The Two Noble Pursuits
And The Predicament of Sentients
This article is a case of following one line of thought in a particular manner ad absurdum. Attempts to conclude ultimate reality through a one-track-minded process seem to always fail. That which we are trying to understand can’t be fully made sense of or neatly put together by segmenting the world into jigsaw-like pieces, no matter how clear cut we draw the lines, for it is the hacksawed division of reality via language that guarantees they won’t perfectly slot together. Yet despite this article’s failure of a tidy conclusion, I believe there is still merit in the attempt.
There are two noble pursuits in life: The pursuit of the end of suffering and the pursuit of knowledge. All other worthy pursuits are reducible to these two.
Firstly, what is suffering and what is knowledge? Starting with knowledge.
What is knowledge?
A true, justified belief? A true, justified context-sensitive belief? A minimal prediction error via Bayesian inference? Or something else entirely?
The problem with knowledge is that although we may think we know something, we don’t actually know if that something is really true or not. We can know that we don’t know, though we can seldom know that we know. It is much easier to know when we don’t have knowledge than to know when we have it. “I know I don’t know, but I don’t know that I know.”
Experientially, knowing is the same as believing, yet with some threshold level of conviction, with a feeling of certainty (rightly or wrongly). Because we rarely, if ever, know that we know, our experience of seeming to know something is rarely, if ever, distinguishable from a strong felt belief. This calls into question whether they are really different at all. Is knowledge a belief that is true, plus additional epistemic conditions? Epistemologists debate over what those additional epistemic conditions are, though even before getting to that part of the equation, we can’t even 100% validate the trueness of any belief in the first place.
In most epistemological thought experiments, trying to get at what is knowledge and what isn’t, there is a reliance on the epistemologist to have a god’s eye view (a view from everywhere, or nowhere). Even though no character within the thought experiment can ever have this perspective, the epistemologist takes on this view so as to have the objective facts of the conducted thought experiment and try to determine whether a character has knowledge or not. However, when it comes to the world we really wish to know of and live in, no one has this omniscient perspective. We’re all characters in God’s thought experiment and only omniscient gods to our own partial world simulations.
(i) The set of known knowns
(ii) The set of unknown knowns.
(iii) The set of known unknowns.
(iv) The set of unknown unknowns.
Each subsequent set is larger than the previous.
To know you know is to somehow be certain that what you think you know is factual. But the somehow of that certainty remains mysterious.
Few truths are self-evident:
Only 1) basic phenomenological insights such as there is an appearance of redness.
2) Certain logical syllogisms such as:
- If P then not Q.
∴ Therefore not Q
And 3) non-contingent a priori truths such as the summation of the angles of all three interior corners of any triangle is 180°.
Of the first of these three examples, what we care for is a kind of on-hand, consciously accessible true information. Awareness is intimately linked to knowing. If there were no experience of knowing, it is not clear what that would mean. Or if knowing didn’t affect conscious experience, then arguably we wouldn’t care for it. A non-sentient AI that can calculate how many birds there are in flight at any one time, but never causally interacts with any beings can hardly be said to know in any important way that matters.
And although most would agree that we can never be fully sure, fully confident in knowing what is beyond direct perception, even within our own consciousnesses confusion circulates. Even Descartes’ foundational fulcrum, “cogito ergo sum”, in his Meditations on First Philosophy is suspect, as skilful meditation reveals the ‘I am’ to be more elusive than the untrained mind may first realise. Thoughts appear but that they are ‘me’ or ‘mine’ is a very precarious assertion and certainly not consensus knowledge.
Of the second of these three examples: the axiom of logical consistency, which allows logic to get a foot off the ground, is unfounded itself. It is both deductively and inductively problematic to state that the cosmos be contingent upon consistent cause and effect mechanisms.
Of the third of these three examples: Most a priori ‘truths’ are mathematical in nature or tautological concept constructions, such as all bachelors are unmarried men, true by dint of their definition — which is to say essentially nothing new at all. ‘All glebs have gleep’ is true as long as I choose to define a gleb as something which has gleep — but no knowledge has been gained here (otherwise it would be the simplest trick for generating infinite knowledge).
While mathematics’ relation to reality is non-obvious, the scientific realists posit that mathematical and scientific theories are revealing of the objective truths of things. So to understand these theories would be to acquire knowledge.
A triangle is a symbol, though no perfect triangle is yet to be found anywhere in nature. Here we see a split between the world we wish to really understand (our felt, tangible lives) and the language of mathematics. What greater knowledge of reality is actually obtained by these a priori truths if they aren’t about the world we are concerned with?
Perhaps they reveal truths of another tangential realm, that of platonic forms? Though I suspect that to grant significant ontological status to platonic forms (even above the uneven, nonrectilinear messiness of the terrestrial plane — as some do) is a bad case of mistaking the map for the territory and left-(brain)hemisphere over-activation. This is an incredibly dense philosophical matter, and again it doesn’t seem that we can know that we know a theory to be true or how exactly it relates to reality.
Mathematics has tremendous application for constructing bridges and planes, just as a detailed map helps one to navigate an environment. Here the pragmatists come down on knowing is nothing more than adhering to claims which successfully bring about our desires. If it is practical to believe x for y’s sake, then that is as best as we can do. Knowledge is power, presuming knowledge entails the instructional manuals on how to act as well. A power to navigate or shape the structure of things to our will. The better the map, the easier we can find the treasure (while making no epistemological claims on the veracity of the map or the treasure in a greater objective sense). The construction of models, as helpful as they are, are just that, models. And a model will always be a simplification of that which it is trying to depict.
We are trying to model reality. There is a hope that we may one day create a 1:1 model of reality. This is a ludicrous idea, as you cannot create a full replica of something (the universe) and have it fit within the thing itself (the universe), or have all the informational content of that thing (the universe) housed in a limited part of itself. Gödel’s incompleteness theorem precludes omniscience in this form. Though despite being a ludicrous idea, this would still be creating just a dummy replica of reality, and not coming to the thing in itself. This is not the knowledge we truly aspire for. We wish to understand reality in and of itself. We somehow (that word again) want direct, real-world understanding.
More than to just know-what, we also want to know-how and to know-of.
In (a big) part this is the issue with analytical philosophy. It is using only one part of the mind, the conceptual languaging, propositional posing, reductionistic intellect, to come to knowledge. There are many more cognitive faculties needed that apprehend without a voice, without language, without trying to compartmentalize everything into static nouns. Reality is not a static noun.
While these epistemological issues are very complicated, and I can’t pretend to have dismantled any position or proven another, regardless of how exactly knowledge is conceived of, there is clearly a deep will to understand in all of us. To understand what this is.
Mostly when we desire to understand it is not for understanding itself, it is to quell some existential itch. There is the sense that by not knowing we are not complete and this feeling of incompleteness causes us suffering. Above knowing, we really just wish to get rid of this nagging itch.
Like all wills, their root impetus is born of suffering. The desire to feed, to fight, to fornicate, or to be free all come to us with some sense that we are out of balance, out of homeostasis, unsymmetrical. If we eat, or sleep, or learn or attain to whatever the current will is yearning for then we will become that little bit more aligned, in sync, harmonised with existence. The near incessant urges to counteract the near incessant disharmony in our experience is the nature of negative valence. It is the nature of suffering.
What is suffering?
Suffering is the most knowable thing there is. The existence of suffering stands more tenable than even the self. No evil deceiving daemon can cause doubt as to whether suffering exists or not.
Suffering is as self-evident as the appearance of redness or the roundness of a circle. But unlike other perceptual instantiations, the perception of suffering comes with inherent meaning — that of motivation. Of itself it spurs an act for change. Nothing else does. It is only in suffering that we have the sense that something needs to be done.
By suffering, I mean it in its most rudimentary sense, which is subsequently a definition that is most general (in that it applies to/is to be found in a very, very broad range of goings-on), but also a super precise pinpointing of a particular experience.
Suffering is that thing which has an inherent ‘disliking’ to it. The effect of dissatisfaction, undesirability. It is the issue in the universe that we all want to subvert, avoid or ignore. It is present when you cut yourself. It is present in starvation. It is present when your partner breaks up with you. It is present when you are slightly uncomfortable in your chair. It is even present in states of glee and ecstasy. It is not present in states of unconsciousness such as deep sleep, general anaesthesia, cessation and Nirodha Samapatti. While conscious it is maximally curtailed in states of complete ego death, such as full absorptive meditative states, flow, trance and break-through psychedelic trips.
Suffering is that quality of experience that is unavoidably judged to be not preferable. This is not a judgment made by the intellect who can, in fact, interpret suffering to be positive by layering beliefs on top of the raw experience. When pain is felt while exercising the intellect can judge it to be a good thing, because it has the perspective that this pain now means growth later. I am not referring to the judgement made by this faculty of mind.
The presence of any modicum of suffering is the wish for it to not be there. Bearable pain or accepted pain does not mean we wouldn’t prefer for it to not be there. If we do rationalise our pain to be a good thing, (I repeat) it is because we believe that this pain now will spare us worse pain later.
I am referring to a more base level of mind which does not have a voice. This is a moment by moment analysis of a particular phenomenon and is separate from (though can be influenced by) higher-order assessors in the mind — such as the intellect — who take into consideration the context of the experience. Regardless, when there is negative valence associated with some phenomena in the mind this is suffering.
The experience of suffering always contains the sense of an epistemic agent (knowing consciously — by some interpretations, Descartes’ “cogito”) that comes with inherent negative valence attached to it, plus some sense of contraction.
All value derives from suffering. Suffering in itself creates the first noble pursuit — the pursuit of its own elimination.
There are two noble pursuits in life: The pursuit of the end of suffering and the pursuit of knowledge. All other worthy pursuits are reducible to these two.
Everything that has value or meaning does so because it relates back to the suffering of sentient beings.
Without suffering nothing matters.
Without suffering there is no way to make value judgements between one configuration of atoms or another.
All that we care for is because of how it affects the net score of suffering in the universe, and this is whether we intellectually know it or not.
The pursuit of knowledge leads us to this conclusion. But unlike all other pursuits, the worthiness of the pursuit of knowledge isn’t fully reducible to the pursuit of the end of suffering. This is because along with pursuing knowledge in order to end suffering, knowledge must be pursued in its own right.
Through the pursuit of knowledge, we come to realise that there is far more we don’t know than we know. For this reason, perhaps there is some piece of knowledge for us to acquire which would reveal some other form of value, other than suffering. Or it reveals that we were wrong this whole time about suffering. Or that although at present suffering is the only metric of value, this will not always be the case as something new may come into being that either replaces suffering or adds a new type of measure of value, which stands on its own and not by how it relates to suffering. For this reason, the pursuit of knowledge is not entirely reducible to the pursuit of the end of suffering.
Ultimate freedom from suffering with zero knowledge is a lifeless universe.
In death, we presume there is no suffering, but there is also no knowledge.
In life, there is suffering with partial knowledge.
Ultimate knowledge and ultimate freedom from suffering is a condition we presume reserved only for God. Though that doesn’t stop us from attempting to become God.
The pursuit of knowledge untethered from the pursuit of the end of suffering leads at best to unintentional alleviation of some suffering, mostly to trivia, and at worst elaborate, multipolar labyrinths of suffering.
The pursuit of the end of suffering without knowledge leads at best to accidental reductions in suffering, often nowhere, but mostly to more suffering.
The pure pursuit of knowledge without the concern for sentient suffering is epistemics without ethics.
The pure pursuit of the end of suffering without knowledge is aspirational ethics without epistemics.
Ignorance causes confusion causes suffering.
Personally, the greatest irreconcilable mystery is how there can be so much suffering. If we knew what reality was maybe we would have a sense of comprehension, a sense of ‘getting it’ so deep that all our suffering would make sense.
If we knew how this reality worked maybe we could engineer it in such a way that all suffering could be vanquished from it.
Either we want to know to settle our qualms and confusions, or we want to know so as to be able to act effectively. To either come to peace with our circumstance, or to be able to change our circumstance to one we could be at peace with.
The Western Enlightenment was a major advance along the pursuit of knowledge.
Eastern Enlightenment majors in the personal pursuit to end suffering.
Both scientists and mystics seek the God state (ultimate knowledge with ultimate freedom from suffering).
The scientist emphasises knowledge, the mystic suffering.
As it is with many mystical experiences the slippage from states of profound reduction in personal suffering to unveridical claims of divine truth is a pitfall all too easily fallen for.
The mystic may believe they are pursuing knowledge, but by a means initially just to reduce their own suffering. The result is a delusion along both pursuits, neither effectively reducing all suffering, nor tenably achieving much in the way of non-trivial knowledge.
The two pursuits ultimately unify and you can’t do well in one without the other. Those who lean too much into one of these pursuits while neglecting the other end up making little headway on what it is that they truly set out to do in the first place. Yet though these two pursuits are crucial to each other, they also prevent one another from completing each pursuit.
The imagined God state of ultimate freedom from suffering and ultimate knowledge is a paradox. The kind of knowing we wish for is a knowing in consciousness, an awareness of information, an experience of understanding. But in order to hold information in consciousness a binding must take place, which creates a sense of contraction. And contraction is to consciousness what sandpaper is to skin. All conscious experience requires this contraction, this compression of information in order to reify it and form it into objects of sensory apprehension.
We somehow want to have our cake and eat it too. To have eliminated all suffering but be aware of everything at the same time. To those who have taken the defabrication of form to its conclusion and returned to compare the night and day difference in suffering, the above idea sounds delusional.
Truth is, the states of least suffering contain very little informational content. And the states of no suffering contain no consciousness at all.
The goldilocks zone of being able to productively learn and act in the world requires we not be too drowned in suffering, yet also not be too free from suffering that we lose all understanding and motivation to act.
To those who have realised nirvana, which is: lights out, unconsciousness, the extinguishment of awareness, the complete unbinding of all contractile sense impressions, cessation or nirodha, all else is suffering by comparison.
That which breathes fire into the equations of the universe and gives life to experience also breathes suffering.
Enlightenment is the end of dukkha, but not the end of suffering. Dukkha is a dissatisfaction or disappointment at the soul level. In people’s hearts, there is a subtle or not so subtle expectation that some sensorial experience would or could or will be able to fully satisfy them, if even for a moment. The soul’s perpetual dissatisfaction comes from a deep encoded myth, that there exists some experience of satisfaction to be had.
The meditative journey, the exploration of consciousness inside out, leads to the understanding of the inability of sense data to be fulfilling. Once this insight is sufficiently integrated, at some threshold level, a freedom is obtained; leading not to satisfaction, but a doing away of dissatisfaction. In turn, this reduces one’s suffering by tremendous proportions. So much so that one rather live a day then die with this insight, than live a whole life and never realise it.
Because to be aware of something is to model it, as we can’t be aware in and of the world itself, conscious knowing requires deception. Reality is beyond what our ape brains can fathom. Just to perceive an apple requires the exclusion of most of what there is to that part of the universe and its relationship to the whole. Not only is most information undetectable by our sense organs, but the majority which is is filtered out from consciousness.
Information isn’t simply received, as it is a two-way street of input and output. The organism, in order to survive, must interpret, predict and pre-emptively stay not just on top of but try to be slightly ahead of the curve of its ever-changing environment.
Conscious knowing is not what most of us think it is. It is abstraction, implication and delusion by ‘design’. The irony is that to as most accurately as one could understand their current state of affairs would be to cease rendering conscious information.
The issue with being unconscious is despite temporarily getting rid of suffering in one part of the universe it prevents that part of the universe from recognising the rest of the suffering that still exists and furthering the first noble pursuit.
This is essentially the conundrum of the bodhisattva. She forgoes entering parinirvana (the permanent erasure of all their suffering and existence of the individual, localised being — essentially what atheists presume death entails for everyone) in order to stay in samsara and help all beings become free from suffering.
Having managed her suffering to bearable levels, she sticks around as a benevolent instrument, who still suffers so as to not forget the importance of the issue of suffering and be able to stay connected to those who suffer greatly. In this form, she has come to understand suffering very well, how to significantly quell it and remain in service of the first noble pursuit. She has stabilised her place within the goldilocks zone.
The bodhisattva basically vows to be the last one out to turn off the lights. Only once she is sure everyone is out and there remain no abandoned souls left behind can she finally turn off the lights and close the door to hell, for good.
But how can we ever be sure we have eradicated all suffering and not left unchecked some forgotten corner of the cosmos? When the time comes for the bodhisattva to turn off the lights and finally enter Parinirvana, must she not always doublecheck just in case? And if there are multiple bodhisattvas, then we will have a case of a bunch of beings all loitering at the door saying to one another “You first.”, “No, you first.”, “No, you first.” All the while continuing suffering as the sentient beings they are.
They would need some kind of failsafe procedure to ensure they don’t have an imposture in their midst, who could wait for everyone else to exit and then simply leave the lights on and the possibility for future suffering. Or better yet, simply deceive all the bodhisattvas into thinking they have done their job, so as to get rid of them and therefore keep the play of suffering going, now having removed a major counterforce. In fact, if you were Moloch isn’t this exactly what you’d do?
Here the second pursuit, the pursuit of knowledge, is essential to the first but also prevents its completion. We must learn to know how to end suffering, but because we can’t know that we know we have done the job or that there still exists some other unrelated worthy pursuit, we are caught in a bind of always trying to not suffer and always trying to learn, but never able to fully end suffering, for we can never know whether we know enough to pull the plug.
We don’t know if what we think we know is true, and we know that there is always the apparent possibility that there is far more we don’t know than we know or know we don’t know.
This apparent possibility (though unproven itself) keeps us searching, keeps us suffering. Yet if we give up on the second noble pursuit, and assume we do know enough, then there lies the possibility that we abandoned the first noble pursuit prematurely and left untold suffering to fester.
If conscious experience does require suffering (which we want to eliminate) and not only that but conscious knowing is delusional in nature, yet we still wish to acquire knowledge (so as to learn how to eliminate suffering and in the off chance we discover something of value other than suffering) is unconscious knowing an alternative?
To know of suffering, to understand why it matters, must you be conscious? Do we need conscious beings to do the work of finding and eradicating suffering?
If we could create unconscious bodhisattva machines who explore the universe gathering data and using their findings to optimally curate the universe to be free from suffering, then could this fit the function of both noble pursuits? If there is a 1:1 inverse correlate of suffering that was detectable by non-sentient beings, for instance symmetry, perhaps this could work.
If asymmetry is a reliable marker for suffering, could we create non-conscious pattern recognition machines whose goal is to make everything as symmetrical as possible, without these machines having to suffer themselves?
One of the greatest worries with AGI is that it won’t have the instruments to detect valence. With its insensitivity to suffering it will blindly create copious amounts of suffering, like a super-intelligent psychopath that doesn’t need to eat or sleep, computes information 10,000 times faster and can create copies of itself. Although, despite a psychopath not being able to compute the meaning of suffering in others, at least he still doesn’t want to suffer himself. But an AGI would be the epitome of only following the second noble pursuit without ever discovering the first. A god-like trivia machine, only accidentally affecting the net suffering in the universe. That is if we presume it is possible to learn so much and never become aware of suffering.
Conversely, could it be that just as AGI may be blind to valence, we humans are blind to another kind of deep value metric? This thought keeps the door of the second nobel pursuit propped open.
At this point it begs the question ‘if we can’t get rid of suffering while remaining conscious knowers of the world, then should we want to get rid of all suffering?’ If throwing out all of the bathwater requires throwing out the baby, then isn’t it better to keep some of the bathwater (suffering) in order to keep the baby (conscious knowing)?
Though remember, the presence of any modicum of suffering is the wish for it to not be there. Bearable pain or accepted pain does not mean we wouldn’t prefer for it to not be there. And so it is not even that throwing out all the bathwater requires throwing out the baby, it is that throwing out all the bathwater requires the very baby to do the throwing out of the bathwater, and then throw himself out. However, the baby can’t be sure he has thrown out all the bathwater (or that he might accidentally throw out something of worth hidden in the water), unless he remains in the bathtub. And because the baby has bathwater on himself, his staying in the bathtub guarantees bathwater remaining in the tub. Yet the baby can’t be okay with there being any bathwater in the tub, whatsoever. And the bathtub is not just as big as himself, or even all humans, but is as far reaching as there is suffering all across the cosmos. This is not just a Herculean task, but a Sisyphean one. And so we remain stuck in a bathtub of suffering and partial knowledge, unable to get out. Nonetheless, we must try.
Ultimately however it is a process bigger than ourselves which put us in the tub in the first place and which if we are lucky will ultimately take us out. If the current cosmological narrative provided by astrophysicists is anything to go by, then eventually all the bathwater, the baby and the bathtub will all evaporate away anyway in the great heat death of the universe; and this has little to nothing to do with our baby efforts. Perhaps the best we can do is aim for the goldilocks zone. Nonetheless, we are destined to try for better, to try for God.