Dark Pain, Dark Joy

We tend to neglect things we cannot see. We focus on visible (Baryonic) matter in the universe, but there is about twenty times as much dark matter and energy that we know almost nothing about. We focus on brain activity which engages the surrounding world, but about twenty times as much brain energy is used by brains at “rest” and apparently doing nothing.

Pain is probably like this too. For some kinds of pain we are very aware, and make sure others around us are aware too. But for other kinds of pain, we don’t let others know, and are often are in denial to ourselves. There may be lots of dark pain around that we rarely see.

Why do we hide and deny pain? Some pain makes us look bad. We’d look weak to complain of pains that many folks put up with without complaining. And when there are norms about what we should want or not want, we can show norm violations by showing that we deeply want things that we should not, or don’t want things that we should.

Aunt Hilda might really bug you when she visits, but you are supposed to love her. A lack of praise from colleagues might really hurt, but you aren’t supposed to be so self-centered. Some norm-violating pain might not so much make you look bad, as make others feel obligated to visibly disapprove, which would then cause problems.

You might think that dark pain doesn’t matter if we have repressed it from our consciousness, since only conscious pain matters. But consciousness isn’t either or, it is a matter of degree, and repressed pain can infect our mood and feelings in many indirect ways. You might think folks in much pain would seek therapy, so there can’t be many of them. But people seek therapy mainly when they feel dysfunctional; those who still function with lots of pain may just solider on.

If most folks have twenty times as much pain as they show, and live lives of quiet desperation, does this make their lives not worth living? Would it be better if they had never existed? Hardly. In addition to dark pain, there may also be dark joy.

Dark joys could be those that make us look bad, or those that violate norms. We can get illicit joy from being acknowledged as high status, or from submitting to those we think worthy of dominating us. We can get joy from the pain and suffering of our rivals. We can enjoy foods that aren’t good for us, or enjoy just being lazy and neglectful of things to which we are supposed to pay attention.

So does dark joy cancel dark pain, adding up to lives about as worthwhile in the dark as they seem in the light? I just don’t know. But it sure seems an important question. As is the question of which lives around us actually have more net joy over pain. To answer such questions, we’ll need to dig deeper into our self-deceptions, and shine light on things usually dark. Seems a noble quest to me. Just don’t expect people to like you for illuminating the things they keep dark.

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  • Matt Young

    If its a strictly human pain then I suggest it is the pain of specialization. Out culture is full of threats for those who remain general purpose. We self supress for our own good.

  • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

    Would ingesting a couple aspirin reduce dark pain?

  • Joshua Fox

    Yes, it is good to repress and deny these dark pains and joys. They originate in the evolutionary background of psychology — but there are some lower-level impulses that our higher-level conscious selves reject.

    The “I” (that my conscious self wants to be) knows that I should not feel schadenfreude, nor should I brood over exaggerated social slights. And to some extent, I can evaporate those emotions as Budda would advise, or else repress them, which was Freud’s preferred way to do it.

    Indeed, I know that I should not pay attention to various aches and pains (once I have determined that they are not signalling any no real harm). Also, I should not enjoy junk food. (If I can override my enjoyment, that will help me avoid future temptation.)

    In summary, maximizing joy and minimizing pain are NOT our utility function, or we’d all be looking for a wireheading machine.

    • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

      maximizing joy and minimizing pain are NOT our utility function, or we’d all be looking for a wireheading machine.

      Only if we think we can find one that isn’t self-undermining. (Even wireheads must eat real food.)

      Heaven is a wireheading machine. Folks have been known to hope for it.

    • Anonymous

      People wirehead all the time. US customers alone spend 15 billion dollars on video games every year. And that’s just a fraction of the entertainment industry.

      They also spend tons of money on analgesic drugs and antidepressants, even though the latter aren’t even that good.

      You can rest assured that people would buy your superior wireheading machine, and gladly make you rich, if you had one to offer.

  • Anonymous

    I suspect a lot of dark consciousness happens in dreams, which are then forgotten and not often communicated. They can be highly emotional and feel completely convincing while inside the dream. Plus, we spend a lot of time sleeping.

  • Robert Koslover

    Good essay. And offhand, I’d say the evidence you offer for the existence of both “dark pain” and “dark joy” is both substantially greater, and more compelling, than that for the existence of dark matter and/or dark energy. 🙂

  • Bayeslisk (At LW)

    I would be very suspicious of the assertion that crouching pain and hidden joy cancel each other out exactly. I would further assert that friendships that can be destroyed by the truth should be.

    • IMASBA

      It’s a common assumption in politics and punditry that two opposing effects negate each other. The art of relative weights still eludes many. Of course Hanson already covered his ass by saying he doesn’t know if the two cancel out, in typical “Pete cheated on his wife, but I’m not gonna talk about that…” fashion.

      • B_For_Bandana

        Huh? Are you saying Robin is insinuating that they actually are equally important? I’m not picking that up at all.

      • IMASBA

        “Are you saying Robin is insinuating that they actually are equally important?”

        Kinda. You have to view this in the wider context of his “argument of the larder” stance on ethics which is very important in his EM scenarios. basically he always assumed living is always better than not having existed at all, even if that life is horrible by contemporary standards. He now starts thinking about dark pain, which could jeopardize his earlier assumption but throws in dark joy to counteract this.

        Meanwhile his writing is “open” enough for him to also use it against people who do not share his earlier assumption: he can claim to them that dark joy outweighs dark pain and then some so even if conventionally speaking a life is worse than not having existed at all he can still say dark joy makes up for that. This line of thinking is opposed to the first one above, so using both of them (against different target audiences) would signify the homo hypocritus behavior Hanson so often writes about, but it is possible that’s an accidental by-effect of Hanson not scrutinizing every letter of his writings, instwad of an intentional effort.

  • Nancy Lebovitz

    I strongly agree that there’s a lot of pain and joy that isn’t being consciously noticed. On the pain side, I’ve done enough body work to know that the background pain of excess muscle tension and inefficient movement can be (and usually is) ignored but affects quality of life.

    On the background joy side, I have less experience, but Buddhists claim that it’s always there, but being ignored in favor of stabilizing various sorts of emotional pain.

    • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

      These observations are not tantamount to Robin’s claims.

      1. Body tension affects quality of life because it is subliminal in intensity; Robin is talking about severe pain that is, nonetheless, unconscious.

      2. The Buddhist claim of “background joy,” as far as I can tell, means that by changing our attentional habits, we can be more joyful–not that we are literally experiencing joy while not attending to it.

      Perhaps clarifying: Kahneman says his most important insight is that that our happiness is affected by something only while we (consciously) think about it. Robin counterclaims that whether we are thinking about something really has practically nothing to do with how happy it might make us.

  • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

    Nobody has addressed Robin’s main point: the relevance of his claim to utilitarianism. [I’m not one ( http://tinyurl.com/bfcm89e ); and to me, the “life worth living” concept is a theory not worth having: Suicide is an evolved response to specific triggers, not to a global idealist judgment about the value of one’s life, although it may be couched in those terms.]

    It’s surprising that nobody has addressed this implication because most people seem to buy his concept of repressed pain and joy, a concept that would create grave problems for utilitarianism by depriving utilitarians of their ability to apply their doctrine intuitively.

    • Hedonic Treader

      For what it’s worth, it’s actually not that relevant for utilitarianism, unless you have evidence that it would change the calculus one way or another, e.g. if you knew there is more dark pain than dark joy, or vice versa. All it does is weaken the confidence in the utility models, but this doesn’t itself change the expectation values unless you have additional evidence of a bias in one direction. (This argument doesn’t matter for someone who rejects utilitarianism for entirely different reasons, like you do afaik).

      “suicide is an evolved response to specific triggers, not a global idealist judgment about the value of one’s life”

      This may well be true for many suicides. Then the argument that a low suicide rate reflects a surplus of positive experiences over negative ones would be weakened. But I still think such considerations play a role in some suicides, or some omissions of suicide. Evolution has more than one parameter it can tweak to get an adaptive outcome; making life pleasurable subjectively is one way to motivate the organism to defend it. So the (very) low suicide rate is still weak evidence that many good experiences are being had and many negative ones are canceled out subjectively this way, in the judgment of those who consider the value of their lives.

      • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

        unless you have evidence that it would change the calculus one way or another

        That’s the point: if they exist, science is likely to find that they do change the calculus.

      • Hedonic Treader

        But then the correct answer for utilitarians would simply be to do that science and update their utility models accordingly. This is not a grave problem. If the science is too hard, the correct answer is to do the amount that provides a cost-effective value of information and then go with expectation values.

        This may not be “applying the doctrine intuitively”, but those utilitarians who think they don’t have to do actual calculations updated by counterintuitive science are probably kidding themselves anyway.

      • IMASBA

        In order to commit suicide you not only have to believe life isn’t worth it right now, you also have to give up all hope that things will be better in the future, and you have to believe there’s no hope for people who depend on you either. Additionally the human mind works in strange ways: you may prefer oranges to strawberries and strawberries to grapes but at the same time prefer grapes to oranges. Likewise there is probably a very high mental penalty to attempting suicide, a penalty that takes a pain-to-joy ratio of >>1 to overcome.

      • karl friesen

        Our models differ significantly then: Even if you only believed that the average net happiness you will gain in your life is insufficient to counterbalance the average net despair this seems enough to prompt rational suicide, even if you expected things to get less bad eventually. On the other hand, if you expect the near future to be a positive outlier you might as well stick around until things get worse. In addition, if you do believe that other people around you have hope, whether or not you exist, this seems like it should make killing yourself even easier than if they were on the edge enough to depend on you.

      • IMASBA

        I’m not sure people have to be “on the edge” to depend on you. The happiness of your parents and your spouse is definitely dependent on you being alive and your children probably need you for essentials.

      • Hedoinc Treader

        The first part is flawed. You don’t need to give up all hope that things will get better, just that ending one’s life now has a better expected utility than continuing it now.

        The second part is probably true. There’s a high mental penalty and a high physical/social penalty as well. Nevertheless, the suicide rate is low enough that we can at least assume not that many people reach the >>1 pain-to-joy ratio. We also don’t see a strong democratic demand for lowering the penalties (giving better methods to people, guiding them in the process etc.) There are other possible explanations for this, but it is also weak evidence that the majority doesn’t live anywhere near the >>1 pain-to-joy level. (If they were, we’d see more polls coming up with negative answers to whether life is worth living, too)

      • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

        You write:

        This may well be true for many suicides. Then the argument that a low suicide rate reflects a surplus of positive experiences over negative ones would be weakened. But I still think such considerations play a role in some suicides, or some omissions of suicide. Evolution has more than one parameter it can tweak to get an adaptive outcome;

        But also:

        You don’t need to give up all hope that things will get better, just that ending one’s life now has a better expected utility than continuing it now.

        It’s a big stretch from the claim that pleasure/pain combinations are (another) trigger to suicide (no doubt true) to the claim that the trigger ratio has anything to do with a supposed ratio of prospective pleasure and pain such that the suicide point is where pain exceeds pleasure. Mother Nature doesn’t care about your pleasure and pain; only about increasing fitness by having you die when you should. It may be that suicide is triggered when expected pain is 100 times as high as expected pleasure (or the reverse). Those are no less likely, a priori, than it being triggered when expected pain simply exceeds pleasure.

        On the other question (utilitarian moral intuitions), consider your intuition that people commit suicide when prospective pain is greater than prospective pleasure. This relies on the moral intuitions of the person contemplating suicide. If dark pain and dark pleasure existed, it would be even less likely that suicide reflects a balancing of pain and pleasure, since the bulk of each is inaccessible..

      • Hedonic Treader

        My response to IMASBA’s first claim was meant from the perspective of an ideal hedonistic agent, not as a description of actual human behavior. I did agree with the flaws of modelling acutal humans as ideal hedonistic agents.

        I agree with you that the existence of dark pain/joy could exacerbate this. I agree less with you that suicide is the outcome of a simple evolved trigger-response mechanism; human minds are more complex than that, and it seems obvious that compounded future hedonistic expectations play a role in such self-reflection (religious memeplexes use this by promising heaven/threatening hell).

      • IMASBA

        “The first part is flawed. You don’t need to give up all hope that things will get better, just that ending one’s life now has a better expected utility than continuing it now.”

        People cling onto outliers, they just do. I think the biggest problem with this utilitarian way of thinking is not a lack of corrections for the intricacies of the human mind but fundamentally suspicious assumptions such as the notion that ending all (at least Earthly) experience of utility is the same as experiencing neutral utility (so better than experiencing negative utility) or that never having experienced utility at all (because there never was an agent to experience utility) is a bad thing. To me the first assumption is like claiming that zero divided by zero is equal to 42 and the second one is taking some economic theory to the extreme (where we all have to feel bad because no matter what we do there will always be an infinite number of potential agents that will never get to exist).

        “it is also weak evidence that the majority doesn’t live anywhere near the >>1 pain-to-joy level. (If they were, we’d see more polls coming up with negative answers to whether life is worth living, too)”

        You deal with our most hardwired instinct of all: of survival instinct. After a long period of pain the mind may magnify joy, even though normally pain hurts more than joy feels good. Most people who have 3 of their children die still find life worth it if their 4th child lives.

      • Hedonic Treader

        IMASBA, we do not share the same conception of what “utility” is.

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  • arch1

    One distinction between this and dark matter/energy is that, while the existence of dark pain and joy is widely known, dark matter and energy were (over different timescales) big surprises to most everyone.

    • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

      while the existence of dark pain and joy is widely known

      How you you figure that?

  • Sister Y

    “Forbidden” foods probably provide great pleasure, judging from the bodies of moderns, but it’s hard to see foods advertised on television and sold at supermarkets as truly “forbidden” hence dark in the sense you mean. Dark joys that people are willing to risk total social death and major suffering for – meth, heroin, child pornography, rape – must surely be the most intense. Perhaps especially those so strong that they form an entire shadow economy!

    • Hedonic Treader

      I’m not so sure forbidden equals special intensity gains in pleasures. I remember reading that drug use can change the brain so that other pleasures are felt less intensely by the addicts. So there’s no obvious win there.

      Is there any evidence that child pornography and rape are more intense than other forms of sexual gratification, apart from the thrill of doing the forbidden? I would expect many rapes just to be opportunistic sex, and child porn to play the same role for pedophiles that normal porn plays for us normal people, i.e. pattern-matching the preference.

      It’s actually sad. I would love if there were shadow markets where I could trade some risk for sustainable unusually intense joys!

  • nobody

    this made me understand more

  • Kimberlee Taylor

    Robin sounds like a psychologist?

    I think all the emotions we feel have an origin, and it is therapeutic to trace them back to their sources–When we realize we are not MEAN for having dark feelings, but justified, it helps us to feel a sense of balance and wholeness–acceptance.

    When we are angry or sad, we should treat ourselves the same way that we would treat a small child who is angry or sad. What would we do? We would calmly ask the child to explain what had happened to make them so upset, then side with them, BOO the wrongdoer, boost the child’s self-image, and then give them a hug. We should nurture our inner child.

    Jesus really was a Masterful teacher of Compassion. In the same vein, the Buddhist Bodhisattvic Vow entails the promise to help all sentient beings. I read a book once that said, “Be kind to everyone–but hey–Everyone includes YOU.” So we should be kind to others, and also be accepting of our own human frailties.. We humans are just one jumbled heap of humanity, as Sarah Mclauchan said, who are “stumbling towards ecstacy.”

    When it comes to sadness, there is an African adage that says, “A wise child knows how to turn sorrow into song.” We are meant to experience our emotions straight on, honestly, process them with keen awareness and self-acceptance, and do what seems right, that which would bring peace to ourselves and others. Storms form, build, then pass. When we deal with sadness full-heartedly, through many tears and prayers, and words to those involved, the heaviness will pass quickly, instead of lingering in a dark shadow.

    “Just a spoonful of sugar, makes the medicine go down,” Mary Poppins used to sing. That sugar is C O M P A S S I O N.

    There is a saying, “Be kind to everyone, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”

    So then: Compassion for All.


    But I’m not too sure about dark joy. All I will say is that I do think having jealousy and dreams of revenge should not to be indulged in. Comparing ourselves to others in a dark way stems from low self-esteem. If we ever feel jealous of anyone, we should completely downgrade it from jealousy to an appreciative sense of envy, and then just sigh and realize that although we do not possess whatever enviable quality the other person has, we ourselves have qualities that ROCK! Qualities that the other person could quite possibly be desirous of.

    Once I told my little 3 year old cousin, “Well, nobody’s perfect.” “I am!” she pertly responded!

    At first I thought she was very arrogant, but then I thought, “No, that’s incredibly healthy. We should all feel that way about ourselves.”

    I give myself time to grow, slowly, through each stage of my ignorance, allowing myself the compassion of self-acceptance, for I know that in order to get from Point A to Point Z, I have to fully grow through each stage, in a true sense of Presence. It really makes each day beautiful.

    Self-acceptance is where it’s at.

    I love myself.

    And I love you.

    I love everybody.

    I love the Sky.

    I love Nature.

    And I love Life.

    I love the adventure of having choices, and the free will to be able to choose which goals I want to pursue.

    Thank you for reading this.

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