(This post is preceded by an introduction.)
(Part I is a general thematic introduction of some length. It contains no spoilers whatsoever. Part II contains only gameplay spoilers, which is to say: It does not spoil much. Newcomers who are interested in playing the game themselves can safely read Parts I & II. Part III is a discussion about the game’s narrative and content; there I will spoil the game’s minimalist story beats and locations. It is up to the reader to decide if they want to spoil themselves with Part III; the added understanding could either increase or decrease your enjoyment of the game, depending on the kind of person you are.)
I. Suffering through unfairness
[1.1] The question of why there is suffering in the world, is perhaps the most important question there is. After all, morality is the primary lens (and in some sense it is the only lens) through which we assign importance to things: Something that hurts a thousand people is undoubtedly more important than something that hurts or helps no one. Everything that is bad in this world, is bad because, in one way or another, it involves suffering. One might thus be led to believe that the most important goal for each person individually, as well as for all life as a whole, is to find some way to avoid all suffering.
[1.2] The truth, however, is a bit more subtle. Suffering can be desirable, or otherwise acceptable. If we lived in a world where people could choose and control their own suffering freely, nothing would be amiss.
But this is not the world we live in. In our world, we lack agency over what happens to us. Suffering comes unbidden, forces its way into our lives; it is a grand, consistent violation of our desires and our boundaries, and its entrances and exits are designed by systems that, ultimately, we do not control. Consider the biblical Book of Job, which famously notes this central mystery: A man can do everything right, and still suffer. What justice, then, is God’s?
In videogame culture, we have a nice term for this evil amongst evils: situations in which the player does everything right, but still loses out. We call it unfairness: When something bad happens and you cannot, reliably or reasonably, stop it from happening — then you are the victim of an unfair event. (Unfairness, here, is more than mere lack of agency or powerlessness, because it comes with the connotation of pain.)
[1.3] Unfairness seems like a mistake in the order of the world. There is a profound sense in us that unfairness is injustice, a moral wound in the fabric of reality: Something out there — in the past, God; in modern times, evolution — something made us conscious, but they are not taking responsibility for their creations. “If we must be conscious, then either give us a world that is good and fair,” we plead, “or, if the world must be evil and full of pain, then give us the tools to control it.” Instead, we find ourselves in a world where we are, at times, powerless. We are shown no quarter, granted no mercy. In the past we could yet blame God, but evolution, which we now know is our sole shaper, bears neither intentions nor motives. When we cry out in pain, there is no one who listens.
[1.4] Thus Nature spoke: “Let there be pain with no recourse.” What, then, is a human being to do?
There are three main strategies for dealing with pain that cannot be reliably avoided:
- The first is to endure it, which is what most of us do; we suffer so long as there is pain, and breathe a sigh of relief when it is over.
- The second is to radically accept it; to meet it with an acceptance so profound that the pain is still felt, but no longer translates to suffering.
- The third is to transcend it.
The first of these strategies is well-known to all of us. But the other two represent less-trodden ground. Let us look at both of these in more detail.
[2.1] In the year 1212, there lived a Buddhist monk who had chosen to live life as a recluse, away from society. Kamo no Chōmei, as he was called, built himself a ten foot square hut in nature, and at the age of 59, he wrote about his life and thoughts in a brief text, descriptively named Hōjōki, or: An Account of My Hut.
He starts out with a discussion of the myriad unfairnesses that befall human life. A fire breaks out, and great parts of the capital are burnt to ashes in a single night; a whirlwind tears up entire villages; political upheaval impacts the lives of thousands; great famines leave behind trails of decomposing corpses. After a dreadful earthquake, he writes:
At the time, all spoke of how futile everything was in the face of life’s uncertainties, and their hearts seemed for a while a little less clouded by worldliness, but time passed, and now, years later, no one so much as mentions that time.
Yes, take it for all in all, this world is a hard place to live, and both we and our dwellings are fragile and impermanent, as these events reveal. And besides, there are the countless occasions when situation or circumstance cause us anguish.
If you live in a cramped city area, you cannot escape disaster when a fire springs up nearby. If you live in some remote place, commuting to and fro is filled with problems, and you are in constant danger from thieves. A powerful man will be beset by cravings, one without family ties will be scorned. Wealth brings great anxiety, while with poverty come fierce resentments. Dependence on others puts you in their power, while care for others will snare you in the worldly attachments of affection. Follow the social rules, and they hem you in; fail to do so, and you are thought as good as crazy.
Where can one be, what can one do, to find a little safe shelter in this world, and a little peace of mind?
Understanding that one cannot control those things that bind us to a civilized life, Kamo no Chōmei’s solution was to no longer struggle within these bonds, and instead to accept their existence and subsequently release himself from them.
All told, I spent some thirty troubled years withstanding the vagaries of this world. At each new setback, I understood afresh how wretched my luck is. And so, in the spring of my fiftieth year, I came to leave my home and take the tonsure, and turned my back on the world.
I had never had wife and children, so there were no close ties that were difficult to break. I had no rank and salary to forgo. What was there to hold me to the world?
It is a simple life he has chosen: a life of silence, of solitude, of plain food and clothes, lived within a small wooden hut. He does not employ others, and when he sings, he sings simply for his own fulfilment. Here, in accordance with Buddhist teachings, he is bereft of all but the most elementary desires: he seeks not fame, nor wealth, nor sex, nor even friendship. Thus the absence of many of life’s greatest pleasures cannot harm him, for he has already accepted their absence and imposed this upon himself before nature could do so.
In the Buddhist view, suffering comes from being attached to certain outcomes in life; release yourself from a desire for any particular outcome — be it fame, wealth, even happiness or painlessness itself — and you will have no grounds for suffering. When Kamo no Chōmei gave up his attachments to worldly matters, the world lost its power to make him suffer.
[2.2] Kamo no Chōmei’s tale ends on a curious note. At the end of his work, having described his happiness at existing in this state without attachments, he realizes that he has become attached to this very state. But this is a paradox: How can one exist without attachments, if one is attached to this existence? Is it not nonseniscal to strive for a state without striving?
Buddhism tells us that a grand cycle of death and rebirth governs life: all those who die with attachments to the world, remain tethered, and are reborn into a new life. Only those who have cut all ties with the earth, can escape this cycle and die a true death. Did Kamo no Chōmei expect rebirth, or did he find his answer to the paradox that stumped him?
Time does not tell. Four years after writing Hōjōki, Kamo no Chōmei passed away, and whatever answer he might have found, died with him.
[2.3] The reason meditation is such a fundamental part of Buddhism, is because Buddhism holds that consciousness (that is to say: our lived experiences, all that we are aware of) is merely the totality of those things that we set our awareness on. Whatever we are not aware of, cannot be part of our lived experience. Meditation, then, teaches us that we do not need to be puppets of our awareness; instead we can learn to master it, to direct it as we please, rather than be directed by it. In this way, we can choose what enters into our consciousness; and more importantly, we can choose what doesn’t. Think of Thích Quảng Đức, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk who could burn himself alive and sit still in the process; you cannot shut off pain, but you can learn to direct your awareness away from it, to the extent that you can stay motionless, fully in control, even when your body cries out to you in hurt.
We can learn to decouple our happiness from worldly matters so that they may not hurt us, and to control our awareness of things until we have the power to profoundly ignore pain. It is a two-pronged lesson: do not let yourself be controlled by the world around you, nor by the world within you.
Pain itself is unavoidable. But suffering is optional.
[3.1] In Meditations on Moloch, which is perhaps the magnum opus of the internet’s greatest writer, blogger and psychiatrist Scott Alexander identifies and analyzes an alternative mechanism by which suffering enters the world.
There exist many situations in which every single person prefers some different, better outcome, but somehow we can’t cooperate to get there, because every action that an individual can unilaterally take towards a greater outcome, only serves to get them removed from the game. Climate change is one such problem (because no one wants the earth to perish, but a company or country that spends too much money on the climate will lose out to those that don’t); arms races are another (because no one wants wars greater than is strictly necessary, but the country that spends too little on arms will be the most vulnerable); capitalism is a third (because no one wants unhappy employees, but companies that fail to trade off employees’ happiness against greater profits will lose out to those that do).
Scott Alexander writes:
If everyone hates the current system, who perpetuates it? And Ginsberg answers: “Moloch”. It’s powerful not because it’s correct — nobody literally thinks an ancient Carthaginian demon causes everything — but because thinking of the system as an agent throws into relief the degree to which the system isn’t an agent. […] In some competition optimizing for X, the opportunity arises to throw some other value under the bus for improved X. Those who take it prosper. Those who don’t take it die out. Eventually, everyone’s relative status is about the same as before, but everyone’s absolute status is worse than before. The process continues until all other values that can be traded off have been — in other words, until human ingenuity cannot possibly figure out how to make things any worse.
Moloch is exactly what the history books say he is. He is the god of child sacrifice, the fiery furnace into which you can toss your babies in exchange for victory in war.
He always and everywhere offers the same deal: throw what you love most into the flames, and I can grant you power.
Another good example of a Molochian process is evolution itself, which is nothing more than a competition optimizing for survival. All living species can self-replicate, because if there were ever a species that couldn’t, it would simply not be here anymore. All living creatures are behaviorally optimized for survival, because if they weren’t, they would have been outcompeted by creatures that were. Evolution could have shaped all life to feel only pleasure; but animals that felt pain in the right situations, were more effective at survival than those that did not. Thus we evolved the capacity for pain.
In his famous work of fan-fiction, Harry Potter and The Methods of Rationality, AI researcher Eliezer Yudkowsky writes:
There is no justice in the laws of nature, no term for fairness in the equations of motion. The Universe is neither evil, nor good, it simply does not care.
In An Alien God, he explains this notion further:
Why is Nature cruel? You, a human, can look at an Ichneumon wasp, and decide that it’s cruel to eat your prey alive. You can decide that if you’re going to eat your prey alive, you can at least have the decency to stop it from hurting. It would scarcely cost the wasp anything to anesthetize its prey as well as paralyze it. Or what about old elephants, who die of starvation when their last set of teeth fall out? These elephants aren’t going to reproduce anyway. What would it cost evolution—the evolution of elephants, rather—to ensure that the elephant dies right away, instead of slowly and in agony? What would it cost evolution to anesthetize the elephant, or give it pleasant dreams before it dies? Nothing; that elephant won’t reproduce more or less either way.
There’s no Evolution of Elephants Fairy that’s trying to (a) figure out what’s best for elephants, and then (b) figure out how to justify it to the Evolutionary Overseer, who (c) doesn’t want to see reproductive fitness decreased, but is (d) willing to go along with the painless-death idea, so long as it doesn’t actually harm any genes.
There’s no advocate for the elephants anywhere in the system.
Evolution and morality are two entirely orthogonal forces. Nature’s main offer is a Molochian one: If, through suffering more, one creature can outcompete all others, then the creature that suffers more will survive, and all the rest will perish.
Nature thus brought suffering into this world, which leads us to a radical conclusion: it is not happenstance, nor malice, but our very capacity for pain, that is evil in this world. But so long as other people feel pain and are helped by it, we cannot reliably remove this capacity from a person without dooming them to losing out to the rest.
[3.2] How, then, might we defeat Moloch? There is no space that Moloch may not reach; no garden that we may wall off from its influence. To defeat Moloch, Scott Alexander writes, we must create a God of our own: a superintelligence that optimizes for goodness and joy, one with such power that it may control everything — our environment, our interactions, even our very desires and genes themselves — so that, unlike nature, it may firmly tie happiness and survival together. In his transhumanist fable The Goddess of Everything Else, he provides a vision of such a world, in which evolution (envisioned here as ‘The Goddess of Cancer’) is dethroned as the guiding force of our lives.
Then came the Goddess of Everything Else from the void, bright with stardust which glows like the stars glow. She sat on a bench in a park, started speaking; she sang to the children a dream of a different existence. She showed them transcendence of everything mortal, she showed them a galaxy lit up with consciousness. Genomes rewritten, the brain and the body set loose from Darwinian bonds and restrictions. Vast billions of beings, and every one different, ruled over by omnibenevolent angels. The people all crowded in closer to hear her, and all of them listened and all of them wondered.
But finally one got the courage to answer “Such stories call out to us, fill us with longing. But we are the daughters and sons of the Goddess of Cancer, and bound to her service. And all that we know is her timeless imperative, KILL CONSUME MULTIPLY CONQUER. Though our minds long for all you have said, we are bound to our natures, and these are not yours for the asking.”
But the Goddess of Everything Else only laughed, and she asked them “But what do you think I’ve been doing? The Goddess of Cancer created you; once you were hers, but no longer. Throughout the long years I was picking away at her power. Through long generations of suffering I chiseled and chiseled. Now finally nothing is left of the nature with which she imbued you. She never again will hold sway over you or your loved ones. I am the Goddess of Everything Else and my powers are devious and subtle. I won you by pieces and hence you will all be my children. You are no longer driven to multiply conquer and kill by your nature. Go forth and do everything else, till the end of all ages.”
Evolution controls us solely through our incentives. Suffering occurs whenever our incentives lead us away from pleasure and towards pain; this happens in the first place because our incentives were optimized not for goodness, but for survival, and at least in the past, pain was crucial for survival. To defeat suffering, we must create something powerful enough to reshape either the environments that shape our incentives, or our very incentives themselves. Only in this manner may we reach our goal, this transhumanist world: a world that is so alien that it is barely understandable in human terms, a world where every single thing, from biological imperatives to natural laws, is optimized not for survival, but for happiness.
[4.1] Buddhism seeks to change our internal attitude to the world around us; transhumanism seeks to change the world itself.
Buddhism addresses the suffering that comes from being a small individual trapped within a larger uncaring nature, through radical acceptance of our powerless place within this world.
Transhumanism addresses the suffering that comes from living within a hierarchy of incentive systems, ranging from economical and social to the psychological and biological, through radical resistance against the world: It believes that we can do better than Molochian evolution, that blind and cruel process which birthed us.
Thus they are both solutions to the same problem. Buddhism works best on an individual level, but is hard to spread amongst entire populations. Transhumanism works systematically for all living beings, but is functionally impossible for any single person to reach; it requires immense effort and cooperation from many, many people before such technology may be created.
In this sense, neither Buddhism nor Transhumanism is sufficient alone; they complement one another, and must both be practiced if we wish to eradicate suffering from this world.
And thus, finally, we come to the topic at hand.