Friday, 9 June 2017

The Asymmetry of Pain and Pleasure


Jeffery Jay Lowder at the Secular Outpost blogged an excellent piece last year detailing 25 lines of evidence against theism. I think all of them bear consideration, and, if I remember correctly, one or two more lines of evidence against theism popped up in the comments.

I would like to add another modest line to this list, or maybe just an adjunct to his No.8: The Biological Role (and Moral Randomness) of Pain and Pleasure, following Paul Draper. It is prompted by a trivial injustice that surely everyone experiences on a daily basis, but that perhaps points to a bigger issue. The minor injustice is this: the fact that the more one experiences a pleasure the less it satisfies and, indeed, it can turn to pain, while the more one experiences a pain it is not relieved, and it never turns into a pleasure.

Now, for the purposes of this discussion, I am taking a pretty simple view of pain and pleasure as things that are, in order, fundamentally bad and good. I will not consider the paradoxes of people seeking out pain for pleasure, for example, although, granted, this does suggest we have a complicated relationship with pain and pleasure. I think it's also true to say that one can become numbed to further pain to a degree. But this numbing doesn't seem as effective as the numbing of pleasure. Note too that people who feel chronic pain report it as a bad thing, while people who feel chronic pleasure also report it as a bad thing.

These things are pretty understandable on, and consistent with, Naturalism; we are the products of a natural selection that favours survival and reproduction over all else, so pain and pleasure are regulating systems that have evolved to help bring about gene persistence through that survival and reproduction. The particular fate of the gene vehicles is not so important as the gene persistence, so, as we see in nature, any number of strategies to achieve this persistence is possible, including ones which serve up pain and pleasure to the gene vehicles unequally (are there any animals that experience an asymmetry of pleasure over pain, I wonder?*). On an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent account of theism, these pose a problem; why would an omnibenevolent god allow an asymmetry of pain and pleasure, leading to more pain than pleasure?

What these observations lead to relates somewhat to our attitudes to death. I wrote recently defending Bernard Williams's thoughts on eternal life, that it would end up become meaningless because categorical desires would be exhausted. I recently heard Shelly Kagan expressing a similar opinion on Philosophy Bites:
I do think that eventually life would grow excruciatingly dreadful, boring, tedious no matter what it was filled with, but for all that it would still have been true that during the initial satisfying, richly rewarding 100 years, 500 years, or however long it would take before it got boring, those initial 500 years will still have been worth living, they were still good. To give a humdrum, everyday analogy: if you offer me a piece of chocolate, I love chocolate, thank you, thank you, thank you; if you give me a second piece of chocolate, I love chocolate; you offer me a third piece of chocolate, I say thank you thank you thank you. Now there must be some number...of pieces of chocolate at which I would say: no more. Chocolate is no longer a good thing for me at this point, I'm not enjoying it.
He goes on to claim that the initial period before the boredom is worth living, and I think that's right. But what is going on here? Why do some of us think that these pleasures will stop? Pleasures derive from the satisfaction of desires. But once a desire is satisfied the pleasure stops. I guess that means that, in the Bernard Williams scenario, we are saying that over time all our desires will be satisfied. So no more pleasure will be possible.

Conversely, we could say that pain derives from the imposition of 'undesires'. But there is an imbalance: there is an effectively never-ending supply of 'undesires', while there is no never-ending supply of desires. So pain is inevitable in a way that pleasure is not.

This perhaps derives from our nature: we need a fine balance to maintain our health - nutrition, warmth, water - so evolution has shaped us to maintain that fine balance. If the pleasure was never turned off we would soon over-indulge and do ourselves serious harm. Chronic pain does not pose the same immediate risk to our health, (although, granted, it can lead to damage in some circumstances), so stopping pain is simply not as important or pressing as stopping pleasure. *Perhaps this answers my question in parenthesis above.

So I think the asymmetry can be expressed simply as:
Satisfaction of desires is inevitable, so pleasure must end, but the undesirable will always exist, so pain never will (end).
I think this is clear evidence for naturalism over an omnibenevolent god. Not a knock-out blow, to be sure, just another strike against God. Further, I think this asymmetry is inevitable given our nature. God need not have given us a nature that results in this asymmetry, so it's more likely we are not products of such a divine being, but of indifferent Nature.

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