Why People Suffer

Religious

Let’s go over the possible answers and see which is best. First, I’ll start with the worst: people suffer because they did something wrong, they had it coming, God is punishing them. Karma’s a bitch. I can see only one possible instance where this is true, and it’s nothing more than a psychological observation. When we feel guilty, we probably did something wrong. I suppose we could call that suffering. Guilt is the natural indicator and God is the Author of it. That’s as far as we go here. To say that God punishes people through earthquakes, hurricanes, or other natural, social, or political events is morally wrong and bad theology. C’mon, really? Do you really think God, the most perfect being imaginable, kills people? God is much better (thank goodness).

the Lisbon earthquake was seen by many as caused by God for the sins of city. Read Candide.

Karma, from what I understand, is misunderstood by most people. Saying “Karma’s a bitch” to someone who “had it coming” is not the right way to think about it. Karma is not something you justify another man’s suffering with. Karma, rather, is completely in the control of each person. It is the culmination and aggregation of a person’s deeds. You do good, you become good, you progress in the next life. You do bad, you become bad, you regress in the next life. It’s like heaven and hell, but not as final. You cannot apply Karma to another person, another group, another culture.

Second, people suffer as a test, as a way to build character, as a way to learn something, as a way to overcome. Soul building. Job was tested by God and he came out stronger in faith and material possessions. Thus the saying: God never gives us anything we can’t handle. I get it. I understand that this might be comforting or even uplifting  to someone suffering. It could help you overcome a particular hurdle. Perhaps it’s good to think of life itself as a giant test. Perhaps that motivates some people. Or not. What happens when several arbitrary, coincidental pointless things happen to you? How do you distinguish an accident from a cosmic test? People do break. Are you really gonna believe that God is picking on you? And when too much shit happens, and you find yourself on your knees, asking God why, why, why me – whence your faith then? What are you left with? Your faith is exposed, I think. Your faith did the harm more than the events themselves! You are left with a God similar to the one I described above: a God who uses nature to punish people, to teach them a lesson. I wouldn’t do this to my own son! Nor would God. You suffered more than you needed to. Rather than having a friend in God, who would guide you through this horrible thing; instead, you made God into the author of the horrible thing. Perhaps there’s a better way.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I do believe in a God that’s right here, right now, inside me and outside me; ever-present, all-powerful, all-good, and all-knowing. I am not trying to turn God into a cold, careless, distant Creator. I simply believe that God does not play favorites; that he doesn’t arbitrarily mess with us, or worry about the small, daily events of our lives; that he lets the rain fall on sinners and saints (as Jesus taught). He’s eternal. We are not pawns in a game of chess; we are works of art within an unfolding work of art. I believe that God created a physical set of laws, which allows rocks to fall on human heads. And I believe that God created a moral law, which allows people to use their free will to hurt people. And I believe those two things – physical laws and free will – account for all the suffering in the word. God gives us the tools to overcome. In a way, he suffers with us (that’s what Jesus symbolizes). And I believe that God created an afterlife for those people who wrongly suffered on earth; for the people which God sheds a perpetual tear; the people Jesus referred to when he said “blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” God’s gift of freedom was both a weakness and an act of love. That’s the God I want to worship. Theologically, I will have my cake and eat it too.

Secular

Okay, that’s enough for the religious answers to our question of suffering. But atheists and agnostics worry about suffering just as much as anyone. They simply take a more practical and political approach to the question. Which is excellent. So do I. For example, people suffer because of free will. That’s something all religious and nonreligious agree on. People simply make bad decisions sometimes. Second, people suffer because of a horrible upbringing. They were planted in bad soil. The biological and psychological effects of having bad parents, or an insufficient support structure, cannot be ignored. When a child is born addicted to meth, the odds are bad, through no fault of their own. Third, people suffer because of unjust laws, inept governments, and immoral systems of finance and control. This is big picture. This is the ultimate political and sociological answer to our question, requiring ultimate political and social solutions. This is our common worldly battle. We must save ourselves from the suffering of  hunger, and poverty, and disease, and we must do it through social and political agencies. Some day, cancer will be defeated. Some day, people will have what they need to live. This should be the call of both secular and religious people worldwide. This is the kind of suffering that doesn’t need to happen.

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Why People Suffer

You are not your Brain: or, the problem with Reductionism

You are made up of atoms. That does not mean you are atoms. You have a brain. That does not mean you are your brain. Your thoughts are caused by patterns of neurons. That does not mean your thoughts are patterns of neurons. This mistake, “reductionism,” or reductive thinking, reduces everything to its’ component parts or causes. This mistake happens all the time, especially in the age of science. We have heard the mantra many times, usually with the pessimistic “nothing but” added on. We are nothing but apes, or brains, or emotions or whatever. But it’s wrong and deceptive; it limits are thinking, reduces our consciousness, impoverishes our experience, and constricts our horizons.

Plato and Aristotle recognized that there are different meanings to the word is, amare. For example when we say “I am atoms bouncing around in space,” that’s true. But it really means “I am composed of atoms bouncing around in space.” See the difference? Don’t confuse what you are with what you are made of.

Second, we confuse things with what causes them. For example some guy says to his wife: “My love for you is nothing more than chemical signals from my brain making me feel a certain way [or insert another scientific-sounding cause for emotions].” That’s not right. Love, of course, has many fascinating causes, but love is something different and larger than what causes it. It’s an experience beyond words. Faith too. Thunder is not lightening, yet lightening explains thunder.

We mistakenly reduce things into their properties too. God is love, said Paul. I agree. But that’s presumably just one of God’s properties, along with others. I am a father. I am smart. The philosopher Rene Descartes famously said “I think; therefore I am,” by which he meant the property of thinking proves the existence of a thinking being. He was right. On the flip side, Immanuel Kant famously said that existence is not a property. He was right.

Which brings us to the is of identity. When I say “I am,” it means I exist. Being, existence; that’s fundamental. This is the more mysterious one. When God said “I am who I am,” he meant it sorta like that; something like “I am the ground of all Being”. Similarly, when we say we have a mind or soul, we mean the soul is our ground of being, our changeless self, our highest form of is. I am Matt, a unique person that exists through time, space, and maybe even beyond that.

So, in the end, I am many things and you are many things, big and small: a brain, a body, a consciousness, a personality, a mind and a soul; memories, dreams reflections. I consider the brain hugely important, most important. But before we start reducing things into their lowest parts, let’s think. The problem with Reductionism is that, in its fever to explain things, it tries to explain things away; it confuses identity with causes, compositions, and properties. As Whitman said, “I contain multitudes: I am large.”

You are not your Brain: or, the problem with Reductionism

Think About Death. It’s Healthy.

Marcus Aurelius, wrote Meditations

Epictetus, the founder of Stoicism, said to “keep death and exile daily before thine eyes” and “it is not death or pain that is to be dreaded, but the fear of pain or death.” Marcus Aurelius, the Roman Philosopher Stoic, picking up where he left off, said “think not disdainfully of death, but look on it with favor; for even death is one of the things that Nature wills.”

Superior athletes practice visualization. They visualize the future in order to perform better when the moment comes. Guess what: that applies to life too.

Occasionally I find myself walking down the street in a somber, contemplative frame of mind. I think about the death of a loved one. What would I say at their funeral? What words would express how they lived and the love they gave to me? I’m filled with a bittersweet joy. Lately I’ve thought about my grandfather, father, and mother dying. I imagine myself at the funeral. I picture all the people there. I consider the emotions. It’s funny how to consider death is to consider and appreciate life. I am left with a peaceful feeling. I could die at anytime, and that’s okay. My grandfather could die at anytime, and that’s okay. I love him just as much now as I will then, and that’s it. What else can be said? To think about death as some horrible, impending doom is simply irrational.

I have always dealt well with tragedy. It’s not because I have no emotions (I  really do). Stoicism embraces controlled emotions. My personality, biology, and probably the size of my amygdala all play a part at how I react to tragedy. But my philosophy and mind set play a large part too. When it comes to tragedy, I have already been there. I have been to the mountaintop. I am ready for it. I am not worried about it. This is the Stoic lifestyle. The Stoics were the perfect blend of self-reliance and faith, of philosophy and religion. They did everything they could to be the best person they could be – and left the rest to God, or the Gods, or Nature. Worry about the things that are in your control, and accept everything else with a graceful disposition.

Your mother will die someday. You will die someday. The only thing to fear is not living. And I think that’s why we are scared of death.

Think About Death. It’s Healthy.

Do Morals Come from the Will of God?

This is an old puzzle that comes from Plato’s dialogue Euthyphro: if something is wrong simply because God says so, then morality sounds a little arbitrary. For example, what if God said murder was good?–would that make it good? (please don’t say yes psycho). On the other hand, if something is good for independent reasons, independent from God’s will, then morality sounds like it’s…well, independent of God, which is presumably bad for religion (so some people think). Thus I’m in a pickle. For God fearing philosophers like me, I want both. I want morality to be connected to God in some way, but not in a way that leaves out tons of people.

Jeremy Bentham, the atheist Utilitarian philosopher, thought that morality rests upon an independent principle “apart” from God so to speak. That independent principle was this: good is maximizing happiness and minimizing pain. That’s it. But he left room for God. He said that if God exists, then God would operate under this principle:

“The dictates of religion would coincide, in all cases, with those of utility, were the Being, who is the object of religion, universally supposed to be as benevolent as he is supposed to be wise and powerful…Unhappily, however, neither of these is the case…there seem to be but few…who are real believers in his benevolence…if they did, they would recognize that the dictates of religion could be neither more nor less than the dictates of utility: not a tittle different” (125).

In other words, God would be the best embodiment of utilitarian morality. However, people would not have to go through God (or the Bible) to get to morality. Anyone with half a brain can figure it out.

Kant, on the other hand, did believe in God, but he too thought that morality must not depend on God’s will or the Bible, but instead on God’s Reason (that is, reason, or rational thinking). Why? Because nobody really knows what God’s will is; people disagree and that causes a lot problems. Morality, Kant says, must be reasonable, accessible to all, and quite simple: only act on those principles which can be universalized to all. Through this principle we get to the Golden Rule – never treat people as a means but as ends-in-themselves – and we get many of the 10 commandments.

My opinion is in line with Kant. I do think that morals “come from God” simply because everything comes from God, by definition. But how do people access morality? That’s the question. Where do we actually get it? What or who is the gatekeeper? Our parents? Yeah sure sometimes. Religion? Yeah, many times. But where does religion get it from? Like Kant, I think Reason (our minds) ought to the be ultimate judge of what’s right and wrong. In the same way that human beings come from evolution and God, morality comes from Reason and God.

Of course empathy is a huge natural component as well. Empathy, when found in a compassionate, rational, and open-minded person – that’s a beautiful thing.

Do Morals Come from the Will of God?

John Stewart is a modern Socrates

Socrates (not John Stewart)

Socrates lived in a time when people thought they knew a lot. Socrates realized that real truth was hard to find. His life was dedicated to finding it. He died for it. I like to call him the “Jesus of Truth” (whereas Jesus died for love, Socrates died for the right to seek the truth wherever it may lead). Although he was humble about it, he exposed people by simply asking them questions; questions which led to contradictions. At the end of his life, he was put to death for “corrupting the youth of Athens.” He apparently asked too many questions.

In the same way that Socrates pointed out hypocrisy, The Daily Show exposes the awful hypocrisy, corruption, and stupidity of our entire political system. He spares no one: Republicans, Democrats, and the media itself (which has rightly been called the fourth branch of our government). While making fun of it, he actually covers the news. Unfortunately people my age probably get much of their news from this show.

The only thing bad I have to say about it: I’m thoroughly depressed and disgusted after watching a few shows. Mr. Stewart, finding little evidence for hope, leaves us with little hope. Perhaps our only hope is that the show itself will someday create real, honest political leaders.

John Stewart is a modern Socrates

Why theories about other people are wrong

Person: “People are stupid.”
Wise Person: “I’m so sorry you feel that way about yourself.”

We do this all the time. We have a theory about “how people are,” a handful of negative, blanket statements like “people are irrational” or “people are selfish” or whatever, that we like to sarcastically talk about with friends to pass the time or lament how we cannot save the world because, you know, people are like this or that. These conclusions about human nature start out perhaps by random experiences with people, watching people on TV, a book we read, an ideology we consumed. These things end up ingrained, a part of our worldview – the way we view and treat other people.

Other people. Except ourselves.

That’s my point. The fatal flaw with all these half-baked theories is that they never include the person behind the curtain, the theorist himself. You call people stupid and, for some odd reason, never include yourself in that statement? You are not stupid. It’s just those other people who are the stupid ones. What kind of arrogance is that? What kind of blindness?

When we make blanket statements about vast groups of people, we should realize that we are actually subscribing to a particular theory of human nature. We are saying: this is what human beings are like. Therefore, shouldn’t we apply it to ourselves first? Is it true about you? No. Okay, then perhaps it’s wrong (on many levels).

One way to trick ourselves, of course, is to put people into neat little buckets like “republican” or “liberal” or “black people.” Luckily, we never put ourselves in any of the buckets we make fun of. Nice try. People are people. If Republicans are stupid, and republicans are people, and you are a person, then you are stupid.

My blindness, perhaps, might be the opposite. I am categorically opposed to negative theories of human nature, ask you can probably tell, for several reasons (one is purely pragmatic…what good will that do?). I positively assert that human nature is basically good, that we can do anything, that our potential is unlimited. However, at least I apply it to myself. I believe that I am basically good, that I can do anything, that I am unlimited. I believe this about other people too. That’s the difference. If you have a poor view of human nature, that’s fine, and you might be correct; but please apply to yourself.

Why theories about other people are wrong

"rights" talk is a fancy way of expressing feelings…right?

I recently finished a fascinating book, Moral Tribes, that argued, believe it or not, against rights. Specifically, he argued that “rights” are really words that we hide behind. I think there is some truth to that.

Abortion is wrong because all humans have a right to life. Abortion is okay because all women have a right to choose. Gay people have a right to marry. The government has a right to define marriage. We cannot kill one person to save five because people have a right to life. Whether it’s carrying a gun into the library, burning a flag, or not vaccinating your children, we love to use “rights” and “duties” when talking about moral issues, when making moral judgments, or justifications, or rationalizations. Rights do all the heavy lifting, they are the argument; we hide behind them, they sound objective, smart, impartial, universal.

But what if the word “right” is nothing more than a fancy way of saying “I don’t like it.” In other words, “I don’t like abortion, it feels wrong.” A feeling, a gut reaction, an emotion, subjective. Everything else – all the arguments, justification, rationalization – is extra, meaningless, scaffolding. “I like when mothers can choose.” Same thing. First comes the feeling, then comes the argument to justify the feeling. If you keep asking why, you eventually get to feelings, intuitions, and gut instincts.

It reminds me of working in the Law Library. Patrons many times come in asking about “their rights” on any number of subjects. But sometimes what they really mean is this: I want x. Does a “right” exist to allow me to get x. In other words, please give me a fancy legal term that will magically get what I want.

Well, overall I think this is a negative, simplistic, reductionist view of human beings, similar to the “boo-hiss” theory that reduces all moral reasoning into simple emotions, so I don’t buy it for those reasons. I apply it to myself (which everyone should do), and I do find some truth in it.

Here’s the point. The argument tends to stop when you throw the R-bomb, and that’s really the worst thing. I believe in a right to life, you believe in a right to choose. Let’s go our separate ways, right?  Wrong. It’s not that simple. Public policy needs to be written, and these issues bear directly on laws that influence our lives. So politically at least we cannot ignore each other. Also, we might kill each other (people have killed for much less). Therefore, we need another solution.

Joshua Greene’s solution is to reduce rights talk into Utilitarian calculations. How much suffering does abortion cost overall? How much happiness does gay marriage promote? And let’s go from there.

Sounds promising. Does it work? Well, sadly, according to what I read in his book, it doesn’t. His utilitarian solution to abortion, for example, the only problem he tackled, was horribly complex, speculative, long-winded, not mathematical, and ultimately not convincing…it ends up being pro-choice, which is fine, but it leaves the reader scratching his head as to how the argument got there and how smart you have to be to engage in moral debate for God’s sake–do we all have to go to Harvard to think correctly about these issues? Greene takes nuanced thinking to a whole new level here, to the point of meaninglessness. Maybe I will stick to my “rights talk” – much simpler and people get my meaning. In fact, the same old arguments against Utilitarianism rears its’ ugly head – it’s very very hard to actually calculate suffering and happiness.

"rights" talk is a fancy way of expressing feelings…right?