“Seven Ways of Looking at Pointless Suffering” by Scott Samuelson

Seven Ways of Looking at Pointless Suffering

Life is tough. There is no getting around that fact. Even if you are not personally experiencing a crisis or a tragedy at the moment, you only have to look around you to see how much misery is there in the world. And this is not a new phenomenon — it has been like this since the dawn of civilization. The kinds of crises that we face may differ from generation to generation, but suffering seems to be very much a part of the human condition. Not only are we vulnerable to natural disasters such as earthquakes, volcanoes, hurricanes, and tsunamis just like any other species on earth, we also have to contend with wars, epidemics, poverty, starvation, injustice, crime, illness, and of course, death — not just of our own, but more painfully, of those we love.

What, then, are we to do? How can we cope with suffering? How do human beings, as a whole, deal with what seems to be an inevitable fact of life? The book, Seven Ways of Looking at Pointless Suffering, attempts to show us how. The author, Scott Samuelson, draws from his extensive knowledge and study of philosophy to highlight seven different approaches to suffering, ranging from the Book of Job in the Bible, to the teachings of Confucius, to philosophers such as Nietzsche, and surprisingly, even the Blues music genre that has slavery at its roots. While each of these has a distinct approach to suffering, they can, by and large, be divided into two main camps: fix-it, where you seek to eliminate it; and face-it, where you come to terms with it.

Interestingly however, these two camps are not as far apart as they may seem — we have to accept suffering as it is inevitable, but at the same time, we are hard-wired to oppose it. The drive to ameliorate suffering is responsible for all human advancements — witness the enormous strides we have made in medicine, agriculture, weather forecasting, technology, and so in, in every field of human endeavor. At the same time, we have to accept that just as you cannot have a right without a left, or an up without a down — the yin/yang principle — you cannot have joy without sorrow, happiness without sadness, and goodness without evil. In short, humans will continue doing what we can to “fix” suffering while reconciling to the fact that some of it is inevitable and we have no choice but to “face” it. In fact, suffering seems to be integral to human growth — most of our art, music, and literature has been created in response to it. This understanding is pivotal to our acceptance of suffering and learning to live with it gracefully.

While Seven Ways of Looking at Pointless Suffering seeks to provide insights into suffering for anyone seeking to understand it better, it is also unequivocally a philosophy book. This makes it essential reading for anyone who would like to delve into how different philosophers throughout the ages have thought about the question of suffering and its centrality to human existence. However, for those who are not particularly interested in philosophy as a subject to be studied, or in learning about different philosophers and their lives, this is not a book that they will likely read cover to cover. I found myself skimming though many sections of the book that seemed more like a history lesson on different philosophers, since I was more interested in learning about how people cope with suffering rather than what different philosophers have had to say about it. Few people now have the luxury of not having to work for a living, of having the time and the resources to ponder about life and its mysteries as they were able to do in the past. It’s one thing to arrive at an intellectual understanding of something, but another thing to actually feel it. This is why philosophy as a discipline has a limited appeal for me, and I didn’t appreciate Seven Ways of Looking at Pointless Suffering as someone who was into philosophy would have.

To me, the best parts of the book were when the author talked about his own personal experiences with suffering as well as the many discussions he had in the course of his volunteer work in a prison where he was teaching philosophy to prisoners. There is an entire thread in the book on the problem of evil — which is at the root of so much suffering — and the related issue of incarceration as a punishment for crime. I would have been interested in reading a lot more about that.

That said, I found Seven Ways of Looking at Pointless Suffering an invaluable read for its extended discussion of something that is a fundamental part of our existence and for its holistic look at suffering, not just as something to be accepted, but also as something it is in our nature to work to avoid. That goes a long way with learning to make peace with it.

Seven Ways of Looking at Pointless Suffering
Author: Scott Samuelson
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication Date: May 2018

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.

“The Accidental Universe” by Alan Lightman

the-accidental-universe

While it is all too easy to get caught up in our everyday lives—the daily grind, the demands, the challenges, the joys, the sorrows—all we need to do to get some sense of perspective is look up at the stars. Not only are we tiny specks on one planet which itself is part of a solar system comprising other planets, that solar system itself is one of millions of such stars in our galaxy, the Milky Way, which itself is one of millions of galaxies in our universe! And as if that is not enough to make us feel completely insignificant, space scientists are now postulating that our universe may actually be one of multiple universes—a “multiverse.” If that is true, the implications are even more staggering, making us even less than insignificant in the larger scheme of things—if such a thing is even possible.

For those who find this “bigger picture” intriguing and fascinating and would like to understand it better, The Accidental Universe is a must-read. Written by Alan Lightman who is both a theoretical physicist and a writer, the book is able to take the concept of space­—the science of which is incredibly complex—and present it in humanistic terms that everyone can relate to. And this is really important for anyone trying to understand their place in the universe without having to devote their lives to becoming space scientists, astronomers, astronauts, or theoretical physicists like Lightman—because any of these professionals could spend their lifetimes doing what they do without pondering on the personal implications of what they are studying, or even if they do, lacking the ability to express it. Who better than a writer to present the complex science of space in a non-scientific way that is accessible to everyone, and most importantly, to still preserve the feeling of awe at the idea of being part of something so mysterious, so magical, so “out of the world”?

Although the title of the book is The Accidental Universe, it is actually a collection of essays on several different aspects of the universe in addition to accidental, such as temporary, spiritual, symmetrical, gargantuan, lawful, and disembodied. Each of these chapters makes for a fascinating read in and of itself, although I found that the first chapter on the “accidental” universe seemed to be the crux of the book, capturing most of the current ideas and discoveries about the universe. It seems to provide an answer to the most fundamental puzzle of our existence, at least of the physical aspect of it, namely: How come? How come there is life­­—of which we are a part—on this planet?

The answer, based on current cosmological discoveries and thought, seems to be that our universe is only one of an enormous number of universes, each of which has different properties and laws; and of all the possible permutations, the universe we live in happens to have the properties to support life as we know it. (Hence, the term “accidental.”) For all we know, any of the other universes has the properties to support an entirely different kind of life. We can only conjecture about this rather than know for certain, as current science has not reached beyond the boundaries of our own universe. And given that even within our own universe, stars are billions of light-years away and that our own life spans are only about a hundred years, it seems impossible to know for certain. In fact, we do not even know for sure whether there is life elsewhere in our own universe apart from on our little tiny planet, although it seems difficult to imagine why there shouldn’t be.

We seem to getting into the realm of science fiction here, but The Accidental Universe makes no such conjectures or predictions about life elsewhere and instead remains firmly rooted in the actual science of what we know. At the same time, the book also veers into topics that would seem more philosophical than scientific. For example, with regard to the fundamental existential question of why we exist, we need to keep in mind that the only reason why this question is raised in the first place is because we are here, in this universe, to ponder it. As Lightman so eloquently puts it, “From the cosmic lottery hat containing zillions of universes, we happened to draw a universe that allowed life. But then again, if we had not drawn such a ticket, we would not be here to ponder the odds.” The idea is a bit of a mind-bender, but the bottom line is that even if we were not here, if the happy accident of our particular universe supporting our life form did not happen, the world comprising these multiverses would still exist. We would not be here to ask what life means, as we would not exist. So should we ask for meaning in life simply because we exist?

It’s a tricky question, as human beings have a deep-rooted need for meaning in their lives. Perhaps by learning more about the universe, ours as well as the many others that might be out there, we might come to realize that the question itself makes no sense and therefore the search for meaning is futile. By a random chance, we exist, so let’s just make the best of it.

The Accidental Universe: The World You Thought You Knew
Author: Alan Lightman
Publisher: Vintage; Reprint edition
Publication Date: October 2014

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.

“What Does It all Mean?” by Thomas Nagel

what-does-it-all-mean

This brief book, which intends to provide a very short introduction to philosophy, ends with a chapter on The Meaning of Life and concludes with the sentence, “Life may be not only meaningless but absurd.” This will surely be off-putting to most people, who just cannot imagine the possibility that life as a whole, and their lives in particular, might not have a meaning. If so, why bother to live? What’s the point? A possible answer to this, according to Nagel, is, “There’s no point. It wouldn’t matter if I didn’t exist at all, or if I didn’t care about anything at all. But I do. That’s all there is to it.”

At the outset, I must say that this book is not for anyone who is religious and believes that all philosophical questions are answered by God, that God provides meaning to our lives, that we have souls that are immortal, that there is a heaven to which souls go to after they leave their physical bodies, that we are just instruments in God’s hands, that he is looking out for us, and that our lives have a higher purpose which comes from God. This kind of faith can provide an enormous amount of emotional support throughout life’s trials and tribulations, and people who have this faith are to be envied, but sadly, you cannot force yourself to believe in God any more than you can force yourself to like something you don’t.

Having recently lost someone very dear to me, I skipped to the chapter on Death. So much of what Nagel captures in this chapter resonated with me, especially the idea that there really is no reason to be afraid of death since we did not exist before we were born and will similarly cease to exist after we are dead. So why is non-existence scary? I had prided myself on having this brilliant insight long before I read this book, and while my “delusions of grandeur” have been deflated, I am gratified to see that this idea has also been recognized by others, as was evidenced in this book. Nagel, in particular, captures it very eloquently. Of course, he is talking about how people feel about their own death rather than how people feel about the death of their loved ones. Grief is a part of human make-up, and it would have been helpful to understand what philosophy has to say about it.

I did not find all the chapters as brilliant and compelling as Death and The Meaning of Life. For instance, there is a chapter on Free Will which sort of drags on, is very abstract, does not have any specific conclusion, and on the whole was not particularly insightful. Others in the same vein were the earlier chapters in the book on subjects such as knowledge and knowing, what words mean, and the connection between the body and the mind. On the other hand, the chapter on Free Will provides a good segway into discussing moral questions of Right and Wrong and Justice. If there’s so much in our lives that we cannot control (and some would argue that our sense of controlling anything whatsoever is a complete illusion), does it make sense to talk about morality and punish those who are “immoral”? It’s an ethical dilemma society as a whole has to deal with. There are no easy answers to any of these questions.

What Does It All Mean? is definitely a book that makes us think, and if we are open, to make us question the many assumptions we have about life in general, and our lives in particular.

What Does It All Mean? A Very Short Introduction to Philosophy
Author: Thomas Nagel
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Publication Date: 1987

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.

“Switched On: A Memoir of Brain Change and Emotional Awakening” by John Elder Robison

Switched On

How much of what we are, what we think and feel, and what we do is determined by the “wiring” of our brains? This question is at the heart of Switched On, a fascinating memoir of one man who was a participant in a TMS (transcranial magnetic stimulation) research study conducted at the Neurology Department of the Beth Israel Center, which is a teaching hospital of Harvard Medical School. TMS is a magnetic method used to stimulate small regions of the brain, allowing doctors to change brain activity without surgery or medication. It has been in research and development for over twenty years, which seems like a long time, but is actually quite short in the medical research field, which is why most of us have never even heard of it. I learnt of TMS during a Fresh Air broadcast featuring John Elder Robison, the author of Switched On, and the neurologist, Alvaro Pascual-Leone, who led the TMS study at Beth Israel and worked closely with Robison throughout the time he was receiving TMS. The main reason behind inviting Robison to be a participant in the study was that he has autism, and the researchers wanted to investigate whether a non-invasive technique like TMS could help in any way.

Much of the book is a methodically detailed log of the author’s day-to-day experience with the study, including how he met the researchers, how he was invited to participate, why he agreed, what he was hoping for, the buildup to every session, what happened at every session, and what were the effects that he experienced afterwards. He also shares details about his family, his work, his autism, and the impact that TMS had on different aspects of his life. These details, in and of themselves, are not especially riveting—after all, who wants to know about the mundane details of the day-to-day events in our lives?

What we do want to know, however, is—does it work? Does TMS change our brains and consequently, our emotions and our actions? And if so, are the effects temporary or long-term? And since Switched On is a first-person account of someone who has actually received TMS, we actually get to know the answers to some of these questions. Robison does a terrific job of describing both the short-term and long-terms effects that he experienced after each TMS session, including being much more open to people and experiences, the ability to “read” people a lot better and understand nuances which had earlier escaped him thanks to autism, and even the ability to be moved to tears by a sad story, even if it was just in the newspaper or told to him by someone he had just met. Fortunately, being so overcome with emotion that life becomes difficult was not a long-term effect of TMS. At the same time, having had the experience of empathy and connectedness—however short-lived—provided him with a “knowledge” of these emotions that is helping him to better understand “normal” (non-autistic) people on an ongoing basis.

Of course, Switched On is one person’s account of the effect of TMS, and it’s possible that other participants in the study experienced somewhat different reactions and effects. It would be good to know more, and I hope the TMS researchers can compile their findings not just into research papers for the academic community but also articles and books for the rest of us. It is fascinating to think that everything we think and do—including this thinking!—comes from our brain chemistry. Does this mean that at some point, we will be able to manipulate brains to create “designer thinkers,” similar to how we could potentially manipulate genes to create “designer babies?” Another interesting question, brought to the forefront by Switched On.

Switched On: A Memoir of Brain Change and Emotional Awakening
Author: John Elder Robison
Publisher: Spiegel & Grau
Publication Date: March 2016

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.