I’ve been writing a lot about AI alignment lately, so let’s take a break from that to talk about a lighter subject: suffering.

Suppose you contract the rare and as yet untreatable disease boneitis. The doctors estimate you have one year to live. In response you might spend the last year of your life living it up, pour all your efforts into finding a cure, or become so depressed that you end your own life before boneitis can. Whatever course of action you might take, we can measure it along a dimension ordering your potential responses from least to most trying to affect change in the world, ranging from totally accepting and abiding the disease to totally rejecting it and working to prevent it from killing you. Let’s call this the accept-reject measure. Where do you think, given things I have written, I would personally advise you to fall along this dimension?

I ask because several people have expressed to me a belief that I would take an accept-only strategy in this and similar scenarios, and this is a dangerous misunderstanding of my thinking to the extent that others may model their actions on my writing. Certainly I think most people would benefit by their own standards to abide more and try to change the world less, but how I see this working is perhaps even more important than that I see it, because naively applied a move in this direction encourages quietism, deathism, and general tolerance of suffering. And the key to how I see more abiding helping is through more abiding only intractable pain so we can transform it from suffering into a neutral or even positive experience.

The Phenomenological Origin of Suffering

We start by asking, “what is suffering?”. Or, more tractably, “why do I suffer?”. We approach this phenomenologically via a reduction of suffering, and to do that we need first to identify the intentional relationship under consideration, but we run into a problem right away because in English we say “I suffer”, making the object of experience unclear. Thus before our reduction even begins we find ourselves challenged to understand what it looks like to suffer.

To get our ground, let’s explore the etymology of “suffer”. It has its roots in Proto-Indo-European “bher”, the action of carrying or bearing as in “I carry/bear a heavy load”. Latin added the “sub-” prefix (which mutated to “suf-”) to give the idea that the bearing was done beneath something and this came to have a metaphorical sense in which you might “carry on under oppression” or some such. This gets us to the archaic sense in which people said that they suffered fools gladly and witches to live meaning that they tolerated something, and this eventually evolved into the modern form where it means more generally to experience something bad such as suffering a pain. Thus although “to suffer” has an intransitive form, it is clearly rooted as a transitive verb where the subject suffers something.

What might be the object of suffering, then, when we say more generally “I suffer”? Since the sense in which we mean “to suffer” here is to experience something bad, I will take that as our starting point and consider the reduction of “I suffer” to be equivalent to the reduction of {I, experience, something bad}. But what is this something bad? There is a sense in which “bad” could mean “morally wrong” if you believe in the existence of moral facts, but there is a broader sense in which “bad” simply means something you don’t want or that you desire not to see in the world, so to ask what is bad seems to ask what it is to prefer or value against something.

Whence does againstness rise? To go against, to resist, or move away from something is for a subject to observe the world and act to change it. As with any kind of reaction, againstness implies a direction, derivative, or rate of change, so the subject must not only observe the world but repeatedly observe it and assess what action to take to move against relative to where the world is now. This means including part of the world in itself, either ontically or ontologically, and so sets up a loop that makes the subject cybernetic. Thus to talk about againstness we are necessarily dealing with feedback.

In humans and other animals feedback (known as homeostasis in the case of negative feedback) is implemented by various systems including hormones, physical pressure, and neuronal activity. Some of these systems act without the subject consciously experiencing the feedback process at work, and the subject is only aware of anything happening, if at all, when they experience the effects of the feedback process on the affected system, such as when physiological responses cause the heart to beat faster and the subject may feel the change in heart rate but not the experiences which caused the heart the beat faster. Of course the heart can also beat faster in response to observed experiences like stress, so this highlights that not all feedback is equally experienced by the conscious mind, and invites us to ask how suffering relates to consciousness.

To speak of the object of experience as “bad”, as in the case of suffering, is to imply an ontological understanding of the object and hence a sign of phenomenal consciousness. Thus {I, experience, something bad} must contain a nested experience to create the something bad within the ontological, so we might expand it to {I, experience, {I, experience as bad, something}} to see a deeper aspect of suffering, viz. the experience of negative valence experience. To distinguish it from suffering we will call the nested negative experience within suffering “pain” following the Buddhist distinction between suffering and pain, but using a broad sense in which pain includes any experience felt as having negative valence. And pain makes clear that we have lost something of the nature of suffering with this reduction.

Specifically the epoche of {I, experience, something bad} to {I, experience, {I, experience as bad, something}} renders suffering indistinguishable from the conscious experience of pain, yet as just mentioned Buddhism claims a distinction between suffering and pain and Buddhist practitioners report capta of neutral and positive experiences of pain they would not consider suffering. Thus despite what suffering initially seemed to be, it must have a second defining characteristic — the experience of pain as pain — or more specifically the phenomenon {I, experience as bad, {I, experience as bad, something}}. In this way we are led to an epistrophe showing suffering to not merely be the experience of pain, but to be the pain of experiencing pain, and in this sense “to suffer” literally is to bear pain under pain!

Separating Suffering from Intractable Pain

That suffering is a phenomenally conscious experience carrying negative valence suggests suffering plays a role in feedback systems within the cybernetic systems of animals that create consciousness, thus we may ask if it is wise to eliminate it. I think it can be, but only when done carefully with a mind to reduce suffering by increasing ontological complexity to address sources of intractable pain.

By intractable pain I simply mean those sources of pain which cannot be addressed by changing things in the world other than your perceptions. For example, if there were a pin sticking into your skin causing pain, you might be able to eliminate the pain by removing the pin, so this would probably not be intractable pain. On the other hand, if you have a disease like fibromyalgia you might feel pain because your nerves falsely report it in the absence of an appropriate stimulus, and this would probably be intractable pain so long as no treatment existed to ease it. Of course fibromyalgia pain may not always be intractable since new drugs may be invented to treat previously intractable pain, so intractability reflects a property of pain in the moment rather than being essential or eternal, and hinges on whether or not there is some change that could be made to make the pain go away other than changing your perception of the pain.

For tractable sources of pain the correct course of action is probably to respond to the pain and change the world to avoid it — if your hand hurts because it’s in a fire, pull it out; if you feel depressed because you are hungry, eat; and if you are anxious because you don’t know something, learn it. In these cases pain is acting as a signal to get you to do something that you will probably like or, at the least, may provide evolutionary fitness, and so to the extent you want to be happy, continue living, and reproduce, acting in response to pain is adaptive. It’s only for intractable sources of pain where the experience of suffering is not adaptive because it cannot lead you to make any change that will better satisfy your desires, and so it is only in this case that learning to experience pain without suffering is much useful.

There are two catches here, though. The first is that to learn to abide pain with tranquility rather than suffering you must practice abiding pain, and the easiest pain we have access to practice with is tractable pain since it can generally be created as easily as it can be stopped. Practicing with tractable pain to learn to abide intractable pain is likely part of the etiology for ascetic practices surrounding hunger, sitting, and celibacy. The second catch is that we may often be mistaken about what pain is tractable. That is, although we can often address surface-level sources of pain like hunger, they are usually manifestations of deeper sources of pain which may be intractable, like a desire for the world to always be better no matter how happy we are with it now. Thus much tractable pain has an intractable part that is left unaddressed when the tractable part is eased.

These two catches I think explain much of the nuance of my stance on suffering. On the one hand I view suffering as a point of practice from which growth is possible and suffering as something worth seeking out and working with. On the other I also view some pain as inescapable because pain is rooted in the operation of the feedback processes that make us both cybernetic and phenomenally conscious. Combined this means I value suffering for its instrumental value in serving the purpose of overcoming suffering, especially that suffering which is based on intractable pain, and in this way my thinking parallels Stoic and Buddhist views on suffering but with perhaps greater attention to the phenomenological distinction between pain as a cybernetic phenomenon and suffering as a quale.

I’m tempted to leave off there, but I think there is one more aspect of suffering and learning to overcome it through abiding pain that is part of my view that needs emphasis, and it ties deeply into my own terminal values. For although I practice Zen and predict that in the future there will be less “I” inhabiting my body-mind and more no-self and non-dual experience, I find that my I craves completeness or perfection. Now, in a proper sense I am already perfect and I just don’t realize it, but my inability to experience total gnosis of this (yet) motivates my desire to complete myself through realizing my potential and increasing my psychological complexity. Thus I value suffering and overcoming suffering through tranquility and contentment because they are the mechanism by which I grow towards completeness, perfection, and realization of Buddha-nature.

And on this point I do perhaps radically differ from many of my peers. I view our great project as not necessarily to end suffering, but to create a world where the only suffering is that which is necessary to the work of spiritual/psychological realization and then only for those who would seek it out rather than have it thrust upon them by an uncaring world. Until then we are stuck in a world where everyone must suffer whether they want to or not, and the only path the serenity seems through learning to abide pain.

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Interesting perspective, thank you for sharing your thoughts here. I'm curious how you view the similarities between temporarily going hungry and experiencing the intractable pain of hunger versus experiencing the physical sensation of intractable pain from nerve damage for years or decades. It seems to me these are two very different things that are being grouped arbitrarily. Abiding may help with the former but doesn't seem to for the latter.

Let's suppose that that you experience the same level of pain from being hungry and from nerve damage. What's different about these? Moment to moment, not much really. The main difference is that you expect to be able to alleviate the hunger pain but not the nerve pain, and in fact since the hunger pain is temporary, as you say, then it will in fact eventually go away. So I don't really see much difference here other than that it's actually much easier to never learn to live with hunger because you have a way to address it (eat some food) whereas with the nerve pain your only option may be to learn to abide it, so if anything such a strategy is more likely to be useful for nerve pain not less.

I get your thought process here but disagree with your assumption about the equality of experience. They're certainly not similar physical sensations that can arbitrarily be grouped. Acute and chronic physical pain sensations behave much differently in humans. If we're talking hunger, it may be acutely painful but it's chronically lethal. Those monks who starve to death in meditation are not having the same experience as  mediators on the Calm app trying to be okay with fasting until lunch. 

You'll have a much different experience and your body will respond differently if you're stabbed in the arm once today than if you're stabbed in the arm hourly for the rest of your life. 

It's this difference that seems overlooked. Abiding to one is not like abiding to the other. 

Great viewpoints. I find it hard to disagree with mixing compassion and suffering as someone with a slight bias toward Zen philosophy. I do wonder –– what would a future world filled with more realization-directed suffering and less "unnecessary" suffering look like?

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