Serious Stories is an article that tackles some questions relating to the necessity of great or small suffering, or of any suffering at all. The article and its comments figure on Overcoming Bias, a blog sponsored by the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford. Inasmuch as the blog is about how to “obtain beliefs closer to reality”, it would be advantageous for people there to deal with suffering in the light of algonomy, wouldn’t it?
2009 January 21
2008 January 17
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”.
(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.)
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
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
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.
2007 October 28
Jean Ziegler, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, is “gravely concerned to report to the Human Rights Council that global levels of hunger continue to rise. The number of people suffering from hunger has increased to 854 million people and has been rising every year since 1996. Virtually no progress has been made in reducing hunger, despite the commitments made by Governments in 1996 at the first World Food Summit and again at the Millennium Summit in 2000.”
This is bad old news. Why don’t we eradicate at least those extreme sufferings that we can eradicate? I think we would, if at least we had a plan saying who is we, what is suffering, what are extreme sufferings, and what are extreme sufferings that we can eradicate. Such a plan could only be the result of an algonomic endeavor.
2007 October 12
Some people die peacefully, some even gracefully. But usually death comes with suffering, and they represent together the most dreadful couple of all. Those who are concerned with the private and collective management of suffering will find relevant matters to ponder in the following two very ‘graphic’ texts.
One describes the process of dying from illness. It is on the website of Canadian Virtual Hospice:
When Death Is Near
The other explains various ways of dying from trauma. It is in issue 2625 of New Scientist magazine, 13 October 2007, page 53-57:
Death special: How does it feel to die?
2007 September 5
Poems from Guantanamo: The Detainees Speak, edited by Ariel Dorfman, Marc Falkoff, and Flagg Miller, University Of Iowa Press, 2007.
Take my blood.
Take my death shroud and
The remnants of my body.
Take photographs of my corpse at the grave, lonely.
Send them to the world,
To the judges and
To the people of conscience,
Send them to the principled men and the fair-minded.
And let them bear the guilty burden, before the world,
Of this innocent soul.
Let them bear the burden, before their children and before history,
Of this wasted, sinless soul,
Of this soul which has suffered at the hands of the “protectors of peace.”
2007 August 24
Suffering from thirst in Egypt: “Five out of 26 governorates are currently suffering from thirst. For the first time in the history of Egypt people have taken to the streets to ask for water and have protested in front of the state’s main directorates.”
Suffering acquires new face in India: “As the landlords of eastern UP begin to reap the harvest of their fields, little boys and girls hunt for whatever they can find to eat. Till a few years ago their parents had farmed this land. Today agricultural labour, which makes up nearly 60 per cent of this region’s population, is being increasingly replaced by machines. (…) Kushinagar is where the Buddha passed away. At this site on the northern banks of the Ganga associated with him for two and a half thousand years, suffering acquires a new face.”
2007 August 18
From a 2003 report by Clive Hamilton, titled Overconsumption in Britain:
“It has sometimes been observed that, no matter how wealthy people are, they believe they need more money to be happy. A BMRB Access survey conducted for this study reveals that 61 per cent of Britons believe that they cannot afford to buy everything they really need. When we consider that the United Kingdom is one of the world’s richest countries, and that Britons today have incomes nearly three times higher than in 1950, it is remarkable that such a high proportion feel their incomes are inadequate. It is even more remarkable that almost half (46 per cent) of the richest group of households in Britain (with incomes over £35,000 a year) say they cannot afford to buy everything they really need (see Figure S1). Even amongst those with incomes in excess of £50,000, 40 per cent believe that they cannot afford everything they really need. The proportion of ‘suffering rich’ in Britain appears to be even higher than in the USA, widely regarded as the nation most obsessed with money.”
(Thanks to the blog make wealth history for its inspiring post on this subject)