Thursday, December 03, 2015

Why Do Problems Exist - Part 2


Part 2 of a 3 part series exploring Western thought about why things go wrong.

In the last article, I explored what the great Western thinkers have written about “the causes of things in general.”  A good summary of that article is that there is a fixed order of causation of all that exists:  1) final cause; 2) efficient cause; 3) material cause; and 4) formal cause.  In other words, first comes the purpose, followed by the energy, directed at the material, according to the plan.  All that we see around us -- all of nature and all that humans have created can be explained by addressing these 4 types of causes.

But what about failure (things that go wrong) in particular?  It’s one thing to acknowledge, for example, why my home exists, but isn’t it another thing to acknowledge why, perhaps, a fire occurred in my home?  Can the same 4 types of causes be used to explain the existence of a failure?  Would the fire in my home have a purpose, followed by an energy, directed at the material, according to a plan?

Before I attempt to answer this question, I thought it would be useful to dwell on the idea of “failure” itself -- independent from causation.

To be honest, I thought this research would be easy -- especially because I have a “secret resource” for helping me answer these types of questions.  When I married my wife, I inherited from her an accumulation of 54 books written by people like Homer, Plato, Descartes, Spinoza, Tolstoy, and Freud.  These books were assembled and sold by Encyclopedia Britannica, and included a very useful “Syntopicon” which provides a categorized summary of Western thought -- 102 categories of ideas people have been discussing for the last few thousand years.  I’ve been referring to this Syntopicon for many years.

I’ll simply go to the Syntopicon and see what these great minds have said about “failure.”  Certainly, this has to be one of the most deliberated topics over the ages, right?


The following table lists the 102 categories of ideas that have been discussed in the Syntopicon.  Note the absence of the subject of failure!  Apparently, either failure was not something worthy of serious consideration or that idea was covered under a broader category.

It might be worth your while to review the above ideas for those you think are most closely associated with failure.  When I did this, the closest ideas I found was related to “pleasure and pain.”  I suppose I drifted toward the idea of “pleasure and pain” because of the personal definition of “failure” that I’ve been carrying around for the last 20 years:  Failure is unexpected, unplanned pain.

Diving into the idea of “pleasure and pain,” I found that the great thinkers note two types of pain:  the physical pain of touching a hot stove (for example), and the psychological or emotional pain of not achieving a desired end (or achieving an undesired end).  

The first type of pain (physical pain) is not subjective.  All of us will feel pain if we place our hand on a hot stove, or if we hit our finger with a hammer, or if we get a splinter in our thumb.  What is painful to me will be painful to you (assuming our sensory organs are working properly).  Even more, the physical pain we feel warns us to retract -- to care for our injury, and to rethink how we might do something in the future.  People who feel no physical pain are in a life-threatening state.  This first type of pain is, therefore, essential to life.

Interestingly, however, psychological or emotional pain is very subjective pain.  What might be painful to me is not painful to you.

A pleasant taste depends not on the things themselves but on their agreeableness to this or that palate, wherein there is great variety; so the greatest happiness consists in having those things which produce the greatest pleasure…. these, to different men are very different things.  John Locke,English philosopher and physician, 1650

Pleasure is neither good nor useful, nor is pain an evil, for when we are pained by any external thing we should remember that it is not this thing which disturbs us but our own judgement about it.   Marcus Aurelius, Roman Emperor, 175 AD

A personal example of this is the different feelings that my wife and I have about the feral cats that live outside our home.  She is in PAIN when she does not feed them.  I am in PAIN when she does!  
The fact that psychological or emotional pain is subjective means that failure, itself, is subjective.  Failure to me is not failure to you!  We all have our own definitions of failure -- and all these definitions are somewhat tied to emotional / psychological pain.

Could this mean that psychological or emotional pain is supposed teach us something, just as physical pain does?  Even more, does it mean that the learning we are to embrace is very personalized, since each of us is “pained” by different things?

Pain the pathway to pleasure?

An interesting thought from many (but not all) of the great thinkers is that pleasure and pain are intimately connected to good and evil, happiness and misery, virtue and duty.  Even more, most of these great thinkers tend to think that pain is the primary driver of all that we do, propelling us towards “pleasure.”

Those things which can touch the sense pleasantly are made of smooth and round bodies, but those which seem to be bitter and harsh want to tear a way into our senses.  Nature cries out for nothing but that pain may be avoided so that pleasure can be experienced.  The first maxim of nature is not to seek pleasure but to avoid pain.  Lucretius, Roman poet and philosopher, 75 BC

Our entire psychical activity is bent upon procuring pleasure and avoiding pain.  The ego learns that it sometimes must delay pleasure and endure pain to seek ultimate pleasure  Sigmund Freud, Austrian neurologist and the father of psychoanalysis, 1900

If pain is the primary driver towards pleasure, could this mean that evil is the primary driver towards good; that misery is the primary driver towards happiness; and duty the primary driver towards virtue?  Even more, does all of life tend to drive humanity towards pleasure, and is this pleasure we seek the ultimate “good?”

Pleasure is the appearance or sense of Good;  Displeasure the appearance or sense of Evil…. Thomas Hobbes, English philosopher, 1600

Things are good or evil only in reference to pleasure or pain.  Happiness is the utmost pleasure we are capable of and misery the utmost pain….. John Locke

So what have I concluded from my research into the great Western thinkers about the idea of failure?

First, almost all human beings desire pleasure, and try to avoid pain.  But almost all human beings must experience pain on their way to pleasure.  As so many other things in life, pleasure and pain appear to be “2 sides of the same coin.”  Therefore, failure and pain go hand-in-hand.  

Secondly, what pains me might not pain you.  Therefore, failure to me might not be failure to you.
Finally, all pain/failure is propelling us in a direction towards pleasure (or goodness).  Most notably, failure is NOT what we think it is.

Tradition speaks with an almost unanimous voice of the pleasure all men find in knowing and the pain none can avoid in the process of seeking the truth….  editors of the Syntopicon

In the next article, I’ll try to tie my conclusions from this article with the conclusions of the first article.