Is Suffering Necessary?
A collective interview
This is my first attempt at a "collective interview" (via email). My idea was to reverse the usual question/subject ratio by having one question and many interviewees. My guess, after this first foray, is that perhaps a small series of related questions would work better, to tease out different angles from people—especially with "big" questions like this one. Hopefully there are more to follow, to evolve the format.
This question arose after really trying to take on board the apparent challenges implied by transhumanism. After reading a post on the Cyborg Democracy blog that casually dissed Francis Fukuyama’s argument that suffering is necessary for humans, I responded with two posts of my own (Transhumanism and suffering and More thoughts on the future of pain). In the latter, I suggested that the views of "those who have most thoroughly explored humanity (shamans, poets, depth psychologists, anthropologists)" would be a valuable addition to the debate. It struck me that it’s silly to suggest something that’s within your grasp and not do it, so I emailed the more interesting people in my address book. Here are the responses from those who replied.
In brief: Is suffering necessary?
In full: Given the possibilities raised by genetic engineering, pharmacology, neural augmentation, and other "transhuman" future technologies, do you think it’s possible or desirable to abolish suffering from the human experience? Do we need pain to feel pleasure? Do you think our evolutionary inheritance, the physical and emotional responses that served us well on the African savannah, could be usefully updated with modern technology? Is suffering an intrinsic part of the dynamics of evolution, personal and collective, or is it an outdated hangover from a brutal past?
On the issue of eliminating emotional pain, aside from whether this is desirable or not the Point is we already have chemical technologies that can heal suffering in the form of psychedelic substances. I have no idea if these have any place in a transhumanist agenda but any research into chemical augmentation of our nervous systems cannot afford to ignore the body of knowledge associated with these substances. If the mechanisms of psychedelics and supporting esoteric healing systems are not incorporated within the debate then it’s hard to see how any purely scientific developments in the near future could result in genuine healing and transformation.
Generally speaking I just think it’s far too early in this stage in our evolution to think about ‘editing’ any parts of our physical/emotional responses. Neither scientific nor esoteric communities, nor any movement in which both of these are beginning to cohere could begin to claim there is nothing left to explore here. If coherence does blossom over the next decades I feel that we will be less inclined to interfere with the unutterably sophisticated transformative responses we already have. A rather utopian and naïve perspective I guess but I believe we can’t short-circuit our evolution by assuming intellectual superiority over our bodies. A hugely significant part of our salvation lies in the untapped knowledge within our flesh and magickal practitioners need to urgently focus on articulating this on every level. As a race I don’t think we can move on or contemplate the kind of technologically enhanced transformations that human potential movements aspire to until we have truly absorbed the mysteries of our physical manifestation.
Is suffering necessary? Again on a psychological level it’s the price we pay for emotional sensitivity. Depression is now one of the most common illnesses, we need to examine why many are so unhappy with their lives rather than looking for ‘magic bullets’ to treat the symptoms. I don’t think our emotional responses are outmoded, people generally have good reasons for their pain. It’s insulting to the integrity of Individuals to think that manipulating emotional responses is any real solution. (I’m not including here any psychological illness that has a physiological basis, that’s another area of the debate).
On a more esoteric level magickians/shaman/artists are often predisposed to extreme emotional/psychological sensitivity which is a curse/blessing in equal measure. Most would consider it a vital and precious aspect of their consciousness, a great source of mana, despite the trauma it can bring.
I don’t feel there is any intrinsic nobility to suffering as part of magickal self development. Obviously there are well-known traditions within magick and shamanism in particular where physical/mental suffering is actively invoked as part of a transformational process. This is perfectly valid, but in my own work and experience I have found sex magickal/trance techniques to be a more powerful catalyst for entering into extremes of magickal consciousness and creative work.
I personally don’t believe in the possibility of banishing all pain from human existence. Its just not technically feasible. Even if it were possible to remove all physically unpleasant sensations, which is what heroin can do, we still have to face the biggy, ‘existential’ pain.
There is no drug on earth that can permanently remove that pain; in fact heroin is completely useless for it in the long run. Pain and suffering are part of the human parcel. Without pain and suffering we would not be able to enjoy a release from them, one would expect to die of boredom in such circumstances. There is one ray of hope though, by accepting pain and becoming truly compassionate people, we can maintain a certain sense of proportions with regards to pain. Now to your question: is suffering necessary? No, suffering is not necessary but neither can it be avoided. Living beings need a stimulus to do things, hunger to go out and find food, cold to find a warm place.
Without such sensations we would simply have become extinct. There is nothing wrong with extinction though, plenty of species have done it more painlessly than we are going to.
Three things lead me to posit that it is:
- Society and culture seems to get better at exactly the same rate as they get worse, overall. The horrors of the monotheistic era are no worse than, just different to, those of the urban technological era.
- Extinction happens anyway; the pain of that is inconsolable. Relative immortality is no immortality at all.
- Does anyone know of any culture or individual who created wonderful things without suffering? The Swiss and cuckoo clocks.
Interesting question. This is actually something that I’ve thought about quite a bit. I certainly think that we should do everything possible to eliminate, avoid, and reduce suffering on this planet. I think that we should use every technological and pharmacological tool at our disposal to help accomplish this, and that we should view ecstasy as the goal of life. With that said, I don’t think it’s actually possible to completely eliminate suffering, nor am I sure that this would even be a good idea.
I think that to be embodied in a flesh and blood form—with all the limitations and conflicting or unfulfilled desires that come with that, and from living in a world defined by duality—leads to inevitable suffering. Also, I’m not sure that we would be better human beings if we didn’t suffer, as I think that suffering has the potential to teach us compassion.
I think that people already have a built-in system for looping around suffering with words and editing its thorns away. It consists of saying the following thing: "It happened for a reason." Narrative is our best painkiller; the ability to recontextualize is our greatest adaptive strategy and tends to be the last thing standing between us and the dirt. Is suffering necessary? There’s no real reason that it should be, but until we do abolish it (whatever that means), we’re going to have to believe that it is.
Is suffering necessary—not sure i’d put it that way—perhaps inevitable—as in the Buddhist sense that it goes with the territory—i.e. of incarnation. When the Buddha said, in his first sermon, that ‘everything is suffering’ I do not think he meant that it was necessary, merely that it was a fact of life—and indeed the means to remove it were also manifest in medicine. The Buddha was active at a challenging time when a whole new crop of diseases had just hit humanity as a result of growing population and urbanisation. I’m not too convinced by notions that medical intervention can end suffering of this kind—although the quest for physical immortality has always been an very productive quest. But in the end I find myself agreeing with the ideas of Ivan Illich, where he says there are limits to medicine.
When you talk of African savannah I guess you have in mind the first humans, with their mutated brains, more than up to the task of surviving in such a simple environment—things could only go down hill. Currently I’m thinking about another African savannah, the one that once bloomed in the Egyptian desert on what is now the Sudanese/Egyptian border. This was the locus for a very early experiment in social living—which later transferred itself to the Nile valley and the peaceful, communalist settlements that worshipped the hidden god Seth. I think that may have been one of those golden ages—quickly overwhelmed by the cult of the king, and the growth of the nation state. Perhaps the cycle has come full circle now and we can see that we lost something of value when we abandoned our African savannah.
We are heading into a future that will ultimately be posthuman, in the sense that there will be hybrid cyberhumans. Some developments towards this are already afoot, and I reckon we will become fully posthuman within this century. I’m not sure what I feel about the prospect. In some sense, I have to feel happy if it reduces human suffering which I think it will do in a physical way, but it may be that psychological and spiritual suffering increases proportionally.
Every person needs to experience a measure of suffering in order to know themselves and to develop empathy and humanity. Without any personal suffering an individual could all too easily be incapable of understanding the suffering of others. Also, without suffering a person does not know their own limits. Without suffering, there would be no worthwhile music, art, writing, philosophy. Without suffering there would be less of a spur to scientific and technological endeavour. However, I think some of the excessive sufferings (pain, starvation, mental illness, and so forth) too many human beings have to endure is not necessary, and should be alleviated where possible. As Heller more or less said in his book Catch-22, you don’t need pain to know that something has been injured or gone wrong in the body—a second-rate juke-box manufacturer could come up with something better, like a neon tube on the forehead that started flashing instead of us feeling agony…
Suffering is of many sorts, from pain to ennui. Where suffering has a biophysical origin, as does pain, we can already relieve this greatly by the use of opiates, in particular heroin. There is thus already no reason for anyone to die in pain; people do so still only because of the fear of supporting the use of opiates in a social environment corrupted by the evil of the "war on drugs".
This does not mean that all pain should be eliminated. Pain exists presumably because it is useful for survival, since it is a sign that some damage has been done and has to be dealt with before more is done.
As for varieties of suffering other than pain, suffering of a more psychological kind, this can never be removed from human experience because humans often fail in what they try to do, and when they fail they feel bad about it. Naturally enough.
Suffering is also often associated with love, as when someone we love acts in ways harmful to us or to themselves, or worse, dies. Maybe in heaven the objects of our love are eternal, but not in this physical world. Coming to terms with this, and with other causes of human suffering, is part of becoming fully human, or as fully human as possible within the context of the socio-historical situation into which we are born.
As for using the discoveries of materialist science to make a new human, I suspect that is an illusion. Humans did not design themselves and so cannot redesign themselves. Collectively we know very little about how things really are, and such wisdom as we have accumulated over millennia has largely been destroyed by the effects of materialism, miseducation, market economics and social enslavement. Rather than anticipating the development of a new and improved version of the species humans may consider themselves fortunate if they manage to avoid causing themselves to become extinct in the near future.