A Naturalistic Explanation of Suffering


Last time, I noted something of a gap in the results of internet searches on the origin of suffering. I didn’t see any naturalistic explanations, at least in the first page, just supernatural ones and the odd bit of anthropocentric philosophy. I suspect this is because suffering has traditionally been dealt with from a religious perspective, and perhaps materialists don’t usually deal with the subject in isolation. I thought I would engage brain (and do a bit more research) to see what I could contribute to the subject. I thought this would contrast neatly with Hawkes’ tortuous Christian explanation discussed in my last post. As always, I would be grateful for correction on any factual errors, and I invite comments to share any related views. 🙂

Phenomena that we identify in the world, like suffering, sometimes only occupy a particular realm or stratum of it. The physical explanation of gravity, for instance, applies to the cosmos, the explanation of ethics only to human social psychology.

The way science integrates knowledge is through reduction: psychology is explained by biology, which is explained by chemistry, which is explained by physics. Reductionism is logically and empirically supported, and has been immensely useful in our understanding of the world. Many phenomena can clearly be seen to emerge from processes happening at a lower level. Where does suffering belong?

It would seem self-evident that suffering, unless oddly defined, will not belong to the cosmic level. On the other hand, I want to dig as deep as necessary into these ontological layers to shed light on the subject, allowing for the possibility that the causes of suffering lie at a more fundamental level of the universe than the psychological or biological. This is partly to indicate that I take its explanation no less seriously than religions, for which suffering is often iconic. The investigation will, of course, consider the intuitive opposite of suffering, pleasure.

What is Suffering?

The obvious place to start is to ask what kinds of things suffer and what don’t. It goes without saying that people suffer (and early mythological explanations weren’t interested in much besides). Nowadays, we infer from experiments that some other animals also suffer, and we have laws to protect them from undue suffering and cruelty.

There is a fundamental problem here, though, which is about how we interpret behaviour. Some people say that all animals suffer, right the way down to bacteria, because we observe them moving away from sources of heat or cold, toxins, etc., that would harm them. Others say that suffering requires consciousness, and that this doesn’t apply to such simple organisms. Consciousness, they would say, is something that only certain animals besides humans have, so a snared rabbit struggling to get free may be experiencing pain, but a bacterium swimming away from a toxin isn’t. A common delineation of suffering is that it requires a nervous system of some kind, which includes rabbits and octopuses, but excludes the simplest forms of life. Others might even suggest that suffering requires self-awareness, another level of abstraction by which we know we are suffering, narrowing its range to humans and perhaps a few other species.

Although science is making inroads into the issue of consciousness, it is not clear what other species’ internal experience is like, and consciousness is proving to be a very complex and surprising study indeed. For instance, certain brain states have been observed to result in the experience of a pain without the person being able to say who is suffering it. They say there is a pain, but it might be theirs or the experimenter’s or nobody’s. Consciousness is, rather surprisingly, proving to be a loose congomeration of heterogeneous functions and manifestations.

Few would propose to push the boundary of consciousness or suffering further down beyond the unicellular organism, to molecules or atoms (a philosophy called ‘panpsychism’). However, as I discuss later, this may not apply, in a wider philosophical sense, to the origins of suffering. We may be able to push that limit down to a lower ontological bedrock.

Honey by Any Other Name

Despite these questions, suffering is almost certainly an evolutionary response to protect the sufferer, by motivating action to escape a threat. Conversely, pleasure can be considered its opposite, motivating organisms to approach and avail themselves of nutrients and other environmental benefits. So this dichotomy between pleasure and pain seems to be more than purely intuitive. It would seem to represent the very basis of biological motivation.

One of the great insights from evolutionary theory is that the very nature of our experience may be entirely dictated, indeed created, by selective pressure. Prior to Darwin, it was easy to imagine that there was something intrinsically sweet about the taste of honey, for example, or intrinsically evil about a bad smell. But analysing the structure of sugar molecules does not reveal any sweetness. The sweetness makes sense when we see how these molecules affect our taste buds, setting off a chain of events in the nervous system leading to our experience of pleasure.

The sugars in ripe fruits, or in honey raided from bees’ nests, were of vital importance to survival, and thus reproduction, during our evolution, so we evolved the pleasure response to eating it (or rather, we elaborated the basic attraction response of our simpler ancestors). Before this there was no sweetness in the world.

Similarly, the sting of a cut, the taste of poisons and the smells of decaying matter are located in our brains, and our pain or revulsion protects us from these threats. There is nothing intrinsically painful about a lesion or broken limb, an idea that is supported by the study of anasthetics and hypnotic suggestion. Other emotions, such as love or admiration, on the positive side, and fear or jealousy, on the negative, have similar functions.

With the realisation that these responses are purely dependent on what our species has evolved to value or avoid for survival, we may begin to modify our ideas about pleasure and pain, but, even more fundamentally, about absolute goodness and badness. From this kind of analysis, we see through mythic ideals of good and evil intrinsic to worlds or beings, and begin to see moral questions as social constructs underpinned by evolutionary pressures, rather than as a cosmic battle.

One need only consider what gives humans, and clearly other animals, the greatest pleasure (food, sex, relationship) or the greatest suffering (life-threatening injuries, the death of our children, knowledge of our mortality) to understand how directly these relate to the passing on of our genes.

The development of these attraction and repulsion responses is complex. Some of the stimuli are hard-wired into nervous sytems. Fruit flies, for example, are attracted to the smell of certain chemicals that indicate ripe fruit, and repelled by the smell of putrid food, just as humans are. Human babies are attracted to faces and frightened by sudden noises. But there are other responses that are conditioned by experience, so we learn what to find attractive or be scared of partly from others, or from events that associate one emotion with others. Even fruit flies can learn to associate an odour with pain, and thereafter will avoid the odour.

As human interactions became more complex and language developed, these associations between phenomena in the world and our responses became shared and elaborated at the linguistic level. Tribes created rules for living, ethical codes, many of which have clear links to deeper evolutionary pressures, such as the ubiquitous incest taboo (since in-breeding is damaging to the gene pool) or rules about personal hygene (to avoid disease). It seems reasonable to suppose that the myths societies developed over the millennia acted to protect individuals and the tribe from harm and to bring them resources.

As well as the immediate protection provided by a myth, for instance of a monster living in a river, which might stop children going there unacompanied and drowning, the stories collectively would provide cultural bonds within a tribe. As I wrote about here, they were also a response to the realisation that we are mortal individuals, and probably to the most impressive psychic phenomena, from drug use and extreme physiological conditions.

Deeper Origins of Suffering

This gives, I think, a good explanation of the immediate origins of suffering in evolution, but it may be worth digging down a little deeper. Sometimes there are questions we don’t think to ask. Descriptions of evolution usually leave out a set of background conditions, which may puzzle some of us and are worth understanding better.

An overview would describe how populations of a species acquire randomly generated differences through mutation (and through mixing of genes from the parents in sexual reproduction), and how these differences affect the probability of survival long enough to reproduce, as well as success in reproduction and survival of progeny: thus, some genes are copied more than others down to later generations. It is these natural, selective pressures that have honed our responses to pain and pleasure, as noted already.

But we might ask, why is this going on at all? It is all very well to propose that organisms’ suffering is caused by the struggle for survival, but why is there a struggle for survival? And does this not point to something like the cursed world of Christian myth, even if we don’t take the myth literally?

If suffering is due essentially to threats to our survival (although it is reproduction that is important for genetic inheritance, but for that it helps to be alive!), we might gain a deeper understanding of the origin by asking why organisms die. There are obvious reasons, like traumatic accidents (drowning or falling from a height, etc.), which we can relate directly to the laws of physics and the functional and structural limits of bodies.

We might ask why evolution doesn’t give rise to super-strength, unbreakable bodies, ones with emergency wings for soft landings and gills as well as lungs to avoid drowning, and the reason is that all adaptations have costs as well as benefits, and evolution is a process of tuning phenotypes (body types) to particular environments and ecological niches. Equipping them with qualities to deal with every eventuality would be a burden and make them less well adapted.

Then there is death from old age, which has been quite puzzling for biologists. Why do organisms not just live forever, as this would provide endless opportunities to reproduce? One answer is that the individual is constantly receiving injuries, and the damage builds up over time. Eventually the cost of repairing aging bodies becomes untenable. This damage is at many levels, right down to a constant bombardment by cosmic particles, which causes dangerous mutations in the process of cell-division. An individual’s health is therefore naturally in decline throughout life, which will affect its reproductive health too.

For many species, reproduction represents the stark end of their usefulness to the genes, and they die soon after, but even if this is not the case, evolution tends to weed out damaging mutations that affect younger individuals, because these compete against healthy copies of the same genes in later generations, whereas mutations that affect older, less fertile or infertile individuals do not suffer this selective pressure, so old age is commonly accompanied by increasing suffering and frailty.

So, life exists in a hostile physical environment, inside and outside the body. Some of this is simple physics and chemistry. Some of it is compounded by biological evolution.

Red in Tooth and Claw

Another extremely common cause of death, which at first sight looks distinctly biological, is being eaten. The sheer amount of suffering from predators hunting prey over millions of years is unimaginable. Why is most of the animal kingdom constantly in danger of being pounced on and turned into dinner? Doesn’t this indicate some kind of evil in the world?

Well, no, it doesn’t, it indicates that evolution doesn’t care to be good or bad, only efficient. Animals need to get energy from somewhere to fuel their movement and decision-making, to grow and repair damage and reproduce, and where that comes from is not a moral choice, nor an immoral one; it is amoral selective pressure.

Plants take energy straight from sunlight by photosynthesis, and thereby concentrate energy in their cells. But anything that eats plants (which, strictly speaking, is predation) has access to all the energy the plants spent long hours storing. Meat is a much more concentrated source of energy again, so meat-eating can be even more efficient (depending on how much energy is spent getting it).

And there is a another level of efficiency beyond that of eating raw prey or vegetable matter, which humans discovered perhaps a million years ago. Cooking food changes its chemistry, making it possible to extract more energy and nutrients from it. Some think this additional energy created the opportunity for the human brain, the most energy-hungry organ of the body, to increase in size compared to other animals.

All organisms, including predators, are shaped by the natural processes of evolution, which are constrained by the economies of energy capture and expenditure, and mediated by the chemical reactions of metabolism, turning food into other forms of energy for movement and warmth. The biological process of predation therefore shows itself to be just chemistry and physics too.

Eddies in the Thermodynamic Stream

What is indicated is not evil, then, but a simple fact: unless energy is put in to keep structures together, they fall apart. This is one way of expressing the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which describes how order always degrades into disorder, hence unrepaired houses eventually fall down, mountains erode and hot cups of tea go cold (removing the temperature differential between it and the room). Living organisms must take in energy and/or matter to overcome the natural decline into disorder that everything is subject to.

One of the curious things about life is that it appears to contradict the Second Law, because life builds structures, increasing its internal order. However, the law relates only to isolated systems, and an organism is not isolated: it accesses sources of matter and energy in the environment, such as chemical energy in the form of food. So life builds and maintains its internal order only by reducing the order of what it takes in.

The Spoils of War

Having traced the origins of suffering about as far down as seems reasonable, it’s time to come up to the human level again. You might think I’ve missed a lot of important kinds of suffering when I described myths and moral codes as helping individuals and society to be safe and healthy so that our genes can be passed on. What about all the horrors people have perpetrated, the slaughter of untold millions in war and genocide? What about the individual evils, the apparently pointless acts of violence, the depraved malevolence, torture and homicide? Surely these don’t help pass on our genes or make for a safer society, and can’t be explained by selective pressure, do they?

We’ve all heard the statement that humans are the only animals that kill for fun. Isn’t this evidence of some terrible corruption in our species? Or is it something that just comes along with greater intelligence and complex societies?

Well, it may be amplified by the latter, but basically it’s a myth. Many other species, from the simple to the complex, engage in surplus killing, where more prey are killed than are eaten or even cached for later. Some appear to inflict damage and slow death deliberately on their victims, or engage in infanticide or the killing of siblings. If you have the stomach for the details, this lists some of them, including bottlenose dolphins, several species of cat, foxes, wolves, hyenas, honey badgers, stoats, elephants (killing rhinos), and gorillas (killing rival males’ offspring).

The causes may vary, but I will conjecture that predators have evolved neurological responses that are exciting to them, to encourage them to hunt. Once this adaptation is established, there may be little cost to the hunter in exaggerating the behaviour. If an animal enjoys killing due to its genetic programming, it may simply continue to kill for what in humans we’d call ‘fun’. (I have been unable to find information to verify this, but will continue searching and put an update in the comments if I find anything.)

Perhaps most disturbing of all, but necessary to mention here, is our closest evolutionary cousin, the chimpanzee, which has been observed waging ‘war’ on neighbouring groups, engaging in skirmishes into enemy territory and ambushing chimps of the other troop, biting and beating males to death. They usually let females go, but kill and eat infants.

This campaign, which lasted ten years, led to the expansion of the troop’s territory, giving it access to more resources and thus, it is thought, increasing fertility, so the behaviour is likely to be adaptive. It also resembles inter-group aggression and warfare in human societies, and it has been suggested to originate earlier than the split between humans and chimpanzees.

It seems likely, then, that human warfare and other forms of violence have the same adaptive advantages. Clearly, waging war on another tribe is of benefit if you win their territory and capture the women. With increasing complexity of societies, the spoils would include more property. Early hunter-gatherers would get the tools and artifacts of conquered tribes. With the advent of settled farming communities, to the victors would go grain stores, livestock, cultivated fields, irrigation systems, buildings, etc., and later rewards would include symbolic wealth such as gold, infrastructure and control of trade routes, and the considerable benefits that come from knowledge held in libraries. Over the centuries, conquest and consolidation of larger and larger groups led to the formation of empires and nations in the modern era.

Warfare can therefore be seen to originate either directly from evolutionary advantages conferred on the victors, or indirectly, through our evolved instincts, the thrill of the chase in hunting and the drive to compete with rivals, these naturally arising from the biological imperative to eat, survive and breed, all with a fundamental law of physics at the base.

Pyramids and Psychopaths

From the above, we may be able to understand the individual who perpetrates evil quite easily, and in two main ways. The first follows from the simple equation that if a person is ‘bad’, they get more, so mutations for what we might now term psychopathy will be selected for. On the face of it, it is useful to the individual to threaten, use violence, steal, lie and cheat. They will be richer, have more food, sex, and offspring, thus passing on the genes that made them that way. However, people get wise to this and stop trusting the psychopath, so the proportion of individuals with psychopathic traits is in dynamic equilibrium. If there are too many of them, the co-operative, fair-minded people become more defensive and mistrusting, leading to a decline in psychopaths. If there are almost none, trust rises among people, and it again becomes advantageous to develop psychopathic traits.

The second explanation is encapsulated in Lord Acton’s quote, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Tribal societies and civilizations, like chimpanzee troops, have their leaders – the ‘alpha male’ – and this position tends to concentrate power and advantage. They gain the selfish benefits that accrued to the ordinary psychopath, but now their status protects them from the backlash: even if the poorest people in society are oppressed, half starved and angry, the leader is insulated by a pyramid of power, his personal bodyguard well-fed and ready to defend him from an uprising, the ‘middle classes’ just a little too comfortable to make waves, and everyone too scared to challenge the ruthless machinery of dictatorship.

These two explanations are connected, since psychopathic traits may help an individual gain status at any position in the group, if carefully managed, potentially to arrive at the top, and the higher their position, the more recklessly can their psychopathic traits be expressed without harm to them.

Another defence for the psychopathic leader comes in the form of mythic propaganda, which the powerful can control, most importantly the very common myth that the leader is divine, not just a king, but a God-king. He may select a few impressive shamans to support that identity, or, in the right circumstances, expand his sovereignty through conversion and war, eventually to command an empire, as in the case of Pharaohs in Egypt or Catholic Popes. Monuments and histories the world over attest to the sublime benevolence, matchless heroism and supreme divinity of narcissist after narcissist, sometimes commanding genuine devotion from the masses, sometimes enslaving them, and often slaughtering them if they revolt.

Perhaps the most potent, and ironic, religious propaganda that arises from this is the belief that pleasure and pain themselves, good and bad fortune in this life and purported afterlives, are dispensed by the divine power that the leadership speaks for. Then, following the religous dictats defines what is good, rejecting them what is bad. The crusader becomes rich through slaughter that is praised as service to God, and the infidel dies for believing something else.

The focused, stable co-operation that wealth and power command, meanwhile, builds cities and monuments that seem to demonstrate the truth of the myth. Military campaigns and subjugation of other societies bring more wealth and pleasures for the populace to enjoy, re-affirming the delusion that it is their moral superiority, rather than violence and greed, that brought the benefits. The delusion runs incredibly deep and is hard to wake from. The West, for instance, still invokes its ‘meek and mild’ Jesus, its dove-like Christian inheritance, and boasts of its civilized moral accomplishments, most of its populace apparently unaware of the scale of slaughter and theft on which it was built, and is still being built.

Some Good News

The above seems to me to describe fairly persuasively the natural origins of pleasure and suffering, and of good and bad, those abstract elements of morality by which people have attempted to understand their inconsistent fortunes and manage their freedoms and responsibilities. The view behind us is pretty bleak. We are only here because our ancestors won battles, many of them terrible. We are all, almost certainly, descendants of tyrants, rapists, murderers and cannibals; denial of this is possible only by limiting how many generations we look back.

However, I must stress that facing up to this uncomfortable view of history does not in any way support a might-is-right political stance towards the future. For one thing, I have stressed the darkness in life, which appears for the most part to have been getting lighter. The broad sweep of history documents general and exponential improvement in the human condition. For another, our animalistic past does not have to define our more rational future. Our cultural evolution is barely ten-thousand years old, and our scientifically-informed contemplation of moral philosophy barely a few hundred. We have only just begun to wake up.

Autocracies have been torn down again and again by revolution, with a general, if sporadic, increase in the rule of law and social justice over time. An unprecedented, if largely symbolic, step forward in Western history was the Magna Carta of 1215, wresting absolute power from the English King and challenging the divine right of monarchy, leading to protection from unlawful detainment. This influenced later upheavals, like the French and American Revolutions and the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade.

Women’s political franchise followed, and, in recent decades, further civil rights movements demanded equality before the law for minority ethnic groups, sexual orientations and genders, as well as fundamentally challenging tradition and authority in principle. The rights of children have gradually been recognised and protected. Legal rights have been developed to protect animals from cruelty, and we are now poised to consider the potential rights of artificial intelligence.

Despite this progress, however, we must recognise that the world is still in the hands of a small number of people, who use their enormous wealth and power to control or undermine democratic process, supported by the global capitalist system. We are waking up to the reality of global warming, which makes this system fatally unsustainable. The oligarchs’ position at the top of the pyramid depends on their control of the fossil fuel industries, the world’s banks, the arms trade, the media and our democracies.

Almost certainly in cahoots with big business, there are kleptocrats and psychopaths at the helm of many nations, and the posturing of three of them, Putin, Trump and Kim Jong-Un, recently made international tensions higher than they have been for decades. Not unconnected, the three Abrahamic religions continue their dance of death around the Temple Mount, whilst the USA reluctantly cedes top spot to China in the global pecking order of super-powers.

Along with the challenges, there are unprecedented opportunities: the Internet, biotechnology, nanotechnology, renewable energy and artificial intelligence are some, along with our social progress already made and constantly in the making. I think people’s level of education and involvement with politics are likely to continue to rise, and our ability to analyse problems and solve them should increase, probably beyond anyone’s ability to predict.

But things could go either way. If the scientists’ predictions about the effects of global warming play out, we might see that we’re all in the same boat and work together more, or it might increase our protectionism, causing more war and famine. Either way, suffering and pleasure will almost certainly continue for the foreseeable future; it is only the balance that is in question.

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2 Responses to A Naturalistic Explanation of Suffering

  1. You say that, “One of the great insights from evolutionary theory is that the very nature of our experience may be entirely dictated, indeed created, by selective pressure. Prior to Darwin, it was easy to imagine that there was something intrinsically sweet about the taste of honey, for example, or intrinsically evil about a bad smell. But analysing the structure of sugar molecules does not reveal any sweetness”.

    Let us agree that analysing the structure of sugar molecules does not, indeed, reveal any sweetness. Sweetness is one of the countless things that is invisible to science – we might agree. Are we to infer from this that sweetness does not exist? If so, why?

  2. lettersquash says:

    Hi Paul, welcome to the blog, and thanks for your comment!

    I wouldn’t say that sweetness doesn’t exist, only that it is a physiological response in an animal brain. That’s an approximation, as I tend to think all definitions of that kind must be. It might be better to include the whole nervous sytem, since the taste-buds and their neural connections take part. Then, since the sugar molecules bind to the receptors (I guess), we might say that they are part of the whole biochemical reaction. Smell plays a part as well, and certainly the scent molecules bind to the olfactory receptors.

    I’m guessing from our earlier discussion on youtube that this question about the ‘countless things that [are] invisible to science’ might be pointing in the direction of subjective experience, is it?

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