Friday, July 24, 2009

Pondering the Necessity of Suffering

This was written as a reply to an apologist who goes by the handle Metacrock after reading through the first page and a half of the thread he started on his message forums concerning his argument about "Internalizing the Good". The gist is whether suffering presents a problem for believing that God isn't cruel, indifferent, or impotent.

Neuroimaging sheds light on the seat of sufferingImage via Wikipedia
Suffering Shouldn't Be Directly Conflated With Evil

Suffering can include physical pain as well as psychological anguish. Psychological anguish can include emotionalism and other reactions with proximate causes as well as existential angst, or spiritual suffering. [For an accurate and exhaustive breakdown of the varieties and types of suffering in an amazingly astute system of organization, read up on (Tibetan) Buddhism.] Pleasure and pain are two aspects of the same basic type of qualia rooted in an affective response to signals from neurological receptors in the body. Other qualia associated with suffering are likewise connected (romantic love/hate, elation/disappointment) and associated with the reaction of the mind/brain to our experiences. None of these have an inherent moral value attached to them.

Morality is a lived experience and collective wisdom based on choices made by sentient beings capable of empathy and seeing other beings as sharing a fundamental sameness. This implies another dimension to morality, which is our capacity or lack thereof in appreciating the fundamental interconnectedness and interdependence of all phenomena. When lacking this capacity we accept the false notion that all phenomena, including all individuals, have an intrinsic (distinct and self-sustaining) existence and that harming (by deprivation of health, life, freedom, etc) others who do not appear to have any bearing on our lives can bring us gain so long as we can get away with it. The Golden Rule, often regarded as the summary of moral behavior, includes this implied need to see our interdependence as the basis for identifying with others. By projecting on other beings our own expectations and reactions and therefore anticipating they will experience what we would experience under the same circumstances, we can decide 1) whether we will consider them in our actions or not and 2) whether we will choose to identify with them or not.

These are the choices of the moral actor. This leads to formulas attempting to describe the workings of such decision-making, like this one I once composed:

An action that is voluntarily chosen which benefits others at a cost to the self is the epitome of good, whereas an action that is involuntarily imposed on others to their harm for a benefit to the self is the image of evil. It is this self-sacrifice that people call altruism, the far end of the "goodness" meter on the morality scale. The basis of morality then is in recognizing others as ourselves (self-aware beings capable of choice and imbued with feelings).

So beliefs and behaviors which permit freedom of choice/are freely chosen is the initial criteria. Part of freely chosen includes freedom from coercion, but subtle and gross, including fear and the threat of pain, violence, or death. The "benefit" clause is, of course, open to interpretation, but generally speaking it would involve upholding the dignity and welfare of those affected.

Beings which are not capable of such self-awarenss, empathy ("other"-awareness), reflection, etc, are not moral actors. Hence tape worms and poison ivy plants are not moral actors. They inflict suffering, but in an amoral context. Morality is based on choice, and each choice by a moral actor can only can only be judged relative to the details of each situation. If all you knew was that I threw Detective Schultz down the stairs and he broke his leg in the fall, do you know if that was moral? What if I was just having fun? What if he was simply in my way? What if I had seen a bomb about to go off and I only had time to push him out of the way to safety before it I was killed? If all you knew was that Kelly and Pat were having sex, can you make a moral determination? What if they are many and woman married? To each other? To other people? If they were both men? Both women? What if one was an adult and one was a child?

The stairs are neither good nor evil. The bomb and its components are neither good nor evil. My body, the Rabbi's body, Kelly's body, and Pat's body - non are either good or evil. Sex is neither good nor evil. Shoving someone is neither good nor evil. Objects and actions, locations and events, are not divided into good and evil. The gates, ovens, uniforms, guns, and ovens at the Nazi death camps were not good or evil either. The choices humans made as moral actors in any of these situations are the only things which can be judged in this way. We tend to project this morality onto everything - onto the universe, even onto God. But this is a grave error.

Choosing to share in or to relieve the suffering of others is a moral issue, but lack of suffering cannot be defined as good. Choosing to ignore, to inflict or to increase the suffering of others is a moral issue, but the existence of suffering cannot be defined as evil. Parasites are neither good nor evil. The pain they inflict is neither good nor evil. It is inappropriate to refer to their actions as being cruel. Hence, a world wherein suffering exists is not an evil world, nor is a world without suffering a good world. Existence and God are beyond good and evil.

It Is Not A Moral Universe, It Is A Sacred Universe

The premise being debated here is that God chose X, Y, Z when God could have chosen A, B, C and as a result someone somewhere experienced pain or disappointment, therefore God is either cruel or callous. And if God couldn't choose A, B, C over X, Y, Z then God is either incompetent or a weakling unworthy of acknowledgment.

But let's back up. To have morality would require a moral agent, a being with the qualifications to make moral choices. Such choices would include the capacity for erring in appreciating the fundamental interconnectedness of all phenomena and a desire based on such an erroneous view that there was some gain to be had taking something from someone else for oneself. This stems from feelings arising from insecurity, fear, jealousy, etc, which themselves come from a deep and fundamental sense of incompleteness. If we take ideas like panentheism seriously for the sake of argument, everything was sacred and subsisting in God, unfolding according to forces and interactions we attempt to document with science and crudely model and describe as best we can as what we refer to as natural laws or principles.

When the first stars were forming in this particular universe, was it a moral universe? No. It was neither "good" nor "evil". It simply was. The capacity to imagine options, let alone act on options, which could be defined as good or evil did not exist. After life arose on Earth but prior to human beings (assuming we are the first or only sentient beings), was this a moral universe? No. Although at this point if one wished one could interject that there were vertebrates capable of experiencing physical pain, and that there were parasites capable of inflicting suffering on these vertebrates. But again, suffering does not necessarily correlate to the moral designation of evil. One could go further and suggest this was an act of commission or omission on the part of God by allowing such beings to suffer needlessly. The standard line is to claim that the natural world is "fallen", but that view is inconsistent with evolution as well as true panentheism.

But this assumes that God is a standard moral agent capable of choosing a selfish options. God is the source and substance of Awareness itself, of Being/Becoming. God isn't just a super-person, an ultimate object or individual alongside other individuals. This begs the question, "If God is/possesses the fullest expression of what is possible, is it reasonable to question whether a superior alternative could have been manifested?" The answer would be no. Some claim they would prefer a safer, fluffier, cuddlier universe, and that the lack of such a reality is evidence against God. But if God is the sum of potentiality of existence (of which this universe may only be one component or aspect), then reality is an expression of that potential.

Some may ask questions such as "Why did God make pain necessary for pleasure?" or "Why did God make suffering necessary for joy?" That's like asking why doesn't God make life without death. There is an answer that explains such necessity with or without referring to God, which is thus: death and life are not mutually exclusive opposites, they are two aspects of the same phenomena. The same is true for the qualia of pleasure/pain, gain/loss, suffering/joy, romantic love/hate. It actually makes more sense to ask for a universe with liquid water but without the possibility of steam or ice. This fullness of potential and possibility includes a universe that is wild and full of danger as well opportunities for every kind of expression and experience. And in the nature of life we see this in wide range of possibilities - from cooperation and altruism and community (which is frequently under-represented and de-valued in standard Darwinism) to competition and selfishness and parasitism. To allow for the most glorious includes the potential for the most ignoble.

So now the human lineage comes along, and they follow these unfolding trends and patterns and acquire a new form of self-awareness. Unlike other species, humans are on the path to sentience, and are able to appreciate their existence in ways that other species cannot, including a nonlocal form of awareness practiced by the earliest mystics and a knowledge of our own physical mortality. Expanding on qualities that have appeared in other mammals and especially other primates, humans become extremely sensitive to others as they develop an enhanced capacity for empathy. At this point, was this a moral universe? No. It was neither "good" nor "evil". It simply was. Everything was sacred and subsisting in God.

The Rise Of The Moral Agents

But a change was about to occur as the human imagination and an (increased) capacity for communication and deception emerged. That is, in order to have the capacity to imagine, one gains the ability to envision false scenarios, that is, things that didn't happen. On the language processing side, then, the ability to be able to express nearly unlimited ideas means that we also have the capacity to communicate, intentionally or otherwise, incorrect information. Another side effect is that the more open the system for language is, the more room for error there is. Everything has a trade-off, God or no.

Because our ancestors developed these new mental faculties alongside the increasing capacity for choice, i.e. "free will", or agency (a limited and biased capacity for choosing in spite of our biology and culture) as some prefer, they had the capacity to live in a world that was increasingly subjective and self-promoting. Early on, in small communities, interdependence with nature and each other was still obvious, so that egos and their delusions for distinction, power, and glory could largely be kept in check. Yet even then, people had the power to choose a seemingly self-favoring delusion over reality and over the good of the community.

This of course is reflected in the story of Garden of Eden. Once humans had the ability to create a false view of reality in their minds they gained the choice to act on that incorrect or distorted view. This is the crux of the debate. The Garden represents reality as it is, neither good nor evil, simply being, where everything is sacred and subsisting in God. The world outside the Garden is the world we have shaped for ourselves. The Buddhists call it Samsara. Christians often refer to it simply as the "the World". Buddhists refer to our being trapped in it as karmic entanglements, whereas Christians refer to it as original sin, wherein sin is that which creates (the perception of) separation from God, from the sacredness of reality.

Does this make our universe a moral universe? No, it does not. But it makes us see everything in such terms. It colors our perceptions. Does that make suffering evil? No. Does it make parasites cruel or evil? No. Does it make humans inherently cruel or evil? No. Humans are still fundamentally part of that sacred reality subsisting in God, the Divine, the Great Tao, whatever people like to call it. So did God make anything that was "good" or "evil"? No. The Divine cannot be parsed into good and evil, nor can that which is formed of the Divine and sustained in its essence.

The human capacity for imagination, communication, and choice allow us the capacity to believe and act on that which is not real. By believing are fully autonomous agents with intrinsic existences who can harm others for our own gain and not be affected unless we are caught, we subscribe to an unreality that even the social, environmental, and physical sciences are starting to debunk. This is the kind of false belief that leads people to choose what we would call bad, immoral, or evil acts. This why we need to talk in terms of good or evil, because of the effects of human choices and the fact that we turn our outer reality into a reflection of our inner subjective reality. This is why humans must wrestle with morality - because our minds can create a dangerous deluded choice based on incomplete and incorrect perspectives.

So the question really boils down to this: "Should God be criticized for creating a universe in which humans would have the capacity to make choices that other humans would find objectionable?" I think that is the proper basis for (re-)formulating the argument Metacrock is developing here. But there is something else we can ask: "Should we assume Creation is a completed/static act or is it an ongoing process?" Which leads one to ask, "Is God finished manifesting/completing our world and if not what active role do we have in bringing it to fruition?"

I have yet to find but keep hearing about a cartoon in which two turtles are chatting about these very issues. The first turtle says to the second one, "If I got a chance to talk to God, I'd ask Him why He allows there to be so much evil in the world." The second turtle replies,"I'd be afraid He'd ask the same question of me." (*)

(*) I would personally change evil to suffering since they are not equivalent

Love And Freedom

This brings us to love and freedom. This comes from the views of a dearly departed internet friend and mentor. He was an atheist who was not immune to the spiritual qualities of the universe, and who had formulated a cosmology in which LOVE and FREEDOM were the two most fundamental forces of existence. When talking about this kind of universal love (bodhicitta, agape), we must note we are not merely talking about passion (in which love is paired with hate) or sentimentality (in which love is paired with despair), although these are not unrelated to this more fundamental kind of love (like echos). Love is the great attractor, while freedom separates. Love provides unity, while freedom provides distinction. And, as with previous examples, these are not mutually exclusive things - they are two aspects of the same thing, of the same potential that is actualized in what we call existence. Hence you cannot have one without the other. Love requires distinct things to be attracted to each other, which is provided by freedom. We can also think of this in terms of statistics and degrees of freedom in terms of what is or isn't possible. And we can think of it in terms of choice - which brings us back to free will. In order to have a universe where love is possible, moral actors must have the freedom to choose.

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