Thursday, November 26, 2009

What the hell must be done, for heaven’s sake?

A good life guiding principle might be: let’s have a healthy and healing vision of things.

An algonomist mind must deal healthily with the panic-inducing thought that zillions of beings are caught in extreme suffering throughout space-time. That thought is made even worse by the possibility of superhell branches in an infinitely suffering multiverse, as described by David Pearce.

An algonomist mind must retain a modicum of self-confidence in the face of abysmal perplexity. I can assume being a relatively mediocre and too pretentious autodidact, but a more problematic realization is seeing how much complex essential questions are beyond my capabilities or those of anybody. Contemporary limits to our intellectual power are described with genius in Anthony Judge’s writings, for instance in Emergent characteristics of knowledge-based society, or in Emerging Memetic Singularity in the Global Knowledge Society. Besides, promises from technological progress are mixed: the next revolution in information processing might turn our brains into slaves as well as into gods, and while ad hoc solutions to our predicaments are necessary (like industrial production of meat in vitro that would free billions of abused animals), we know from the past that problems of suffering recreate themselves in new ways as technological progress pushes back moral frontiers. That is why an algonomy is and will remain indispensable.

An algonomist mind must keep focused in spite of ‘distraction’. Blaise Pascal used that term for referring to our perverse diversion from God, but I like to use it instead with reference to our ease at drifting away from any sustained concern with the unpleasant and bewildering topic of suffering. It is easy to get distracted by television, radio, books, music, friends, or the internet (or even one's own talkative mind!). I noticed that almost any few meaningful bits of sentences are enough to attract my attention, and once my interest is caught, the show of almost any construction of meanings may keep me busy for hours. I noticed also that movies on television are the most attractive programs because they provide usually more well constructed, carefully crafted meanings than other programs. But the greatest peril with regard to distraction, for me, is the world of ideas, knowledge, theories, intellect. That is where the meanings become more complex than I am able to fathom, and I am tempted to become involved in several fascinating endless pursuits, such as understanding world problems, neuroscientific research on consciousness, organization of encyclopedic knowledge, philosophy of thought, multiverse quantic cosmology, technological singularity, etc.

Resolving complex essential questions is beyond our capabilities, but those questions arise nevertheless, and whether they become a pernicious distraction or not, we must decide how to deal with them. Here is what I propose to do, from an algonomic perspective.

Three kinds of constructed meanings are used, apparently, for dealing with intractable questions: hollow constructions (agnosticism), solid constructions (commitment to one cultural belief), and ad hoc constructions (valid for one fleeting moment only). Thus, in the field of the complex and essential question of suffering, there are countless ad hoc constructions which are not ‘systematic’ but just momentarily pragmatic; there are a few solid constructions, like the Four Noble Truth of Buddhism, or the redemptive mystery of Christianity; and there are various hollow constructions, for which suffering is something unknowable at this time. Hollow constructions come in two forms. The first one is high and narrow: suffering, although not necessarily mentioned as such, is a top emergency, that is a medical, social, political, or humanitarian priority, that requires socially organized, very specific help. The second one is low and broad: suffering, although not necessarily mentioned as such, is an everyday widespread phenomenon that must be used in various ways [in daily life] as a subordinate means for ensuring success, discipline, well-being, profits, or other achievements.

In the light of what precedes, it is worth noting that algonomy has been until now a self-defeating idea. In the perspective of any ad hoc approach, suffering is too horrifying for being contemplated more than one moment. In the perspective of any solid approach, there is no need for another systematic construction because the solution to the problem of suffering is already known. In the perspective of any hollow approach, the problem is not so much suffering (what is suffering actually?) but rather illness, trauma, hunger, poverty, war, earthquake, success, discipline, well-being, etc. And on top of that, distraction has prevented since antiquity the development of any persistent systematic work which would address suffering, the whole of suffering, and nothing but suffering. Indeed, although countless people have been strongly motivated to spend their lives working on pain in the world, everyone of them until now, rather than becoming a specialist in algonomy, has been diverted into becoming a specialist in religion, philosophy, medicine, scientific research, revolution, social work, etc.

However... Now, in our postmodern world, a new kind of systematically constructed meanings appears to take shape. Briefly, it is a high, broad, solid construction with hollow fringes... Thus, algonomy can be seen as a construct with a cultural commitment in its center, accompanied with a transcultural (non-, or alter-, or omni-) dimensionality at its periphery. One of the basic accompanying works which can express that transcultural dimensionality is the Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential. But notwithstanding its value, the algonomy idea alone will remain unconvincing because the world of ideas, knowledge, theories, intellect is just too perplexing: everything, and its contrary, is possible! Then, the decisive argument will come from the world of concrete things, empiricism, practice, action. All is possible but only the actual is real! Under these circumstances, all things being considered, here is perhaps the most important question of all time: is it feasible, as a matter of fact, to act for an algonomic management of suffering? The answer, be it yes or no, can be proven experimentally, I claim. Providing the details is the next step for those interested in algonomy.

[A few minor modifications have been brought to the text above on 2010-01-31 and 2010-08-30]

Sunday, November 01, 2009

In the Night from Halloween to All Saints’ Day

Rarely do I get up in the middle of the night to write.

This time a giant pumpkin flash awakened my brain from a living dead dream.

“Does each of us inhabit all alone a parallel universe within a Multiverse?”

For one’s very dearest thought by no one is outrightly shared, isn’t it?

How could we communicate, then, and act together?

There ought to be a space-time hole, a road to the day

when all hearts, open and close at last,

collectively manage to not suffer, or not excessively at least.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Painism, a useful pre-algonomic deviation

Richard Ryder’s book Painism — A Modern Morality figures in Precursor Works for an Algonomy because it proposes “the theory that moral value is based upon the individual’s experience of pain and that pain itself is the only evil” (page 26). Even if I think the theory is false, as every other all-encompassing ethical view based on a single most cherished value, the book for me has still a pro-algonomic usefulness because it shows in simple terms how the moral value of suffering, at least from one point of view, is second to no other value.

The book has only three chapters, the first on “Ethics So far”, the second on painism as a new approach to ethics, and the third on “Some Applications” of painism. I believe Ryder was looking for a way to apply very generally the idea that the reduction (or we could say more sophisticatedly the sufficient collective mastery) of pain is a supremely important thing, and he thought ethics might be an appropriate way. However, an historical review might show that without an algonomy, which is specifically, universally, and exclusively about pain, no way of managing pain can be 'appropriate'. Until now, every solution to suffering has been inappropriate, every well-intended solution has been actually a deviation or a wandering from pain into something else. Ryder’s book is more about morality than about pain. As a consequence, it suffers from a dual focus that is blurring an otherwise clear matter. Pain has an importance so great that it cannot be conveyed by way of ethics: pain requires its own proper specific exclusive whole universal domain, second to none. And ethics cannot be reduced to pain without being pervertedly impoverished (v.g. p. 65: “Pain, broadly defined to include all forms of suffering, is the only evil. All other moral objectives are means to reducing pain.”).

The author formulates some 42 rules for painism. Most of them seem to me less wise than they should be. Ryder’s manner of dealing ‘quantitatively’ with pain is, in my opinion, so clumsy or half-baked that it defies serious criticism! He may recognize rightly that “the severe suffering of one individual is a more serious matter morally than the mild suffering of millions” (page 2), that “pains cannot be aggregated across individuals” (page 27, reminiscent of a C.S. Lewis’ saying), or that “our first moral concern should always be with the individual who is the maximum sufferer” (page 29, reminiscent of an Abbé Pierre’s saying, and of a John Rawls’ principle — incidentally pp.19-21 and 92-94 are excellent about Rawls), but he still lacks the more sophisticated concepts that would prevent him from uselessly presenting “provocative and controversial results” (back cover). Especially, I guess, he is lacking the concept of a categorical distinction of INCOMMENSURABILITY between mild (more sophisticatedly: non excessive) suffering and severe (excessive) suffering. For instance, Ryder might say that an event causing 100 units of pain to a thousand individuals is worst than an event causing 10 units of pain to a million individuals. We might agree with that, but then, according to the same logic, we should agree also that an event causing 100 units of pain to a thousand individuals is worst than an event causing 99 units of pain to a million individuals. The problem is that concepts like mild suffering, severe suffering, aggregation of pains, and maximum sufferer have to be defined much more explicitly than Ryder does.

It must be said in his defense that, as a former animal experimenter and a former chairman of the Royal SPCA council, Ryder has been much concerned with the number and the suffering of animals used in laboratories. That is perhaps why his perspective is so peculiar. In any case, algoscience should collect every ethical view that gives a prominent place to suffering or to the relief of suffering. Ryder mentions some names in this connection: Epicurus, Bentham, Mill, Singer… We might add to those names that of Richard Ryder, Karl Popper (who proposed a negative utilitarianism), Erich H Loewy (Suffering and the Beneficent Community), Jamie Mayerfeld (Suffering and Moral Responsibility), Henri Atlan (Le plaisir, la douleur et les niveaux de l'éthique)…

There is one more point in Ryder’s view of pain that seems important to me. He quotes on page 121 an author who, like many others, suggests that there may be “no shared mental quality” between various painful states, such as nausea, a stubbed toe, existential angst, or frustration from not being able to walk around. On page 27 Ryder writes also that “The pain of A is as different from the pain of B as is a piece of chalk from a lump of cheese.” On page 121 however he writes: “But surely — their painfulness is shared. Their causes may differ, and so do their emotional and cognitive attributes, but at some basic level these states are all painful.” An on page 35: “Sooner or later, brain research will show that all pleasures (…) share some common cerebral mechanism. The same will be said of all varieties of pain.” I concur heartily. Suffering is a specific real phenomenon. It is a concrete thing sticking to the bodies of individuals who suffer. It exists in space and time, in a given number of nervous systems. It reacts to actions applied to it, it can be reduced, it can be stopped, it can be prevented.

(Text has been somewhat modified on 2009-09-10)

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Cultivating a self-managed planet

Time magazine of August 31 2009 has a cover on The Real Cost of Cheap Food. It shows a package of ground beef with a sticker that reads: “Warning: This hamburger may be hazardous to your health. Why the American food system is bad for our bodies, our economy, and our environment – and what some visionaries are trying to do about it.”

Our bodies, our economy, our environment, our, our, our… Nothing about “the others”, those beings who actually are suffering the most because of “our” food system: the billions of animals who are abused, and also the nearly one billion persons who suffer from unfair agricultural trade. From an algonomic point of view, they are, presently, those who are paying the major part of THE (not 'our') real cost of cheap food.

But there is no algonomic culture yet for considering our problems of food, health, economy, environment, etc.

John J. Pilch has an article, How We Redress Our Suffering, in which he looks somewhat at how different cultures across time respond differently to pain and suffering. He quotes Mark Zborowsky’s classic study “People in Pain”:

Each human group has its own moral and ethical criteria, which are a part of its cultural legacy. They are part of its religious system, its social organization, or its economy. They might be absolute and universal in terms of the society that accepts them, but their nature is relative and even parochial when seen in the light of the diversity of human groups and cultures.

In our new peculiar planetary context, most solutions to our painful problems now require the adoption of an algonomic culture, a culture that, hopefully, allows us to deal with suffering within a global framework. The Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential offers the right frame for algonomic work, for choosing which elements, among ‘all’ relevant elements of the world problematique and resolutique, we may want to take into account. See in this connection the recent article of Anthony Judge: Reframing Global Initiatives for the Future.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

About masochistic suffering

I am just beginning reading Adam Swenson’s talk on what’s bad about masochistic pain, and already I am thinking of a theory.

I have not great personal experience of sexual or spiritual masochism, but I imagine it goes basically like this, generally speaking. The person happens to be feeling pleasure from sexual stimulation (or from thinking of God, or Jesus, or another spiritual object). Then a small or moderate pain happens, by chance or otherwise. Then the person realizes that her pleasure is not abolished by the happening of that pain, but on the contrary her pleasure is enhanced, is given more intensity, probably because her physiological and emotional arousal as a whole is heightened by the pain. Then the person may start to ‘play’ with the process that is occurring: a bit more pain brings a bit more pleasure. Psychologically, the person may think she is gaining a strange new power over pain, that she, among the privileged ones, is blessed with being involved in the solution of the great terrible mystery of pain: what a powerful feeling of happiness! Next comes ultimately the sexual orgasm or the spiritual ecstasy.

As an instance in spirituality, I remember Francis of Assisi who claimed that the perfect joy was to be insulted and beaten up when asking for charity: in effect, Jesus Christ the perfectly lovable almighty savior asked us to be charitable and was crucified, so what a joy to be like him ‘for better or for worse’…

Masochistic pain is perhaps not very bad, it might even have some evolutionary usefulness. However, it is certainly bad inasmuch as it leaves an individual or a collectivity with a false believe in the goodness of pain, when only ‘certain’ pains are 'tolerable' and without bad consequences.

Let's continue reading Adam's text.

Friday, August 07, 2009

An open letter to Stanley Cohen on his book States of Denial

Dear Sir:

Your States of Denial: Knowing about Atrocities and Suffering is one of the few books that figure in Precursor Works for an Algonomy. Algonomy, have I proposed, is a field of activity in which we would deal with suffering.

Here are, in relation with your book, a few 'algonomic' thoughts that I hope you will appreciate.

On page X of your preface, you recall your former fantasy of a 'sociology of denial', and you say that the subject remains the same: "what do we do with our knowledge about the suffering of others, and what does this knowledge do to us?" This could certainly be a subject in the "sociology of suffering" proposed by Iain Wilkinson. And I suggest also that such a subject (as well as questions concerning knowledge about our own suffering) could be usefully approached from an algonomic viewpoint.

On page 25, you wrote: "I take this simple formula - the 'need to be innocent of a troubling recognition' - as my guiding definition." This reminds me of what Cynthia Halpern says in her chapter on Nietzsche in Suffering, Politics, Power : A Genealogy in Modern Political Theory: in the end, what is important for the philosopher on suffering, is that 'there is no blame'.

Page 34, you evoke two modes of evading the realities of personal and mass suffering, turning a blind eye, and retreat from truth to omnipotence. That may correspond to the usual reactions that I get when I propose the idea of algonomy. People may say that algonomy is interesting but they cannot dwell much longer on it because they have other things to do (we respect but fear the truth, we keep facts conveniently out of sight, we cannot face all the time the disquieting implications of the facts). Or, alternatively, people may say that algonomy is not pertinent, because suffering is the business of a greater power, which they serve.

While reading your book, I have been inclined to apply what you say on denial to the reactions regarding the proposal of an algonomy. When I first proposed the idea in 1976, I thought it would be a matter of weeks before people acknowledge the value of the idea and get down to business with it. Thirty some years later, I am still looking for a first collaborator! Of course, there are a lot of people like me who propose something and find no buyer, or even no rejector either, but just sympathizers. However, I suspect that in the case of reactions to a proposal having to do with the very topic of suffering itself, denial might be involved. After all, the algonomic attitude is the un-denial per excellence vis-à-vis suffering. The next few passages that I quote from your book might illustrate that point further.

Page 54 (quoting Langer): "'(…) the patient must "know", but may at different moments have more or less ability to tolerate what is known and to integrate the knowledge into a meaningful reality.'" I guess that without an algonomy, the patient, or each of us, is lacking the means to fully integrate the knowledge into a meaningful reality.

Page 119: "One of his [Freud] definitions of repression is a fine statement about denial: 'the effortless and regular avoidance of anything that has once been distressing… It is a familiar fact that much of this avoidance of what is distressing - this ostrich policy - is still to be seen in the normal mental life of adults.'" And as a consequence, there is still no algonomy in human culture or civilization.

Page 131: "The impossibility lies not in seeing the past reality, but in perceiving it as reality"… I believe the problem with granting algonomy the importance it deserves is that we do not perceive past (or future) suffering as bad as it was (or will be). And if we are suffering in the present, we are disabled.

Page 139: "Historical skeletons are put in cupboards because of the political need to be innocent of a troubling recognition; they remain hidden because of the political absence of an inquiring mind." It might well be that algonomy is unrecognized because everybody has a vested interest against it. Nevertheless, policing the 'necessary' use of suffering in a rational way, i.e. to the best interest of each of us, is impossible without an algonomy.

Page 195: "(…) any dimming of compassion, any decreased concern about distant others, is just what the individual spirit of the global market wants to encourage. The message is: get real, wise up and toughen up; the lesson is that nothing, nothing after all, can be done about problems like these or people like this." Indeed.

For the rest of your book, much could be said. I will only note that "The project of 'overcoming denial' is more complicated and stranger" than you imagined (p. 278). In effect, it takes an algonomy. Only algonomic action has enough scope to be an adequate reaction to the bystander effect (p.140). I find that channeled acknowledgement (p. 273) is the way to go: I believe there should be compulsory algonomic service like there is compulsory taxes or military service. I believe also that the kind of measurement you are talking of p. 276 or p. 293-294 is doable in algonomy. And to "determine which forms of denial matter, which can be left alone" and "then try to lower the toleration threshold by transforming knowledge into inescapable knowledge" (p. 295), or "to sort out atrocities and suffering, rank their demands in a principled way, then set up filters and channels" (p. 296), I believe it takes also an algonomy. Otherwise, "The world of suffering makes moral imbeciles of us all." (p. 294).

I will soon post this message as an open letter in my blog About Suffering.

Thank you for your outstanding book.

Best regards,

Robert Daoust

Sunday, June 14, 2009

The day pain died

The following is excerpted from a recent article in the Boston Globe: The day pain died. It illustrates the kind of obstacles that are still preventing us from getting mastery over suffering.

"The date of the first operation under anesthetic, Oct. 16, 1846, ranks among the most iconic in the history of medicine. (...) The room at the heart of Massachusetts General Hospital where the operation took place has been known ever since as the Ether Dome (...). What the great moment in the Ether Dome really marked was (...) a huge cultural shift in the idea of pain. Operating under anesthetic would transform medicine, dramatically expanding the scope of what doctors were able to accomplish. What needed to change first wasn't the technology - that was long since established - but medicine's readiness to use it. Before 1846, the vast majority of religious and medical opinion held that pain was inseparable from sensation in general, and thus from life itself. Though the idea of pain as necessary may seem primitive and brutal to us today, it lingers in certain corners of healthcare (...). In the early 19th century, doctors interested in the pain-relieving properties of ether and nitrous oxide were characterized as cranks and profiteers. The case against them was not merely practical, but moral: They were seen as seeking to exploit their patients' base and cowardly instincts. (...) The "eureka moment" of anesthesia, like the seemingly sudden arrival of many new technologies, was not so much a moment of discovery as a moment of recognition: a tipping point when society decided that old attitudes needed to be overthrown. It was a social revolution as much as a medical one: a crucial breakthrough not only for modern medicine, but for modernity itself. It required not simply new science, but a radical change in how we saw ourselves."