Let’s say you’re facing two doorways to two separate rooms. You have to enter one room, but you can’t enter both.
Room One contains guaranteed suffering. If you enter Room One, you will suffer, but the degree and duration of that suffering is random and varies. You could be beaten, raped, or tortured one-hundred times over. Alternatively, you might just have a small nagging pain in your elbow. This collective suffering might last five seconds or the rest of your life. You won’t know. However, you also have a chance of receiving small, pleasurable rewards, which are also random and vary in frequency and number. You might get ice cream, a funny dancing monkey, or a pleasant song. At the very least, you might receive moments of respite from the suffering.
To summarize, Room One contains:
- Guaranteed, but undetermined suffering
- Possibility of receiving small, pleasurable rewards
- Possibility of receiving moments of respite from the suffering
Room Two contains guaranteed nothingness and safety from suffering. It’s empty. Modern science has no reason to believe that anything will happen to you in there. You will not suffer. You won’t experience any uncomfortable or comfortable sensations.
To summarize, Room Two contains:
- Guaranteed nothingness
- Safety from suffering
Which do you choose?
What Either Choice Actually Means
If you chose Room One, you chose Life on Earth as a Human Being.
If you chose Room Two, you chose Not Existing. It’s not that you’ll be killed in Room Two, but that you won’t exist at all.
But wait, that’s not fair! You mislead me and misrepresented the choice! I don’t want to die!
That’s the whole point of configuring the thought experiment in this manner. The human ego has a strong survival bias and will shy away from anything that threatens self-preservation, even if self-preservation ultimately isn’t in one’s best interest. If Room One was labelled “Life” and Room Two, “Death,” survival bias would ensure most people would choose Room One.
However, by removing the connotations of mortality from the equation, I’ve distilled the choices to what they actually are and allowed for logical, rational choice.
But life doesn’t contain guaranteed suffering!
Yes, it does. Here’s the definition of suffering I’m using for the sake of this thought experiment (from Wikipedia):
Suffering, or pain in a broad sense, may be an experience of unpleasantness and aversion associated with the perception of harm or threat of harm in an individual. Suffering is often categorized as physical or mental. It may come in all degrees of intensity, from mild to intolerable. Suffering occurs in the lives of sentient beings in numerous manners, often dramatically.
Find me one human being who hasn’t become ill, been in pain, or felt threatened, unsafe, or uncomfortable. Even if by some miracle they haven’t, they will always face the possibility of enduring future and greater degrees of suffering. According to our current scientific understanding, that guarantee and/or possibility doesn’t exist with death.
But I like life! For me, the joys outweigh the suffering!
Good for you, but that’s an irrational choice. You’re choosing the objectively riskier option and exposing yourself to guaranteed suffering and poor odds. Sounds like you might enjoy gambling at Casinos, too. And by the way, you might like the life you’ve experienced so far, but as long as you’re alive, you’ll always face opportunities to discover even deeper depths of suffering.
Also, a lot of the people that have this perspective are poorly acquainted with suffering. They’ve lived pampered, sheltered lives in peace-era first-world countries. But if that suddenly changed — and their country was, say, invaded by another, as is happening to Ukraine right now — I bet they’d reconsider. Read The Rape of Nanking for some perspective on how horrifying life can be, and the brutality human beings are willing to force upon others.
Well, yes, human beings can be cruel, but I haven’t experienced barbarism and probably never will!
You’re naive and biased. This is one of the most pervasive and frustrating thought biases I encounter amongst human beings: Overoptimism. They believe that because they haven’t experienced a dangerous circumstance, such as war, they probably never will. They’re convinced that because the world outside their window has always looked more or less the same each morning, it always will. They’re seemingly unacquainted with the notion that civilizations rise and fall, that human beings have a penchant for war and destruction, and that malevolence — true evil — exists.
Don’t believe me? Take it from famous clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson:
“One of the things that’s not as well known about PTSD as might be known is, A: It happens to you if you encounter an experience that sort of blows out the axioms of your knowledge system. … It’s so unexpected that you can’t account for it within the confines of the system you’re using to interpret the world. That often happens to people when they encounter something that’s truly malevolent. And that can be within them or in the form of someone else who is genuinely out to hurt them. People who develop PTSD are often — but not always — somewhat naive, and they’re not aware of the full catastrophe of the world.”
But you don’t know what death (not existing) entails!
All scientific signs point to nothingness — a void. You know that comfortable place you go when you’re sleeping and not dreaming? It’s likely that. That shit about heaven and hell is baseless.
A Final Thought
While writing this post, I was reminded of a quote about uncertainty from the movie Inception. Upon rewatching the scene, it’s relevant to this post:
Cobb: “You’re waiting for a train. A train that will take you far away. You know where you hope the train will take you, but you can’t know for sure. Yet it doesn’t matter. Now, tell me why?”
Mal: “Because we’ll be together!”
That dialogue accurately encapsulates the attitude of human beings who insist life is preferable to not existing. The train represents the journey of life and the uncertainty of its trajectory. We all have our hopes about how our lives will turn out, but we don’t know for sure — and can’t know.
But then, regarding the uncertainty in the equation, Cobb says “Yet it doesn’t matter.”
He doesn’t care. He’s okay with subjecting his mind and body to a random, chaotic universe, as is anyone who chooses Room One in this thought experiment. It’s a cavalier attitude and a foolish one.
The icing on the cake is the quote’s last line. In response to Cobb’s question about why the uncertainty doesn’t matter, Mal says, “because we’ll be together!”
Ah yes, because enduring an uncertain future and guaranteed suffering is worth it as long as two human lovers can be together! Love trumps all, even war, famine, and disease!
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