Pleasure and Pain as Relational States

At first, the claim is an obvious one. Pleasure and pain are two sides of the same coin. We would not have the word “pleasure” unless there was some degree of displeasure, or at least a threat of displeasure, to compare it to. In the same way that we would not have a word for day, if there were no night. They are relational states. If everything were pleasurable, all of the time, we would not call it pleasure, it would be the “neutral” state of normalcy. It is only by means of our pain, displeasure and suffering that we can possibly value pleasure, whether bestial or intellectual, in any coherent way.
The implication of this is stark, and possibly obvious; pain and suffering is necessary in life. Although much of our personal and collective energy is dedicated to the utopian goal of eventually eradicating pain and suffering in the world, I would argue that not only is that impossible (death alone provides enough suffering and pain, and that will never be eradicated. We may prolong life indefinitely, but the universe will eventually die, according to modern physics, and thus death can never be eternally avoided) but it is also undesirable.
Leibniz, the famous philosopher and mathematician who co-discovered calculus with Newton and believed in a theistic God, made a famous statement in philosophy when he asserted that “this is the best of all possible worlds”. Voltaire, the French intellectual and polemic of the 18th century, blasted Leibniz in his short philosophical novella Candide. After all, with all of the suffering and depravity in the world, how could one utter such a phrase? But I do not think Voltaire gave Leibniz’s utterance the respect it deserved. Leibniz felt the truth of pleasure and pain as relational states, and he may very well have been correct in his analysis.
When contemplating these concepts, one cannot help but ponder the classical notion of theistic heaven. The claims made on heaven’s behalf, are that it is a place where no pain or suffering exist, it is eternal bliss. God has managed to pry one side of the coin off completely and left only a one sided coin; an oxymoron and a paradox, to be sure, but if anyone can manage such a feat, it would be the big guy himself. But what is the value in such a place? Without pleasures contrasting element, we run into the problem of pleasure being the neutral state, and thus losing its essential and elevated position. However, a clever theist could strike back with an interesting point. The point the theist could assert is this: the memory of the pain we suffered during life will be sufficient for maintaining the eternal state of bilss that heaven offers. We could remember our bygone pain, and thus the eternal pleasures of heaven would never lose their sweetness and sublimity. But surely as the eons go on, and memories fade, we will come to a point when those memories do not hold the acuity they once did. The obvious retort is that in heaven, the memory and time itself are structured differently, so we would not experience time in a linear fashion, and even if we did, God could maintain our memories for the purpose of stabilizing the integrity of the pleasure we feel in heaven. Fair enough say I!
There is another interesting point about God, that may contrast with my own agnostic atheism, but I am nothing if I am not fair. A main critique wielded by atheists since Epicurus came up with the formal problem of evil, is that if an all-loving God does exist, why is there so much suffering in the world? Well, if pleasure and pain are relational states as I have argued, then in order for life to be beautiful, deep, pleasurable, and awe-inspiring, there has to be cancer, rape, genocide, depression and death. Also, if heaven exists, an all loving, rational God might very well create an imperfect world with the knowledge that eternal bliss in heaven will be consolation enough for any imaginable pain inflicted on our terrestrial, corporeal selves. This is an argument I never hear from theist, but they may be wise to pack this conceptual/rhetorical tool in their arsenal for debates with the heathens, such as myself. Without doubt, this is no knock-down argument, but it could be interesting to throw into a debate.
Of course, nothing ground breaking and deeply insightful has been said in this post, but it an interesting concept to ponder, and I wanted to flesh out some of these ideas on a blog. To fulfill one’s appetite is surely a pleasure, and in that vein, consider this food for thought!


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