If Everything is Suffering, Nothing Is
Or, Not Everything is Terrible, Even the Internet
For Pete’s sake, go listen to The National and other Sad Dad music and be okay with it. Or The Cure, if that’s your thing. But the world is not a giant suffering-making-machine.
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Welcome to Your New Worry: Digital Suffering
Allow me to introduce you to the next pointless idea on the Internet: digital suffering.
The basic idea here is that philosophers need something to write about, and since there’s evidently not enough flesh and blood problems to ruminate on, let’s imagine that computers have consciousness and worry about their suffering. In fairness, the question of whether or not artificial intelligent entities can suffering is an interesting one.1 I generally want to be charitable toward new work, but this one does not warrant charity because it’s incredibly self-serious and wrong in two ways. First, it’s wrong-headed insofar as it presumes AI’s conciousness.2 But secondly, the whole proposal is built on the very faulty notion that the interaction of beings—granting for an infintessimal moment that AI has something like personhood—is tantamount to suffering.
To listen to the news, one would think that all there is in the world is shenanigans: some mild, some malicious, and all of it endless proliferating. We are living, it would seem, in a feeding frenzy of suffering, a suffering sandwich lathered in suffering sauce, deep-friend and smothered-covered-capped in pain. To be sure—and with no denial of it—even our best efforts at holiness are accompanied by sin and by the tragic abetting of terrible things both intentionally and unintentionally.
And that’s not even touching the real evils, manifold and unspeakable! I’m talking about the ordinary ones: parents try to raise their children well, but make them neurotic; teachers say one thing but students hear and implement another thing. The comedies of Shakespeare are frequently not fiction but histories: mistaken identities, good intentions taken sideways, missed connections.
The question is not whether such things happen in the world. The question is whether they go all the way down and around.
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The Suffering Parade Never Ends Unless It Never Really Started
This assumption that 1) any and all burdens which we create upon one another in any form constitutes suffering, and 2) should be defended against through the creation of new protocols to defend against said intrusions, fails in two ways:
The world is an interdependent place. If interdependence is just the way that anything exists at all, then the burdens we place on one another are not suffering, but part of what it means to be a creature in the world. We are all—every last one of us—constituted in no small part by the relationships (or lack thereof) that make us up. And so, to name those burdens as suffering is to say that the world is better off with freely floating entities, disconnected and self-sustaining. You have just described, in that case, the cosmos as a giant graveyard, a field of bodies without relations, walled off from one another, without the need of another, sagging and collapsing under their own weight.
This interdependence, if part of the state of things, is tied into how we flourish. The example the article provides of the runner’s suffering as bad in and of itself, and justifiable only to the extent that they achieve some other good in the process of enduring foot pain, burning lungs, early hours of running. Again, this assumes that there could be some version of running excellence that would come apart from interacting with some external force, like the ground. But if running just is feet interacting with the relatively immovable concrete, then any running of any kind will involve not only discomfort, but growth and strengthening of the legs. It’s a package deal.
The issue is this: when suffering is made the bedrock of existence, it leads to some inescapable conclusions, which we’ll get to momentarily.
For a different example, consider the concept of “violence” and how it has unfolded as of late. Once upon a time, “violence” was taken to mean the intentional harming of one person by another, as in “Cain committed violence on his brother by killing him over vegetables”, or “I will murder you if you don’t stop talking about Pokemon.”
The intentional nature of violence doesn’t mean that there can’t be unintentional forms of harm: it means that violence has a threshold, and that there some states of living which are interdependent, and which people encounter one another, but not violent. But over time, “violence” has crept from the intentional exertion of harm, with sometimes unintentional, to including passive states of existence. Allow me to ennumerate a few of these:
—Institutions in their very existence
I name these not to mock them—there is merit is interrogating the ways in which harm comes to us in multiple forms beyond the most obvious. The point is this: when violence is the substrate to all activities of life, there is nothing to be done but sink into despair. There is no “resistance”, because your very resistance is just perpetuating violence, and kills the very possibility of their being an outside to the cycle. Just embrace the fact that the whole world—everything you love, everything good and right—is just a façade, and kill your bliss now and always.
But beyond this—and bear with me—the concept of naming this state of badness as bad completely dissolves if badness is just coextensive with reality itself.
To name all things as violence means that the very term “violence” loses its meaning altogether. For if there is no not-violence—something like peace—how can we name violence to begin with? The same goes for suffering: if the whole world is a suffering-basket, naming our interconnectedness as suffering, how could anything be named as suffering? Suffering would just be life itself, neither good nor bad, commendable or condemnable. Madness this way lies.
Enjoy Your Sad Dad Music Anyway
I have a very specific text thread with two other appreciators of The National. They are not a guilty pleasure: they are a pleasure. I appreciate Matt Berninger’s basso profundo gravel speech. Aaron Dessner is living his best life as producer to Taylor Swift. But it’s undeniably their status as Sad Dad kings which compels me to listen, even when I find myself out of sync some times with their mope.
It’s not all that bad, Matt.
Just as it is right and good to name some things as violence, intended or unintended, without making violence the substrate of the world, so it’s good and right to appreciate the melancholia of The National, to wallow in their brunch core, to savor the morsels of poetry in “All the Wine”. And it can be savored precisely because it names something true, and that what it names is not all there is: that what it names when describing the malaise of suburban life is made possible only because it’s a deviation from goodness.
And there is so much goodness to appreciate.
That there is reason to be greatly concerned about the proliferation of AI? Absolutely.
Is one of those reasons is that AI might become sentient and suffer because of our presence to it? This is the thinking made possible through seeing any and all interactions as potential malice-in-waiting, as suffering in the dock.
In this world, there will be suffering, and more than we wish. But being able to name it as suffering is only possible because it’s not all the way down, not the norming norm of the air you breathe.
So stop looking for nonsense problems like whether or not AI can suffer, or whether or not farmland as such is violence. There are real problems in the world, and these may yet be among them. And if they are, we’ll know soon enough.
Until then, work on the ones at hand, knowing that good is stronger than evil, for evil depends on goodness, as mold depends on their being bread to spoil, a corruption of health, unable to be totalizing or complete without their being a far deeper substrate of goodness that goes on for days.
It’s not really that interesting. Suffering presumes sentience—the ability to desire and not just to carve out a direction—and AI is not that (yet? ever?): it’s just not.
See the previous footnote.