The Odds of Existing: Or, Why Death Is Not the End

Most people, if they do not believe in gods or souls, believe that death is the annihilation of their existence or self. Many find this frightening. But when we discover what thing we are actually referring to when we say “I exist”, we find that this entity cannot actually behave that way: it cannot come into being with a particular human body or disappear with the death of that body. This book provides a purely logical argument, without emotional or mystical appeal, that materialist reincarnation—reincarnation without souls or spirits—is the correct view of personal existence. This belief is also called Open Individualism.


What are the odds that you would have come into existence? Evidence suggests that a great many people have thought about this question, and think it at least makes sense, even though few have actually attempted to calculate a specific number. In fact, this calculation turns out to be much more difficult than it at first appears, approaching the absurd. Nevertheless, most people seem to have a general sense that the odds are quite long. At minimum, people usually believe a) that they exist now and b) that they might not have, had things gone differently in the time before they were conceived. Had your father gone up to bed a second earlier or later, had your mother been called away on business that week, had your parents never met, had your parents never even existed, or had Napoleon not lost at Waterloo or had Billie Holiday not sang “God Bless the Child”… And so on. The basic idea is that had that sperm not joined with that ovum, then you would simply not be. And so we are all winners, and should all be grateful.[1]

The belief that you would not exist unless one particular sperm and one particular ovum had joined—that your existence depended on the joining of those two gametes—is one of the two things this book is about. I’m going to call it the Standard Belief about Coming into Existence, or Standard Belief for short. I’ve found it to be widely held across all types of people, from respected scientists and philosophers to the general public, from theists who believe in souls to atheists who believe in no such thing, and from those who have thought about it deeply to those who barely give it a moment’s consideration when it comes up. Yet, there is something wrong with it. It cannot possibly be correct.

What the Standard Belief amounts to is that some physical factors in the world, such as your DNA or parentage, have brought you into existence. The problem with this is, where do we find the essential connection between a physical factor such as DNA and your existence? For example, why couldn’t the human being that you are have come into existence and not been you, in the same way that all of the other human beings in the world came into existence and were not you? In the same way, in fact, that a lot of other people with your same sequence of DNA could have come into existence and not been you? There’s an unlimited number of possible identical twins to you, or clones of you, and yet only one is or would be you. Why that one? Or why one of them at all, rather than none of them? Why, in fact, was your existence even a possibility in the universe at all? Why was it the case that any organism at all would have brought you into existence, rather than not?

These are deep and surprising questions—I’ll call them the Enigmas of Existence—that some may grasp in an instant, with a sort of vertiginous existential insight that may seem inexpressible in words. This existential insight can come and go, depending on your state of mind. It may strike you at completely banal and random moments or particularly profound ones. And it’s the kind of insight that tends to slip through your fingers once you’ve had it, and you quickly forget what it was about as the everyday world again overtakes your thoughts. And so, one of my aims in this book is to give you tools to grasp onto this existential insight and hold it for long periods, so you can examine it and better understand it.

Some of you may not have ever had this existential insight, and so you may not grasp these kinds of questions at all. The questions may seem quite mundane and easily answered, or even opaque and confusing. And, in my experience, whether or not you see the point in these questions has little to do with education or intellect. They are almost pre-philosophical, preverbal, the kind of thing a child might think of, or that some among our primal ancestors 100,000 years ago might have thought of, without any ability to express. It may just be a particular personality type that gets vexed by such questions. Another of my aims in this book then is to bring those who have never experienced this around to seeing what these questions are really about, through descriptions and stories and arguments and analysis. I want to stir in you that vertiginous and confounding experience of your own existence too.

Others of you still will immediately judge these questions to be misguided, resting on basic errors of one sort or another: it’s a Cartesian fallacy, or the self is a hallucination, or everybody has to be someone. I’ll also speak to you. I’m going to show you why they are not misguided, why in fact they and others like them are unavoidable questions. But here’s the key: they are unavoidable, if you hold the Standard Belief about Coming into Existence that I described in the first paragraph, that you wouldn’t exist if that one particular sperm and one particular ovum hadn’t joined. This is because the Standard Belief implies another belief: that you exist, and exist fully, not only in the present but also in the past and future of your body and in alternate situations of your body. The connection between these two beliefs, and the reasons why these beliefs make these questions real and unavoidable, are somewhat complicated, but I will try to make them clear.

These Enigmas of Existence and the existential insight they elicit are what I will explore in detail in Chapter 2. The purpose of this exploration is to get you dissatisfied with the Standard Belief. I want you to see the problems I see with it, and to leave you wanting a better belief. This better belief about existence will be described in Chapters 4 and 5. It is the second of the two things this book is about, and I’ll tell you what it is in a moment. First let me address what I think is a tempting but wrong answer to the Enigmas of Existence.

Some people might think that the unbridgeable gap between the essence of our existence and our physical human bodies points to the necessary existence of a soul. This was actually my first conclusion, many years ago, and I even wrote most of what makes up the first half of this book with that conclusion in mind. I didn’t see how any physical process like evolution or the joining of two gametes actually explained why I existed—they explained why my physical body exists, but not why I exist—and I thought the problems with the Standard Belief pointed to an essential mystery of existence that materialism—the  belief that all that exists is part of our material universe, i.e., that there are no gods and no souls—simply couldn’t account for. But I have come to find this false on three counts.

First, there is a perfectly good materialist way to answer these questions, these Enigmas of Existence, without bringing in a soul. This is the better belief about existence just mentioned and that I’ll tell you about in the next paragraph. Second, there are many very good reasons for not believing in a soul, and many other very good reasons for believing in materialism, so if materialism can provide satisfactory answers to the Enigmas of Existence, then it should be our belief. I’ll give some of the good reasons for not believing in a soul in this book, but not all of them. Third, much later I will show that a soul view, even if it were plausible, wouldn’t actually provide a satisfactory answer to these questions anyway. So the choice is clear.

What then is this perfectly good materialist way to answer these Enigmas of Existence that arise when you accept the Standard Belief? What is the new belief about existence I argue for in this book? The short version is this: you should not believe that any particular physical factors—such as a particular set of parents, a particular pair of gametes, or a particular combination of DNA—were required for you to come into existence. You should instead believe that you would have come into existence no matter which human beings came to be. In other words, if you weren’t the human being you are right now, you would be someone else. And this belief has a necessary and, if I may say so, quite revolutionary consequence: you should also not believe that you will cease to exist when you die. You will rather simply become someone else. Well, “simply” is the wrong word. It’s actually just about impossible for us to conceive of the correct way of viewing death under this new belief—it relates closely to the impossibility of conceiving the correct way of viewing time—but it is something like becoming someone else. Something like becoming all people, all conscious beings, in fact. It is at any rate definitely not ceasing to exist, any more than living another ten years of your life right now would be ceasing to exist. If you are happy that you will exist in ten years should your human body survive to that point, then you should also be happy (if not quite equally happy, because of the loss of all the content of your life) that you will exist after your human body dies and you become another human body or other physically embodied conscious being. You can think of it as a sort of materialist reincarnation. This view is also called Open Individualism.

I don’t blame you if you are wondering how any kind of reincarnation could be materialist, could be true without the existence of souls. It is difficult to conceive. If I’m just a material object, then what exactly is it that survives, or moves to the next body, upon the death and disintegration of this one? This is not a question that has an answer, but once you understand how we arrive at the belief in materialist reincarnation in Chapters 4 and 5, you will see that it needs no answer. More fundamentally, once you understand from Chapter 2 what is wrong with believing that you only exist because of the coming into being of the human body you are now, in other words, because of the joining of a certain sperm and ovum, then this resistance to any alternative materialist view disappears. You see that you’ve been tacitly assuming your existence to be something it cannot be, something that is incoherent in the details. There is simply no way to make the Standard Belief consistent or non-paradoxical. It must be rejected.


There is one issue we need to settle before we get to any of these things though, and that is a question that has likely been nagging some of you since the beginning of this introduction: just what exactly do I mean by my or your “existence” anyway? I keep saying that term and making bold claims about it, as though we all know exactly what I mean. But do we?

Almost certainly not. Some people mean what I mean by it. Some people consciously do, a great many more unconsciously. Some people reject what I mean by it, or at least think they do. Some people have no idea what I mean by it. Some people quite explicitly mean something different by it, and will argue at length for their own meaning, and that I am dead wrong. And so, we must get this straight before we do anything else. This I will do in Chapter 1, aptly titled “Foundations”, where I provide an answer to the question, “What do we all mean when we say ‘I exist’?” What are we referring to or verbally “pointing at” when we say that? Or, to put it in more immediate terms: What is the actual thing you’ve been thinking about this whole time every time I’ve talked about your existence? Stop and reflect on that for a moment. Many people would never even suspect this to be a question that needs answering. But it does. You may think it’s obvious that we are all talking about the same thing when we talk about existence, but it’s not.

To give you a preliminary idea of what I will be aiming to accomplish in the first chapter, let me first point out two things people think they mean when they say “I exist” that I consider wrong, or at least not always right.

Some people consider their existence to be a construction, built up over years of socializing and education and the like, and situated within a context of a culture and community of people. Some would go so far as to say this entirely defines what they mean when they say “I exist”. They are simply the bundle of these ideas and attitudes and everything else they’ve collected over the years. This is a fine and important answer, but it is an answer to a different question than the one I’m asking, though the form of the question may sometimes appear the same. It is thus the right answer only some of the time. This construction, social or otherwise, is a major part of what I will call “content”, the content of our lives and thoughts, and is distinct from what I’m going to call “existence”. One of my primary goals in fact is to isolate our concept of existence from content, to avoid the muddles we often get into when discussing existence. The weightiest tool I will bring to bear on this task is a science fiction thought experiment I call the perfect doppelgänger, which takes up a large portion of Chapter 1. It involves imagining an exact replica of you, replacing you in the world, that isn’t you, but rather is someone else. (Some people will strenuously resist this attempt to separate content from existence, so if you find yourself wondering why I am going on at such length in the first chapter to establish this isolation, that is why.)

Alternately, some people just assume, quite naturally and sensibly, that when they say “I exist” they are simply saying that a particular human being exists, the one produced by those two gametes many years ago with that particular DNA. In other words, they claim that what is happening there is 1) they are a human body, and 2) that human body is uttering the words “I exist”, referring to itself, and that’s all there is to it. This too is right, but again only some of the time. Some of the time, especially when we are asking questions about our existence such as those I pose in this book—and in particular the Enigmas of Existence I posed above—we are not actually talking about a human body. And this is so even for some who strongly insist they are. At least I suspect so. I will give you my reasons why near the end of Chapter 1.

The thing I want to show you, the actual referent of “I exist”, the thing we are actually “pointing to” when we say that, is not either of these things. And it’s not so straightforward as they are, not so easy to describe or point out, which may help to explain why those two things are often mistaken for it. It is a more inchoate concept, and it may take some work before you see it. I’ll get to my attempts to show it to you in a moment.


Death is not annihilation. I want to reiterate this point, as straightforwardly as I can this time, because if it is true then it is revolutionary. You do not cease to exist when you die. Nobody does. Not even atheists. I know a great many people are like me and have been terrified of this annihilation since it first occurred to them. Well, I’m here to tell you that this problem has been solved. Even without any spiritual realm whatsoever, you will not live just the life of the human body you are now. You will live many more. And I mean this literally, as literally as the idea that you will exist ten years from now should your body survive that long. I don’t mean the often-made weaker claim, that you will survive death in the sense that your influence and ideas and love will survive in the hearts and minds of other people. No, I mean you will literally be those other people, as literally as you are you right now. And to reach this conclusion, no emotional or mystical appeal is necessary. All it takes is a cold logical step-by-step argument, demonstrating first what you really mean when you talk about your existence, and then showing that it doesn’t make sense to think of that existence as coming into being only with the coming into being of a particular human body and persisting only for the lifespan of that human body.

Now, this survival of death will undoubtedly be good news for a great many people, just for purely selfish reasons if nothing else (although it does have its downsides too, which I will also look at). But it has other salutary effects as well; for one thing, it goes some way toward dissolving the ego, that pernicious imaginary entity we (some of us) work so hard to protect, at the expense of so much that is so much more important. Losing this ego can save you a lot of anger, worry, and effort. (If much of this book sounds like Buddhism to you, that is coincidental, but not wrong.)

But even if we can’t get rid of self-interest altogether, materialist reincarnation widens the scope of such self-interest to the point that it includes not just yourself and things that affect you, but everyone and everything that affects anyone. This has two important consequences. Most directly, since everyone is going to experience all of the good and bad that comes to everyone just as much as they will experience the good and bad that comes to themselves, everyone will have a selfish incentive to bring more good to the world than bad. If belief in this view becomes widespread, I feel it could not help but drive people to create a better world than the one of environmental desolation and grave injustices that humanity is currently perpetuating.

But on a deeper level, it also has a profound effect on your potential to find meaning in your life. This is one of the great challenges of our time here, and it can be elusive: life is so short and traces such a narrow path through the universe that the tremendous effort of living can begin to seem pointless at times. And truly horrible things can and often do happen, to us and to those we care about, sometimes seeming to negate all the good of a lifetime or even several lifetimes in the blink of an eye. But if materialist reincarnation is true, then the meaning in your life is no longer quite so limited to just what you accomplish and the good you can do in your own lifetime, nor to the well-being mostly of you and those you love. However you may currently find meaning, whether it be making intellectual, moral, or material progress in your life, creative expression, or cultivating your own small corner of family, community, and relationships with others, you can now look ahead to experiencing the satisfaction of accomplishments in these areas by humanity as a whole just as if they were your accomplishments, and to reaping the benefits from them as if you would see the benefit from them yourself. The great project of humanity, if you can bring yourself to believe in such a thing, now literally becomes your own, just as much as the project for your own life has been your own.

I’ll discuss these possibilities and more in Part II, Meaning in a Material World. What I described previously in this introduction, Chapters 1–5, is tied together as Part I, Analysis. I have separated the two because Part I is an argument for why you should believe a certain way about your existence, while Part II is an essay about how that belief can transform your life, and maybe even the world. (I’m an optimistic realist about that.)

One of the topics of the discussion in Part II is the question of why we feel we need mystery, such as the mysterious ways of God, in order to have meaning. I think we wrongly conflate mystery and meaning a lot of the time. Among other things, this causes us to be afraid of or even resistant to actual explanations of reality in places where we had previously found the mystery comforting. If my view does indeed banish the last remaining shred of mystery about our existence (aside from the probably unanswerable question of why there is something rather than nothing), as I will eventually claim it does, then finding meaning and comfort in a world without an overriding insoluble mystery will become very important to our individual and collective well-being.


I must emphasize something before I end this introduction and begin the argument. Recall that I said this book is about two things. Open Individualism is only the second of the two things. The first is the Standard Belief about Coming into Existence, which is the belief that you would not exist if one particular sperm and one particular ovum had not joined. And it is this, your origins, that this book is mostly about. I start with origins, and spend a significant amount of time on them. The argument is structured around them.

Others have argued for Open Individualism besides me. The argument I present in this book, however, is in many ways unique to me. It is not a summary of the topic or the other arguments; it is a representation of the way I first discovered and then eventually solved the problem for myself. The problem I discovered was the problem with the Standard Belief. How does the existence of a human being, Joe Kern, or the joining of the gametes that made him, explain the existence of me? (This is one way to state the Enigmas of Existence.) I found that it doesn’t. The solution I found to this problem, a significant time later, was Open Individualism. I found this solution through my own idiosyncratic process, without the benefit of knowing any other writings or theories on it. I’ve since discovered those other works, of course, and they have informed and enhanced this final version, in many small ways and one very significant way I will introduce in Chapter 3. Nonetheless, the version of my argument you are reading now hews very close to the way I originally conceived it before learning anything else about it. It is my own path to the belief in Open Individualism, explicating and then attempting to solve the Enigmas of Existence, which arise only because of the Standard Belief. This is essential for you to understand, so you do not mistake what I am trying to do here or why I am doing it.

One consequence of this is, if you do not think the Enigmas are a real problem, or if I cannot convince you they are, then you may not find my argument of much use, even if you are already sympathetic to Open Individualism. I for one am convinced they are a real problem, and there are many others who agree, and are as resistant to being dissuaded as I am. I will do my level best to explain to you why I am so certain of this.

If you remember just one thing from this introduction, let it be this: Everything in my argument hinges on the question of “what caused you to exist?” My method will be to show that this question is unanswerable without believing in Open Individualism.


[1] Unless, of course, you agree with David Benatar (2006) that coming into existence is always bad. Or perhaps Schopenhauer: “Human existence must be a kind of error. It may be said of it; ‘It is bad today and every day it will get worse, until the worst of all happens’.” Personally, I’m pro-existence.


The current draft of this book is available in pdf only, at the following link.

The Odds of Existing, or Why Death Is Not The End

Feedback on this book draft is very welcome. You can contact me through this form or the email address on the pdf. You may also submit a public comment below.


If Columbus Had Sailed In 1992

I graduated high school in 1992, 500 years after Columbus found a new world for Spain, and eventually the rest of Europe. What if Columbus had actually sailed in 1992 instead of 1492? If we match the timeline of American colonization by Europeans with the present, this is when things would go down:

1985: Columbus proposes the idea to sail west to find India to the Portuguese; he is denied. He pitches this idea repeatedly to Spain, England, France and Portugal for the next 7 years.

1988: First European ship (Portuguese) rounds Africa’s Cape of New Hope, aiming to secure eastern sea passage to India and beyond

1992: Columbus finally secures sponsorship from Spain, and leaves on Aug 3 on his first voyage to find India in a western passage; finds Bahamas, Cuba, and Hispaniola (Haiti/Dominican Republic)

1996: The first permanent European settlement in the New World is built, Santo Domingo (Dominican Republic)

1998: On his 3rd voyage, Columbus finds South America

1999: Non-Columbians take charge; Amerigo Vespucci finds mouth of Amazon

2000: Spain arrests Columbus for tyranny in governorship of Hispaniola

2000: Spain’s claims encompass 40,000 square miles (equivalent area to Iceland or South Korea)

2002: First gold convoy leaves Hispaniola for Spain

2002: Atlantic slave trade begins, built from relationships forged by Portugal with West African nations starting in 1920 and peaking in 1945 (the first slave market was 1941)

2012: Michelangelo completes Sistine Chapel ceiling

2013: Portuguese land in China (Marco Polo of Venice had been there in 1766)

2013: Ponce de Leon in Florida

2015: Spain’s claims encompass 200,000 square miles (equivalent area to Thailand or Spain itself)

2017: Luther posts his 95 theses in Wittenburg, Germany

2019: Spanish find the mouth of the Mississippi

2021: Cortes conquers Aztec empire in Mexico

2022: Magellan’s expedition completes first circumnavigation of the globe

2024: Verrazzano explores Eastern seaboard of US from N. Carolina to Maine

2028: Smallpox unwittingly transferred to Inca empire in Peru by Pizzaro

2032: Pizzaro returns and conquers the smallpox ravaged Incas

2034: Church of England separates from Catholic Church

2034: Colonization of Brazil by Portugal begins (Portugal claimed it in 2000)

2035: Native population of Hispaniola is zero, down from 8 million in 1992, due to European disease and to the harsh conditions of slavery

2039: Hernando de Soto explores from Florida to Arkansas, finds empty villages from natives decimated by European diseases spread since first contact

2040: Spain’s claims encompass 2 million square miles (area of Argentina x 2)

2040: Coronado, searching for the Seven Cities of Gold, reaches as far as Kansas, and unwittingly unleashes horses on the Great Plains, which soon multiply into millions of animals and transform native culture and warfare

2042: Spanish find California coast

2042: Spain passes laws to better protect rights of natives and slaves, for example limiting the amount of violence slave owners can inflict on slaves

2043: Portuguese land in Nagasaki

2046: Spain discovers first real precious metal lodes in the Americas, silver in Mexico and Bolivia

2050: Lima, Mexico City, Panama City, Cartegena, Asuncion, Buenos Aires, and Santiago are all established by now

2065: Spanish begin colonizing the Philippines (Magellan claimed it for Spain in 2021)

2098: Spain claims the territory north of the Rio Grande as Nuevo Mexico, begins ranching there

2100: 330,000 pounds of gold and 7.5 million pounds of silver have reached Spain from the Americas since conquest, worth between $1 and 10 trillion in today’s money (Spain’s annual GDP in the actual present is $1.2 trillion)

2110: First permanent English settlement in US at Jamestown, Virginia

2121: First Thanksgiving at Plymouth, Massachusetts

2187: Newton publishes laws of motion

2192: Total Native American (north and south) population 70-95% smaller than in 1992, due mostly to European diseases

2269: Spanish Mission established in San Diego, the first base for colonization of coastal California

2276: American Revolution

2290: Slave trade peaks

2365: Slavery outlawed in the US

2508: Obama elected

2513: Miley twerks


Published in: on March 6, 2016 at 3:26 pm  Leave a Comment  
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A Reading Guide to David Deutsch: Explanations and the Multiverse

By David Deutsch:

  • The Fabric of Reality: Chapters 1, 2, 3, 4, 8, 9 pp. 200-207, and 11
  • The Beginning of Infinity: Chapter 3

Supplementary Reading:

  • Philosophy and the Real World (a.k.a. Karl Popper) by Bryan Magee: Chapters 1-5 (suggest reading after chapter 3 of The Fabric of Reality)
  • The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins: Chapters 2-4 (suggest reading before chapter 8 of The Fabric of Reality)

(310 pages total)


“They’re ambitious titles, true, but they’re ambitious books—in fact, among the most ambitious works of non-fiction I have read, in that their aim is no less than an explanation of all reality. But these are not Brian Greene- or Stephen Hawking-style rundowns of recent discoveries in theoretical physics. Rather, they are treatises that weave together not just physics and astronomy but biology, mathematics, computer science, political science, psychology, philosophy, aesthetics and—most important for Deutsch—epistemology, among other fields, in fashioning a profound new view of the world and the universe. They are guaranteed to be either provocative or life-changing, depending on how seriously you take their ideas. Either way, they earn their colossal confidence.” –Nathaniel Stein, The New Yorker


Professional physicist and semi-pro philosopher David Deutsch’s works—most of The Fabric of Reality (1997) and a few parts of The Beginning of Infinity (2011)—have completely transformed my view of life and the universe, at a comparable level to probably only two other works I’ve encountered, Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene (1976) and part 3 of Derek Parfit’s Reasons and Persons (1984). (Go Oxford!) I feel that anyone who regularly wrestles with the big ideas of science and/or philosophy should have Deutsch on their plate.

I would like to simply recommend that you read his books, starting with the first, but I’m afraid if I did that many would give up before they got to the best parts—especially those more used to reading popular science than philosophy. Large portions of his text can be maddening. He is often not clear about what question he is answering, or why he is answering it. And his organization often leaves one feeling that he is throwing things out as they pop into his head, rather than carefully structuring one idea to follow from another.

So I decided to create a reading guide to help people through, so I can share the gospel of these ideas which have so altered my thinking. There are two strands of his work in particular that I find most interesting: 1) his explanation of the multiverse interpretation of quantum mechanics, and 2) his ideas about knowledge itself (a.k.a. epistemology), which include Karl Popper’s philosophy of science (a critique of induction), an understanding of the role of explanation (as opposed to mere prediction) in knowledge creation, and the significance of knowledge and knowledge creating organisms in the universe. This last one comes as a contrast to a prevailing scientific-humanist idea that insists on seeing people as a vanishingly insignificant part of a vast universe, which, while an admirable attempt to demote our lingering religious conception of ourselves as the center of the universe, is nonetheless according to Deutsch factually incorrect on an objective long view (see chapter 3 of The Beginning of Infinity; though I put it last on the reading lists, it could easily be the first thing you read by him).

To help those with more specialized interest, I’ve split the reading guide above into two, a scientific one and a philosophical one, that roughly correspond to these two strands. In particular, anyone interested mainly in popular science, without much experience (or interest) in reading philosophy, should definitely take on the science reading list, as Deutsch is currently the best popularizer and chief evangelist of the multiverse view, and the idea is severely under-served in both professional and popular physics. Of course, I’d say that they are best read together, as in the reading list above, but you are welcome to take any path you like.


1) Science: Understanding the Multiverse

The Fabric of Reality:

  • Chapter 2
  • Chapter 4 pp. 73-80, 86-90, 93
  • Chapter 8 pp. 187-192
  • Chapter 9 pp. 200-207
  • Chapter 11

(77 pages total)

The only thing I’ve ever felt I understood about quantum mechanics is the multiverse interpretation, as explained by Deutsch in chapter 2 of The Fabric of Reality. I had encountered attempts at explanations (including other attempts to explain the multiverse) from probably twenty or more different sources in the past (including the modern physics course I took for my science education degree), and the standard line is to just admit that there actually is no explanation for it, it just is. This view is so pervasive that it actually has a respectable name: The Copenhagen Interpretation. Deutsch is having none of it. He believes that the interference patterns in the well-known double slit experiment require us to believe that there are an infinite number of other “phantom” photons in parallel universes interfering with the one photon we shoot at the screen in ours, which to us is the “real” photon (scare quotes are used because in fact both types of photon have exactly the same ontological status). He asserts that the multiverse “is the only known explanation of many phenomena and has survived all known experimental tests”, and tags off from his and Popper’s theory of knowledge to insist that we thereby “have no choice but to accept” the implications of the multiverse.

It’s heady stuff, but this chapter, called “Shadows”, is an essential popular science essay, straightforward and clear enough for anyone to understand. It’s one of those things that, in a few short pages of crystal clear explanation, can upend your perception of everything and suddenly lock into place concepts that have been nebulous in your mind for years (much like chapter 2 of The Selfish Gene did for me ten years prior). To be sure, I wouldn’t say that I am certain that the multiverse exists. The idea is about as big a shock to our conception of ourselves and the universe as could be. If it were true, then there would also be an infinite number of “us’s” in these parallel universes as well, made up of all the “phantom” counterparts of the particles that make up our bodies. This is hard to take, but Deutsch believes that this is the only reason the theory is not widely accepted. There is no good objective reason not to accept it. So I’m warming to it. I mostly find the idea compelling because I understand it in a way that I don’t understand other interpretations of quantum mechanics (which in itself isn’t necessarily an argument in its favor, considering my ignorance of the advanced mathematics). Further, finally coming to understand quantum mechanics via the multiverse has allowed me to get a foothold on other discussions of quantum mechanics that don’t even take the multiverse into account.

Chapter 4, “Criteria For Reality”, presents Deutsch’s argument for why we must take the multiverse to be true (i.e., his argument against the wishy-washiness I’m exhibiting toward it) via a compelling comparison to Galileo’s discovery that the earth and the planets revolve around the sun, and the Inquisition’s response to this discovery. He makes a cogent argument that the difficulty people found in accepting this fact in the early 17th century is identical to the difficulty people have of accepting the multiverse now. The section of chapter 8 (“The Significance Of Life”) I mentioned may be difficult going for those not taking the time to learn the epistemology, but it presents a novel idea of how knowledge and randomness would each appear different in the multiverse—in other words, how knowledge could be picked out from a background of randomness in the multiverse—via a comparison of genes and “junk” DNA. He concludes that life and thought, while appearing insignificant in a single universe, “have generated the largest distinctive structures in the multiverse”.

The section of chapter 9 (“Quantum Computers”) I mentioned presents a comparison of classical determinism and chaos theory (a.k.a., the butterfly effect) on the one hand and quantum mechanics and the multiverse on the other, making the essential point that, since reality is not in fact described by classical physics, the butterfly effect in fact does not even exist. Small differences in initial conditions do not amplify or ramify in quantum mechanics, a.k.a., reality.

Chapter 11, “Time: The First Quantum Concept”, will probably be the most interesting to most people after chapter 2, in which time is explained via the multiverse. The first part of this chapter, Deutsch’s refutation of our standard conception of time (the “flow of time”), I consider to be rather poorly written, and I therefore don’t really understand it even after repeated passes at it, but some understanding of what Deutsch thinks of as the wrong way to think about time is necessary to put into context the multiverse theory of time, the right way to think about time. The multiverse theory of time can be encapsulated in Deutsch’s idea that “other times are just special cases of other universes”, and in Deutsch’s imagining of the multiverse as a lattice of static snapshots of individual moments in individual universes.

Those with a sufficient interest in popular science and theories about concrete reality will also probably find Deutsch’s ideas about the significance of people in the universe to be quite interesting, even without wrestling through the more difficult aspects of his epistemology. I found chapter 14 fascinating, though many professional reviewers rated it quite poorly. Tagging off of an idea by Frank Tipler, it’s about the possibility that knowledge-creating organisms descended from humans will be able to put off the end of the universe indefinitely. As I said above, Chapter 3 of The Beginning of Infinity is also excellent, a refutation of the idea common to humanistic popular science that people are insignificant, and of the idea that the earth is a “natural” habitat for people. These two chapters go hand in hand, and I’ll explain below how Chapter 3 is one of the most important things I’ve ever read. I share it with anyone who will read it.

And if you do get The Beginning of Infinity, Chapter 11 re-examines his take on the multiverse from a new angle, taking on the use of doppelgängers in science fiction, and the internal consistency of fiction in general, as a way into understanding how parallel universes (would) work in reality. I couldn’t grasp the significance of it when I first read it, before my “eureka” moment with chapter 2 of The Fabric Of Reality, but it all makes sense once you’ve got the fundamentals of the multiverse down. Chapter 12, “A Physicist’s History of Bad Philosophy”, starts out with a nice little dialogue about the truth of the multiverse, and then gives a short history of the interpretations of quantum mechanics, up to page 311. After that is some heavier-going philosophy on Deutsch’s theories about explanation.

Finally, I’ve gathered some other bonus readings in this science and multiverse category here.


2) Philosophy: Knowledge and its Significance to the Universe

  • The Fabric of Reality: Chapters 1, 2 and 3
  • Philosophy and the Real World: Chapters 1-5
  • The Fabric of Reality: Chapter 4
  • The Selfish Gene: Chapters 2-4
  • The Fabric of Reality: Chapter 8
  • The Beginning of Infinity: Chapter 3

(272 pages total)

Deutsch’s theory of knowledge is actually integral to his understanding of the multiverse, but I found it to be harder work, requiring some supplementary material, dipping into my philosophy dictionaries, and taking notes for me to really get it, which is a style of reading that some people might not be up for. If you are interested though, I think it’s just as rewarding as his explanation of the multiverse.

Chapter 1 of The Fabric of Reality is called “The Theory of Everything”. It states the thesis of the book, and is a good introduction to how he thinks about science and knowledge. I’ll just note that what he takes to be a Theory of Everything is quite different, and much bigger than, the sought-after harmony of relativity and quantum mechanics made famous by Stephen Hawking. Chapter 2 as I said is the introduction to the multiverse, which he uses throughout his work as one of the central examples about the advance of scientific knowledge.

Chapter 3, “Problem-Solving”, explicitly introduces the ideas of Karl Popper, mostly his solution to/evaporation of the problem of induction. I don’t think it does a very good job of it though. This is where my criticism that Deutsch does not always make it clear what he is talking about or why comes into play. Fortunately, at the end of The Fabric of Reality he provides a short list of books he thinks everyone should read, and one of them, Philosophy and the Real World by Bryan Magee, provides exactly what Deutsch lacks, the full context and clear explanation of Popper’s philosophy. (An earlier edition of the book is titled Karl Popper, and this is the name under which Deutsch gives the recommendation, though this edition is much rarer.) The book itself is just over 100 pages, and you need only read 72 of them for present purposes (and they are large type to boot), so this is not an arduous requirement by any stretch, and I found it very rewarding. This is one of the best short introductions to a philosopher I’ve ever read. You are of course welcome to plow on with Deutsch without reading this, but it’s there if you need it.

Chapter 4, “Criteria For Reality”, presents Deutsch’s argument for why we must take the multiverse to be true via a compelling comparison to Galileo’s discovery that the earth and the planets revolve around the sun, and the Inquisition’s response to this discovery. He makes a cogent argument that the difficulty people found in accepting this fact in the early 17th century is identical to the difficulty people have of accepting the multiverse now. (No, you’re not imagining things; I just copy-pasted that summary from the section above. Sorry. I’ll do it again though.) Here we begin to see the heavy kind of work Popper and Deutsch’s ideas about knowledge can do in the real world.

Chapter 8, “The Significance of Life”, which could also be called “The Significance of People”, is an important strand of Deutsch’s ideas about knowledge. People to him are any organisms which create knowledge, whether they evolved on earth or elsewhere. Essential to understanding this though is understanding the replicator theory of evolution, which Deutsch barely explains, and that not very well. It’s no matter though, because this theory was explained spectacularly by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene, and you should not find it frustrating to have to reach for another piece of supplementary material at this point, because this is the one book that absolutely every educated person everywhere should read anyway, no matter who you are or what you are trying to accomplish. It’s not difficult; Dawkins is obsessive about establishing proper context for his ideas and presenting them clearly, even to people with no prior exposure. (And fortunately, it is very popular, so a great many people approaching Deutsch will have already read it.) I’ve made it easy by extracting three essential chapters to understanding replicators and how they relate to life and human beings, chapters 2-4. (These three chapters also largely avoid the politically controversial, though not untrue by any stretch, ideas about genetic influence on/creation of the behavior of organisms.) The chapter on memes, chapter 11, is also highly recommended. It’s the founding document of another wide-reaching theory, and is important to fully understanding Deutsch’s theories of knowledge.

Deutsch’s second book, The Beginning of Infinity, relies a lot on the explanations and conclusions he gave in The Fabric of Reality, but in the service of a new thesis—that progress is unbounded. He attempts to re-explain them in many parts, so that he can move on to his new points, but the re-explanations feel to me even more scattershot than the original explanations. There is one chapter containing some purely new ideas and concepts that I think is essential though. Chapter 3, “The Spark”, seeks to explode two myths that every right thinking progressive science-minded person is meant to believe: the spaceship earth and the principle of mediocrity.

Spaceship earth is the idea that humans can, or were meant to, live in the “womb” of mother earth without using our knowledge to transform it. The principle of mediocrity is, to quote Stephen Hawking as Deutsch does, that humans are “just a chemical scum on the surface of a typical planet that’s in orbit around a typical star that’s on the outskirts of a typical galaxy.” Deutsch’s answer to these two assertions is that 1) “People are significant in the cosmic scheme of things” and 2) “The earth’s biosphere is incapable of supporting human life.” If you want a teleological spin on it, you could say that we are by our very nature knowledge creating organisms, and the universe by creating such organisms thereby “means” for them (us) to transform it. We are (or our emergent properties are) a force of nature in and of ourselves, as much as nuclear fusion and all the rest. As I said above, this chapter could profitably be the first thing you read by Deutsch, so well known are the ideas he is discussing.

You may find it quite interesting after this to go back and read chapter 14 of The Fabric of Reality, “The Ends of the Universe”. I found it fascinating, though many professional reviewers rated it quite poorly. Tagging off of the Omega Point idea by Frank Tipler, it’s about the possibility that knowledge-creating organisms descended from humans will be able to put off the end of the universe indefinitely and become omniscient. Analogies between this state of affairs and the religious conceptions of gods and heaven are easy to find, and Tipler eagerly does so (he was religious and promoted the theory of intelligent design), but Deutsch rightly points out that you don’t have to become mystical about it to find the idea plausible, and carefully extracts the good from the bad where others were happy to just dismiss the entire thing out of hand. It’s an interesting thought experiment examining the real power of knowledge on a cosmological scale.

Finally, to complete your reading about the multiverse, chapter 9 pp. 200-207 and all of chapter 11 are essential, and chapter 11 of The Beginning of Infinity, simply called “The Multiverse”, is very good as well. See my glosses on them above.

And if you’ve read all those and would like my perspective on the rest of Deutsch and on reading Popper himself, come back and click over to here.

Do (Part Of) The Right Thing While Doing Nothing At All

Or, The Use and Abuse of Cynicism, and Embracing Cognitive Dissonance

Dubai Supermoon

The Problems:

SO, I READ something. Or I watch a video about something. Or someone tells me something. It’s about how horrible something is or was somewhere in the world. Slave labor is being used to build Dubai, where people from other countries are tricked with false terms into coming over to work, and then their passports are taken to prevent them from leaving. A mother in New York informs us all how dangerous it is for children with food allergies when other kids leave their snacks on the playground. A scientist in California has what seems like strong evidence that Americans’ massive over-consumption of sugar is at least partly responsible for the modern cancer epidemic.

So, how do I react? Well, I might decide that these things are important or disturbing, and to keep them in mind, and may even worry about them. But if I fancy myself a rather vigilant and/or cynical person (which I do), I might instead find some fault in them. For example, I might find the Dubai article manipulative, and thereby question the truth of the whole thing, and I also might consider that pretty much every place in the world has been built by slaves or via other such nefarious techniques, so getting on a high horse about Dubai is a bit hypocritical and ignorant. And I might think that the woman complaining about food allergies on the playground can’t expect the world to cater to every need of her child. And as far as cancer goes, how do I know if this report is true? Everything seems to cause cancer, and I’d have to stop eating altogether if I paid heed to every report.

Now, none of these things is untrue or unwise in any way. But neither are they necessarily merely the vigilance and cynicism I might take them to be. Thinking these things, and especially if I let my thoughts about these subjects end with these things, may just be hiding some subconscious motivations. I might, by thinking them, be giving myself permission to not care about the original problems, even if just partially.

This may seem extreme, but hear me out. To be sure, I’d like to think of myself as just a guardian against the ever-pressing tsunami of bullshit in the world that is constantly trying to breach the walls of reason and evidence. This seems like a positive attributes to have. And in part, it is. It’s necessary, as there actually is an ever-pressing tsunami of bullshit in the world that is constantly trying to breach the walls of reason and evidence.

It’s just that it’s more than that. I’ve found that my cynicism is often an unconscious defense of my position and psychological well-being, masked as the virtue of vigilance. On the extreme end, it protects my self interest and privilege. On the less extreme end, it merely protects me from having to think too much about unpleasantness.

And, even worse, I make this self-interest motivated cynicism a virtue, let it really inflate my ego. This cynicism tells me how very clever I am, that I am generally the smartest person in a discussion, that while everyone else is busy debating minutia, I am sitting back with the big picture in my head, noticing all the errors everyone else is making.

The practical effect of this is that cynicism is often an insidious force in the world, hindering justice, the progress of knowledge, and the good. It tells me that I don’t have to change my mind or actions about something, because I’m too smart and can see right through it. And, even worse, if I proclaim my cynicism publicly, it tells other people that they don’t have to change their minds or actions either. And, if I am a person who likes to be known as a cynic, it will also stop me from championing change and causes for justice even when I do see a strong need for them, for fear of being seen as weak or uncritical, since that may be the way I’ve always seen other people who champion change or justice.

Anybody could be doing this, being party to blocking the progress of justice or knowledge, even if you’re otherwise a very moral or intelligent person, doing any number of concretely good things in the world, like volunteering for tsunami relief in Japan or teaching English to immigrants or marching for civil rights or giving to charity. It’s actually dangerous to think of yourself as a “good person” based on the good things you do, because it might give you just the sort of permission you need to mask your subconscious motivations for less than noble things. Probably most of the people who committed all the great injustices of history could have made a list of all the good things they otherwise did and thought, as if that somehow proved they weren’t doing or thinking something bad at that moment.

The Solutions:

So what can you do? There is much to be said about this, but I’ll just give you two practical techniques I’ve tried to use to avoid self-protecting cynicism without becoming mushy-headed.

1. Let Everything In

The first thing to try is letting everything in. Whether it’s from Fox News or George Will or a TED talk or The New Yorker or Jezebel, if you hear it or see it, let it in. Make it your default stance that this person has something to say. Especially if lots of people have been saying it for a long time, they probably do. Recognize when their manner is irritating you and about to make you block it out, and put that irritation aside and let what they are saying in. After it is in your mind, really in there, then you can strip away the things that you think are manipulative, or take note of the things that are only half of the story.

I find that, usually when I do this, important truths still remain, undiminished by the method in which they were conveyed or any facts not considered, and I learn something from it. If, say, someone on Fox News is grotesquely misrepresenting some mildly leftist idea as socialist, that doesn’t mean he’s not saying something important and true about liberty (although, I have to add, I personally rarely see anything from Fox News except when people are making fun of it, though I try to keep up with the libertarian perspective in other ways). And if someone on Jezebel is, say, pretending that men and women are basically identical (which, by the way, is a very convenient way to insult men), that doesn’t mean she’s not saying some essential and underrepresented things about the way women experience the world, or the ways in which men make it shitty for them.

To help you conceptualize doing this, consider what information you are gathering from what someone is telling you. Are you gathering information about the topic at hand, or just information about what they think of you? I think so many people encounter new and difficult information, and the only thing they learn from it is “someone thinks they are better me, thinks I have been insensitive and stupid, and is trying to piously tell me what to do”. A million articles and videos on a million different topics, and the only information they keep gathering is this same thing over and over.

In short, you can continue to be clever. The world needs clever people and cynics. But let your cleverness be a sieve, not a wall. Let it in first, then filter it out. Not only will this make the world a better place, but it will actually make you much smarter and more powerful, which is ironically what you think you’re achieving by being cynical. You’ll be able to take in and wield a lot more information when you don’t feel the need to be smarter than everyone else and make snap judgments about everything. You might just come to find challenges to your beliefs to be quite exciting.

This is probably not going to be very controversial. It’s just recognizing a dual nature of cynicism. But I have a second technique, and I think I might lose some people on this one. It’s this:

2. Embrace Cognitive Dissonance

Whether or not there is anything you can, should, or even want to do about a situation has nothing whatsoever to do with acknowledging that it exists.

I think a lot of people deny terrible facts, or allow the facts to be mitigated by other circumstances, because they either don’t think they can do anything about them and think it’s useless to worry about things they can’t change, or they don’t want to do the difficult thing that would be required of them if they did let those facts into their mind. This is one reason among several that people deny global warming, and a big reason people deny that racism/white privilege still exists in America.

However, denying the facts merely adds insult to injury. Not only does the injury remain, as nothing is done about the facts, but the injured parties’ experience is denied to even be true. The injured parties are turned into non-entities because of the discomfort of the privileged (usually), and they become invisible.

I think the problem is that we place too much emphasis on immediately acting on our beliefs. This creates a stark choice for people: either believe and act right now, or don’t believe. Most people choose to not believe if acting is too onerous.

Instead, I advocate a middle way. Let the belief come first, and don’t worry about acting on it. Just let the fact enter your brain in totality. Don’t let it make you feel terrible about yourself, but also don’t find reasons to justify the behaviors that you continue to engage in that contravene that fact. And don’t congratulate yourself for holding the right idea if you’re not acting on it, either. You don’t have to feel good about it, bad about it, or anything. Just take in the fact, and sit with any cognitive dissonance you might be feeling: “This thing happening here is shitty, but I still like doing this other thing that kind of supports that shitty thing, and I don’t think I’m ready to stop.” Just own that.

At best, the idea will begin to work on your mind and maybe a few months or years down the road, you will no longer want to do the action, will feel good about stopping, or even better will find yourself compelled to actively stop the injustice itself. But even if you never stop doing the injury, at least you are no longer perpetuating the insult as well, and no longer complicit in replicating an idea that is causing the injury or making the injury worse. In some cases, you may even conclude that the shitty thing is just part of nature, and not really able to be changed. Even in this situation, you can still fully feel and acknowledge the pain and harm. This is a good in itself, but even further, when you do that, you will be open to it if ever you do find a way to change the situation and stop causing the harm.

These two strategies work for everything. They would, say, free you up to read all the anti-meat literature you could get your hands on for example, even if you loved eating meat and didn’t want to give it up. Even if you thought you might still not believe it was wrong after all was said and done. Heck, you could read it all while eating a Big Mac. You could admit that slavery in Dubai probably exists, and is terrible, even if you were currently profiting from doing business in Dubai, and weren’t ready to give up that profit. You can acknowledge how hard it must be for a parent to have a child with extreme food allergies, without thinking it thereby must be your responsibility to do something about it. And you can acknowledge that sugar could very well be increasing your risk for cancer, even if you love sugar. Just let the ideas into your head, without worrying about acting on them, until or unless you feel like it.

And if you do this for the little things, you’ll be ready for something big. Like if, say, some men in uniforms and with guns show up to take your neighbors away one day. Maybe your neighbors are Jews or Palestinians, or Tutsis, or Albanians, and you’re not. I don’t know. Forgive me this somewhat un-earned and overly dramatic ending. But I think the stakes really can be this high.

So just imagine if that did happen. Maybe you’d be forced to admit to yourself that you are too weak to really stop them, and that you’re not ready to put your life on the line for a neighbor. That’s really a lot to ask of someone. But it might make you feel really terrible about yourself that you didn’t do anything.  If you had gotten used to putting these ideas into practice, though, you might just find that you have the strength of mind to just admit that to yourself, that a terrible injustice occurred and you stood by. This may seem cowardly, but really it is so much better than the alternative: convincing yourself that your neighbors deserved it.

-Joe Kern, June 2013


If you’re interested, I’ve given some examples here of how I would apply this technique to the three situations I mentioned at the start, Dubai, food allergies on the playground, and sugar causing cancer, and what I would personally conclude was worth taking away from them.

I also very recently discovered a book called Being Wrong which relates to this post. It blew my mind just a little, by giving me new insight into how my mind does and does not process being wrong, and how and why my mind expects itself to be right almost all of the time, against any reasonable probability. I’ve put up some quotes from my favorite parts of the introductory chapter on this page, and will leave them up there at least until the publisher contacts me and tells me to take them down.

Conrad Meets Tokyo For The First Time As A Young Man

Written in May of 2006

“I just want to say, I love this place. I love Tokyo and I love this place.”

“Do you live here or are you just visiting?”

“Oh, I’m just visiting. I’m from Canada, Vancouver. I just came out here for a 16 day vacation. This rocks, I love this place. Everyone is so nice. This band rocks. I can come here and talk to anyone and I connect with them. Even if they’re Japanese, you know, we don’t speak the same language, but that doesn’t matter, they are interested, they see the foreign guy, and they think, ‘well, he’s interesting, I wonder what he has to say to me?’ And we can communicate, you know, I don’t speak his language, but they want to know me. This place is great. I love this place. This guy over here (a Japanese man) can just come out and play the bagpipes, and I feel him, man, I feel him.”

I am speaking to Conrad in the Warrior Celt in Ueno. The Warrior Celt is my pub. I don’t own it of course, but I go there most Friday nights, and know many of the regulars. The Warrior Celt is about as big as a walk-in closet. There is a four-piece band here, and there are about 30 people watching this band. I have just finished banging heads and thrashing random Japanese men and visiting English women with Conrad. Conrad and I did this because the band, the White Snakes, played “Seven Nation Army,” just like we begged them to, and I for one can not sit still during that song, and apparently neither can Conrad.

I sense that Conrad is having a profound moment here, his Japan epiphany (and it is coming early for him, as he has only been here for 26 hours), feeling the love and brother-and-sisterhood that can only come in Japan when you jam a four-piece rock band in with 30 fans in a space about as big as the shower I took this morning. I myself was just 30 minutes ago contemplating how many American fire codes this setup would be violating, and thinking that perhaps this is one of the many reasons that Americans feel so disconnected from each other. It’s a lot harder to feel the love from your fellows when the fire chief dictates how much space you have to keep between you in the local bar.

I know this script. He landed in Narita. He saw crazy exotic Asian Japan for 24 hours. He was overwhelmed and amazed, bowled over and lost. Then he wandered into this pub and suddenly was shocked to find himself home, but not really home, a twisted, mind-bending version of home where they have many of the same elements of home but not in the same order or on the right scale or with the same attitude. The attitude especially is better, much more welcoming. Like many actual pubs in England, most of the patrons here in this English pub in Japan know each other, a situation that is increasingly rare in North America. And there is no hierarchy or aggression here, just two levels, the foreigners and the Japanese. The worth of all of the foreigners has been compressed to a flat line, the low brought up and the high brought down, so we are all on the same level, and Conrad is feeling this. And perhaps it could be said that we have been raised just a couple of notches above the Japanese. This is one of our pubs, after all, and many of the Japanese come here to commune with the foreigners. Many want something more from us than we want from them. Conrad doesn’t compute this disparity, this two-tier hierarchy, because he is new, and he doesn’t realize that this is one of the elements that is making him feel so good tonight, the fact that he is in a space where the gaijin are viewed as exotically interesting by many of the Japanese, especially the tall gaijin with crazy long curly hair who flail around to “Seven Nation Army”, and he is feeling this love. If this is not true (and I will not pretend to read the minds of all of the Japanese people present), then another factor is surely at work, in which those people who are getting pissed off at our behavior just smile politely. Either way, this is something Conrad doesn’t really notice and is thus able to keep his spirits aloft.

The music is loud, so we are talking close and loud.

“So Conrad, what do you do? Are you a student?”

“No, not yet. I’m only 20. I work in the produce department of a grocery store. Its cool, they’re good people, we have a lot of fun. Someday I will be a student. I’m just experiencing life right now. I just got to Tokyo. This is great. I feel so connected to people. This is seriously one of the best nights of my life. You know, back in Vancouver people are so snobbish, they have their things, and they want to know who you are, what you are, and everyone has their place. But tonight, here, I really feel connected, everyone accepts me.”

Of course, I am feeling Conrad’s vibe. I wouldn’t be a 5-year resident of Japan if I weren’t feeling Conrad’s vibe. I take it for granted, most of the time. You can’t live somewhere for 5 years without taking it for granted. But Conrad is reminding me, not in a profound way, really, not in a ‘holy cow, I had completely forgotten way.’ No I’m not having that epiphany, that one is long over for me.

But I am reminded that I don’t work in the produce department of a grocery store. It hits close to home because that’s where I was before I came to Japan. I worked at both McDonalds and a grocery store after graduating college. These were actually sort of better jobs than the one that used my degree, being a science teacher at an underfunded private school. I am reminded of the leap I took when I came here and how I hope I have grown enough to not have to take that huge step back when I return. I am reasonably certain I won’t, but it is always a possibility that I will have to do as men throughout the ages have had to do when push came to shove, and that is do any work available to feed myself and perhaps a family. At least in Tokyo I have been sheltered from this, having been assured of at least a middle class living teaching English at any moment that I need it.

But I am just briefly reminded, it is not an epiphany, it is not profound. I’m reminded of the instant connection you can have with people in this country, and how that can salve so much of the loneliness and isolation many of us feel in our own countries, that in fact so many Japanese feel in Japan. It’s ironic that for many Japanese the only way to stay sane is to leave Japan and all its structures and stultifying social pressure, and for many foreigners Japan ends up being a refuge of sanity and acceptance and access to the most basic communal human contact we are cut off from in our own country. Conrad, though, has brought me back to being 20 again, or maybe to being 26 when I first came here, and I feel as though I can help him, give him some sage advice from my limited experience. What follows may be the only advice I’d know how to give to someone in their twenties about living the good life, and it may actually be horrible, life-ruining advice.

“Conrad, you are having the Japan experience right now. You should live in Japan.”

“Yeah, you might be right. I’ve been thinking about it.”

“Get your four year degree, and come here to teach English. Heck, just get a forgery of a degree and come here to teach English. They may not know the difference. But you are a perfect candidate for an English teacher in Japan. You were born to be an English teacher in Japan. Come back to Tokyo to teach English.”

“Wow, yeah, thanks man. I’m really honored that you think that. Thank you.”

I’m relieved that he is honored. He could have just as well socked me in the jaw for saying such things.

Published in: on January 12, 2013 at 11:09 am  Leave a Comment  
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A Great Idea For Hachiko Crossing, Shibuya

The crossing at Hachiko in Shibuya must be one of the busiest pedestrian intersections in the world. Nestled as it is in such a perfect natural and artificial amphitheater, something needs to be staged there, something ridiculous, something dumbfounding even, and I think I know exactly what.


I want to see a large crowd of people decked out in traditional battle clothing such as kilts, and it would be best if most of them were wearing no shirt, and with primitive and probably fake weapons, no definitely fake, we don’t want to go to jail, like spears and battle axes and shields and clubs and I want to see them line up on both sides of the street between Hachiko and Starbucks, just (seemingly) randomly congregate at a designated time and when the light turns green, all will raise a huge shout of “FREEDOM!” with the gnashing of teeth and the beating of breasts and the raising of primitive (fake) weaponry before charging across the street to meet in (mock) battle until the light changes back and we all must get out of the street once again.

Of course, this will not be a genuine call for freedom. This is Japan, we are all free, there will be no actual political motivation involved in this act.

This being a Braveheart-based simulation, I would love to see as many tall meaty hairy highlander-types with untamed locks of red hair flapping like flags in the wind, men and women alike for these modern times. But let us not limit ourselves to this. There are many cultures of the world that have a rich history of glorious sinewy half-starved barbarians storming into battle for country and kin. For example, perhaps a Mongol Horde would also be appropriate in this case. Maybe on horseback. Or maybe fake horseback, like little stick horsies; the logistics of real horses seems complicated for Shibuya. We’ll make it a giant multicultural celebration of the crushing of enemies and the seeing of them driven before us. Wear beards, if possible.

Speaking of celebrations, it is important that we not stop after the battle is over and stand around in Hachiko square and talk and congratulate ourselves on our success and wit. No, that would look stupid and ruin the point, like if the guy carrying the boom box through the Starbucks blasting Toto’s Roseanna in one of those flash mobs or whatever were to crack a self-satisfied smile with just the briefest of eye-contact on his fifth pass-through, making you want to take your battle axe and cleave his smug little document-shuffling self in twain from face to nether regions with nary a pause. No, we must get out of there as quickly as possible, perhaps by bus, yes, we could charter a couple of buses, a couple of huge black buses, no, wait, not black buses, not in Japan, dear god, no, okay but a couple of buses, and these buses will be carefully timed to drive up and spirit us far from the fray, somewhere like Ueno or maybe Osaka, where we can go to our own private Valhalla for the imbibing of barrels of mead and soft drinks. Perhaps there will be large quantities of meat? Yes, meat, dripping meat, still on the bone in fact. We must eat with our hands. Although of course vegetarian selections must also be offered, we do not wish to discriminate, this is an equal-opportunity scrum. I honor vegetarians, they are making the best choice for themselves and our planet. But ye gods, nothing goes down better than meat after a battle.

Okay, someone needs to organize. What, me? No, I don’t have the cognitive capacity to lead. But someone does, I know someone does. No, I’m just the idea guy. Someone can run with this idea, no need to give me credit or pay for the idea, no it’s free, it’s out there, it’s public domain, although I will not dismiss it should someone raise a toast to the idea man at the after-(fake)slaughter celebrations, perhaps raise him on their shoulders and sing a round of praises? But yes, take the idea and run with it, run to the hills, or rather the valleys, The Valley, the shibu-ya, yes, run shouting your cries of freedom for all to hear. This must be done.

Originally written c. 2005

2011 Japan Earthquake, Tsunami, and Nuclear Disaster: How The Western Media Got Tokyo Wrong

I SPENT MOST OF the week after the March 11 Tohoku earthquake ferociously battling the hysterical drive-by reporting of the western media. It caused us in Tokyo a problem, as our people back home were all experiencing a much different disaster by proxy than we were on the ground.

The media’s first crime was a failure to differentiate between Tokyo and the stricken areas of Tohoku. This was forgivable in the initial hectic hours. The first very brief English language report I saw about the earthquake, about an hour after it happened, said something to the effect of “Japan including Tokyo was rocked by a massive 8.9 magnitude earthquake, the biggest in its recorded history. Cars were shaken off bridges, buildings severely rattled, and a devastating tsunami was triggered.” Though my earthquake experience had been pretty mild (here’s my full report) and I wasn’t expecting a big deal to be made of it, I saw this and knew I better send a message back to the states to let everyone know that actually Tokyo and I were both alright.

But some media outlets never got the distinction straight. In a typically overwrought report in the Sydney Morning Herald at Narita airport on March 18, reporter Ben Doherty describes someone fleeing Tokyo as “having endured the massive 9.0 earthquake”. Actually, no one in Japan experienced the 9.0 magnitude earthquake directly, but even to conflate our mild scare and inconvenience in Tokyo with the experience in Sendai, three times closer to the epicenter, is pretty insensitive.

Doherty gives us other gems of overstatement that were all too common in the reporting on the effect of the crisis on Tokyo. “The famously efficient public transport system is severely disrupted”, “Power is unavailable for hours at a time”, and “Supermarket shelves are empty”. These crimes and many more, including speculation on nuclear physics by people who probably majored in English (if that), have all been well documented in blogs and editorials (if you haven’t already seen some of these reports, my version is here). There’s also been a Journalist’s Wall Of Shame wiki created especially for this crisis.

This has gotten me to wondering if every disaster in a country without its own English-speaking media has its own wall of shame. In some cases this seems doubtful. In a place like the Middle East, for example, there is so much English language reporting and there are so many bilingual and culturally experienced journalists that it is easy to just pay attention to the most credible sources, or at least get several different perspectives. In Japan there are far fewer such journalists, as they are not needed day to day, so in a crisis like this the media has to make do with a staff not up to the task.

On the other hand, a story in the March 14, 2011 issue of the New Yorker on the Gulf of Mexico oil spill caused by BP last spring makes a good case that that disaster had the same media issues that we in Tokyo had, reporting it to be worse than it really was and failing to use the best science, and right there in the United States with no language barrier at all. (The full article isn’t available online, but I’ve provided some important quotes here.) It looks like many reporters decide beforehand the story they are going to report, and it is immaterial whether they find it on the ground, as in the Haiti earthquake (where it appears it would have been hard to overstate the horrors) or in Tohoku itself, or they don’t, as in Tokyo and the Gulf Of Mexico.

And to further disabuse you of the notion that we in Tokyo are special, let me propose a thought experiment. Imagine a hypothetical nuclear power plant north of Birmingham in the UK, about the same distance from London as Iwaki and the Fukushima plant are from Tokyo. First off, how do you think Londoners and the English media themselves would react if that plant had a crisis similar to the one at Fukushima? Would that most egregious offender in this Tohoku earthquake case, The Sun, be any less alarmist about the danger to London? Possibly, but it certainly wouldn’t surprise anyone if it wasn’t.

And for the real test, how do you think the Japanese media would react to a nuclear crisis in Birmingham? How many alarmist tabloids with little real understanding of either England or nuclear power does Japan have? How protective of Japanese citizens abroad might some major Japanese media outlets become under the right circumstances, with nothing to lose from practicing extreme caution? How much disruption does it take to bring all the barely suppressed Japanese exceptionalism (or xenophobia) way out into the open? And how many Japanese citizens, unable to read or listen to any but Japanese media sources, might get caught up in a negative feedback loop and desperately plead with friends and family in London to flee as fast as they can?

So for all us foreigners here in Japan, this can be a double learning experience for us.

First, we’ve all got this firsthand experience in our emotional memory now, and know just how great our skepticism of our own media needs to be. As my friend Dan Inoue said, “While watching the Daily Show gave me an academic understanding that the 24-hour news cycle is constantly screaming for attention, I never realized how insidious the fear machine really was until now.”

But this experience has done something else for us: We’ve been kicked off our high horse of criticism of Japanese media, which has always been about the most consistent target of ire out of everything foreigners here complain about. It’s an established fact now: The world is full of screaming jackasses, well-meaning fools, and spineless kowtowers north, south, east and west. No need to blame any particular country for that.

-Joe Kern, March 24, 2011


Here’s a link to specific stories of my experiences and how they differed from the media reporting, for example in regard to food and water shortages.

This is my report of what the experience of the quake and the immediate aftermath was like in Tokyo.

Here’s a report of my experience volunteering with the cleanup and rebuilding effort in Tohoku in August of 2011, 5 months after the disaster.

Public Drum Kits: What It’s Like Being A Drummer In Tokyo

This is just an informational article for musicians who are curious about what it’s like to play in Japan. It’s mainly for drummers but there is useful information for all musicians in here. It’s very dull. I took out all the jokes.

All prices have been converted to dollars on the simplifying assumption that 100 yen = US$1.00.

TOKYO IS A VERY dense city where people live in tightly packed-together apartments and houses with thin walls. Also, there are no basements, and no extra space in the garages and no driveways in which a car could sit while you played drums in the garage. And there is no street parking.

You might think this would make the country very inhospitable to drummers, but that is only partly true. Much like public transportation picks up the slack in the city where it would be impossible for everyone to drive or even own a car, so too do essentially public drum sets pick up the slack where it would be obnoxious if everyone who wanted to play drums set up a kit in their tiny apartment or garage.

This is a distinct advantage because you don’t even have to own a drum set or figure out where to put it (which can be difficult even in the U.S.) to play drums. You could be a drummer your whole life here and never own a single drum.

First, for a band, there are practice studios everywhere in Tokyo and often there is one in most any moderately-sized city outside of Tokyo. I had a band in Tsukuba city in Ibaraki prefecture north of Tokyo for awhile, and we had two practice studios to choose from in that city.

These things are great, better than almost any setup I’ve ever had being in bands in America. First, you rent the room by the hour. Second it is really well equipped and appointed. Not only are there already top notch drums with fresh heads, amps, PAs, and possibly keyboards and other amenities in the studio, so you don’t have to bring your own, but the rooms are designed with acoustics in mind, and the sound is generally very warm and nice. And they are excellently soundproofed, so you can turn up. And they are as clean, warm, and welcoming as the room Kanye recorded his last album in.

The cost is generally about $20-50 an hour, depending on size and location, so if you are a 4-piece band that practices once a week for two hours, it’ll cost you about $20 a week for practices. You can also get package deals for overnight practices or weekday afternoon practices and get for example a 6-hour stretch of time for much less.

I’ve had the extra good fortune of finding a drum-only practice studio in the neighborhood in which I work. These are tiny studios containing just a drum set. Being so small, the sound is not great, but the drum sets are all quite nice and the heads kept fresh. And I can pop around and practice for $4 for a half hour after work. With these and the full band studios, you either book ahead of time, or sometimes there will be a studio open if you just show up. The one I go to is called Beats Paradise, and it’s about a 10 minute walk from Ichigaya station (access map here).

Compare this to the situation for trying to practice in America. When I was in high school, my step-father built the family a semi-soundproofed music studio off of our garage. This was great good fortune for me. He was a quite-good electric guitarist in the 70’s classic rock and blues style, and several other family members played guitar, so he was sympathetic to my desire to have a place to practice and used my interest in drums as the instigation to build a music room for everyone. But most people don’t have such luck. It’s either in the garage during the warmer months annoying the neighbors, or in the basement, with practice hours severely restricted by the other people in the house.

Then, when you strike out on your own, it’s even worse. You’ve got to find someone with a house rather than an apartment. Sometimes these sorts of considerations are key factors in deciding who gets to be in the band. Another option is to rent a studio for the band, but here the situation is so much worse. I rented a practice space in the dingiest part of downtown Minneapolis once, an ugly, smelly, crumbling building that was hard to get to and unpleasant to be in. And of course, you still have to have all your own equipment. And you have to rent the space by the month, no matter how much you use it.

I did once see a guy in Tokyo who had set up his entire drum kit, and it was like a 7 or 8 piece, under a bridge over a very large river in central Tokyo (The Sumida-gawa, up around Asakusa), at about 10 on a weeknight. It was the one place he figured he could practice where no one could hear him. He was mostly right. I still had to laugh. Partly because he had this huge multi-tom-tom set and wasn’t very good. He was playing basic rock beats reading sheet music. I’ve seen this here in Japan and no place else. A drummer will join a rock band and read off the song as they play, sometimes on stage. Suffice it to say, they don’t usually play with much feeling when they do this. I think this says something important and interesting about Japanese culture that I won’t comment further on here.

The first band I joined in Japan was when I went to see an American friend play and the Japanese drummer they had just hired was sitting back very gently playing along to the songs while reading sheet music. I’m generally not a very aggressive person, and I didn’t attend that gig intending to take anyone’s job, but I went up to my friend immediately after the show and told him they desperately needed me.

I hasten to add that I’ve seen some incredible Japanese drummers, whose ability likely has nothing to do with being Japanese. They just took a modicum of native talent and worked really hard to master their craft. And a few of the most original percussionists I’ve ever seen were Japanese. People with a unique style. But I think the hobbyists attitude towards drums is different here than in the U.S., and it’s interesting.

My impression is that you’re more likely to see a young woman playing drums in Japan than you are in the states too. The drummer that I replaced in the story above was a female university student, learning drums as a sort of official or semi-official extra-curricular activity. I knew of a few all-girl high school bands from my days as a teacher, as well. When I was teaching middle school in the early 200os, the school bands (the 20-piece groups with the brass, woodwind and percussion sections) were usually entirely girls. All official extra-academic activity was done at the same time, so if you did a sport you couldn’t do band, and vice-versa, and I believe it would have been viewed as un-masculine for a boy to choose band over a sport, and would have likely invited a lot of ridicule and bullying. So I suspect that this is the source of this.

For gigging in Japan, almost every venue has a drum set and amplifiers on site. Often there is a high quality professional PA system as well. So once again, you don’t have to lug your gear around. In fact, whereas in the U.S. the drummer generally has the worst time of it with load in and load out, in Japan he or she has the easiest time of it. While the guitarists are lugging an axe or two and a box of effects pedals on a crowded rush-hour train, I can just show up with a couple pairs of drums sticks and be ready to go.

There are two types of venues you can play in Japan. By far the most common is the live house system. This is called pay-to-play in the U.S. Generally there will be a bill of 3 or 4 bands on a given night at a live house, and a goal for the total number of people who pay the entrance fee to get in. Let’s say the bands altogether have to clear $200. Generally entrance is $20, with maybe a required extra $5-$7 charge for a drink ticket (drinking is expensive in Japan, but that doesn’t stop anyone). When each audience member shows up at the door, they’ll be asked which band they are here to see, and that information will be marked down. When the night is over, if all the bands together don’t cover the $200, they will be required to pay the house to make up the difference. If they go over the $200, they’ll get a percentage of everything over $200. In my experience some live houses put their minimum attendance requirement very close to their maximum capacity, so it is next to impossible to make much money. Although we have found some quite generous live houses and on some occasions have raised in the range of $1000 for charity.

This system is most definitely stacked against bands. Live houses generally don’t have any walk-ins. Only people who were invited to the show will attend. And there are so many of them, competition is stiff. Further, the live house schedule can start as early as 6:00 pm, even on a Wednesday night. Bands are usually done by about 10:00, even on weekends. So it’s not a party all night thing. It’s a very efficient entertainment machine. The one good thing about it is that the equipment is often top-notch and the sound very professional. Often the drum heads are often kept relatively fresh and the drums well tuned. Usually there is a thorough sound check beforehand with a soundperson who really knows his or her craft. Often though, in an attempt to look professional, the stage is so deep that even at a small venue the drum kit has to be miked, and the sound pressure can be absurd. I’m not a big fan of that. I think in a small enough venue the drums should just play at their natural volume, and everything else turned up just to match it.  But then, I really like natural drum tones.

The alternative is a very small subculture of Western-style bars and venues. These are often British-style pubs or other places that are more plugged in to the foreign community here. These are much more like what you might be used to. The booking process is often informal, you don’t have to pay if too few people show up, and they generally have some amount of walk-ins. Most of the bands that play these places tend to have a connection to foreign culture, usually a few or all members being foreigners. Depending on the place, these places may throw some money your way at the end of the night. They will usually at least give you a few drinks on the house.

Unlike in the West, these places also have their own equipment. The downside is that it’s often of a lower quality than the live houses, and less reliable. The drum heads are rarely changed, the hardware is ratty, and the cymbals often cracked or otherwise have poor sound. I finally decided to buy my own snare drum after showing up to a place that had a batter head on both sides of their snare. And I bought my own pedal a long time ago. I’m holding out on cymbals, though I would very much like them. It’s just there is already so much to carry on the train with me to gigs. It’s a similar mixed bag with the other equipment, though the venues do at minimum understand that things like amps and PAs have to be operational.

The one great salutary effect of all this is that as a drummer you get to try out a lot of different types of equipment, from high-quality stuff at rehearsal studios and live houses, to crappy stuff at pubs. I’ve become much more knowledgeable about different types of snares, cymbals, and kits than I would have before, and about tuning all these different instruments. I can understand now how some kits are better for jazz and some for rock, how some tom-toms ring with a great tone and some sound terrible. I discovered the advantage of leaving one lug loose on the floor tom after I kept noticing that the drummers before me had left it that way. Just yesterday I discovered a new (to me) kind of hardware mounted tambourine, and tried it out on a song with the band. The guitarist in my last band fell in love with Vox amps shortly after moving to Japan for the first time and joining a band, after having spent decades in Canada as a Fender Twin man, simply because he had the chance to play one for a few sessions at a practice studio.

So that’s pretty much what it’s like to be a drummer or other band member in Japan. Feel free to ask me any further questions in the comments.



If you liked this, you might also enjoy A Listening Guide For Rock Drumming.

Nisa: Infanticide In The !Kung Hunter-Gatherers of Southern Africa

This article is related to my article about the After-Birth Abortion controversy. The discussion of disability is appended to the end, but I think these passages from Nisa inform that discussion, so I’ve put them first.

Nisa, by Marjorie Shostak, (c) 1981

I’m sure there is an extensive literature on infanticide, historical, anthropological, psychological, etc., but I haven’t read any of it. But I think this story is fascinating.

This is the story as told by Nisa, a !Kung woman, to Shostak, an American ethnographer. Nisa is recounting something she recalls from when she was around 3:

After he [her brother] was born, he lay there, crying. I greeted him, “Ho, ho, my baby brother! Ho, ho, I have a little brother! Some day we’ll play together.” But my mother said, “What do you think this thing is? Why are you talking to it like that? Now, get up and go back to the village and bring me my digging stick.” I said, “What are you going to dig?” She said, “A hole. I’m going to dig a hole so I can bury the baby. Then you, Nisa, will be able to nurse again.” I refused. “My baby brother? My little brother? Mommy, he’s my brother! Pick him up and carry him back to the village. I don’t want to nurse!” Then I said, “I’ll tell daddy when he comes home!” She said, “You won’t tell him. Now, run back and bring me my digging stick. I’ll bury him so you can nurse again. You’re much too thin.” I didn’t want to go and started to cry. I sat there, my tears falling, crying and crying. But she told me to go, saying she wanted my bones to be strong. So, I left and went back to the village, crying as I walked.

I was still crying when I arrived. I went to the hut and got her digging stick. My mother’s younger sister had just arrived home from the nut groves. When she saw me, she said, “Nisa, what’s wrong? Where’s your mother?”

Nisa then tells her aunt the story.

My mother’s sister said, “Oooo…people! This Chuko [Nisa’s mother], she’s certainly a bad one to be talking like that. And she’s out there alone with the baby! No matter what it is—a boy or girl—she should keep it.”

They both go back to her mother and her younger brother, Kumsa.

Perhaps [my mother] had already changed her mind, because when we got there, she said, “Nisa, because you were crying like that, I’ll keep the baby and carry him back with me.” My aunt went over to Kumsa lying beside my mother and said, “Chuko, you can see what a big boy you gave birth to, yet you wanted Nisa to bring back your digging stick? You wanted to bury this great big baby? Your own father worked to feed you and keep you alive. This child’s father would surely have killed you if you had buried his little boy. You must have no sense, wanting to kill such a nice big baby.”

My aunt cut the umbilical cord, wiped him off, put him into her kaross, and carried him back to the village. My mother soon got up and followed, shamed by her sister’s talk. Finally, she said, “Can’t you understand? Nisa is still a little child, My heart’s not happy that she hasn’t any milk to drink. Her body is weak. I want her bones to grow strong.” But my aunt said, “When Gau [Nisa’s father] hears about this, he’ll beat you. A grown woman with one child following after another so nicely, doesn’t behave like this.” When we arrived back in the village, my mother took the baby and lay down.

People from the village began coming around to look at Kumsa.

The women all said, “Ooooh…this woman has no sense! She gave birth to such a big baby, yet she was going to kill it!” My mother said, “I wanted his older sister to nurse, that’s why I would have done it, and if I had been alone, I would have! I did the wrong thing by not taking my digging stick with me, but others did the wrong thing by taking him away from me. That’s why I’m here with him at all.” The women did not agree. They told my aunt, “You did very well. You were right to take the baby from Chuko and save him for his father. Wouldn’t Chuko have had to answer to him if she had killed his baby?”

Nisa’s father comes home and hears the story.

My father said, “Chuko, why did you want to kill my son? If you had, I would have killed you. I would have struck you with my spear and killed you. Do you think I wouldn’t do that? I surely would. What was making you feel so much pain that you would have killed such a large baby? You’ll keep both children, now. Nisa will continue to grow up eating regular food. (pp. 46-51)

Shostak shares her uncertainty about the believability of Nisa’s story:

I didn’t know what to make of it. It seemed too strange to be a lie. As one of her earliest “memories”, maybe it was a fantasy she had created when her brother was born, to help her deal with the anger and jealousy she felt toward him. Or perhaps Nisa’s mother, never seriously entertaining the idea, actually suggested killing the baby, knowing that Nisa would say no. She might have hoped to make Nisa feel protective toward her brother. Or, more likely, the threat might have been a guilt-inducing weapon to make Nisa stop complaining about weaning. Other explanations also came to mind. What was clear, however, was that Nisa believed the story as she told it. (p. 29)

In another section, Shostak wonders how !Kung women are able to maintain a roughy four year interval between children In providing an answer, she has this to say about infanticide in the culture:

Infanticide has also [in addition to abortion] been suggested as an explanation. Bantu law now prohibits this practice, but even in traditional times it probably occurred only rarely—in cases of congenital deformity, of too short birth spacing, or of twins, regardless of gender. The length of the birth interval could be a life-or-death issue: if a woman had another baby too soon, either the baby or her older child—already the object of great affection—would probably die. Nursing a child requires a large daily intake of calories by the mother. Although the !Kung diet is adequate for this, it would be debilitating or even impossible for a woman to produce enough milk for two children. With no other sources of milk available, the older child would have to be weaned onto bush foods, which are rough and difficult to digest. To survive on such foods a child would have to be older than two years—preferably substantially older. (Today cows’ milk is available for toddlers, so this problem has largely been eliminated.) (p. 60)

After Kumsa, Nisa’s mother became pregnant again with a girl, Kxamshe. At first, while she was still pregnant, her mother told everyone that she wanted to kill her, so that Kumsa could nurse. Everyone was predictably outraged and tried to talk her out of it. Nisa went with her when she gave birth to Kxamshe:

After the baby was born, I said, “Daddy said that if you kill this baby, he’ll take me and Kumsa and Dau and leave you.” But she said, “Uhn, uhn…I don’t want to kill her. This little girl is too beautiful. See how lovely and fair her skin is?” [Shostak offers the explanation that “The !Kung are much ligher in color than the neighboring Bantu peoples”] (p. 70)

On another occasion, a woman in the village dies a few hours after giving birth to a small and sickly child. The woman’s husband says, “Now that this has happened, I’ll take the child, lay it down beside my wife and kill it.” But people in the village convince him to instead have an unmarried woman he had had as a lover take care of the child, and they eventually marry. (p. 168)

So what does all this say about the !Kung attitude toward infanticide? My reading is that it was clearly more accepted in their culture than in the mainstream cultures of any developed countries today. This seems largely to have been of necessity. If, after birth, the newborn can cause the death of an already living sibling, then the lives of the two siblings must be prioritized, horrifying as that may be, and as the living sibling has already had a sizable investment of resources poured into it by the parents, its life is going to be given higher priority. (This harmonizes with one of the supporting claims in the original article on after-birth abortion: “the interests of actual people over-ride the interest of merely potential people to become actual ones.” I also give more detail about this here.)

Fortunately, in modern developed countries we are never forced to make this difficult decision. However, this case does echo the decision we are still forced to make sometimes: when a fetus is imperiling the life of the mother, should the fetus be aborted?

Abundance solved the first problem, perhaps technology will one day solve the other?  If it advances to the point where a fetus can be brought to term outside of the mother and thereby spare them both, then perhaps one day we will look back at the practice of aborting fetuses simply because they have endangered the life of the mother as barbaric. So this is an excellent example of how the technology and resources available to a culture shape its attitudes toward who can be killed and when.

Going back to the !Kung, it is also clear that even though infanticide was an option for them, it was never a choice made without anguish. This also echoes the way abortion is treated in modern cultures. And this follows in line with our instincts toward loving and protecting newborn babies, discussed in the other post.

In fact, I think it’s possible that though we do have an evolutionary adaptation to love and protect newborn infants, evolution has made that instinct less strong with newborn babies than it is with babies a few days or weeks old. This adaptation would serve survival in the more difficult circumstances such as those the !Kung live in. And it would be an explanation for their cultural artifact of not considering a newborn a person until it has been brought back to the village for everyone to see (p. 60 of Nisa). Before then, it can be buried and killed.


In regard to the question of disability, as brought up by the commenter Si (April 24, 2012) on the original post, I think for modern people it is important to point out that instinct need only be applied in the positive case. Many people have an instinctive revulsion towards babies born with disabilities and may desire or even be encouraged to kill those newborns or let them die, even for a matter as simple as a cleft palate. But while I believe that having an instinct not to kill newborn babies is enough to socially or legally proscribe the killing of newborn babies, and to override any logical arguments such as the after-birth abortion one, having an instinct to kill a being isn’t necessarily reason enough to allow the killing of that being. Since the base position is not to kill something (i.e., reasons must be given for killing something, but no reasons need be given for not killing something), then whether and when to allow a newborn with severe disabilities to die or be killed can be taken up in an an entirely different set of arguments and considerations.

And I do believe that that discussion needs to be had, that it is not as simple as just protecting the life of all newborns equally. I think there are cases where parents should be allowed to let their newborn die, or even kill him or her. Cases of extreme disability, for which it can be predicted that care will occupy all of the time and effort of the parents for the rest of the child’s life. I read a news story recently about parents who were suing a hospital that had taken heroic efforts to save the life of their severely disabled newborn a few years before, and now the parents were occupied completely with caring for this child who had such a list of special needs and requirements that the parents were unable to do anything else with their lives. And the child was never going to become independent. I think the parent’s complaint is legitimate, in the same way that !Kung parents’ difficult decision about infanticide was legitimate. As the culture and technology change, so do the criteria for infanticide. But like any heap paradox we are never left with any defined lines of when it is and isn’t acceptable to let a disabled newborn die. How severe must the disability be? If you answer that there is never a time when letting a newborn die would be acceptable, I can respect that answer, but I disagree.

Published in: on June 13, 2012 at 1:00 pm  Leave a Comment  
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