“I tell you what. If I were granted one wish, I would use it to end all suffering and insensitivity. A complete eradication, plain and simple.”

Ending needless suffering and cruel insensitivity would be nice. How would you do it? With a granted wish, you could simply excise them surgically — cutting out the cancer without remove anything good that surrounds it. Short of wishes, maybe it would be best to start as a real surgeon would, trying to understand how needless suffering and cruel insensitivity work, where they come from, and what they’re connected to so you don’t cut out the wrong thing.

The presence of needless suffering and cruel insensitivity is one of our oldest theological puzzles. St. Augustine (354-430) posed the problem more or less this way: Why would an all-knowing, all-powerful God who wants, above all, for us to be happy subject us to needless suffering and cruel insensitivity? Maybe he didn’t mean to. Wanting us to be happy, he gave us the gift of free will, and we use it to abuse each other, in which case God is not all knowing, or he would have known better than to give us free will. Maybe God couldn’t prevent needless suffering and cruel insensitivity, in which case God isn’t all powerful. Or maybe God created needless suffering and cruel insensitivity to serve some higher purpose, in which case God wants something else more than he wants us to be happy.

Mind Readers Dictionary: The Podfast : Play in Popup

Mind Readers Dictionary : Play in Popup

Maybe we have to change our interpretation of God. Integrating what science has taught us, we could say that whatever got this universe started, it wasn’t concentrating on needless suffering and cruel insensitivity. The universe, 13 billion years old — and whatever came before it, for we know not what preceded the big bang — shows no signs of having anything like needless suffering and cruel insensitivity until recently. How recently?

Well, one feature that has been with life since its beginning three and a half billion years ago gives us a clue: Life survives when it is responsive to its environment. Responsiveness is the ability to switch between states depending on changing environmental conditions. Even the earliest organisms had to be able to switch between open and closed states — closed to environmental features that would destroy them, open to features that would support them. Adaptation is this ability to protect against what can change us in bad ways and make use of whatever can change us in good ways. The oldest single-celled organisms have sensors that detect available food, switching on and off genes that produce digestive proteins specific to the grub their environment serves up.

There have never been any one-trick ponies — or, for that matter, one-trick organisms of any kind. Everything that lives has sensors and switches: sensors to detect changes in the environment, switches to alternate between states in response to environmental changes.

The life that stays alive and well is that which switches between states correctly: right state, right time. The life that doesn’t survive switches incorrectly — for example, being open when it should be closed, and visa versa. Indeed, with any two states to switch between correctly, there are two ways to switch incorrectly — being in state A when state B is appropriate, or in state B when state A is appropriate. The origin of life is the origin of false positives (wrong yeses) and false negatives (wrong nos) — for example, on the question, “Should I be open now?”

How, then, does this factor relate to needless suffering and cruel insensitivity? During the last 530 million years, some organisms evolved nervous systems. The pain part of nervous systems works like a siren connected to sensors. When our senses sense something amiss, the siren goes off. This siren switches us between two states, which we could call coasting and problem solving. When the siren sounds, we switch from coasting to problem solving. When the siren is silent, we shift from problem-solving to coasting.

With these two states, we have two ways to get it wrong: (1) problem solving when coasting would be more appropriate, and (2) coasting when problem solving would be more appropriate. That is, sometimes the alarm goes off when it shouldn’t, and sometimes it doesn’t go off when it should.

The first of these states is what we generally mean by the phrase “needless suffering.” It’s basically a false alarm, pain when there’s nothing to be done about it, the debilitating symptoms of an illness that is already treated to the full extent possible, grief over unsolvable woes, anguish over irreparable loss, and worry about things that don’t end up being problems. The siren is on even though there’s nothing to be done, or nothing that needs to be done.

The second state, we call, among other things, cruel insensitivity: the siren that doesn’t go off when it should, feeling no pain when there’s something to be gained by switching into the problem-solving state, ignoring the cries of those in need when we could help, coasting along, oblivious to the pain we are causing others or, for that matter, ourselves. We decry the insensitivity whereby people cut off their noses to spite their faces, hurt themselves unwittingly — acts of cruel ignorance, even if the only victim is oneself.

Needless suffering and cruel insensitivity, seen plainly, with our condemnation of them surgically though temporarily removed, are simply the inevitable consequences of imperfect responsiveness in a problem-solving creature with a built-in siren that goes off sometimes when it shouldn’t, and doesn’t go off sometimes when it should.

You may recognize in this discussion my continued fascination with the serenity prayer as a precise and eloquent depiction of one of life’s most fundamental tough judgment calls — and not just in our lives, but in all of life: “Grant me the serenity to accept what I can’t change, the courage to change what I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” It’s a prayer for more wisdom (adaptiveness), because our wisdom to know the difference always falls somewhat short.

The limits on our wisdom to know the difference manifests as the same two errors: the courage to try to change for the better what in fact can’t be changed, and the serenity to accept what in fact we could change for the better. The first of these errors encompasses needless suffering, inappropriate attentiveness, heeding a call that can’t be answered, hearing an alarm that shouldn’t be heard. The second of these errors encompasses cruel insensitivity, inappropriate obliviousness, not heeding the call, not hearing the alarm. Needless suffering and cruel insensitivity respectively are false positives and false negatives on the question, “Should I try to solve this?”

To remove needless suffering, some advocate desensitizing oneself to the siren: We should aspire to overcome fear, worry, fuss, sweating the petty (and it’s all petty). But the sirens that evolution built into us are beneficial precisely because we’re so sensitive to them. We need to experience them as loud, harsh, and distracting, or else they would never successfully shift us from our coasting state to our problem-solving state. Pain that doesn’t hurt would be as useless as an alarm clock that goes “Peep.” Besides, when we succeed in recalibrating our alarms toward lower sensitivity, we reduce needless suffering while increasing cruel insensitivity, which is to say, lacking perfect wisdom, it’s hard to know which suffering is really needless and which insensitivity is really cruel.

Unlike other alarms (smoke alarms, car alarms, alarm clocks), our internal sirens shriek locally but peep globally. Your most grievous and howling pain may appear to others only as a wince, a subtle shift in you — and that only if they are nearby, looking. The shrieking pain of those ten thousand miles away whose pain my first-worldly indulgences cause them are imperceptible to me unless and until they find a voice loud enough to get through to me to shout, “Your cruel insensitivity is causing me to suffer needlessly!”

And then what? Courts define fairness where they can and adjudicate a limited number of such cases in which one person’s insensitivity causes another’s suffering, Beyond our cultural institutions, however, the negotiations are between advocates only, those claiming suffering who would say, “Your alarm should make you do something about my suffering,” and those defending their insensitivity who would say, “There’s no cause for alarm, because I cannot or need not do anything.” And who is to say? We’re all a little hypersensitive to our own suffering.

A car alarm set off inadvertently by a passing truck in the middle of the night is a false alarm waking in us needless suffering. And way off in the far distance through our slumber are people whose alarms we may, for all we know or care to know, be set off inadvertently by our cruel insensitivity. And we, in our sometimes anxious sleep, continue life’s eternal quest for the wisdom to know the difference between the sirens to heed and the sirens to ignore.