Thursday, July 24, 2008

The Immutability of Vicissitudes, part 1

Life contains many unpleasant, disagreeable, and painful things.

The human question is, how do we deal with this constant unpleasantness in our lives?


The first solution we might conceive is almost trivial: when something is unpleasant or painful, you move away from it. This is a tried and true survival mechanism inherited from our primeval ancestors, a mechanism which we possess simply because organisms who historically responded to a certain class of sensations – viz., sensations which appeared threatening to the organisms' integrity – tended to survive more often than those who did not. (Or so the evolutionary story goes). Biologically speaking, this manifests as the "flight" half of the fight-or-flight response.

Being the complex, intelligent, reflective creatures that we are, we humans can recognize a general pattern behind the individual instances of pain and suffering that we encounter from moment to moment. That is, we start to conceive of suffering as a class of things, not just as a collection of unrelated particulars – just as with any abstraction from particulars to a universal. Further experience, observation, and cogitation yields the conclusion that suffering, considered as a whole, cannot be escaped by any of our standard evolutionarily-supplied abilities: you cannot outrun it, you cannot outmaneuver it, you cannot hide from it, you cannot climb into a tree where it cannot follow, you cannot take refuge in your family/herd/pack/tribe. In short, there is simply no place in the physical universe to which you can flee to escape The Suffering. While we can escape individual instances of suffering, we cannot run from Suffering in its entirety. We are cornered with our backs against the wall.

...Or Fight.

Well, since we cannot escape such a nebulous nemesis, what of our other most primitive response? Perhaps we can posture aggressively, puff out our chests, howl ferociously, and appear larger than The Suffering – perhaps we can scare it off, thus avoiding a potentially costly physical confrontation. But no, this foe cannot be frightened, and in fact we cannot even locate it tangibly in a concrete form! We cannot see it, we cannot touch it, we do not know of any way we could conceivably harm it. This means that our next best aggressive strategy – pummeling the enemy with a rock or fist until it submits, flees, or dies itself – is equally useless.


So much, then, for our basal instincts. Yet, being human, we have keener minds than most other animals; as such, we have also developed keener methods for dealing with problems beyond hitting or running from them. Notably, we are able to 1) communicate/negotiate, and 2) manipulate our environment in subtle ways to effect desired outcomes. As it turns out, the second method encompasses the first, since, from a cynical point of view, communication is nothing but manipulating one specific environment – namely, the social environment. After all, intelligent communication primarily developed in order to nonviolently resolve tensions between tribe members and to facilitate group efforts. Or so one must suppose.

So far as this relates to suffering, notice how I anthropomorphized it above, calling it "The Suffering" and treating it like an animal foe (even as I claimed to deny it corporality). In doing so, I behaved much like primitive peoples that personified natural forces in the form of deities and spirits in order to understand and exert some measure of control over them. This strategy is actually quite forgivable: to a species that had developed such massively complex social abilities, attempting to appease hostile forces through social means comes naturally. What do you do if you are a scrawny weakling when faced with a furious, ferocious, muscled, invincible fellow human? You try to defuse the situation any way you can while preserving your own health; often this takes the form of trying to imagine something your antagonist wants so that you might offer it to him/her as a distraction or appeasement.


We thrive in social hierarchies. Paying respect to our betters is a way of life for us, so much that we do it unthinkingly: think of the biggest wolf in the pack getting first dibs on a kill; think of a tribal chieftain accumulating wealth; think of royalty and aristocrats receiving taxes and deferential treatment; consider how celebrities today are revered by the masses; consider how the American President is addressed so formally and with such respect. Reflect on how (some) individuals behave around a venerated religious leader, or the way that you must defer to your boss at work. Even at a more personal level, think of how children are taught to obey their parents ("honor your father and mother"...), and think of your own social networks – isn't there always a subtle awareness about who the "top dog" or leader-figure is? He or she may lead because of any number of reasons, be it physical aptitude, intelligence, beauty or social dexterity; but this "leading" factor is nearly always present and noticeable, should you take the time to see it.

At some point in our history, we must have looked at ourselves – and our place in the world – and seen that there are no visible rulers or leaders above humanity. Nonetheless, mysterious and powerful forces directly impacted our lives, often incomprehensibly. Sometimes there were droughts or long winters. Sometimes there was illness and death. Sometimes there were wildfires, earthquakes, and other traumatic natural disasters – floods apparently left a particular mark on our species, judging by the many and varied ancient diluvian myths.

How did ancient humankind cope with all this confusing horror? By giving the mysterious and powerful forces human faces (figuratively, if not literally). Imagining natural forces under the control of sentient beings with thoughts, desires, and motivations like their own allowed primitive humankind to "understand" misfortunes ("The gods are punishing us because they are angry!") and, more importantly, to "bargain with" them ("Let us give the gods a gift to appease them.").

(Should we think it a chance that Prometheus is said to have stolen fire from the gods? No – for fire was at one point the sole property and providence of deities, just as, presumably, all other non-human forces must have been: lightning controlled by Zeus, harvest and fertility controlled by Demeter, etc., etc.)

It is almost tragically amusing: we offered things that we considered precious, valuable, or attractive (bright, shiny rocks; young virgins; cooked meats) to these celestial divinities. In a typically human fashion, we assumed that all other beings would have similar values as ourselves; or, perhaps, we treated subjective values as though they were objective properties of objects, leading us to conclude that all intelligent beings would agree with our tastes. Of course Yahweh would find the scent of burning animal-flesh sweet (Gen 8:20-21), just as humans do! Of course the "sons of God" would find the "daughters of men" attractive, and want to mate with them (Gen 6:1-4)! Human men find human women attractive, so why should not God's other creations find them attractive as well? (In a yet-more-typically-human fashion, we still do this today: see Mind Projection Fallacy and 2-Place and 1-Place Words). Above all, of course we would be created in God's own image, since it only makes sense that God would be like us, would think like us, feel like us (remember His fits of temper and jealousy in the Old Testament), etc.


Now, after that digressive historical exegesis, let us resume our inquiry into Suffering. I think by this point in the human saga, it is pretty obvious that attempting to negotiate with Suffering as though it were a sentient being is not going to fare any better than attempting to run from it or attempting to bash it. After all, prayer has a long, long history of being fantastically unreliable. Simply put, we have had much better success in changing the world when we learn to do so on its own terms (in accordance with its natural laws) rather than pleading with anthropomorphized forces. In spite of many claims by the religious, there remains no way to reliably effect change through divine aid. To put it succinctly, technology works a lot lot better than prayer under all verifiable circumstances, and it has done so ever since we first began bringing water to planted seeds rather than crossing our fingers and wishing for rain.

Let us abandon, then, all hope of attempting to reason with or appease Suffering as though it were a conscious entity.


Is technology our final hope? If it has been so wonderfully efficacious in the past, maybe we can dare to believe that Suffering as a whole could be outsmarted through a particularly clever manipulation of materials and energies, as enabled through the proper understanding of natural laws.

Transhumanists (Nick Bostrum, Ray Kurzweil, FM-2030 and the like) may believe something like this. They dream, after all, of conquering death, illness, and starvation. Yet surely these are not our only problems. Let us pretend that it is possible to thoroughly eliminate our physical woes. (Something like a heaven as promised by the Abrahamic religions, yet without God, and in our current world.) Yet, it seems that there would still be hordes upon hordes of other problems still in existence.

For would there not be jealousy and rivalry? Betrayal? Boredom? Ennui? Existential angst? Hatred? Wars? Cruelty? Rebellion? It seems fundamentally misguided to me to suppose that these problems would simply vanish if the playing field were leveled through technology. I do not think, then, that the transhumanist dream suits what I'm looking for here.

In the preceding discussion, I have attempted to cover the general methods through which we might deal with the problem of suffering externally. In the forthcoming follow up to this post, I shall consider what we have done (and what we can do) to deal with the problem internally, or psychologically.

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