When people talk about the problem of suffering, they usually mean this:
-) God is good.
-) God created the world.
-) There is suffering in the world.
-) Suffering is bad.
–) Problem! How can a good God create bad things?
Or something like that. To be frank, I find this question so misguided I find it difficult to even articulate it properly. But that’s the basic gist.
So when I talk about the problem of suffering… that is very much not what I’m talking about.
The problem of suffering, for me, arises from this question:
How do you make something that is capable of great joy?
It is an extremely tricky problem. Though, in the final reckoning, I’d prefer to think about it as a puzzle.
First issue: what I’ll call the pyramidical structure of reality.
To get something that’s very X, you need a lot of stuff that’s not as X as that, on which the first thing can stand.
Concretely: I’m made of stuff. Most of that stuff requires nuclear fusion. So, to get all the chemical components that constitute me, you need to have had a massive number of supernovas in the past, which spewed out a bunch of stuff, which clumped together into a planet, etc. etc.
So, at the simplest level, something capable of happiness as we know it necessitates a lot of other stuff to be able to exist.
So that puts a limit on things. Cus there’s a limited amount of stuff within our reach. So if I want to make something capable of more joy, I need more stuff to make it.
In practice, this is not something we actually need to worry about that much. There is currently still plenty of stuff to fulfil all of our immediate goals, over the next few seconds, minutes, and years. If we keep talking about the basic resource issue, it will just turn into a bunch of racists scared that all the black and brown and yellow people are taking up too much stardust, or a bunch of expansionist accelerationists who will jettison us off into outer space before we have any clear idea of what we’re doing.
So onto the bigger fish.
So let’s say you want to make a thing that exists in time and space and which is capable of joy. You might think to make a mind that just feels joy all the time.
However, if it just does this, it won’t be able to survive. If everything made it happy, then it wouldn’t try to keep itself alive. And thus, the structure of existence in time and space means that such a being wouldn’t live long enough to procreate, etc.
That’s why there’s suffering. So that the thing doesn’t allow other things to crush it, and is motivated to go out and do whatever is necessary to keep itself in existence.
You see the inevitability of it, right?
So we have a thing which is capable of joy and suffering. And we want it to feel more joy.
There are two basic ways to do that.
Let’s say eating a pie makes you happy.
So you go out and eat a pie.
You could be happier if you eat two pies. However, your digestive system can only fit one pie. So you can grow until your digestive system gets bigger and you can eat two pies.
OR you can make it so that you’re more sensitive. So that you have more taste receptors on your tongue, and a more intricate taste system in the brain.
You see how this second option is preferable. With the amount of resources you’d need to make your stomach twice as big, you could make your sense of taste a gazillion times more sensitive.
As with a pie, so with a movie. You can’t really watch two movies at once. So instead, you make your sense of taste more subtle, and move on from Saturday morning cartoons to arthouse films, or whatever.
As with ‘external’ things, like pies and movies, so with ‘internal’.
You can just sit there and deprive your senses of anything meaningful.
At that point, you start lighting up bits of your brain/mind that the organizational bit of your brain/mind has determined are not particularly relevant for your conscious mind to know about.
So you open yourself up to more and more of your own mental activity, slowly expanding the circle of your conscious awareness in the seemingly endless sea of your subconscious.
As with pies and movies, it seems you can keep doing this til the cows come home.
However. Here’s the problem. As you become more sensitive, and are able to perceive more and more in whichever direction you’re going (pie gourmet, cinephile, meditator)… then your sensitivity to pain increases as well.
And so, in the bid to feel more joy, you come across the problem of suffering.
At that point, there are three options, which I’ll list from the most resource-intensive to the least:
-) You do something to change the situation that’s causing you pain.
-) You change your way of thinking about the situation, so that it stops causing you pain.
-) You distract yourself by directing your attention somewhere else.
Wisdom is the judicious and timely mix of these three strategies.
So that basically covers the problem of suffering on an individual level.
You’re in pain.
You have limited resources.
So you start with option 3: you attempt to distract yourself.
If that works, then great.
If it doesn’t, then you try one of the other two strategies until you diminish the pain to a manageable level. Then you go about expanding so that you can feel more joy.
Eventually, you hit on a point of major pain.
This explains the normal course of life.
You expand your body until you can’t really expand anymore. (Youth.)
And at that point, you turn your attention to refining your taste, so that you can perceive your object of interest with increasing levels of subtlety. (Old age.)
The transition between these two major strategies is often an awkward one, because it involves confronting your limitations, which is necessarily painful. But if you’re smart and honest enough, you come round to it.
Long story short:
There is no end to suffering save death.
There is just increasingly subtle awareness in various directions.
Now, onto the bigger problem: the suffering of the world.
Let’s think of Life on Earth as one big whole. It extends in time, from 4.6 billion years ago to some indefinite point in the future. And it extends in space, from me to you to all the trees, etc.
Point 1: Multiplicity
The nature of the universe, a.k.a. the “landscape” of reality, a.k.a. evolutionary pressure meant that life split itself up into different bits.
It’s just statistics. Unless you know exactly what you’re doing, then it’s better to just throw stuff at the wall until some of it sticks. And so these early life forms divided themselves into a bunch of different versions of themselves, etc.
Point 2: Awareness
So with a lot of splitting up into different paths, life eventually hit upon awareness.
That is: a creature composed of a lot of different bits, some of which (the nervous system, brain) serve to monitor and redirect the other bits, and eventually get information about the external world through sense organs (light-sensitive patches, etc.).
If the circumstances permit this to emerge, then this is a very good strategy, pretty much by definition: a creature with the capability to move itself around and navigate its environment will be better able to do its thing than one which just floats around randomly waiting for food to plop into it.
Eventually, individual bits of life on earth will expand their awareness until they realize they are one part of life on earth.
Point 3: Intelligence
Eventually, life hits upon the kind of logic I was explaining above. Limited resources out there, limited power in here: so I guess I’d better become more efficient.
You see why this has to happen, right? Because otherwise, it goes extinct.
If it is unable to evolve sufficient intelligence to begin becoming more efficient, then inefficient strategies will predominate, and it will eventually run out of resources.
So any self-replicating system which survives long enough necessarily becomes intelligent.
Point 4: Compassion
OK. Here’s the big one.
Remember point 1? Statistically, by far the most likely way a system is going to go is toward multiplicity. So there are many different forms of life.
And what happens if one strand of life becomes very aware, very intelligent, but does not feel a sense of belonging and oneness with the rest of life on Earth?
It becomes a cancer, and the body of life on earth consumes itself.
So any self-replicating system, as bits of it become aware and intelligent, necessarily becomes compassionate. Otherwise, it burns out.
I’m gonna switch tack here for a second, and start to speak a bit more emotively.
Life adopts a scattergun approach (1). That means that individual organisms vary in their capacities for broad awareness (2), intelligence (3), and compassion (4).
What does that mean?
Some of them come to this understanding earlier than others.
All of a sudden, a monkey wakes up one day, looks around, and is like:
“Fuck. Everyone else is just running around trying to solve their suffering by stuffing their faces and procreating and mindlessly expanding and expanding and…….and if this keeps going, then eventually, literally everything is going to die.”
And so it goes:
“screech, screech, screech, screech!“, and tries to stop the other monkeys from running around like headless chickens.
But remember: multiplicity, therefore variation in awareness, intelligence, compassion. The more stupid and selfish the monkeys are, the less well they’ll be able to take on board what the more aware, intelligent, and compassionate monkey will be saying.
And so it gets excluded, and doesn’t reproduce.
So life on earth tries again.
You see where this is going.
It keeps making its monkeys more aware, more intelligent, more compassionate. And, most crucially, it has to make them better at communicating. It just has to. Otherwise, it’s lights out.
So eventually you get monkeys who are able to talk, and say:
“Hey. Guys. Look. Slow down. Accept the fact you’re going to die. It’s OK. Down deep inside, what you really want is for things to go well in the future. So calm down, stop rushing about, live sustainably, and then the next generation will be in a better spot than the previous one.”
And so these talking monkeys get crucified, martyrized, marginalized.
Sometimes, it gets so bad that the only thing these monkeys can do is go off somewhere and just sit there and wait until evolution can take its course. Ten years later, the monkey comes back calmer and more intelligent, because it has spent a decade chilling out and thinking things through. And the monkeys that were little children are now able to move around and talk, and they are more aware and more intelligent and more compassionate than their parents, by and large. And so the nice, smart monkey starts talking to them, and getting them to act for the benefit of the greater whole.
Again and again and again and again, until life on earth goes extinct, or settles on a sustainable course.
Alright. So what’s going on right now?
The whole of humanity, for the first time, is experiencing exactly the same thing at exactly the same time.
The slightly dumber humans are freaking out and doubling down on the more inefficient strategies for survival.
All the other ones are trying to evolve fast enough that they can get to the point where they can actually explain to the former group that they gotta chill out and stop freaking out or else God really will send the fucking plagues and the floods and the whole shebang.
And the key point to tell this second group of monkeys is to relax individually.
The main reason you are so anxious and depressed all the time is because you are a bit of nature that has a very highly developed nervous system which exists to model the world and make sense of it, etc.
And it has developed to the point where it is now aware of the problems facing the whole of the system of which it is part.
Which means that a large portion of its brain is dedicated to going “aaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh we’re all gonna diiiiiieeeeee!”
And that is like a skin cell suddenly coming into awareness of the fact the body it’s a part of is currently being stalked by a tiger.
So, first point: relax.
Remember: you’re a single cell. You don’t actually have to do anything about it. I’m serious. There are lots and lots of other cells, all going through the same thing, all trying to fix the problem.
Look around yourself. Observe the people around you. Every now and again, take a look at the systems of mass communication. See how much more often things like “mindfulness”, “therapy”, “self-care”, etc. etc. are cropping up. See how even Silicon Valley is getting all gung-ho about such socialist policies as universal basic income. The system is slowly calibrating itself. There are massive pockets of resistance, sure — but they will be eroded.
It’s all already happening.
Second point: you will eventually get up and start moving around and doing things. That’s inevitable. So whatever you happen to be doing then, just be aware of what’s going on, apply a bit of intelligence to the situation, and be kind.
There really is no need to put that much more thought into it.
Remember I said above that a thing will continue expanding until it comes across enough pain that it needs to stop and fix it?
I’m trying not to think about this too much because it makes my head spin. But I think that we won’t need much bioengineering or cybernetics to spur on human evolution. All we have to do is give the next generation less to worry about.
Think of it this way. A child comes into the world. It listens and learns language. And it asks you what’s going on.
And imagine you can tell it:
“Everything is fine. There are some people having some problems, but they are all being helped by other people. So you don’t have to worry about a thing.
Here’s the deal. Accept the fact you are eventually going to die. So long as you accept that, then you can do whatever you want with the rest of your life and no one’s going to give you much trouble. If you want to be immortal, you’ll eventually have to fight other things for room. So go out there and enjoy yourself.”
I reckon that, if we could meet kids raised in such an environment, they would seem superhuman to us. Without the awareness of all the world’s problems weighing them down, I reckon their brains would go pretty far out pretty fucking quick.
OK. That’s it. That’s the first draft of my final thoughts on suffering.
Like everyone else, I only started seriously thinking about it when my own suffering got too much for me to bear, in my mid-twenties. Back then, I basically thought what I do now. But I’ve kept pushing, kept pushing, kept trying to falsify my basic ideas, because something got it into my head that there might actually be some other solutions.
And I’m done. Maybe there’s something else to be found here, but if that’s the case, then I’m not going to be the one to do it. I quit. Like everything else, suffering is a black hole — so long as you keep looking for it, you’ll keep finding it. And I’ve driven myself to the brink of madness doing it.
So from now on, I want to focus on joy.