The Most Important Question in Philosophy - Part 3 of ?

Pain and loss are both unavoidable. They are inevitable. I have experience with pain and loss, you have experience with pain and loss, and we will both have more experience with pain and loss. We can't create a situation where we won't experience them, so we must adapt to them. Pain and loss are the two primary things that make life not worth living; therefore, they are two of the primary things that we must focus on when answering "What makes life worth living?"

Let's start with Benjamin Franklin, possibly the most important person in the founding of the United States of America. Few people know that he wrote a small dissertation in 1725 that deals directly with our issue. Franklin had 100 copies printed and gave a few to friends, but it caused such a stir within the people that read it that Franklin burned the rest of the copies. Here are 6 of the 14 propositions:

"1. A Creature when endu'd with Life or Consciousness, is made capable of Uneasiness or Pain.

2. This Pain produces Desire to be freed from it, in exact proportion to itself.

3. The Accomplishment of this Desire produces an equal Pleasure.

4. Pleasure is consequently equal to Pain.

From these Propositions it is observ'd,

1. That every Creature hath as much Pleasure as Pain.

2. That Life is not preferable to Insensibility; for Pleasure and Pain destroy one another: That Being which has ten Degrees of Pain subtracted from ten of Pleasure, has nothing remaining, and is upon an equality with that Being which is insensible to both."(1)

Wow! That is a unique attitude. The entire 32 pages of "A Dissertation on Liberty and Necessity, Pain and Pleasure" is this extraordinary. You can see why it created such a stir.

Ludwig von Mises founded Praxeology, the study of human action, and also talks about uneasiness. Here he puts it in slightly different terms, "Man acts because he is dissatisfied with the state of affairs as it prevails in the absence of his intervention. Man acts because he lacks the power to render conditions fully satisfactory and must resort to appropriate means in order to render them less unsatisfactory."(2)

When Jeff Bezos decided to start Amazon he formulated his Regret Minimization Framework, where he thinks about himself in the distant future and makes the decision that he would regret the least.(3) Mark Cuban has stated that he uses a similar framework(4), and Ross Perot too(5). Is it a coincidence that they have all used a similar question that moves them away from a type of pain while assuming that it cannot be fully circumvented? I don't think so.

Pain is the human propulsion system. It drives us forward, and without it there would be no action. For even an attachment moves us to seek something that we want, or to maintain it and keep it from loss. This can be stated in a variety of ways. Someone with a background in Perceptual Control Theory may say that action is the differential between a perceptual signal and a reference signal. Franklin calls that differential Uneasiness or Pain. Whatever we may call it, we must thank pain for all that we have done. That is a unique perspective, a valuable attitude.

Pain can also be viewed as a signal that something is wrong, and therefore something must be changed. This is a similar statement as an impetus to action, but viewed in a slightly different light because a process that has the potential to be changed is recurring.

These things might best be illustrated with examples. Pain can be a general term and apply to physical, emotional, and mental pain, even existential pain as we've been exploring. Let me give two examples to add context.

When I was 13 I broke my collarbone playing American football, but I didn't know it. We were running hitting drills. Cory and I hit pretty hard. I knew that my arm hurt, but I went to the back of the line crying a little bit trying to ignore it. My arm continued to hurt for the rest of that practice, and it wasn't working right. I had to start getting into my stance with my left arm because my right arm wouldn't support my weight, but I ignored it. I kept practicing and my shoulder kept hurting. I put on an extra pad to help with it, and it did a little. I finished the season, and we were only halfway through when I was injured. Practice, hitting drills, running, hitting, games, pain. My arm hurt all the time, but I figured it would get better after football; it didn't. The basketball season hurt, and the wrestling season really hurt. Pain and more pain. Still I hadn't gone to the doctor. I figured it would get better. By the time baseball season came around I had almost gotten used to the pain. On the first day I was supposed to be pitching half speed. The other pitcher, Ben, was pitching too fast and the coach told him to throw like I was, slow. The only thing was, I was throwing as hard as I could and the ball was barely arching over home plate. I talked to the coach after practice and told him that something was wrong with my shoulder. My shoulder had a number of issues, but the collarbone had healed itself back together. The surgeon told me that he didn't think he could help, that I would never be able to raise my arm above level again, that I had to quit sports, that my arm would be weak, in pain, and have arthritis by the time I was 20. All of the physical pain had not propelled me to fix the issue, or even to confront it, but that conversation set me on a long and obsessive path of research and experimentation. By the time I was 20 I could do one-arm chinups, one-arm two-finger pushups, and a bunch of other strength feats. I had played football in high school, climbed mountains, did whitewater rafting, scuba diving, running with bulls, and a bunch of other adventures. My shoulder had greater strength and a greater range of motion than before the injury, and that has continued for many years since. The physical pain was a signal that something was wrong and needed to change, but I ignored it. The mental and emotional pain of being told about my limited future is what propelled me to act, and to change. Pain is a signal to action, pain is a signal to change.

Everyone has a story in their lives that they can see a similar process in, where pain propels them forward. I have a lot of them: from my best friend dying when I was 13 and seeing his blood on the road at the bus stop, to vomiting blood and being told I was going to die in Kenya when I was 26, to having a vertebrae slide into my brainstem causing massive nervous system pain and damage for years. What if instead of crying out "Why me!?" we instead asked, "What can I change?"

Now, there are times when we cannot recover or regain something we have lost. Some losses are permanent, death being the most obvious example. This section on pain went a little longer than I expected, and I think the section on loss might as well. I will be covering that in the next, and I think last, post for this essay. Here are my notes for next time.

Andrew death
africa cognitive decline, greatest value
nihilism depression loss and grief imaginary future past written in stone
repression abreaction Breuer observation Buddha
loss and grief imaginary future expectation probability as measure of uncertainty chaos determinism
The past cannot be rewritten, but it can be reinterpreted. The future cannot be lost, but it can be unexpected.

Here is where this essay began:

Here is part 2:

And here is the overview of the entire project:

You are welcome to join me on my adventures in writing at

1 - A Dissertation on Liberty and Necessity, Pain and Pleasure by Benjamin Franklin, 1725, pages 30-31.
2 - The Ultimate Foundation of Economic Science by Ludwig von Mises, 1962, page 2.
3 - Academy of Achievement Interview, San Antonio Texas, May 4th, 2001.
4 - How to Win at the Sport of Business by Mark Cuban, 2011, page 47.
5 - My Life and The Principles for Success by Ross Perot, 1996, page 159.

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