I've been thinking more about what C.S. Lewis called The Problem of Pain – the fact that life on earth is so often painful and unpleasant. As Lewis himself pointed out, pain is a philosophical problem only if we approach the issue from a non-materialist standpoint. Materialism sees no intellectual conundrum in the existence – and even the prevalence – of pain and suffering. The world is an accident, life itself is an accident, and pain is just part of the package. There is no reason to expect things to be any other way.
Philosophically, pain becomes a problem only if we believe there is some higher purpose to existence, some grand design or ultimate end, and that the universe is meant to be a fundamentally good place. The materialist position is self-consistent and alluringly simple, but it's contradicted by a wealth of evidence indicating that consciousness is not ultimately dependent on the nervous system and that other planes of reality exist. The spiritualist position, however we define it in detail, seems better suited to encompass the kinds of paranormal and (for want of a better word) supernatural phenomena that we've often looked at in this blog.
How, then, can we explain the persistence, even the universality, of suffering? Here's an idea that occurred to me.
A great deal of the suffering in the world is related to the fact that organisms so often survive by exploiting other organisms. Carnivores kill and devour herbivores. Parasites infect their hosts. Microbes cause disease and spread plague. Insects and germs kill off crops, causing famine. Even the gentle herbivores survive by eating plants, which are, of course, living things in their own right. Nature is "red in tooth and claw," and Darwinists are right to stress the dog-eat-dog, brutal and ruthless competitiveness of the natural world. All generations of human beings, with the partial exception of our own, have been well aware that nature is out to get us. Only the affluence and comfort provided by modern technology in the developed countries can allow some people to believe nature is benign. Spend a month in the woods without any special equipment, and we'll quickly come to realize that our present-day isolation from the hazards of nature is a historical anomaly.
Nobody is singing "Hakuna Matata" in this movie
Now, why is it that organisms are engaged in all these destructive behaviors? The simplest explanation is that life seems to be programmed to find a niche anywhere it can. It will explore any avenue, exploit any opportunity, go anywhere and do anything – or die trying. Life will find ways to survive on the ocean floor or on the slopes of a volcano or even in the vacuum of space, clinging to the side of the International Space Station, which currently harbors an encrustation of algae. As Jurassic Park told us, life will find a way. The fact that many of these ways entail the destruction of other living things, or their extreme suffering, seems to be quite immaterial. Life is ruthless; it is always on the hunt for the main chance and always willing to take advantage of any loophole or weakness, consequences be damned.
What we have, then, seems to be a world that prizes the diversity of life above all else. The purpose – if there is a purpose – is the constant, unrestricted exploration of every possible form of life, every conceivable method of survival and reproduction, in every kind of environment – a wild, undisciplined, improvisational efflorescence of life ramifying into every nook and cranny of the physical world, from Arctic tundras to the intestinal tract.
To reframe this idea, we might say that the universe is set up to maximize the variety of activities and experiences that can be made real. It's sort of like a cosmic brainstorming session in which no idea, no matter how crazy, is off-limits. Everything is on the table; everything is worth a try.
Of course, a brainstorming session makes no sense if the solution to the problem is already known. Brainstorming is something we do when we don't know the answer. Which leads us to the conclusion that the universe, or whatever lies behind it, doesn't know all the answers. The universe is a work in progress, and the various experiments – whether successful or failed – are its way of working out its own unanswered questions.
Actually, it's probably wrong to say that any experiments have failed, since even the evolutionary dead ends have provided information in their own right. Thomas Edison famously disputed the idea that his dozens of experiments in making a lightbulb had served no purpose. He replied that he now knew dozens of ways not to make a lightbulb. In the same way, the universe is learning what works and what doesn't, and like Edison's creative process, which was "one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration," it's messy and inefficient and sometimes frustrating and painful.
Notice that this viewpoint leaves no room for an omniscient God. An omniscient God knows all the answers and doesn't need to experiment. On the other hand, it does leave room for a God or Universal Mind that is not omniscient but still vastly more aware than any human mind. And of course, human minds themselves are exploratory tendrils extending from this cosmic Source, and are part of the same experiment.
In short, we might address the problem of pain by saying that neither pleasure nor pain is the real point of the cosmic drama unfolding around us. The point is to actualize every potentiality, instantiate every abstract possibility, and widen the field of experience ever further. It may be that this complicated and ever-growing meshwork of experiences simply is the point of it all – experience and growth for its own sake – or it may be that the ultimate point is to grope our way to an ideal existence in the physical state that currently eludes us. In either case, pain is built into the cosmic plan, not because the Mind behind it is that of a sadist, but because if pain were foreclosed, too many avenues of exploration would be foreclosed with it.
I have no idea if this notion has any weight, but right now it seems more satisfactory to me than other explanations I've considered. So there it is.