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    Why So Much Pain And Suffering In The World?
    By Fred Pauser | September 12th 2009 10:04 AM | 19 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Fred

    I'm not a scientist, but a lover of science, and a life-long seeker: I strive to see beyond biases and ideologies in the attempt to understand what...

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    Mother Teresa said, “Suffering is a gift of God.” Well, it may be true that suffering tends to build character, but it also sometimes builds bitterness and criminals. In any case, we would naturally prefer to do without it, especially the extreme forms of it.



    We can derive much toward answering the question from a basic knowledge of the evolution of life. Ernst Mayr succinctly summed up the process of natural selection: “Natural selection is a two-step process: (1) variations produced, and (2) variations sorted, with the elimination of the less fit so that you end up with a ‘selection’ of the best." Fitness may involve cooperative abilities as well as competitive, and the ability to adjust to varying environmental conditions.



    Variations between individuals are produced by means such as mutations or genetic drift. The individuals that are most able to deal with the circumstances provided within their environmental niche are likely to be most able to reproduce and pass on their genes.



    Contributions to the process of natural selection are also made by cataclysmic events such as volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, meteors and asteroids, etc. It is commonly believed that most dinosaurs were destroyed by such an event. Consequently, niches were opened to species that were more fit in terms of surviving that particular environmental upheaval.



    As Teilhard de Chardin could see almost a century ago, evolution is directional. If we step back to see the big picture, nearly 4 billion years of life on earth is most notably characterized by overall increasing complexity and diversity of life, accompanied by greater capabilities, including the development of consciousness. Scientists are beginning to abandon Gould’s philosophy of non-directional evolution in favor of something more like de Chardin’s view.



    Einstein said, “Everything that the human race has done and thought is concerned with the satisfaction of deeply felt needs and the assuagement of pain.” This is the pleasure/pain principle. It applies to virtually all life, albeit in very rudimentary form in single-celled creatures. It is fundamental.



    Humans and other creatures born without the functional pain apparatus of their peers, do not live long. Clearly, without the capacity for pain and suffering, the evolution of life would not and could not happen. Certainly all higher life forms including humans would not have had even a remote chance of coming into existence.



    Suppose there is a God, and s/he created the world pretty much as it is (as per the Christian fundamentalist view), except there was no pain and suffering, and all danger had been removed for all creatures. Wouldn’t it be a dull and boring place? Would there be any reason to strive for anything?



    But we humans are acutely aware of our ability to experience pain, and we do what we can to avoid it, while simultaneously striving to maximize satisfaction. This more than enables us to survive. As products of evolution we mirror the directional progress of evolution of increasing capabilities. as human history indicates.



    We possess a nearly unique ability among animals in that we can visualize all sorts of future possibilities, which bestows upon us the potential for a kind of pain that other creatures are capable of experiencing only minimally if at all: anxiety. Other animals probably, in general, suffer less than we humans assume they do, because we tend to anthropomorphize. Perhaps natural selection is not quite as cruel as it seems to us. Besides a minimal anxiety factor, consider that death in nature through predation is usually swift, and it often occurs before creatures can experience much of the sort of suffering we associate with old age and years of gradual loss of abilities.



    The human propensity to suffer the pain of anxiety through the ability to imagine, has a plus side. It leads to a greater ability to experience empathy and sympathy (as compared to other animals). We are at a stage of development whereby our world is becoming one united economic entity. Human similarities across the world are becoming quite apparent. We are increasingly aware of our interdependence. We are coming to realize (some of us) that it is in our own self-interest to relieve suffering among our fellows. So our intellectual capabilities are being used via the pleasure and pain systems in us, to advance morally as well as technologically. The spiritual notion of profound interconnectedness and unity is becoming less abstract, more real. Ironically, none of this, including our very existence, would be possible without the billions of years of evolutionary struggle and strife that preceded us.

    Comments

    Gerhard Adam
    Good article, Fred. 

    The human propensity to suffer the pain of anxiety through the ability to imagine, has a plus side.
    Doesn't it also have a negative side, by allowing indulgence in behaviors that may be more destructive than the behavior/pain we're trying to avoid? 
    Mundus vult decipi
    Fred Pauser
    Thanks, Gerhard.



    Doesn't it also have a negative side, by allowing indulgence in behaviors that may be more destructive than the behavior/pain we're trying to avoid?




    Yes, indeed. Anxiety, particularly ongoing anxiety, often leads to any of many kinds of addiction: food, alcohol, tobacco, “hard drugs,” to excessive sex, or excessive risk-taking activities, or fundamentalist religion. Ongoing anxiety often has at its core incorrect or faulty ideas or beliefs. This is where psychotherapy needs to come in.



    The human ability to imagine is a double-edged sword. On the plus side, besides giving us great potential for empathy and compassion, it can lead to innovation and accomplishment in many areas, thus much satisfaction.
    LauraHult
    Thanks for the timely and thoughtful post, Fred.





    The human propensity to suffer the pain of anxiety through the ability to imagine, has a plus side. It leads to a greater ability to experience empathy and sympathy (as compared to other animals).
    I am hopefully optimistic that we are in the midst of a paradigm shift (as psychologists like to think of it) along these lines.  It won't be an easy transition, for far too many of us have been on an extreme dopamine-high for a while.  Playing the stock market, gaming, and the other *recreational*" endeavors you've mentioned all feed this addiction.  Quitting such behaviors in favor of a more altruistic attitude towards the world and each other certainly won't give the same high, and many will not be able to into a different social niche.

    But as your article points out, evolution appears to be directional, and casualties are to be expected along the way.  I'd love to see a real, live trilobite...but alas, it's just not to be.  Perhaps in generations to come we will be wishing to see a real, live, but terribly extinct career politician.  :)

    As a species, we must continue to evolve.  The Universe is pushing us to do so, and discomfort is the mechanism to inspire change.  As they say, "no pain, no gain".
    Fred Pauser
    Hi Laura,



    I am hopefully optimistic that we are in the midst of a paradigm shift (as psychologists like to think of it) along these lines. [greater empathy, etc.]




    Robert Wright has written three very thoughtful books over a period of 15 years dealing with our evolutionary development: The Moral Animal, Nonzero, and The Evolution of God.



    Wright, who labels himself “agnostic,” takes a very pragmatic non-ideological approach to our evolutionary identity and where we are headed. He acknowledges both the “bad” and the “good” apparent in human behavior. He sees signs that the ratio of good to bad is increasing. In this world of rapidly increasing technological destructive power, it seems that “…winning will depend in no small part on continued moral growth. Which is to say: winning will depend on not wanting other peoples to lose.”



    We are all basically governed by the pleasure/pain principle. It seems logical that given current world circumstances it is in the best interest of ourselves individually to promote greater understanding and cooperation (ie: “moral growth”).
    Hello Fred:

    Thank you so much for giving us the evolutionary perspective on pain and suffering.

    Philosophers have struggled to understand this problem for centuries. They even gave it a name: the Problem of Evil. Here’s the problem in a nutshell:

    If a Good God created the Universe, why does He allow so much pain and suffering? Why is His creation a constant struggle to survive? Why does He create life forms that die forever (become extinct) just because they aren’t “fit” to survive in a painful environment? Why did He create a painful environment to begin with? Why DO we grow old and die? Why would a loving God do this?

    Even if a Good God didn’t create this world, if He was all-powerful (omnipotent), He would be able to eliminate suffering. Then why doesn’t He? If God can’t eliminate suffering, He is impotent. If He can, but doesn’t want to, He is immoral.

    Because I couldn’t reconcile the idea of a loving God creating a world of pain, suffering and death, I rejected Christianity and God at the age of 17. I became an atheist, and remained one for 30 years.

    Then in my mid-40s, I had a severe mid-life crisis that turned into a spiritual awakening. I had personal experiences that convinced me there might just be a God after all. But then the Problem of Evil reared its ugly head again!

    Then I stumbled upon books about the ancient Gnostics. They also had an answer to the Problem of Evil. They believed an Evil God - not the True Good God - created this world. And that Evil God was still firmly in control of this world.

    And suddenly, all of that suffering and misery made perfect sense.

    Here are three books about Gnosticism for anyone who is interested in learning more (the “G” is silent): The Gnostic Gospels by Elaine Pagels; The Gnostics by Tobias Churton; and Gnosticism: New Light on the Ancient Tradition of Inner Knowing by Stephan A. Hoeller.

    LauraHult
    Then I stumbled upon books about the ancient Gnostics. They also had an answer to the Problem of Evil. They believed an Evil God - not the True Good God - created this world. And that Evil God was still firmly in control of this world.
    I haven't read enough of the Nag Hammadi texts to comment on your viewpoint, however I will say that the movie "Stigmata" was quite interesting and inspired further research.  The quote from the movie is beautiful and inspiring:


    Jesus said, "The kingdom of God is inside you and all around you, not in mansions made from wood and stone.  Split a piece of wood and I am there, lift a stone and you will find me."

    The actual text from the Gospel of Thomas is a bit less prosaic, but nonetheless noteworthy:


    Jesus said, "I am the light that is over all things.  I am all: from me all came forth, and to me all attained.  Split a piece of wood; I am there.  Lift up the stone, and you will find me there."

    The passage brings comfort and a fresh way to look at the Universe.  For if this is so, then your assertion that
    Even if a Good God didn’t create this world, if He was all-powerful (omnipotent), He would be able to eliminate suffering. Then why doesn’t He? If God can’t eliminate suffering, He is impotent. If He can, but doesn’t want to, He is immoral.
    is perhaps tangential to the issue at hand.  Much like children learning to ride bicycles, we all must fall and skin our knees.  Suffering, as Fred points out in this very insightful blog, is the driving force towards knowledge and individual evolution.  A little suffering can be good for the soul, and it is what may make an extraordinary healer out of a merely adequate one.

    No, I don't believe that and "evil god" is responsible for pain and misfortune, but rather that it is an inherent component of the world in which we live.  I believe it is necessary to become self-actualized - and I believe God is well aware of this necessity.
    Steve Davis

    Good points Fred.

    I'm starting to think, and your article suggests, that evolution is a process of increasing complexity. I've absolutely no evidence for this, other than the possibility that organisms that are more complex, or groups that contain more variation or diversity, (complexity) are better able to survive drastic environmental changes. 

    Fred Pauser
    ...your article suggests, that evolution is a process of increasing complexity. I've absolutely no evidence for this, other than the possibility that organisms that are more complex, or groups that contain more variation or diversity, (complexity) are better able to survive drastic environmental changes.




    As a regular here, I’m surprised you would say that, Steve. There seems to be considerable evidence, first, for the complexification and diversity of atomic matter over billions of years, (nuclear reactions in suns originally of hydrogen, then super novas) which set the stage for the possibility of life to hypothetically emerge from matter. Of course there is no doubt that life DID emerge one way or another. The evidence indicates that early life was relatively very simple as compared to today, and furthermore indicates that all life forms are related.



    For example, Thermotoga maritima, found in hot springs, is considered to be a very ancient type of bacterium. It’s relatively simple genome consists partially of archaea-type material, and contains a part identical to a bit of the human genome and to the genomes of ALL other species studied to date. As species increased in complexity, so did their genomes.



    The vast amount of various kinds of evidence we have in support of evolution enables us to understand how the process works. We know we understand correctly because we can make predictions based upon our understanding that prove to be correct. Our understanding of evolution also enables us to deduce that the first life must have been relatively simple, and developed from there.



    But rather than to say that evolution is a process of increasing complexity, I think it more accurate to say it is a process of *increasing capabilities.* If some members of a species increase in complexity without a resultant increase in some form of competitive capability, added complexity would probably be a handicap and they would likely die off. Evolution is frugal. As the laws of nature are set up, increasing capabilities generally requires increasing complexity, which is why we see evidence that life forms on balance increased greatly in complexity over time.



    Evolution favors the most fit, which does not always mean the most complex, since countless species of bacteria and other microbial forms are still doing well. But life in general has become largely interactive and interdependent. Looking at the evolution of species collectively over time, life has certainly gained in terms of capabilities.
    Steve Davis
    You're quite right Fred. It was only a thought, The thing to remember about bacteria is that they might not be evolving, they might have reached their optimum for survival. If they are evolving still, it might be at a far slower rate. Mammals for example, have evolved relatively quickly, and their evolution has shown an increase in complexity.
    Fred Pauser
    Hi Gerhard,



    Might we not consider the apparent directionality of evolution as a byproduct of the environment itself? After all, if the environment has become more complex, then more complex "solutions" may be needed, while if it has become less so, then the loss of complexity may be reasonable




    Lifeforms impact the environment, which in turn affects the evolution of species. The early earth contained practically no free oxygen. Without oxygen, metabolism was relatively inefficent. With the advent of chlorophyll and photosynthesis, cyanobacteria began to release oxygen into the oceans and atmosphere. Eventually the environment became oxygen-rich, which made possible the evolution of lifeforms capable of utilizing oxygen for a superior type of metabolism, which in turn opened the door for the evolution of creatures of more complex and diverse capabilities.



    Life went on to fill the environment with increasingly diverse and interacting forms of life. Life itself has been the primary cause of the complexification of the environment.



    In effect, the only "real" directionality we have is that changes will occur.


    In evolutionary terms, if you look at relatively short spans of time various species may appear to evolve in various directions. Parasites tend to evolve from more complex predecessors, presenting a micro-arrow toward less complexity.



    BUT, how do you account for the Big Picture? The primary trend of life for 3.8 billion years has been from the relatively very simple, to the increasingly diverse and increasingly complex. Stephen Jay Gould said that some life forms became more complex because they were so simple that they had no other direction to go. Wrong, because they might have stayed very simple! The tendency toward increasing complexity and sophistication of increased capabilities is apparently a general property of life as a whole.


    "The primary trend of life for 3.8 billion years has been from the relatively very simple, to the increasingly diverse and increasingly complex."

    Actually, the primary trend and main mode of life is single cell organisms. Single cell organisms are even dominant now, millions of years after the evolution of supposed higher forms. In fact, if you look at the overall timeline of life on the planet, it may be too early to even make the conclusion that multicellularity is even going to "pan out" in the longer scheme of things. It may well turn out that this "whole multicellular life thing" is a failed evolutionary experiment especially the larger multicellulars like plants, animals and such.

    Fred Pauser
    Anonymous,



    ...it may be too early to even make the conclusion that multicellularity is even going to "pan out" in the longer scheme of things. It may well turn out that this "whole multicellular life thing" is a failed evolutionary experiment especially the larger multicellulars like plants, animals and such.




    By that reasoning, it may be too early to tell if all life is going to "pan out." After all, as far as we know, this planet is the only one in the universe upon which life has emerged. Maybe the whole phenomenon of life is just a passing fluke!?



    However, as Carl Sagan pointed out, considering how many billions of galaxies there are in the universe, and the probable many trillions of planets, it would seem unreasonable to assume that our planet is the only one with life.



    Consider also that the directional trend toward increasing complexity began immediately following the Big Bang. Very early the universe consisted of only subatomic particles (quarks, bosons...) which developed into the simplest atoms of hydrogen and helium, which coalesced into stars, which produced the heavier atomic elements, which were strewn into space, coalescing to form molecules and planets, on this planet the mixture of elements, molecules, and natural forces eventually led to the emergence of simple life, and on we go through Darwinian evolution.



    Back to Carl Sagan, he not only reasoned that there is quite likely to be life on some other planets, he also stated that anytime life emerged elsewhere and given enough time, intelligent life would likely develop. In other words, Carl saw the laws of nature as working in such a way that the emergence of life, and intelligent life, is "in the cards."
    Fred Pauser
    Tiffany,



    I just mentioned above something about Carl Sagan. Carl was our greatest popularizer of science. He could present scientific information to the public in such a way as to generate fascination and emotional appeal -- and he did it without misrepresenting the actual findings of science. But in your view, I suppose he would be guilty of myth-making and emotionalism, anthropocentrism, value judgments and, let us not forget: "exceptionalism." It seems to me that you stretch those terms to mean and include way more than is reasonable.



    It seems that you especially do not like the concept of directionality. Even before the aspect of directionality in evolution became fully apparent to me, I still found scientific accounts of the evolution of the universe and of life to be quite intriguing, and certainly more emotionally satisfying than, say, the biblical story of creation in Genesis.
    Earthellism, the new philosophy based on the science of astrobiology, answers this question. Earthellism teaches us that hell is located on the surface of earth and the innocent pain and suffering here is due to God's inability to directly influence everything on this planet. God's powers here are limited but his indirect powers (to compensate for pain and suffering) is unlimited

    Hi Fred
    Sorry to be late for the party, as it were
    I'm a new poster, though have been reading SciBlog for quite a while
    It seems to me that much of our social problems are 'engineered in'
    There isn't a Political minister of well-being, or a health-care that looks at health first
    Pain & suffering are almost thought of as 'normal' for good reason
    My take is, that people accept the confusion of the commonplace with the normal
    Isn't normal a scientific term meaning an average of the total - from what studies is this normal taken???
    and like any studies, if such exist, isn't there a selection bias in the figures?
    Which total is referred to?, as no-one has asked me!! [wink]
    I think that, sadly the media & political agendas rule our beliefs about what is really going on in the world, and humanity's acceptances of how much and how many people really struggle or are in pain, are borne out of that
    After all, isn't there a drugs industry with some input into this widely held belief system??
    Often, Good News is no news!
    For an alternate perspective on a human consciousness timeline, may I suggest watching the videos by Ian Xel Lungold on the Mayan Calendar viewpoint - there are 18 videos in the series, I think, but he gets into it fairly quickly

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H9LQihokzc4&feature=relatedfeature=related

    From that perspective, our current thinking/beliefs, may just be distorted, in relation to a different reality, that is happening without us collectively being overly aware of it, or it being newsworthy, though individually many have a deep sense of knowing and feeling the difference

    Aitch

    Fred Pauser
    Hello Aitch,



    I think that, sadly the media&political agendas rule our beliefs about what is really going on in the world, and humanity's acceptances of how much and how many people really struggle or are in pain, are borne out of that

    After all, isn't there a drugs industry with some input into this widely held belief system??


    Regardless of the media, politics, or the drug industry, everyone is acquainted with pain and suffering.



    For an alternate perspective on a human consciousness timeline, may I suggest watching the videos by Ian Xel Lungold on the Mayan Calendar viewpoint


    I watched some of it. Although the Mayans had developed a fairly advanced civilization, Lungold gets into some extraordinary claims, which require extraordinary evidence (the "free energy" machine, for example). I put this information in a similar category of the stories of the extraordinarily advanced culture of the lost city of Atlantis. New agey stuff. Wishful thinking. Far from the realm of science. Sorry.
    "Regardless of the media, politics, or the drug industry, everyone is acquainted with pain and suffering."

    True, but it doesn't change what I said about people accepting the confusion of the commonplace with the normal
    If someone were to do a survey [which may have happened?] on the topic of pain & pleasure, given a choice which would most people choose?
    Likewise, if someone were to do a survey [ditto] on suffering & enjoyment, given a choice, which would most people choose?
    Given that most people aren't presumed to be stupid, how is that it is perceived that pain and suffering is so normal, or even commonplace, for that matter?
    I see it as a ratiometric distortion - as I have said elsewhere good news is no news
    We remember bad news as a survival instinct...so's not to repeat the same steps
    Suffering is only a reminder to remember what you forgot
    ......but there is always choice, though many 'sufferers' don't like the truth of it's simplicity, and I've even had people say, 'Huh, if only it were that simple!'
    So, I have to ask, is there really that much pain & suffering in the world?
    It may well exist, but in what measure or proportion of the total of existence is it really?
    My take is that it is much smaller than the common mis-perception
    & If the politics/media, science even, were to balance the news to include good news?
    I mean are we really on the good ship 'Doom' destined to go down with all aboard, suffering & in pain, or is there another path......?
    YMMV, I suppose, but I'm an optimist, and perhaps we just see things differently

    Sorry about the sig, I tried to register, and can't use Aitch at the moment....

    Aitch

    The primary actual reason is given by Randolph Nesse here:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PP7JqS2EqZs#t=05m33s

    Fred Pauser
    Tim,



    I addressed the pain/suffering question in a general way from a long term evolutionary perspective, while Nesse in your clip, addresses the question as it applies to humans of today, and with particular reference to painful feelings such as anxiety and depression.



    Nesse makes a good point, which does not contradict anything I said, but rather is supplemental and complementary. Thanks.