Is suffering good? Encompassing both physical pain and emotions such as grief and disappointment, suffering is almost universally considered bad. But it also has value. Hence we aim to illuminate the complex and frequently neglected ways in which suffering is also good.
We will investigate suffering’s role, its place in our rational lives, and its conscious phenomenology, thus illuminating the value of suffering and of affective experience generally—not just suffering, but pleasure too.
Important to us all, suffering also lies at some fruitful disciplinary intersections. So our project centrally involves an international, multidisciplinary team, expert in neuroscience, psychology, clinical practice, philosophy of mind, value theory, and philosophy of religion.
Our activities will include six workshops and three major international conferences over 33 months. Building on interdisciplinary engagement at our workshops, team members and other experts will produce important papers on our core questions for dissemination at our conferences and in our edited collections.
In addition to the two edited collections issuing from this interdisciplinary collaboration, our core team (comprising two Principal Investigators, a Postdoctoral Fellow, and a PhD Student) will produce a monograph and ten journal articles. Reaching beyond the academy, we will also give public lectures, write popular articles, and maintain a project website featuring an interactive blog. Drawing on the networks we build, our longer term objective is a Centre for Affective Experience in Glasgow: a world-leading hub for interdisciplinary research, collaboration, dissemination, and public engagement.
In all these ways, we aim to enhance the profile and understanding of suffering and affective consciousness—this crucial, neglected dimension of human experience—within and beyond the academy, not only during the project but long after its completion.
Our project will address the following questions: How should we understand suffering’s role and value? What place has suffering in our rational lives? And what is the significance of how suffering feels? In addressing these questions, pleasure is also key, since we aim more generally to illuminate affective experience (experiences that feel positive or negative), and to question whether suffering and pleasure are simply symmetrical cases.
1. Suffering and Reason
What is suffering’s place in our rational lives? Contrary to the traditional idea of suffering as an impediment to reason, we will investigate the idea that, in fact, suffering has an important role to play in supporting and assisting rational activity. We think it crucially provides reasons for action and belief, but we also aim to explore a further, neglected possibility: that suffering might respond to reason.
In complex ways, our emotions respond to beliefs and other cognitive states. And empirical evidence shows that even physical suffering—its intensity and unpleasantness—can be thus influenced. As mentioned, emotions can be appropriate and inappropriate; so might it even be that suffering is sometimes rational or irrational? What, in sum, is its place in our rational lives?
2. Suffering’s Role and Value
What is suffering’s role and value? Physical suffering motivates injury avoidance; but empirical results continue to suggest many other, neglected roles that suffering plays. Hence we will ask: How does suffering bear on attention, memory, deliberation, problem-solving, and social cooperation? And how does recent evidence of hedonic “tagging” of neural signals illuminate suffering’s pedagogical role?
Turning to emotions, while evidence of its neural overlap with pain is burgeoning, emotional suffering surely plays distinctive roles too, e.g. in moral knowledge and virtuous behaviour. Emotions can be appropriate and inappropriate to the circumstances; so might it even be that emotional suffering is sometimes intrinsically valuable?
Finally, what can we learn about the role of suffering from its putative opposite: pleasure? And how do our results illuminate the value of affective experience in general?
3. Suffering’s Phenomenology
What is the significance of how suffering feels? Remarkably, it is often neglected that suffering also has a “phenomenology”; that is, it feels a certain way, typically unpleasant.
Could physical and emotional suffering have played their crucial roles—could they have had the same motivational force, for example—without feeling unpleasant?
Here it will be important, first, to compare affective and non-affective experiences (e.g. pain and visual experiences) and, second, to compare suffering and pleasure. This will provide much-needed illumination of the nature, the role, and indeed the very idea of phenomenology, and of the similarities and differences between suffering and pleasure.
Our project’s three strands are interwoven. Part 1 explores the place of suffering in our rational lives, in particular whether suffering might not only provide reasons, but respond to them. Part 2 concerns the value of suffering in respect of memory, problem-solving, and attention. And Part 3 considers the bearing on these questions of the ways suffering feels.
Together, these strands converge on our central focus: how we might understand the value of suffering, and of affective experience more generally.
The Value of Suffering Project hopes to achieve the following three aims:
1. To address significant holes in our understanding and knowledge of suffering
While interest in suffering is growing in the sciences and humanities. There is increasing philosophical interest in the motivational aspect of pain, and the rationality of emotion. Neuroscientific investigations of affect, in particular punishment and reward, are flourishing. And psychologists are engaging with the similarities between physical and emotional suffering. But while such work provides a fertile research environment for our project, ignorance remains about the core questions our project will address.
2. To bring to the study of suffering and affective experiences the cross-disciplinary integration that is so badly needed
Suffering, pleasure, and affective experience in general lie at important and fruitful interdisciplinary intersections, both between and within philosophy and science, bringing together philosophy of mind, philosophy of religion, and value theory, on the one hand, and neuroscience, psychology, and medicine, on the other.
And yet, to this point, much of the work that has been undertaken in this area remains compartmentalised within these disciplines. Hence a key objective of ours is for our interdisciplinary methods, and the cross-disciplinary engagement facilitated by our workshops, conferences, and publications, to produce something hitherto lacking: integration of our knowledge and understanding of suffering and affective experience across the various disciplines.
3. To engage with a universal type of experience that has profound intrinsic and practical importance
Recognising the deep importance of suffering to us all, we aim that our investigation into suffering’s positive dimensions will prove valuable beyond the academy. We intend that our public lectures and articles, website, and blog will disseminate important research and generate useful networks among the general public, especially those who are suffering. Through rigorous, interdisciplinary, and collaborative research, we also hope our project will contribute over the long term to improvement in both the understanding and treatment of suffering.
In sum, we hope that our engagement with our core questions in the interdisciplinary and collaborative way we propose will have a lasting effect on how those within and those outside the academy think about and understand this profoundly important aspect of conscious life.