Why Do Anything?

My increas­ing mate­r­i­al nihilism has result­ed in pre­dictable exis­ten­tial nihilis­tic philoso­phies. The fun part is that there super­fi­cial­ly clear con­tra­dic­tions between what I enjoy mate­ri­al­ly & what I think exis­ten­tial­ly. There’s a part of Cities in Flight by James Blish, where he describes humans as “local anom­alies in the sec­ond law of ther­mo­dy­nam­ics” which, for years, I thought was a pret­ty excep­tion­al way to describe the unique­ness & impor­tance of human­i­ty. How­ev­er, the more I observe human­i­ty, the more mis­an­throp­ic I become. I guess we are unique & impor­tant, but in vice, not virtue. We’re less anom­alous, but rather more effi­cient at con­tribut­ing to the entropy of a sys­tem. Earth was doing fine until colo­nial­ism & the indus­tri­al rev­o­lu­tion basi­cal­ly trashed the place in a cou­ple hun­dred years.

How do humans make the uni­verse a bet­ter place? This is a fun­da­men­tal­ly flawed qual­i­ta­tive ques­tion, philo­soph­i­cal­ly (what is ‘bet­ter’?), but nev­er­the­less quick­ly gets to the point of con­tention. The typ­i­cal mit­i­ga­tion offered to bal­ance the entropy we con­stant­ly impose upon the mate­r­i­al world is our achieve­ments of con­science. Our work in phi­los­o­phy, art, lit­er­a­ture, music, sci­ence. The results of our sen­tience, sapi­ence, and sagac­i­ty are all of these great things!

This is an almost tau­to­log­i­cal self­ish fal­la­cy. We aren’t bad because we do good things. But the good things we do can only be appre­ci­at­ed by oth­er humans (who might not!), while the bad things we do affect our entire world. The pas­sen­ger pigeon will not feel tran­scen­dent when it hears music because 1) as far as we know, crit­ters can’t expe­ri­ence that emo­tion and 2) we killed them all. Polar bears will be extinct in my life­time because of human-dri­ven cli­mate change. Do the sum of the achieve­ments of human­i­ty bal­ance the harm we do? I’d rather have polar bears than poet­ry. Even our achieve­ments are an increase in entropy.

Why do any­thing, then? It doesn’t mat­ter either way, real­ly. What­ev­er you do is going to end up dust. An eth­i­cal nihilist, I guess, would be some­one who attempts to lim­it the entropy they add to a sys­tem, even though they know it’s a futile task.