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Worst of All Possible Worlds

August 22, 2011

Three events occurred within the span of two days, all of which seem to have some bearing on an idea I’ve been trying to write up for some time.

First, I was talking to one of my students about the dissection of a sea star. I’d already done most of the dissection of the pickled critter as a class demonstration, but she was having some trouble finding a few organ systems and seeing how they went together. I told her that since nearly everyone else had finished up she was welcome to grab a scalpel and pull the sea star apart. She made a face and said, “I’m normally okay with dissections but sometimes…you know?” What I immediately wanted to say to her was, “When you’ve been diagnosed with cancer at age twenty-five, faced your own mortality, came to terms with that, and then discovered that while you were in the hospital one of your friends was getting raped, maybe you’ll find a better target for your compassion than a dead sea star.” Thankfully, my brain does sometimes work faster than my mouth and I remembered that compassion is a virtue, even if a bit misplaced, and agreed that she was a decent person to think that through rather than stomping on her qualms.

The next day I read about a person who wants all predators to be either killed or re-engineered so they don’t kill things. This person hopes to wipe out suffering in the natural world. Of course, the commentators on the article noted that this would hardly do it. Deer aren’t carnivores, but they’ll nip the wings off of nestling birds if they don’t have enough calcium in their diet and they’ll occasionally fatally gore each other in male-versus-male contests for females. The goal of eliminating suffering in the natural world might, as far as human capabilities are concerned, be the same as the goal of eliminating life itself.

A few hours later I watched a squirrel get run over. He almost made it. When the tire rolled over his tail I thought for a second that he was still alive in the gray blur, just rolled a bit. The shattered body on the highway told me otherwise – he’d been pulled partway under the tire by his tail. It was unclear whether he was dead or simply half-crushed and dying.

What do all these depressing things have in common? Well, a slogan run by atheists on the sides of buses in London. The Atheist Bus Campaign’s slogan was, “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” Not surprisingly this campaign has brought a lot of criticism from various people, to which I’m about to add. But, before I do, it’s worth pointing out that the campaign is clever, well-run, and, remarkably when some of the major donors are considered, polite. If we have to have conversations about important matters by writing giant ads on the sides of buses at one another we could do worse.

However, there are certainly things to dislike about the campaign. Obviously I disagree with its conclusion that there probably isn’t a God. This isn’t the thrust of the slogan’s message, though. The second half of the slogan cites no facts, or even lists of opinion-holders, to back the first half. Instead it makes an emotional appeal, in essence saying, “And isn’t that wonderful?” It is this emotional appeal that I wish to address, in the spirit of addressing the message at the point to which it is speaking.

Presumably one should stop worrying and enjoy one’s life because if there probably isn’t a God you probably won’t go to Hell. I would argue, though, that you’re already in a pretty close facsimile. Sure, maybe in the Western world you don’t feel that every day, but what kind of world is this? One in which, as my three incidents suggest, massive amounts of suffering occur constantly. And you’re right in the dead center of that.

Estimating the number of species on the planet is something people in my field like to do from time to time, but there’s little agreement on the answer. What we can say is that there are (currently) three enormous categories that include everything living: the Domains Archea, Bacteria, and Eukarya. Now, life seems to be pretty thin on the ground overall. Most of the universe is empty space, and while the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence it seems like life is pretty rare even on planets. So just being alive is pretty weird – and it’s remarkably hard for non-life to suffer. But even within life, within these three Domains, the vast majority of life resides within Bacteria and Archea. It’s simple, really. A single grizzly might require kilometers of forest to live in. That same grizzly is, to something the size of a bacteria, a continent. There’s a lot more bacteria than anything else. And, we’ll note, bacteria completely lack any sort of centralized nervous system. Even the most basic level of suffering, physical pain, would seem to require a centralized self to feel pain. And that sort of centralization doesn’t appear in single-celled organisms. In fact, it appears to be restricted to a single subkingdom (two levels down from Domain) of animals, the eumetazoans. Even there we’re reaching. Some of these animals have the barest of nerve nets.

Suffering, however, would be relatively hard to deny under the terms we are discussing it once we get much further than that. Pain (or something that looks, to our limited eyes, just like pain) seems to be a pretty universal response in creatures that have nerves. It makes sense, too. Organisms that feel pain avoid pain and avoid damage. But how much suffering is involved in mere physical pain? Some creatures appear virtually unaffected by wounds that would lay a human out screaming. And suffering isn’t just physical trauma. Do worms feel fear? Certainly many animals seem to. The scattering of fish when a shadow passes across them can’t, scientifically speaking, be called fear because we just don’t know. But it sure looks like it. But again, there are levels to fear. Does an angelfish gaze into the open water off the reef and, seeing a barracuda snatch a less cautious fish, fear the barracudas that might, in the future, threaten it? Probably not.

In fact, one of the grand ironies of being human is that while we put a great deal of value on our oversized brains it is just those brains that open us up to real suffering. If you can comprehend the future you can fear it: the food shortage that might come, the lions you won’t see, the winter that fast approaches. If you can form complex relationships you can suffer there, too. You can remember when you were young and had status. You can know that the members of the tribe that are approaching you will steal your food and bite you. But if you really understand, well, then you can really suffer. Chimpanzee mothers have been recorded carrying the rotting corpses of their dead infants for days, something not seen in mice or lizards. Still, I don’t think baboons ever wake up in the middle of the night wondering if they will ever be loved, but humans do. I doubt dolphins contemplate mortality, but I have. Humans can suffer in their minds to the point of suicide, something unique, to the best of my knowledge, out of all life that we know.

So, don’t worry. You’re only the species most able to suffer, in a random universe that cares nothing for you. You, alone out of all life, can plumb the depths of misery. But be happy. Because justice will never come. The world will never be set to rights. You’ll never be judged wrong by some divine agency, but you’ll never be vindicated, either. What you see is what you get.

Personally, I think there’s a much more rational answer than not to worry. It involves hiding under the bed with a baseball bat, gibbering in terror.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Justin permalink
    August 26, 2011 12:20 pm

    “So, don’t worry. You’re only the species most able to suffer, in a random universe that cares nothing for you. You, alone out of all life, can plumb the depths of misery. But be happy. Because justice will never come. The world will never be set to rights. You’ll never be judged wrong by some divine agency, but you’ll never be vindicated, either. What you see is what you get.”

    This whole article is good, but I cited my favorite part. Nicely done!

  2. Eric permalink
    August 26, 2011 3:46 pm


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