An Answer to Pain An answer to a letter about pain and suffering: As to the issue of pain--yours, and others'. You'll notice, especially from the website, that the idea of 'generality' is often invoked. It is central to the thought, to philosophy, and to concepts of God--their meaning and power. The more general something is, the more inclusive it is, and the more power it has. God is an extreme instance of such generality, in that the concept subsumes everybody, and everything (whether you believe in a God or not, the point is--and I am just using it as an example--God is imagined to have created everyone and everything, etc., and so to have a relationship to everyone and everything. That is generality.) Philosophy is the most general of intellectual activities. There is a philosophy of art, math, beauty, physics, religion, psychology, etc., etc. The generality of the subject is behind its power--it deals with everything, just as the meaning of the world must relate to everything--but is also responsible for its abstraction and difficulty. (The more abstract something is, the more general, and the more things to which it applies. Numbers are abstract, because with them you can count apples and oranges, atoms and worlds. But again, the power of mathematics comes with a price--the difficulty of abstract thought.) The generality of philosophy, and of the thought, gives it power to end all human pain--physical, emotional, intellectual, spiritual--of all human beings, yourself included, even though I have never met you (which is not exactly true). Why do you suffer, in general? There are many reasons, but they all converge. (The notion of many reasons converging is one that I am sure you've had experience with. Belief in God, for example, implies that all that is good converges, meets in, points to, one entity--God. To think the contrary--that peace is good, and health, and money, and looks, and pleasure, and cars, and rap and . . . , all independently of each other, is to believe in many gods--is to be a polytheist--which most people have always been, and still are. The intellectual/spiritual/ emotional/historical progression from polytheism to monotheism is a movement from many distinct values (beauty, popularity, pleasure, etc.) to one--call it God, Brahman, Tao, whatever. And so the religious person can say that not beauty or pleasure or . . . is desirable, but only a relationship with God, who embodies all that is good or desirable--to such a degree that people (Christian martyrs, etc.) have willingly suffered horrific tortures in his name. And so, why do you suffer? And I am now speaking philosophically, in terms of my own writings. You suffer because you think you know what is in your best interest, what is good for you, what is desirable, valuable, worth having, owning, possessing, being. You experience pain when you feel that you are not what is in your best interest to be, or when you do not have what you think is in your best interest to own. Or when you are assaulted by what threatens what you imagine to be in your best interest. For example, to believe beauty is good, absolutely, unconditionally, and in itself, is to be vulnerable to anything that threatens it--age, disease, genetics, acid. Ultimately you will suffer the tyranny of the belief. But, of course, if beauty is really good, in and of itself, and you are really ugly (which I'm told you are anything but--but back to the point), then it's just too bad--the dice at birth did not roll in your favor, happiness is not a birthright, suffer your misfortune as best you can (this is the attitude behind attitudes). This is all good and well, but it applies in a very different world than the one in which we live. It applies only in worlds without time. Now, what is so important about time? A proper understanding of time is key (actually, the easiest of a variety of alternative keys) to ending human suffering--again, yours and everyone else's. Two things--neither of which is obvious--are decisive. First, you do not and can not know what is coming next. Because a chair has supported you 10,000 times in the past does not logically imply--does not give you indisputable grounds for claiming--that it will today, tomorrow, or ever again. This is a principle first advanced by the 18th century philosopher David Hume--that the past cannot guarantee the future. It is the meaning of God's will--that, if you believe in God, you have no idea what may happen next, because he can decide that the future will take a different direction from the past--that tomorrow we will grow wings and become angels, or unicorns, bats or vampires, anything or nothing. And if we do not believe in a God, we still don't know what will happen next, because the future need not resemble the past. Even if you believe in science--anything can happen next, because science only summarizes and generalizes past experience. If objects start falling up instead of down, science will have to revise its understanding of gravity. Now you can believe that things will continue in the future as they have in the past, but if you do you will be claiming more than you can know, you will be living life without an understanding of the future and what it signifies, and you will, eventually, sometimes, or always, suffer. Religiously, you will suffer because you are presuming to know God's will--that God has decided that the future will resemble the past. Philosophically, you will suffer because you are claiming more that you can possibly know--that the future will resemble the past. The unexpected--sudden death, disease, etc.-- depresses or destroys because we ordinarily live in a world of rigid expectations, that make unjustifiable claims against the future. Ask yourself--Why should God have created a concept of future time, or alternatively, what does the concept of the future signify? The answer--infinite possibility, the limits of human knowledge, the gateway to the meaning of the world, an escape from a prison of expectation, the laughter of the gods. That anything can happen next--beyond even our ability to imagine--is one important aspect of time, the future, and the thought that we must live in terms of, or suffer. One thing it implies is the concept of hope--central to how Judaism, Christianity, and Islam console. (On a visit to L.A. in the 80's, Pope John-Paul II was asked by a college student about the concept of the future, and he answered that human life is inconceivable, and hope impossible, without it.) A second principle is equally important, but more subtle. It is, that the future decides the past, and present--decides what you are, what is valuable, what is in your self-interest, everything. If, as in a Kafka short story, you wake up tomorrow as an insect, you may be forced to conclude that you were never really a human being. You may wake up alone and face to face with God, and discover that what you thought was real was a dream for your edification--for the purification of your soul, etc. You may wake up and discover, as in a fable by Emerson, that you are the only human being that ever really existed, etc. The possibilities are beyond imagining, but nevertheless may come to pass, and what does come to pass--tomorrow, or a billion years from tomorrow, determines what you really were, and are, what your real needs are (if you really turn out to have any), what your nature is, what it means to be you, or any other human being, if there really are such things, and what, if anything, is in your best interest. Until then, you haven't a clue where your interests lie--in living or in dying (again, remember Socrates, after being sentenced to death, to his friends: 'And so we go our separate ways, you to live, and I to die. And which is better only God knows.' And as I write on the website, 'But we think we know, every moment of our suffocating lives, and suffer.'), or in anything else. Not knowing what we are, because we cannot know what is to come, we do not know what, if anything, we need to fear, desire, hate, or love. Salvation--the kind that religions imagine--is beyond all these emotions, even love. The price of this salvation is extreme--everything you imagine you are, or have, or need, or desire. But that is the price of freedom from pain, the price of eternity, of Eden. I hope this helps a little. Be brave, and be well.