Monday, April 12, 2010

Aphorisms on Suffering

Suffering is to experience something that one does not want to experience.

Distress at a physical injury, disease, aches and pains, is suffering.

To want to get out of a circumstance is suffering. To want something and not be able to get it is suffering.

Suffering can be experienced as bodily pain, a cognitive disapproval of a situation, or as an affective/chemical response in the brain.

It is easy to comprehend that bodily pain is essential to avoid fatal harm to the body. Pain is body's way of seeking attention.

It is also easy to comprehend that cognitive disapproval is impossible to avoid as long as one is a discriminating individual. To have values and judgments is to inevitably approve and disapprove. You may say that you don't judge, but you do. Without choosing, life cannot sustain itself. Nourishment is born of choice.

A crude form of valuation and judging to propel behavior is also built-in into our affective pathways. To hear one's child crying, a mother feels distressed and that distress is an affective push for her to do something. All affective pain has evolutionary origins as providing a survival advantage for the genes.

Given the rapid advances in thought and applied thought, many think that affective responses are obsolete and even counter-productive in certain situations. Probably.

There is a fringe which thinks that it is obsolete and counter-productive in all situations. That is possible, if you are on welfare. More ahead.

Is it possible to completely do away with affective pain and live only with physical pain and cognitive discrimination as our tools? What is distinctive about affective pain that one is willing to accept the other two forms of suffering, but not this?

Is there a distinction?

Cognitive discrimination is impossible to avoid. Death is inevitable otherwise. Those who say that they do not judge and accept everything are liars.

Physical pain is impossible to avoid as well. You cannot control the transmission of bodily distress signals except by usage of analgesics or anesthetics.

However, affective pain is a choice in many cases. For example, the feeling of guilt is a choice that one can avoid if one gives up the force of conscience. The feeling of missing one's loved one is a choice that one can avoid if one does not love in the first place. It may be possible to cultivate the neo-cortex so much that some affective pathways wither away. It is quite common on Wall Street.

Affective response is also crude in nature. Its effects outlast the event, and they are sometimes far more than what the event required.

To not get overwhelmed by, or not have some kinds of, affective responses is what is considered maturity, modernity, literacy, etc. The progress of man is the obsolescence of certain affective responses. If you see a potential rapist coming towards you, do not get agitated and scream, just go into a store and dial 9-1-1. If your kid is crying due to loud noises upstairs, do not get distressed, you know (your doctor has told you) that it is normal.

Affective responses are a survival strategy for the genes. To want to be rid of affective suffering is a desire for more cognitive control. For more autonomy, rationality, choice, knowledge, structure, formalism...

As it becomes safer and possible to be more and more rational, many affective reactions will naturally go extinct. As an example, dread is pretty uncommon in a normal, healthy human being in an urban setting. Pining for one's mother is becoming quite rare in certain areas of Manhattan.

The reason pure rationality does not always work everywhere (it leads to dysfunction if taken to an extreme) is because the neo-cortex, and the institutional support, is not yet advanced enough to handle all the challenges effectively and still allow the carrying human being to thrive. As long as an irrational man can make more money in the stock market and lands more women than a completely rational man, the completely rational man may be happy, but his genes are at a disadvantage and his happiness is therefore written on sand. The men who thrive best are those who are able to use their passions (fears, desires) to drive them towards their ends with their rationality helping them as the means.

Even memetic propagation is driven best by ideological or religious fervor.

A man who rejects the whole of passionate/biological push/pull mechanism may have better brain states moment to moment, but is doomed genetically and ideologically.

Suffering is an evolutionary trait of humanity. It serves a purpose. It has a history. It drives people towards useful genetic goals. It is a form of intelligence (though a crude one). As long as suffering is needed, it will be there. When suffering becomes genetically counter-productive, you won't need evangelists to preach happiness.

Aldous Huxley said: "The ends are ape-chosen, only the means are man's." He was right, of course. The problem is if you ideologically disapprove of this state of affairs. That is, if you think of the "ape-chosen ends" as somehow "lesser" ends than some other ends. It is another matter that quite a few people are disapproving of the man's means as well. "Don't be an animal, don't be an intellectual."

All self-help (including spirituality) aims at the reduction and possible ending of affective suffering. In that state of sociobiological disadvantage and dysfunction, you can either have people take care of you (fans or disciples or acolytes), or be in a welfare economy (others pay for you), or live off your earnings made as an ape, or die. If you are enlightened, or otherwise consider yourself as higher than an ape, you know what tricks you pull off to get by.

Suffering is not the nightmare that you think it is. It is understandably glitzy to pursue the famed end of suffering ("Glory!") at the risk of dysfunction ("the real world sucks anyway"), but consider, pause, take a deep breath. If you are truly honest, you will reject everything in your journey. But then, what will you live for?

Do not reject your suffering, for in the absence of ape's ends (which include selfishness and altruism both), and which ends cause you to desire and suffer, you have no ends. None. Let that sink in.

The desire to be completely rid of suffering is a death-wish.

The corollary is, of course, that if you are claiming to be completely free from suffering, and are still living, you are supremely deluded.

19 comments:

Modern Man said...

Greetings Harman,

Ouch! What a well-argued blow to Actualism.

These conclusions, however, leave very little room for the pursuits of men who have seen through the "ape-chosen ends." This is no fault of your argument, of course, but simply points to THE moral dilemma of our times. It's one thing to decide not to reproduce, but it's quite another to go on living without resorting to suicide.

-MM

srid said...

There is much fun in dissecting 'aphorisms' down to the details.

HARMAN: A man who rejects the whole of passionate/biological push/pull mechanism may have better brain states moment to moment, but is doomed genetically and ideologically.

I have often considered this position ('doomed genetically'), and but not yet fully convinced in its facticity. As you may well know, according to the theory of memetics, a new form of cultural evolution is shaping up the general course of human evolution.

The proliferation of spiritualism (that has failed to bring peace on earth) - contrary to the biological goals of reproduction and propagation of genes - is just one example of it. If there ever was a biological basis to spiritual memes, I would be willing to hear an explanation for it.

HARMAN: The desire to be completely rid of suffering is a death-wish.

As this death is the possible extinction of one's genes down the evolutionary line as opposed to an "unconscious desire for one's own physical death," the question is - why would anyone care more about one's genetic success than peace and harmony for oneself and their fellow human beings in this lifetime (except through the indirect means of desire, power, lust, competitiveness)? As I can think of no reasons, I am rather baffled at your advocacy against the completely riddance of suffering.

HARMAN: [...] if you are claiming to be completely free from suffering, and are still living, you are supremely deluded.

Your confidence in 'suffering cannot be ended' seems to be fully matured now.

(a month ago)
JACK: Do you no still consider
it viable to be entirely free from
your own malice, sorrow, fear,
etc?
HARMAN: Viable as in
possible? It may be possible.

-srid

Harmanjit Singh said...

@srid

The proliferation of spiritualism (that has failed to bring peace on earth) - contrary to the biological goals of reproduction and propagation of genes - is just one example of it. If there ever was a biological basis to spiritual memes, I would be willing to hear an explanation for it.

Spiritual memes give an obvious advantage, in that they provide a comforting meaning to life, and may help people to bond better with each other. Do also note that spirituality is driven with fervor. A fervorless ideology like actualism has attracted only 10 or so people in 20 years. I don't need to say more. The absence of the drive to have kids and the absence (professed at least) of the drive to proselytize is what puts actualism at a disadvantage.

As this death is the possible extinction of one's genes down the evolutionary line as opposed to an "unconscious desire for one's own physical death," the question is - why would anyone care more about one's genetic success than peace and harmony for oneself and their fellow human beings in this lifetime (except through the indirect means of desire, power, lust, competitiveness)?

I don't have to answer you. 6 billion people are already doing that. They are choosing genetic and memetic goals over the "peace and happiness" of not following such goals.

Humanity, like any other species, is programmed for genetic success. You can try to oppose that program. Suicide is the quickest way. Vasectomy is another. Celibacy is still another. Etc.

And this death wish (no suffering) is not just for some future genes, that too. But if you don't want to suffer and are honest about rejecting everything, all beliefs, passions, and drives, you have nothing to live for. The question is: why are you making efforts to earn your living if you are not attached to living? Surviving is an instinctual passion. Reject that, and you die. It is reasonably easy to delude oneself that one is not "driven to survive" if one doesn't have to compete against others for one's living, as I hinted at in my article.

Your confidence in 'suffering cannot be ended' seems to be fully matured now.

It can be ended. The result is dysfunction when achieved to a reasonable extent, and in its full case, death.

Ruchi said...

Suffering is to experience something that one does not want to experience.
Then acceptance of the present regardless of how gross it is would do away with suffering. The need to "want" your circumstances to be in a certain way is eliminated. Here, I do not mean that the self is not striving towards the future it wants but only that the attachment to the outcome of its efforts does not exist in the present. It is an idealistic view and I have no proof of whether this is possible except stories about great saints like Buddha. The tricky part is that positive outcomes motivate us to move ahead towards our goals whereas acceptance of our failures keep us going in case of negative outcomes. I believe then it is up to our own will how much suffering we want to experience, especially in case of cognitive responses.

Pain is body's way of seeking attention.

But the response to pain is entirely in our hands. I feel most of us behave in a "conditioned" or "expected" manner for various reasons. Even our responses to most kinds of pain are aimed at acceptance in society, coming again to the points of afflictions of the modern man and herd following.

"However, affective pain is a choice in many cases. For example,...It is quite common on Wall Street."
"To not get overwhelmed by, or not have some kinds of, ... you know (your doctor has told you) that it is normal."


Wouldn't these be cases of recognising we have a choice to create our own response rather than of numbing our brain? You've already stated "Without choosing, life cannot sustain itself. Nourishment is born of choice." A simple example is that when faced with another persons wrath we have a choice to be angry ourselves in turn or to step back and/or remain calm. We needn't behave like the Neanderthal man and strike out on feeling threatened.

"As it becomes safer and possible to be more and more rational...Pining for one's mother is becoming quite rare in certain areas of Manhattan."

I'd deem it as part of evolution. It's happening naturally worldwide as a collective human response to modern circumstances. I agree wholly with your argument following this. "Suffering is an evolutionary trait of humanity....evangelists to preach happiness."

"The desire to be completely rid of suffering is a death-wish."

Or an end of self? I'm guessing here the connotation of death is not as something evil but factual.

On the whole well said. This is in accordance with what Nietzsche has said
"Man, as the animal that is most courageous, most accustomed to suffering, does not negate suffering as such: he wants it, even seeks it out, provided one shows him some meaning in it, some wherefore of suffering."

I'm not sure whether I agree with this thought of his “The greater the suffering, the greater the life.” Your thoughts please?

Harmanjit Singh said...

@ruchi

I'm not sure whether I agree with this thought of his “The greater the suffering, the greater the life.” Your thoughts please?

I am not too sure. I can certainly say the more aware a person, the less available to him are the usual comforts and consolations.

Whether that lack of comfort is thereby a "greater" form of living, is a value judgment, which has to then explain what is the yardstick of greatness.

If the yardstick of greatness is to be content in the here and now, then a higher level of awareness of the tycoon is distinctly less great than the greatness of the eponymous fisherman in the parable about lounging under the tree after fishing for the day. Though the tycoon is more aware of what goes on in the world and worries about the future, the fisherman is in the here-and-now and though he may starve in the face of future adversity, the tycoon, being aware of time, worries about adversity all the time.

Anonymous said...

Harman: "Though the tycoon is more aware of what goes on in the world and worries about the future, the fisherman is in the here-and-now and though he may starve in the face of future adversity, the tycoon, being aware of time, worries about adversity all the time."

What do you think the result would be if the fisherman was a tycoon earlier?

Harmanjit Singh said...

@Anonymous

What do you think the result would be if the fisherman was a tycoon earlier?

Can you elaborate?

Anonymous said...

//What do you think the result would be if the fisherman was a tycoon earlier?

Can you elaborate?//

I said the above in response to your response to Ruchi viz:

"I am not too sure. I can certainly say the more aware a person, the less available to him are the usual comforts and consolations.

Whether that lack of comfort is thereby a "greater" form of living, is a value judgment, which has to then explain what is the yardstick of greatness.

If the yardstick of greatness is to be content in the here and now, then a higher level of awareness of the tycoon is distinctly less great than the greatness of the eponymous fisherman in the parable about lounging under the tree after fishing for the day. Though the tycoon is more aware of what goes on in the world and worries about the future, the fisherman is in the here-and-now and though he may starve in the face of future adversity, the tycoon, being aware of time, worries about adversity all the time."

Harmanjit Singh said...

@anonymous:

If he was a tycoon earlier and is now a fisherman, and is enjoying being in the here-and-now without a thought for tomorrow... Hmm...

A few people do that, they get sick of the constant worry and anxiety and return to a simpler lifestyle. But most of them (in my circle) have substantial savings before they embark on this change (or they have career capital: they have good credentials which can guarantee a job if the here-and-now-living doesn't work out). That is then akin to retirement. The world is too much for them. Others thrive in stress and ambiguity, and are called leaders.

Anonymous said...

"If he was a tycoon earlier and is now a fisherman, and is enjoying being in the here-and-now without a thought for tomorrow... Hmm...
................
That is then akin to retirement. The world is too much for them. Others thrive in stress and ambiguity, and are called leaders."

The question is, is there suffering for the tycoon-turned-fisherman? Would he want to be a leader? Would he suffer if someone tells him that he can be a "leader"? Does the label "leader" hold any significance for him?

Harmanjit Singh said...

The question is, is there suffering for the tycoon-turned-fisherman?

Much less than others, since he is living a life with less expectations, less effort, less attachment, and hence less results. However, if he was earlier a tycoon, most probably, very soon he will be bored. No anxiety, but no stimulation as well.

Try going to a hill station, or a beach, and see how long the novelty and romance with nature lasts. :-)

Would he want to be a leader?

Most probably not.

Would he suffer if someone tells him that he can be a "leader"? Does the label "leader" hold any significance for him?

Most probably not. He is in his own world now.

Harmanjit Singh said...

An elaboration on the earlier comment: The suffering of boredom and apathy is of a different kind than the suffering of stress and anxiety, but it is suffering nevertheless.

Consider this: for an intellectual (like yourself) the path of stress and anxiety is distasteful, whereas the life of "doing nothing, don't worry be happy" is distasteful to a lot many others. They seek goals and achievements, with ups and downs, you (probably, and me for a large part of my life) seek peace and "leave me alone".

Anonymous said...

//Much less than others, since he is living a life with less expectations, less effort, less attachment, and hence less results. However, if he was earlier a tycoon, most probably, very soon he will be bored. No anxiety, but no stimulation as well.

Try going to a hill station, or a beach, and see how long the novelty and romance with nature lasts. :-)//

Then that tycoon can always go back to his ways until the time he again wants to be a fisherman, to swing back and forth like a pendulum until it settles down at the middle.

Harmanjit Singh said...

until it settles down at the middle.

Life in the city, vacations in the hills! Sounds suspiciously close to normal life. Eh? Haha.

There was a poem by a great poet which expressed this sentiment: that at the end of our journey we will realize that we have come full circle to the start. Do you know of it?

Anonymous said...

With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

T.S. Eliot

I tasted the sweetness of this poem when I circumnavigated the world for the first time.

Modern Man said...

Harman,

You wrote: "Consider this: for an intellectual (like yourself) the path of stress and anxiety is distasteful, whereas the life of "doing nothing, don't worry be happy" is distasteful to a lot many others."

Doesn't the authentic intellectual reject both paths, though? He finds the incessant striving of the tycoon to be absurd, and sneers at the "don't worry, be happy" attitude of the leisure class. Is there an alternate path that is both satisfying and engaged?

-MM

Harmanjit Singh said...

@MM

Doesn't the authentic intellectual reject both paths, though? He finds the incessant striving of the tycoon to be absurd, and sneers at the "don't worry, be happy" attitude of the leisure class. Is there an alternate path that is both satisfying and engaged?

He understands both, and sees the tragedy of both. Sneering is possible if one has a solution, if one is left only with the problem, there is compassion.

He knows there is no path to a non-existent salvation, and I guess this would lead to a compassionate understanding of people who are comforting themselves with delusions.

Of course he can neither commit to a life of worry (though he may worry, like normal people), nor can he immerse himself in distraction and sensuality (though he may try).

His consciousness is like a life jacket, tied around his neck, always bobbing his head above water despite his best efforts to drown himself.

Modern Man said...

Harman,

Good point about sneering.

You wrote: "His consciousness is like a life jacket, tied around his neck, always bobbing his head above water despite his best efforts to drown himself."

Excellent analogy. I'll remember that one. :)

-MM

Anonymous said...

//He understands both, and sees the tragedy of both. Sneering is possible if one has a solution, if one is left only with the problem, there is compassion.

He knows there is no path to a non-existent salvation, and I guess this would lead to a compassionate understanding of people who are comforting themselves with delusions.

Of course he can neither commit to a life of worry (though he may worry, like normal people), nor can he immerse himself in distraction and sensuality (though he may try). //

He wobbles between the two states of life of worrying and immersing himself in distraction and sensuality. But after he arrives at the place he started, there is lesser force pushing/pulling him to move towards the other state. With each successive phase, the force keeps getting less and less and he then settles down like a pendulum in the middle.

He is compassionate to some people (not all, for he may try that few might also understand emptiness) and takes a lot of their problems and makes them go away in the black hole of emptiness. This makes their lives better subjectively but has no effect whatsoever for him.