Mechanisms and Causes of Suffering
(Click here to see the mind map in full)
What you find below is an elaboration on the topics covered in the mind map, with special attention to internal and external causes of suffering and respective cause focussed interventions grouped by cause areas (section 4 and 5 respectively).
Table of Contents
- Suffering Definition
- Ability to suffer
- Forms of suffering - internal cause areas
- External cause areas of suffering and potential interventions
- About Interventions
First I mounted an intro box to the mind map, indicating the purpose of the mind map, my professional background and my professional perspective on the topics.
In it, it says:
The mind map was developed to give an overview on suffering cause areas and presumably most effective interventions.
The map should help aspiring suffering abolitionists to find their own niche of engagement.
And although my understanding comes from my education in Biology (B.Sc.) and Social Science (B.A.), as well as personal research, I am not an expert in all these topics. Therefore, I hope to ongoingly incorporate new insights, and discuss the maps with members of the scientific community in order to improve the framework.
When talking about suffering¹, what I mean by it is a desperate feeling coming from an extreme urge to stop an ongoing experience. It includes the following aspects:
- Strong aversion to the experience
- A perceived inability to avoid the experience
- Subsequently, high stress level, often marked physiologically by fight, flight or freeze response
Ability to suffer
The ability to suffer depends on the ability to model a sense of experience and preference.
A centralised information processing system is required that models relationships from a created self to its perceived environment. By this understanding, the potential to suffer is plausible just for human and non-human animals, but also for digital sentience as well as extraterrestrial sentience.²
Forms of suffering - internal cause areas
Next, different forms of suffering and internal cause areas of suffering will be explored, based on understanding of human and non-human animals.
The first association and many other definitions of suffering are based on pain, and specifically physical pain. Pain has many subcategories, which are all associated with physical injury due to internal physical malfunctions or due to outer forces such as ecological and environmental conditions or infectious diseases. Between physical pain and mental pain, there is a subsection of chemical imbalance in the brain and general brain malfunctioning. I will not address the functionality of physical pain much more, since it is comparably easy to understand intuitively. (cf. Klossika et al., 2006; Treede, 2018; Woolf, 2010)
More common than chemical imbalance in the brain and general brain malfunctioning, and yet less intuitively understood with their causal mechanisms than physical pain are mental pain responses, and subsequent mental health issues. Contrary to common intuitions, they can all be explained by unmet needs.³ Unfortunately, needs that don’t induce immediate gratification responses, like simple pleasures, are often difficult to grasp, because they can be in conflict with immediate gratification needs. Other mechanisms that alter our perception of mental discomfort and its causal factors are of psycho-social nature. Our understanding and perception are affected by individual vulnerabilities, insecurities, upbringing conditions and cultural influences. Skilled mindfulness and self-reflective practices can help explore the various layers of needs and the psycho-social influences on our perception, so we can uncover the roots of our psychological suffering.
Fundamental needs can be categorised into:
- Safety associated needs, including
- the need for one’s own physical and mental safety
- the need for the safety of valued things and entities
- and the need for moral coherence and justice
- Physiological or self maintenance needs / feelings, like
- hunger, thirst, breathing, and benign climate conditions
- Appropriate stimulation level. A lack of stimulation creates boredom and depression, and overstimulation induces overwhelm and even fear for safety. The stimulation homeostasis is required
- on a social, romantic and sexual stimulation level
- on a sense of coherence level, which includes the right amount of
- Comprehensibility: Things in life should be complex enough that we don't get bored with our environment and experiences, but simple enough that we can grasp what is happening and why.
- Manageability: Experiences in life should feel challenging enough to get activated and not get bored, but we want challenges to be manageable, not to be overwhelming.
- Meaningfulness: Being able to see enough meaning in life itself, the world how we perceive it, and experiences we have, that we have faith and don't suffer nihilistic despair, but not too much that we feel overwhelmed from the burden of responsibilities and burden of consequences of the perceived beliefs.
- on the self actualisation level, there are the need for self-expression and aesthetic preferences. It can also include self actualisation through practice of a culture or sub-culture.
- and on the esteem level there is a need for recognition and validation of one's self, one’s self-image and one’s experiences as well as of one’s accomplishments
Interventions for internal cause areas - Change of internal processes leading to suffering
In order to abolish suffering on an internal cause level, interventions have to change internal processes leading to suffering.
- The following are interventions that might be currently outside the scope of the Overton window, but would potentially be more sustainable than current intervention options:
- Preconception genetic health interventions
- baseline well-being,
- cut-off threshold for intense pain,
- enhanced conscious ability of healthy need regulation and emotional control.
- And then targeting genetic factors for compassion, open-mindedness, social skilfulness, etc. for improved relationships with our environment.
- Sentience prevention wherever it’s safety and well-being can not be ensured (yet). Currently, within the scope of the Overton window are education and access to human and pet contraception. Other target groups like wild animals are explored in the intervention part for "External cause areas".
- Preconception genetic health interventions
- External factors that change internal processes would be
- Creating individualised optimal conditions for all sentient beings. This would only be possible through virtual reality, as the needs of beings are too diverse and thus conflicting with each other, leading to violation of some preferences either way, if conditions are optimised for any one preference system.
- Sociological / cultural optimisation towards welfare for all sentient beings
- Optimised pedagogy with education and training for rational thinking, life-skills (including self reflexion and mindfulness), resilience, compassion and moral circle expansion. This would increase future generation’s understanding of their needs and their ability to address them in an effective and healthy way. And as importantly, this would increase their ability to understand and be considerate of other being's needs.
Why might genetic health interventions be crucial?
Most established approaches today to maintain and improve population's well-being are advanced pedagogy, education, welfare with individual and socio-cultural interventions and medical care. But there is a major sustainability issue with these approaches: in populations with lack of selection pressure due to e.g. welfare systems exponential natural genetic diversification takes place. This leads to accumulations of functional impairments, which eventually can’t be compensated for with external factors, such as education and welfare.
Only if we establish preconception genetic welfare approaches, can we compassionately counterbalance the pathological and impairing fraction of genetic diversification.
I therefore argue for a welfare approach that is concerned with the well-being of all sentient beings, and which utilises gene engineering technologies as much as it utilises classical medical care and social welfare.
This issue will be further addressed under the header “Natural Evolution”.
External cause areas of suffering and potential interventions
In the next section, external cause areas of suffering will be categorised, and specific interventions for these cause areas will be explored.
Exploitation has many forms. The first associations that come to mind are abuse and slavery. But parasitism and carnism can also be considered forms of exploitation.
A newer form of exploitation is exploitation for information, known in the context of research on animals and potential digital sentience in the form of simulations.
Humans can be considered the most important target group, as they are the most powerful exploiters. One potential intervention specific to humans, for example, is education and training in compassion towards all sentient beings. To ensure considerations towards all sentient beings empathy, social sensitivity, attentiveness (awareness), emotional control and open-mindedness need to be established through education and in the long run also through genetic interventions, at least to counterbalance genetic decay (see category Natural Evolution below). Education has its limits, though, and can only build on existing genetic factors.
A more sustainable approach for non-human animals and human animals would be genetic health interventions. To phase out exploitation, we need to phase out survival dependency on exploitation - making all species physiologically independent of animal resources. Genetic engineering could also be used for enhancing genetic factors contributing to increased compassionate and well considered behaviour among all animals.
Behaviour mostly follows perceived needs, much more than actual physical needs. This is something we can observe for example in people struggling to switch to a vegan diet, not because of health reasons, but because of the struggle to change habits and resist desires.
People and other exploitative species need the capacity to acknowledge conflicting needs, and a stable desire to prevent suffering for all parties. Only then they are able in cases of conflicting needs to work on compromises instead of exploitation, destructive conflicts or competition. Neurobiologically, the reward circuit response to the process and achievement of compromise needs to be stronger than the one for achieving profit at the costs of others.
Natural evolutionary processes give rise to selfish and tribal strategies, as well as more globally considered strategies. It is evident that selfish and tribal genetic adaptations have better short and medium term success rates. In order to establish a globally considered community, genetic factors for strong positive reward circuit responses to the process and achievement of optimal outcomes for all sentient beings need to be widely spread. At the same time, the pleasure in truth finding always has to outweigh the painfulness of facing unwanted truths. The neurobiological possibilities of education and training (re-conditioning) are powerful, but not able to phase out exploitation on their own.
Now, common arguments against reprogramming interventions are that ecological systems are just too complex and the sheer amount of involved sentient beings, especially if we assume at least some degree of sentience in insects. I agree with this, but also add that wild habitats are suffering hazards that should not exist. While genetic programming interventions need rigorous testing on a small scale, leaving hazardous environments uncared for is irresponsible, and life proliferation in those environments should be avoided as long as exploitation is the standard way of survival and until welfare of all sentient beings is feasible and implemented.
To prevent a sense of loss and increase support among humans (i.e. the one species of great influence), a shift to controlled virtual existence could compensate for the loss of nature in its raw and unmodified form. Non-sentient simulations there can be harmed and exploited in the usual ways, without causing real suffering. And if mind uploading could ever be possible, ensuring welfare and safety in those digital worlds should be much easier than welfare and safety for biological systems.
Malevolence from others (intend to harm/create suffering)
The desire to harm others, without creating immediate profit for oneself or others, can have many causes: envy, unprocessed pain and trauma, feeling easily threatened due to lack of self-worth, accepting a negative image and persona others projected onto you, showing off power over others, believing compassion to be a weakness and so on.
There are important interventions to prevent malevolence such as identification and exclusion from powerful positions, rehabilitation and improved childcare. However, once again, in the long run these interventions should be combined with genetic interventions that eliminate risk factors for unhealthy emotional vulnerability and with genetic interventions that ensure genetic factors for compassion and emotional control.
The next category is causing unintended harm.
(a) Harm is often done due to discriminating moral circles, i.e. lack of empathy for other groups like beings outside one’s own family, circle of friends, ethnic group or species. Discriminating moral circles lead to ignorance when excluded sentient beings get negatively affected.
(b) There are also cognitive reasons for a lack of empathy, compassion and understanding. Often enough good intentions are badly executed and create more harm than good.
(c) Lastly, significant harm can be caused by corrupted 'good intentions' with ulterior motives.
Good intentions can be corrupted by
- the desire to be needed, creating dependencies rather than solutions
- caring more for the image gain or self-esteem boost than the cause, leading to poorly developed solutions, intransparency and suppression of valid criticism
- narcissistic needs and desires to control others (through paternalism, for example)
(Note that boosting one's motivation for altruistic projects by incorporating other needs is useful when done in a self-aware, reflected and balanced way.)
Interventions against unintended harm are again similar to those against exploitation and malevolence, based on education and genetic health interventions.
Educational approaches would contain training in rational and goal focussed thinking, self reflection and self awareness, as well as reading and positively influencing sentience, and compassion.
Genetic health interventions would foster genetic factors that facilitate the development of empathy, social sensitivity, scope sensitivity (awareness), emotional control, compassion and open-mindedness.
The next category is natural evolution. The way it causes suffering is through excessive reproduction rates. Excess of offspring and thus gene carriers is needed as a basis for selection processes. Which again only works in favour of evolutionary processes if most of the offspring lose the fight for survival. It is a game with a predetermined ever same goal: to secure the survival of at least part of the offspring. The ‘game’ of evolution has many victims, and even ‘winning’ doesn’t mean safety and protection against suffering.
An intervention targeting the downsides of natural evolution needs to reduce death and reproduction rates. The genetically imprinted desires that lead to reproduction need to be addressed (especially once death becomes avoidable through medical advances).
The other part of natural evolution is gene-diversification through mutations and recombination. In natural evolution, gene diversification is needed to generate adaptability to an ever-changing environment. Statistically, only the tiniest minority of genetic alterations is expected to benefit the carrier, while the vast majority is either useless or harmful to its carrier. Therefore, any ‘gain-of-function’ mutation requires many victims with destructive genetic alterations, and disadvantages in the fight for survival.
A compassionate approach is replacing evolution by natural selection with reproduction regulation and preconception genetic welfare programs. Through technological advances, welfare programs and access to contraception, we humans have both stabilised most of our populations and improved overall well-being. Thereby, human societies have circumvented the harsh selection conditions that are foundational for evolutionary progress. But without addressing constant gene diversification, we not just lose the ability to adapt and progress as a species but are also facing an accelerating accumulation of genetic impairments. And genetic decay through loss of selection pressure is not a slow process. (cf. Alves et al., 2017; Graur, 2017; Lynch, 2016)
In order to abolish suffering and improve well-being for all sentient beings, we need to end the harsh competitive evolutionary cycles not just for humans but all sentient animals. And we can do so by regulating reproduction rates and implementing preconception genetic health and welfare programs, thereby increasing each individual's potential for complete physical, mental and social well-being.
Environmental / Physical Factors
Environmental / Physical Factors are another external cause of suffering. Particularly liable to suffering are extreme changes of environment, caused among other things by climate changes, as well as terrestrial and ecological shifts.
Such changes lead to both an inability to adapt as an individual and accidents. Even if species or populations survive and recover from changes in the environment or are able to co-evolve with their sources of nutrition, their competitors, predators, parasites and infectious diseases, these ecological dynamics entail suffering and death for the majority of the involved individuals. In fact, for individuals even minor changes, like those of normal seasons, can be hard to compensate for and thus cause severe suffering.
To address the hardships of individuals, we need to establish welfare for all sentient beings, as well as compassionate environment design adapted to the needs of sentient inhabitants.
Limit of Resources / Competition / Exceeded reproduction rate due to natural evolution
At last, as already indicated in other categories, significant causes of suffering are limited resources, competition and exceeding reproduction rates. These causes are heavily interconnected and thus named together. The intuitive human response is increasing efficiency of resource use and production. But even technological advances in efficiency can not always compensate for the increase of demand due to population growth. If possible, a shift to virtual existence with total control over resources could be a solution. Otherwise, population control through fertility reduction is necessary to reduce competition and overuse of resources. Also, reduction of habitats with uncontrolled life proliferation might be worth considering as long as feasibility and capacity of welfare is limited.
Note, that interventions, when implemented naively, can be counterproductive and even cause severe harm!
Cause areas need to be well understood to target the real cause, and not indicators of a cause.
Interventions need to be well thought through with thorough assessment of potential intermediate and long-term outcomes (incl. side-effects) and impact.
Please, now follow the link to find initiatives specified according to areas of education, and niche of engagement in the Intervention Mindmap against Suffering
¹ The given definition is inspired by Buddhist understanding of suffering (cf. Gloor 2017), as well as understanding of psychological trauma (cf. Schmid 2016). ‘Suffering’ in Suffering Abolition needs a clear definition, distinguishable from tolerable discomfort, painful learning experiences or voluntary sacrifices, which can bring meaning and thus compensation for negative sides of experiences.
² Most relevant literature: Glasgow, 2018, and next Mashour & Alkire, 2013. On the phenomenology of experience, see Metzinger, 2004 and Johnson, 2017.
³ For further understanding on what is required for (mental) health in the meaning of WHO, namely “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being” (WHO, 2005) see referenced literature on
- Salutogenesis and Sense of Coherence by Aantonovsky (cf. Antonovsky, 1987; Braun-Lewensohn et al., 2017),
- Resilience (cf. Leys et al., 2020; Werner, 1987)
- Maslow's hierarchy of needs (cf. Taormina & Gao, 2013) or Gloors concept of Tranquilism (Gloor, 2017)
For a deeper understanding on the foundation of positive feelings see
- Behaviourism and Operant conditioning (positive/negative reinforcement learning) and their neurobiological foundations (for example cf. Bissonette & Roesch, 2016; Bromberg-Martin et al., 2010)
- The Paradox of Hedonism and the Tyranny of the Intentional Object (Gómez-Emilsson, 2016)
- The Pricipia Qualia for understanding the physiological differences of ‘wanting’, ‘liking’ and ‘learning’
- Physical homeostasis (for example cf. Cummins et al., 2012)
This article was fist published on 04 Mar 2022.
Note that this piece is a work in progress. More referencing of literature will follow.