01 August 2015

Suffering and The Meaning of Life

Fitting in with what I've written two weeks ago about reincarnation, I'll talk here about the meaning of life.

Michael Prescott has some speculations about why there is suffering in the world where an intelligent but not omniscient God created the world to gain life experience. Here's what I left as a comment.

I don't like the idea of God creating the universe to experience things. That seems like a cosmic version of the TV show Jackass. "Wouldn't it be cool to see what it would be like to get burned alive in a car crash? Maybe I could get out before getting killed? Wouldn't that be fun to see if I could?" It's a bit of an oversimplification, but it seems to reduce God or Spirit or even individual souls to adrenaline junkies, or at the very least people who are extremely bored with too much free time. Seeking experience for the sake of experience seems so very underwhelming to me. In its absolute worst form, as seen in some versions of "new age" literature, souls plan their lives beforehand in minute details, so you end up with a scenario where souls are basically masochists. A group of souls floating around planning their next life together when one soul says to the others "I'll be the child and you'll be my parents. At age five, no four and a half, I'll get cancer and die and break your hearts. Then, fifty years of misery later, you'll die and we'll meet up back here and I'll point and laugh and say 'fooled ya!' Then, the next go around I'll be the parent and you two can be the children who die. It will be rousing great fun!"

There are two explanations for this world of suffering that I see merit to. They both say primarily that our purpose here is to escape the world and only really differ in explaining how we got stuck here in the first place, to a degree.

In the perennial traditions and in A Course in Miracles, we individual souls exist because God needed someone to love. It's not loneliness in the everyday sense, because God lacks nothing. This is a higher level need based on over-abundance. God is so overflowing with love that it wanted someone to share it with. The world itself is seen as illusory, but even if it's not there need be no problem with suffering at all.

"Natural suffering" like volcanoes and asteroids and having to kill other creatures to survive is an easy one. The world is pretty close to as optimal as one can get. The photoreceptors in the eye can detect single photons, so they can't get any better, for example. There are trade-offs to everything because of the physical constraints of the world (which need to be unimaginably precise to permit the universe and life to exist). Humans have easily injured backs and knees, and narrow hips make childbirth painful, but those are offset by the greater benefits that are gotten through walking upright. So natural suffering can be explained through utilitarianism. Certain unpleasant situations must exist to permit much greater benefits.

The much bigger problem is human caused suffering, like rape and murder and war. That is traditionally explained through the free will defense. God wants us to share in the divine love voluntarily. Forcing us to love would be a form of metaphysical rape.

Even if the world is to an extent "real", more good is wrought through the way the world is than the bad caused by the suffering. We can share in love in more ways, even if we choose not to. Suffering then is no longer God's problem, it is a problem of our own refusal to be moral and treat one another as we should.

Of course, if the world is illusory, then we are tricking ourselves into thinking this suffering exists and our goal is to realize this and get out and back to the perfection into which we were created.

A Course in Miracles explains this wonderfully. God did not create the world, we did, and suffering exists because of our fear and guilt. Unsatisfied with the equal love God was giving to all of us in perfection, we (who find ourselves in this universe) demanded special love. We wanted to be loved more. When God refused to give in to our egoistic demands we then imagined this world up where we could be special. The dream of suffering and death "prove" we are more powerful than the God who refused us the special status we "deserve". Knowing we can't really hurt ourselves, God permits us to sulk in the corner until we get over our upset. At the same time God descended into the dream to remind us that we are dreaming and can wake up at any time when we are ready to return to the perfection into which we were created.

It makes sense because real people do this all the time. There is nothing new that we can't test about what may or may not be the motivations of spirits who want to experience horrible things just to see what it's like. The psychology of the Course is real world human psychology and can be seen in child development all over the world. Children sulk. Adults sulk. We project our emotions and delusions onto the world. We punish ourselves unnecessarily out of misplaced guilt. It makes sense to suppose that if we do this on Earth than we would do the same on a grander scale in some higher dimension. There's nothing in it that resembles speculation about what stunts Superman would pull to see if he could jump off the Empire State Building or whatever.

Suffering acts also as a motivation to escape the world. It acts as a motivation to do good to others so that we can grow in wisdom and compassion. So we move up the evolutionary ladder from plants to animals on to humans, and while the capacity for suffering increases so too do the benefits increase at a much faster rate. So a plant suffers less than a cow but it gets less out of life than the cow, and the cow suffers less than a human but it gets less out of life than the human. And this continues until we realize that the world is illusory and then we can either leave it forever or we can take the path of the bodhisattva and deliberately return to the world and choose to suffer more to alleviate the suffering of others. We can grow into perfect expressions of morality rather than just being bored and bouncing around the universe to see what it's like.

And as I've written over a thousand words by now I'll end here.