of them had to endure, I’m not making an assessment of my own life but of human life in general. Given all the misery and suffering wrapped up in human existence, would it be better if humanity had never existed at all?
Most people would dismiss this as a pointless question to ask, but my metaphysical leanings actually render it the most important question of all. I am by no means certain what the basic nature of reality is, but I think there’s a strong possibility that the phenomenon of awareness or consciousness is fundamental to the universe, and that despite the appearance of separateness and individuality everything is actually connected. The implication is that there are not billions of individual conscious minds on Earth but one singular ‘Universal Consciousness’ looking out from behind all eyes simultaneously. Conscious minds are merely the window through which the universe becomes aware of itself.
Every experience you have is an experience the universe is having. As the Universal Consciousness you don’t just live your own life but every other life as well. You have been both the victim and the perpetrator of city-sackings, the rape-victim and the rapist, the murdered and the murderer.
Every thought in your mind is a thought the universe is thinking. When you ponder the universe, it’s the universe reflecting on itself. When I consider the suffering involved in human existence, it’s the universe considering whether humanity is a phenomenon it’s glad to have given rise to or whether it would have preferred that the species had never come into being—whether all of the human lives it’s lived have been worth it or whether it would rather have never lived a single human life at all.
Of course the universe is immense and homo sapiens are likely just one among billions or trillions of similar species, and the laws of physics being the same everywhere it’s likely that most species have similarly violent histories full of pain and suffering as well. So when I try to imagine what the worst of the worst kinds of experiences might be like, it’s actually the universe judging whether or not it’s worth it to exist in the first place.
But here I have to stop, because I run into a wall of unanswerable questions. The fact is that not only can I not know what the horrific experiences of the ancients were really like for them, but I also can’t know whether they, when looking back on their whole lives, would consider them worth it in spite of the often-brutal end anyhow. Perhaps the poor raped and murdered girl was happy almost every day of her short life, and only had to endure extreme panic and horror for a few brief minutes at the end. I know that if I had to suffer a violent death I would still probably consider my own life to have been worth it, as the sheer volume of good experiences would certainly outweigh even the most painful experience at the end. Who is to say the same wouldn’t go for victims of torture or city-sackings?
And even if I could actually look at the pleasure/pain ratio of every human being who has ever lived and see clearly that the bad outweighs the good, I’d have no way of knowing that humanity won’t continue its slow moral progress and eventually reach a state of existence in which virtually all suffering is a thing of the past. Perhaps these past few thousand years were just the rough beginning to what will eventually become a multi-million year history of peaceful, enjoyable, worthwhile existence?
Finally, there’s the most important question of all—the question that determines whether or not the universe reflecting on the value of its own existence even matters at all: does the universe have a will?
As individual beings we all seem to have a conscious will of our own. We can make decisions and as long as they don’t violate the basic laws of physics or whatever man-made restraints may apply, we can implement them. But does the Universal Consciousness work the same way? Is there in fact a state of being in which the entire universe can be conscious of its whole eternal self, or can it only awaken through certain structures—brains—that over billions of years slowly evolve the ability to process thought?
To put it simply, can the universe decide not to exist? Most philosophers agree that the most fundamental question is “why is there something rather than nothing?” and many believe that the answer is existential necessity. Non-existence can’t exist. There can be no such thing as nothing. Existence will go on eternally and infinitely, everything that can possibly exist will exist and everything that can ever be experienced will be experienced.
If that is in fact the case, and the universe has no choice but to experience existence in all of its infinite possible forms, it would be akin to saying there is no God, as any truly omnipotent being would have to have the power to not create. If it has no choice but to create and go on creating for all eternity, it would mean pondering the experiences of the ancients for the purpose of judging whether existence is worthwhile is a useless activity after all. It would in fact render all of our activities useless.
I don’t know what’s more depressing—the idea that so many people have had to endure so much suffering throughout history, or the idea that these things only happened because they had to happen and not even God could have stopped them.
At least we know it’s not all bad. There is plenty of joy in the universe to balance out the sorrow, and on our level of existence we are capable of appreciating both—even if on the deepest level both are ultimately pointless.