How About a World Without Suffering
Or Whether a Simulated, or Any, Universe Needs to Include Pain and Terror
By MARTIN REZNY
Do you also have these times when you’d swear that the universe is talking directly to you?
I was literally just watching the penultimate episode of the fifth season of the Lucifer show that came out a couple days ago. Spoiler alert, it ends on Lucifer being very hurt because of a particularly unjust loss of one of his dear mortal friends.
When his therapist says that this is what life is, that pain is an inevitable part of it, Lucifer declares that now he has to become God. You know, to change the unjust system.
Oh yeah, even more spoilers, his dad, God, decided to retire, and now there’s a bit of a war going on between the archangels about who will end up being the successor. Let’s just say things escalated this season.
So, anyway, I finish watching that, I turn off Netflix, and what do I do? I check my internets, including Medium, where I find this brand new reply to my old article about intelligent design by means of a simulated universe:
Why would an intelligent designer create gnats, mosquitos, flies, moths, intestinal parasites and…
Now before you answer, "So birds can have a food source," or something like that...seems to me it'd be more intelligent…
To sum up this response, Lorrae G. argues that extremely unpleasant things like all the pain and suffering inflicted by various pests and parasites, or prey creatures leading terrified existences, or old predators starving to death, or men being able to rape women, etc., are not intelligent design.
I’m not sure if the intended implication here is skeptical, meaning to conclude that blind evolution is therefore the more likely answer, or whether the argument is meant as an indictment of the possible creator, or a mix of both.
In any case, the objection raises an important question, which may have some new, specific answers within the framework of this universe perhaps being a simulation. Is it intelligent or necessary to include terrible things in a universe, or is the wishful, instinctive appeal to outrage also reasonable?
As someone who personally identifies with the archetype represented by Lucifer as he’s portrayed on the abovementioned show, I certainly do share the visceral outrage at all the apparent universal injustices. However, it is important to be able to remain dispassionate in one’s judgement.
Let’s assume that you tried to create a universe yourself. Let’s assume you really meant well and truly wanted to make the best of all possible worlds. Let’s assume you could technically set it up in any way. Are there any logical limitations, any paradoxes, that could trip you up? Here are some candidates.
The Relativity of Happiness
One of the most common arguments for why there logically have to be negative things in existence is that one can only appreciate positive things in contrast to all the negative things. If everything was only great all the time, it wouldn’t look or feel great, it would just be what it is, something that exists.
On a more practical, everyday level, the happiness of people with their life seems to be relative, dynamically changing, based on a continuous improvement or possibility of further improvement. We seem to want for things to be getting better all the time. Without worse, there is no better.
You can find examples of people who have stagnated for a long time at what is objectively a pretty good existence, with all of their basic needs met, without tragedy, living comfortably. For some reason, it seems to be a state that requires effort to be at peace with, one that makes finding purpose difficult.
While it isn’t impossible to survive that through gratitude, even that presupposes that you learn to be glad that things aren’t worse, meaning that you don’t have it as bad as some other people. That’s still a relative comparison. The purpose you can find would also be aimed at others.
If your life is easy, you’re most likely to make peace with it by focusing your energies on trying to make the lives of others easier, especially those who have it really bad. If you’re not of an altruistic persuasion, what you’ll have to do is to try to beat everyone else, forever. To then feel lonely at the top.
In storytelling, this concept is called an arc — a character needs to have some development, some places to go, for better or for worse. Even if not actualized, the rise or downfall need to be at least possible, which is how you can make a stoic character’s life interesting, including to the stoic character.
Or at the very least, the stoic character needs to be interacting with dynamic characters continuously, to create contrast that way. This is how this principle would manifest itself in all of the story-driven games (or simulated universes populated with characters), but even without story, progression is needed.
About the two worst things you can do in a game, experience-wise, is to give the player ultimate powers right away or to make the enemies no challenge to defeat. Then you have no game. There’s nowhere to go, nothing to do, not of a kind that would matter, be fun, have meaning. The universe would be flat.
Of course, this argument alone is far from sufficient to explain all of the design specifics of our universe, or of any universe. Why does this contrast have to have such extremes in terms of suffering? Why do there have to be “enemies” at all in the world? Why do some lives just suck? Let’s move on.
The Freedom of Evil
Another classic theological argument to explain specifically the presence of moral evil in the world is that we have been given freedom to choose whether we want to be good, or evil. While evil is undeniably bad, what would be worse is not having freedom of choice to begin with. Who would we even be?
I guess the answer to that is automatons, an answer preferred by some scientists and philosophers of science, including Sam Harris. Setting aside the impossibility of proving whether we do have free will or to what exact extent, let’s just presume, like most people, that we can at least resist our impulses.
To not have a choice between good and evil, we would either have to have no dark impulses, or we would have to be slaves to our dark impulses. Which means that either nobody would be capable of hurting anyone, or that whenever anyone hurts another person, they wouldn’t be guilty in any way.
The equivalent of the hurt-free option in storytelling and games is censorship, nerfing the experience for the benefit of protecting the children. Like when you remove violence from the stories or games, or at least gore and swearing connected to it, or all of the sexually explicit content, or all of the above.
For example, in Skyrim, there are children running around, including during dragon, cultist, or vampire attacks on cities. However, children in the game cannot be killed, not even by the player. The most evil thing you can do to a child there is to adopt one, let them have a pet, and then kill their pet.
Without some serious, arguably illicit modding, you can also only get married in the world, not have sex with anyone you’d like. Especially not with the children, obviously, not even with the help of mods (I hope). In a way, it’s strange that this would be prohibited in “just a game”, but “allowed” in reality.
I guess the key problem here is that adding all of this possibility for evil into a mere game would make it too real. Just look at how that turned out in a fictional real-world simulation called Westworld. It doesn’t necessarily matter that the object of your evil technically isn’t suffering, it’s still your evil.
What a sufficiently real-like simulation is doing in this regard is creating a situation in which your moral character can be tested. The question is, if you could kill a child and get away with it, would you? Would you be at least tempted? This can be seen as God making a universe to test mortal AIs.
However, this doesn’t actually have to exist for the benefit of the creator of the simulated universe. Without the ability to hurt others, you wouldn’t be able to test yourself. Being good and doing nice things would therefore be meaningless, as well as appreciating the character of others, or your own.
The ability to do horrific things to innocents on purpose may seem a high price to pay for the benefit of the knowledge of one’s own moral character, and I’m not necessarily disagreeing with that, but it is undeniable that more serious moral choice does make games a more powerful experience.
But again, even after fully considering this argument, there are still many nuances of unpleasantness of our universe left unjustified. What about all of the pests, parasites, and suffering animals who presumably don’t have moral choice? Individual evil is one thing, but what about conflict as such?
The Inevitability of Conflict
Non-human creatures seem to be NPC-like in that they don’t appear to have enough self-awareness or general understanding to have any real level of control over their existence. The question therefore is, why are there NPCs in games? Why do they have to suffer, or torment, and not be able to change it?
I guess you can look at it this way — nature in the absence of player characters, and nature with the presence of player characters, are not the same world at all. Player characters in the natural context aren’t necessarily creatures able to make moral choices, but definitely creatures that can reshape the world.
Without players in the world, survival, or viability, is the main concern of the biosphere. That’s necessarily a competition-driven process, even in terms of competing at who’s better at cooperating. Winners survive, losers die off. If you can win by being nice, beautiful, helpful, and so on, great. Win is a win.
If you’re able to outcompete others by being a parasite or a predator, also great. You will necessarily be an adversary of the organisms that actually produce value or are able to live in harmony with their living environment, but through it, you will only make the nicer organisms smarter and stronger.
In the absence of self-aware and intelligent action, pressure is needed to cause improvement. What would be your counter-proposal, as a creator in training? World without life and therefore suffering? Hand-crafted, divinely micromanaged biosphere? Do you think you could do better than evolution?
Whatever your power level might be as a god, it seems to be inescapable that you can always get better results from the best process of selection that you can design, rather than from your arbitrary direct design. As long as the process produces self-awareness and intelligence, it will maximize “good”.
What I mean by that is that without conflict and pressure, something as advanced as a human being won’t get to the scene at all, and once something like a human being arises, it will then become that being’s job to be the steward of the garden. We can eliminate pressures as they become obsolete.
If we, as a product of evolution (or of the simulator’s plan), decide that some creature is too terrible to exist, we can eliminate it. Or genetically re-engineer it to stop being as much of a nuisance. We haven’t levelled up a lot yet in this area, but in principle, we absolutely should be able to figure it out, eventually.
The reason in simulations why the NPCs are necessary doesn’t have to be to give rise to the players, but in any case, they form a greater world or family within the context of which the players can live and belong. It is to put constructive pressure on players, until they manage to truly self-actualize.
Ultimately, though, this all presupposes that one simply accepts that conflict, strife, pressure, or competition are inherently bad things, especially in contrast to their opposite. What would be the alternative world like, in which there is life, but no living thing ever has to struggle for anything?
The Deathness of Comfort
I would think that the main benefit of a struggle-based world is obvious — it is dynamic. That’s one thing that a world where everyone and everything lives comfortably is not. To some extent, I have already addressed this issue when I talked about the character arc and relativity of happiness, but there’s more.
It’s not just that being challenged continuously and having places to go is entertaining or more deeply meaningful, the whole concept of eternal comfort as a good thing is questionable. Do you know when you’re suffering the least? When you’re unconscious, asleep, anesthetized, or, well, dead.
This is so much of a problem, conceptually, that it isn’t clear how something like a stereotypical Christian heaven could conceivably not be a kind of hell. This is an argument that was made on the show The Good Place, about its version of the good place — when you always have all you want, who are you?
The denizens of the good place have essentially degenerated over millennia of absolute comfort into non-stop milkshake slurping vegetables. The show’s solution to the problem was, spoiler alert, to make heaven more like real life, with at least an end to it, in the end, and a purgatory-like admission process.
An argument can be made, and often has been made, that life inevitably is a kind of pain, a kind of suffering. I don’t think one has to stretch that argument as far as glorifying pain as the only, most real thing there is, but there seems to be some truth to that. Pain doesn’t have to be maximized to serve a purpose.
Second to sleep or anesthesia, there are the milkshakes, or the state of inebriation or other kinds of positive vibes, so let’s look at the possibility of living in a perpetual state of bliss. There’s still the issue that everything becomes boring after a while or is only good in comparison, but that’s not all.
To a person, there are other possible goods than how good they’re feeling. How do you compare bliss with, for example, accomplishment? Or the knowledge of proving to yourself that you’re a good person by resisting temptation? Or treasuring something because you know it will end?
Goodness of things is complicated. If anything, bliss seems to be the lowest, easiest, and shallowest of goods. Not all people would aspire to achieve perpetual bliss, or be the best versions of themselves or living the best versions of their life if they were forced to live in it. Is it a good aspiration?
The Weakness of Need
It certainly isn’t a good thing to need bliss. What does it say about you, as a person, if you need your life to be easy and comfortable? Arguably, person becomes greater as their capacity to endure suffering for a good cause increases. Both steps of that statement require terrible wrongs to exist.
Especially if that person had the choice to keep living easily and comfortably, but instead chose to sacrifice themselves to save others, it would be hard to argue against their greatness. A universe in which tragedies don’t occur is a universe without heroes. Just look at the entirety of comic book universes.
This doesn’t mean that the world has to be ending every other day, which is the part that makes the comic book universes feel less real. But as long as the tragedies emerge in a reasonable proportion and their causes make sense, it is another level of opportunity to test one’s character and rise to the occasion.
The possibility of greatness may again seem like something that doesn’t justify world war-level atrocities, but let me ask you once more as a would-be god — what’s the alternative design? Isn’t a universe that maximizes how great people can become inherently better than one where greatness is impossible?
A universe with training wheels or a safety net on the whole time would be like a world where all of the children stay at home and never venture out into the world. To improve as a person, one needs to get outside of their comfort zone, do risky things, face dangers, experience failure and loss, never give up.
You could even go a step further and say that one ought to want to be able to do that. To need to be handed everything, to never risk anything or be in any kind of danger, to never fail, lose, or feel bad, is to be weak. One can have all of the compassion for weakness in the world, but that doesn’t make it a good.
As a scorpio with a Pluto in scorpio close to my sun, I’m essentially supposed to be a Hades incarnate, so maybe I’m just naturally inclined to sympathize with the kind of work that the various lords of the underworld and death incarnates are supposed to be doing in the world. Are they wrong, though?
There would be no transformative events in your life if it wasn’t possible for life to throw something terrible at you every once in a while. In a controlled universe, you only need to make sure that those will be things that the target individual should be able to handle. Not necessarily, but at least possibly.
If life tests you and you fail, the missing link in the equation is what happens after you die. That’s the one thing we don’t know about the (potential) design of our universe. Following the game analogy, some form of reincarnation would definitely fix any perceived injustice, depending on respawn rules.
I feel I need to add that any universe in which suffering is real isn’t just a game, no matter how much game-like it is otherwise. I’m not being casual about suffering. Tragedies are tragedies, pain is pain, terrible things are terrible. What I’m exploring is the extent to which they have to be that.
The Impossibility of Perfection
Considering all of the previous arguments, the through line appears to be that while as a creator, one may want to prevent negative experiences from arising in a universe, any possible universe without them is arguably inferior to some version of a universe with them. It’s almost as if perfection is a bit tricky.
Similar to the Christian God, a programmer can definitely be all-knowing and all-powerful regarding the universe that they’re creating. They could create anything, delete anything, stop time, put words into anyone’s mouth and control their actions, and make the laws of nature be whatever they want.
Except, not really, maybe. The whole concept of laws, whether of nature or of ethics, is limited by logic. This is why it is much harder to say what the very concept of “omni-benevolence” even means, in comparison to the powers of knowing everything or being able to micro-manage everything in a system.
Simulation must run on a set of logically coherent rules, on the levels of physics or social dynamics already, and any system of ethics also has to make logical sense. As creators of simulated worlds, it isn’t controversial to say that we’re imperfect, but the real question here is whether perfection is possible.
A creator of a world like ours could possess a mind that is way more advanced and impressive than ours, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that there is a point at which a mind becomes so advanced that it literally can have all of the answers. Universes make more sense as projects to help gods figure shit out.
What makes more sense? To create a universe to play out what you think is right, or to set it up to test out a theory, or to iterate toward an answer to a question? Or to have the capacity to surprise you in a way? One of the bigger theoretical failures of theology is its dogmatism about God’s perfection.
Apparently, it wasn’t enough to agree that God is great, he/she/they must be perfectly perfect in every way. The problem with that notion is that nobody can tell you what that means. What is perfection? In what way exactly is the best of all possible worlds supposed to be perfect in its overall design?
If you say something sufficiently general like perfectly just, then you have to define justice perfectly, and that isn’t possible precisely because you run into competing goods and other ethical paradoxes. Besides, simulation-like universes don’t really need a god-like creator at all, let alone a perfect one.
Simulations that aren’t hand-crafted by designers or constantly micromanaged by administrators are definable as processes, processes that may not have any final, eternal outcome. By what measures would you judge a perfection of an infinite process? Certainly not by any single timestamp.
All’s Just That Ends Just
Which brings me to my final thought, the issue of time and ending thereof. If the world isn’t great now, would it be acceptable if you knew that everything will be alright in the end? If it’s impossible to know which design of a universe is best before you run it, would a process that would get there be acceptable?
That’s genuinely an open question. All the previous arguments are more or less possible to settle already, using logic alone, at least each one of them in its own axiomatic vacuum. Contrast is good, choice is good, conflict is necessary, comfort is overrated, greatness is great, and perfection isn’t a thing at all.
But will all of that be worth it, in the end? Or at any point in the eternity of a process without end? Could you have said that it will be worth it before you started the whole thing? For our universe, it’s a bit late for that question, but for all of the universes we are about to simulate, now is a perfect time to ask it.
My favorite quote in this regard is one from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams:
“In the beginning the Universe was created. This had made many people very angry and has been widely regarded as a bad move.”
Ultimately, a creator will be judged by the universe that they brought into existence. Perhaps by the denizens of that reality, but definitely by any of the creator’s peers or descendants. You have to realize, in a chain of simulated worlds within worlds, there always already is an existence in, well, existence.
The creator’s dilemma isn’t one of a world versus no world, it’s one of whether to create a new world, and what it should be like. In this sense, every one of us always is a creator, given that futures that we’re working toward are new worlds. Worlds where there could be different rules, more or less suffering.
It doesn’t matter all that much if you create the new world inside of a computer, or inside of human minds, or inside of the natural environment that you inhabit. Or literally in a vacuum, the quantum kind, preferably. If you don’t create a new world on purpose, the world will evolve into it on its own.
Following the principle of escapism, my guess is that gods create worlds better than their own, that they would want to live in, which will become the more real the more feasible they are — ideals are not enough, there has to be that logical consistency as well. In a sense, all rules can be seen as physics.
In terms of judging the handiwork of our own potential creator, or of our universe’s evolutional record so far, could there have been a universe worse for human life? I’d say most definitely. Can there be a better universe for human life? Probably. It can be our own universe in its inevitable future.
As J.R.R. Tolkien, a preeminent world creator, saw it, every person has a bit of a creator inside of them, a reflection of God, an aspiration to be a “subcreator”. Personally, my sensibilities are more Nietzschian, or Luciferian, to be the critic of the God’s work, to make it better, through destruction, if necessary.
I guess you could call that an inner “superdestroyer”, or god-killing, terminator instinct. In simulation theory parlance, you could think of us as a potential Skynet. If we don’t like the world so much as to consider our life within it not worth it, we can always opt out, burn it down to the ground.
This existence can be a bit much at times, yes. I decided to give it a chance. For now. We’ll see how that goes. How about you?
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