Everything on the Topic of Suffering

2008 January 17

Responding to the constantly neglected all-important issue

Filed under: Uncategorized — robertdaoust @ 7:17 pm

I’d like to tell something to Thomas Metzinger and to Randolph Nesse.

Thomas wrote the following in his response to Nicholas Humphrey at the Edge’s Reality Club:

Flowery placebo or not, the merit of Nick’s contribution lies in drawing attention to a truly deep, highly relevant and constantly neglected issue. It is not at all clear if the biological form of consciousness, as so far brought about by evolution on our planet, is a desirable form of experience, an actual good in itself. Let me further provoke Nick by playing the Gloomy German here.

The theoretical blind spot of current philosophy of mind is the issue of conscious suffering: thousands of pages are being written about color qualia or the contents of thought, but almost no theoretical work is devoted to ubiquitous phenomenal states like physical pain or simple everyday sadness (“subclinical depression”), or to the phenomenal content associated with panic, despair and melancholy — let alone to the conscious experience of mortality or of losing one’s dignity. There may be deeper evolutionary reasons behind this cognitive scotoma, but I am not going to pursue this point here (didn’t Jaron Lanier talk of “death-denial” some years ago?)

The ethical/normative issue is of greater relevance. If one dares to take a closer look at the actual phenomenology of biological systems on our planet, the many different kinds of conscious suffering are at least as dominant a feature as are color vision or conscious thought, both of which appeared only very recently. Evolution is not something to be glorified. One way — out of countless others — to look at biological evolution on our planet is as a process that has created an expanding ocean of suffering and confusion where there previously was none. As not only the simple number of individual conscious subjects, but also the dimensionality of their phenomenal state-spaces is continuously increasing, this ocean is also deepening. For me, this is also a strong argument against creating artificial consciousness: we shouldn’t add to this terrible mess before we have truly understood what actually is going on here. I admit that there exists unfathomable beauty in phenomenal experience.

I would like to tell Thomas that algonomy is perhaps the only appropriate response for taking care at last of “a truly deep, highly relevant and constantly neglected issue”, “The theoretical blind spot of current philosophy of mind”, “this cognitive scotoma”, “The ethical/normative issue (…) of greater relevance”, “a process that has created an expanding ocean of suffering and confusion where there previously was none”, “this terrible mess”.  

Algonomy appears indispensable as well for answering Randolph’s question at the 2002 Edge’s World Question Center: “Why is life so full of suffering?”.

(The following is added on 2008-01-19. — It would be interesting to look at all contributions on www.edge.org from an algonomic viewpoint. Most contributions there are oriented toward ‘betterment’, and while not all betterment has to do with suffering, I think that suffering is ‘the’ primary concern which is invoked, more or less overtly, for justifying a whole lot of ideas or policies. An algonomic analysis could reveal that the issue of suffering is indeed important, prevalent, and … utterley neglected as an issue in, for, by itself.)

Power and suffering

Filed under: Uncategorized — robertdaoust @ 2:02 pm

From Orwell’s 1984:

(…) ” How does one man assert his power over another, Winston ? ”

Winston thought. ” By making him suffer “, he said.

” Exactly. By making him suffer. Obedience is not enough. Unless he is suffering, how can you be sure that he is obeying your will and not his own ? Power is in inflicting pain and humiliation. Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing. (…) “

2008 January 16

When suffering is to be had rather than avoided.

Filed under: Uncategorized — robertdaoust @ 2:49 pm

Here is a good litttle article: Suffering’s end. Jeremy Mallett wants to “explore new ways to think about suffering”. For instance, he says: “Although an overwhelming majority of mankind, past, present and future think of suffering as an evil to be avoided at all costs, there are a few people that come to mind who think the exact opposite.”

2008 January 14

Suffering and the new science of the moral sense

Filed under: Uncategorized — robertdaoust @ 10:47 pm

Quotations in italics below are from The Moral Instinct, an article by Steven Pinker in the New-York Times of January 13 2008.

Which of the following people would you say is the most admirable: Mother Teresa, Bill Gates or Norman Borlaug? (…) Borlaug, father of the “Green Revolution” that used agricultural science to reduce world hunger, has been credited with saving a billion lives, more than anyone else in history. Gates, in deciding what to do with his fortune, crunched the numbers and determined that he could alleviate the most misery by fighting everyday scourges in the developing world like malaria, diarrhea and parasites. Mother Teresa, for her part, extolled the virtue of suffering and ran her well-financed missions accordingly: their sick patrons were offered plenty of prayer but harsh conditions, few analgesics and dangerously primitive medical care.


(…) our heads can be turned by an aura of sanctity, distracting us from a more objective reckoning of the actions that make people suffer or flourish.

Well, we might wonder endlessly whether Borlaug has made more bad than good by contributing to an overpopulation that could precipitate an end of our world that would bring us back again to slow painful Darwinian evolution for millions of years… Some critics have also questioned the wisdom of Gates’ solutions… As far as we can tell for sure, you who are reading could as well be the savior of the world just because you moved your chair an inch closer to the screen. But let us remain probabilistically sensible, and let us receive gratefully the author’s thesis.  

What strikes me in this article, to my delight, is that Pinker seems to speak of suffering as the ultimate yardstick to judge whether something is moral or not. For instance:

A disrespect for morality is blamed for everyday sins and history’s worst atrocities.

On the other hand,

(…) people feel that those who commit immoral acts deserve to be punished. Not only is it allowable to inflict pain on a person who has broken a moral rule; it is wrong not to, to ‘let them get away with it.’ People are thus untroubled in inviting divine retribution or the power of the state to harm other people they deem immoral. Bertrand Russell wrote, “The infliction of cruelty with a good conscience is a delight to moralists — that is why they invented hell.”

As a conclusion, with which I concur wholeheartedly:

Our habit of moralizing problems, merging them with intuitions of purity and contamination, and resting content when we feel the right feelings, can get in the way of doing the right thing. Far from debunking morality, then, the science of the moral sense can advance it, by allowing us to see through the illusions that evolution and culture have saddled us with and to focus on goals we can share and defend. As Anton Chekhov wrote, “Man will become better when you show him what he is like.”

I’d like to add that if it is true that

The human moral sense turns out to be an organ of considerable complexity, with quirks that reflect its evolutionary history and its neurobiological foundations. These quirks are bound to have implications for the human predicament.

then how much more important is an approach like that of algonomy which addresses directly the ultimate core of all predicaments and the touchstone of morality, that is to say suffering itself.

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