L’impératif hédoniste – Chapitre 2
Dernière mise à jour le 09/02/2019
« What right have we to be happy? »
2.0 The Psychology Of Armchair Hedonism.
So technically, in principle, it can be done. Paradise can be biologically implemented. Ubiquitous well-being is neurochemically feasible. Yet is it really worth having? What’s wrong with suffering, anyway? What’s so good about happiness? What is the link, if any, between moral value and maximising personal well-being? Are the transcendentally happy states advocated here really any more valuable than the Darwinian status quo? Or are value-judgements intrinsically subjective and truth-valueless?
There are both practical and ethical reasons for planning a global project to abolish aversive experience. The practical reasons will be tackled first. The ethical case will be argued next, followed by a [skippable; life is short] defence of an ontology of objective values designed to redeem the ethical stance adopted here from the charge of idle subjectivism.
The instrumental rationality of the biological program derives from nothing more abstruse than some hard-headed means-ends analysis. This analysis is best introduced via an examination of a biologised variant of the theory of psychological hedonism. We all dance away our lives to the tune of the sovereign pleasure-pain axis. It will be argued that for all the complications and anomalies the theory brings in its wake, psychological hedonism contains a substantial core of truth. The point to be kept in mind throughout the qualifications and elaborations to follow is that even goals found worth pursuing only intermittently or inconsistently are still worth pursuing rationally. As it is at present, we pursue the many faces of happiness avidly but with frighteningly irrational, and not infrequently murderous, levels of ineptitude. Fortunately, all the severely sub-optimal little local minima of ill-being in which genetic vehicles get stuck can be replaced by a global maximum of happiness and well-being.
So what is this alleged inbuilt drive which the biological blueprint finally allows us to achieve?
Psychological hedonism has been variously regarded as a simple truism, an obvious falsehood, and as so completely vacuous as to be not even wrong. Here it is assumed to be a hypothesis which, properly formulated, is both substantially true and important in its implications. If it were even broadly correct, and if we were all constitutionally motivated by the pursuit, albeit typically under other descriptions, of a generic type of mesolimbic core state that our competing diversity of intentional objects only disguises, then the practical answer to the question « why? » would in essence be simple. Whether or not we should genetically reprogram the hedonic treadmill reduces to a straightforward issue of means-ends rationality. What is the most effective, and more pertinently the only, way to achieve what constitutionally we’re already seeking in a multitude of guises? How can these emotionally ideal sorts of meso-limbic mind/brain states we’re striving for be achieved and, more importantly, sustained?
Of course, even if some variant of psychological hedonism were to be in substance correct, it is always open to the sceptic next to ask « but then why be rational? » He might then even (ir)rationally advance (ir)rational arguments to support(?) his (in?)consistent position. Yet the self-defeating nature of irrational behaviour, and the variably camouflaged incoherence of irrational thought, means this option will not be explored here in any depth.
More subtly, it is always open to a critic of the biological program to acknowledge that psychological hedonism may be substantially true, but to hold that there are countervailing moral considerations why it would be good if we failed to achieve what we were [sometimes only unwittingly] after. Hence, on this view, it would be morally preferable for us to continue on a selective basis to act irrationally and ineffectually. In other words, given that the thought that one is a moral agent is psychochemically satisfying, and the proposals canvassed here are found, paradoxically, to be unpleasantly immoral, it would be morally better if the rational biological program outlined in this paper were not adopted.
All the above, however, presupposes rather than argues the case for the broad accuracy of psychological hedonist hypothesis. The chain of argument to be presented here for its substantial kernel of truth is, at least at face value, extremely weak. This is because one link is going to rely on an appeal to introspection. Since the very word sends a shudder of distaste down many fastidious scientific spines, a few very brief reflections on the nature and epistemological status of the suspect faculty are first in order.
2.1 How To Contemplate An Introspective Void.
Does introspection reliably tell us we’re pleasure-seekers and pain-avoiders? If so, is there a better way of achieving what our mind/brains are up to?
Exteroceptive, so called « perceptual » data are crucial to the empirical method(s) characteristic, and arguably definitive, of the natural sciences. Introspective evidence is generally disparaged by the scientific mandarinate as cognitively worthless. The curiously named « third-person » perspective rules. Yet a distinctive and potentially fitness-enhancing faculty – so central to so many ordinary people’s mental life – has presumably been selected for, and not just adventitiously selected, in the course of evolution. Even an unreliable and highly fallible system of neuropsychological self-monitoring could still have conferred differential adaptive value. Any insight, however incomplete, into the underlying causal reasons for one’s behaviour can also, by analogy, logical inference or simulation, help one partially to understand and anticipate the behaviour of conspecifics and genetic competitors.
Methodologically, it is admittedly unclear how introspection can be studied or even defined scientifically. Moreover, though it is an intrinsic part of the natural world, an unfortunate conflation of the two senses of the term « subjective » often leads to its being ontologically downgraded as well as methodologically discounted. Of course, it can’t be denied that in trying to offer introspective reports subjects sometimes confabulate. They can demonstrably deceive both themselves and others. The different functional modules of the brain, however tightly integrated, do not simply interpenetrate. Hence the merely locally distributed neuronal ensembles of one particular module can’t always know about what’s going on in the others, nor report on it if they can. This means verbal sincerity is no guarantee of veracity. Worse still, in initiating some of one’s actions, one just doesn’t seem to have much in the way of (even illusory) introspective self-insight at all. We’ve got access to much of the product but very little of the process. Moreover a lot of our nominal actions would appear to be mainly automatic. Many more are not preceded by any notable introspective musings or a hedonic weighing of options and possible consequences. So how can we be said to be « really » seeking happiness?
2.2 The Importance of Banality.
In spite of all the above, it is still worth making a crashingly banal but cardinally important observation. It relates to the implicit criteria one uses in deciding consciously to act in a certain way rather than another when more than one option is perceived to be available. For at face value one performs, at the very least, an extraordinarily large number of actions because one’s image or concept of what they will notionally bring about makes one apparently more satisfied or less dissatisfied, however marginally; and because one’s notion of what not doing so would entail is either less satisfying, affectively neutral or more aversive than acting otherwise. There are other, probably more felicitous, ways of formulating the idea, but their gist is essentially the same.
Banal or otherwise, a knowledge of the existence and nature of this difference in affective tone when one contemplates, and then carries through, alternative courses of action can be derived only from introspection; but is nonetheless important. From a third-person perspective, it is true, biological science can elucidate a physical counterpart to this subjective motivational impression. By experimentally enhancing or attenuating meso-limbic dopamine function, neuropharmacologists can use stimulants or neuroleptics to show the system’s pivotal role in determining how the higher vertebrates behave. Neuroscience can even christen certain brain areas « pleasure centres », wire them with electrodes, and then demonstrate their irresistible potency. Yet it is only through correlating, and then identifying, particular types of physiological function and structure with particular modes of subjective experience that biology can attempt to explain how a person acts, rather than just physically behaves, at all.
Endorsing psychological hedonism as a theory of action – and compulsion in need of biotechnically rationalising – is not the same as saying that one always acts selfishly, or at least not selfishly in the sense of serving only one’s own notional interests at the expense of other people’s. Selfish genes can sometimes flourish by throwing up unselfconsciously selfless phenotypes. Imagining the happiness of friends and family, for example, can serve as a powerful source of motivation. So, too, can satisfying an idealised self-image of oneself as a moral person. More radically, there is a sense in which even sacrificing one’s life for one’s family or country isn’t anomalous in the context of the hypothesis either. In certain circumstances, the image of living may afford less satisfaction than the image of oneself notionally acting and dying for the sake of others. Hence one opts for (one’s emotionally encephalised image of) oblivion.
What the hypothesis of psychological hedonism doesn’t even begin to answer is why the meso (cortico-)limbic dopamine system has the extraordinary and uniquely addictive phenomenology from whose encephalised inspiration, in a sense, our civilisation has been built. Why does it feel so irresistibly good? This question is simply too deep to answer here.
2.3 Vacuous Desires?
Even if it were true for the most part as so defined, might psychological hedonism be tenable only because it is effectively vacuous – « not even wrong »? For what test could possibly falsify the hypothesis? With what states of affairs could it ever be inconsistent?
I don’t think the charge of vacuity can be sustained. There is indeed a close conceptual connection between the theory and our notion of action itself, yet this is a reflection of the theory’s empirical adequacy rather than vacuity. Two examples and potential falsifiers may be noted here. First, psychological hedonism helps explain why one can never tire of having one’s pleasure centres stimulated, naturally or otherwise, and why the standards of even the most priggish paragon of moral rectitude can deteriorate under the action of drugs such as heroin. The junkie and the total abstainer, whatever they may suppose, do not occupy two ontologically separate realms of being or chemical motivation. We are all dependent on opioids to feel physically and emotionally well. Opioids bind to receptors in the ventral tegmental area of the mesolimbic dopamine system, the mind/brain’s final common pathway for pleasure. Here are the cells that call the shots. If they’re not happy, the whole organism will be miserable as well until they’ve got their psychochemical fix. For their cellular processes infiltrate the rest of the mind/brain. The junkie derives his opioid supply exogenously; while the release of endogenous opioids in the rest of us is triggered, and not always very reliably either, by stimuli such as food, sex, exercise and social interaction. We’re all still seeking the same core states of psycho-chemical well-being under one description or other.
Hence even « psychologically » addictive drugs can lead to criminal and compulsive drug-seeking and -taking behaviour if supplies run out, even in formerly high-minded and saintly souls. This is because the over-intoxicated brain re-regulates its cellular receptors and reduces its production of the relevant pleasure-chemicals; this in turn increases the user’s reliance on the exogenous route of administration. Strong-minded individuals who are sure they can safely indulge « recreationally » may misunderstand the psychochemical roots of their behaviour. The results of such ill-judgement can of course be disastrous. Fast-acting euphoriants such as crack cocaine can potentially corrupt even the most vehemently moralistic opponent of the hedonistic hypothesis. Getting hooked on heroin or crack may provide, indeed, a most illuminating empirical insight into the nature of human motivation; though there is a strong case to be argued that this is carrying the experimental method too far.
As a second response to the charge of vacuity, it is worth considering the following thought-experiment. It is (purely epistemically) possible that, keeping the laws of physics constant, the commonly supposed closed causal sufficiency of physical events meant that we found our bodies just behaving, but with none of the phenomenological concomitants of willed action which do in fact accompany much bodily behaviour. If such were the case, then many of the behavioural options one found one’s body pursuing might be in one’s mind’s eye be far more unpleasant in their envisaged consequences than those of their notional alternatives. One wouldn’t in this scenario be surprised at what was going on: bodily behaviour might as now be viewed as ultimately a mere product of the playing out of law-like physical interactions. It’s just that in this setting any incidental phenomenology would just be along for the ride.
Given that we do experience a distinctive phenomenology of willed action, however, it doesn’t seem consistent with our current understanding of the concept or the experience that one could consciously, phenomenologically act in one way in preference to another simply because one’s image of the chosen action and its effects seemed less satisfying than the alternative(s). Even more dubiously coherent would be the notion of someone whose pleasure-pain spectrum was inverted and who acted in the conscious expectation of securing the outcome (s)he least desired. This is not to say that the practical effects of some people’s actions don’t frequently defeat their intentions. Certainly, too, a person may act in a superficially less satisfying way if (s)he has a more satisfying long-term goal in mind; this is the deceptively puritanical-sounding principle of deferred gratification. But this is a principle which tends only to corroborate rather than undermine the hypothesis at issue.
The point here is that psychological hedonism presupposes that we act as distinct from merely behave. Its distinctive focus is of course on how we do so from the pleasant, less unpleasant etc occurrent image or concept of the act’s anticipated consequences. Yet from the outset there does seem to be an intimate, if often only implicit, conceptual connection between something remarkably like psychological hedonism and our notion(s) of action itself, and in particular of our acting on one perceived choice in preference to another.
Now even if, implausibly, it were deemed to be analytically true that all action was motivated by desire for anticipated happiness etc, whether overtly or under another description, this wouldn’t prove that psychological hedonism was correct. « Paradigm case »-style arguments in the manner of bad old ordinary-language philosophy certainly can’t settle the matter. Our terms, « analytic » or otherwise, may simply fail to refer. One can’t just define anything into existence. What is definitionally stipulated to be analytically true in one era may be treated as empirically, or even analytically, false in another. So undoubtedly at least as useful as armchair psychology is an empirical investigation of the links between the brain’s reward mechanisms and the dopaminergically innervated, pre-frontal motor cortical regions subserving experientially voluntary action. Yet if it weren’t for the deliverances of introspection, there could be no notion that even one single creature in the world ever consciously acted, as distinct from insentiently behaved, in the first instance. Behaviourism is intellectually dead, and its grave should be danced on as vigorously as possible.
2.4 A Dirty Window On The Soul.
With this in mind, all I can say is that, most disappointingly, I have never been able introspectively to catch myself acting in one way rather than another when the thought of the rejected alternative was unequivocally more satisfying, or less unsatisfying, than the option chosen. Were this universally the case, then the biological program would be instrumentally rational.
Could some variant of the pure pleasure-principle be true of anyone, let alone everyone? Now one can easily be in the grip of a false theory which colours one’s sincere introspective reports. So there is no need to get hot under the collar if those reports are challenged; one may be genuinely mistaken. But if so, one is mistaken in very distinguished as well as very numerous company. Furthermore, there is no behavioural evidence to suggest that people whose introspective avowals corroborate the hedonistic hypothesis are more likely than anyone else to behave in ways one’s culture deems selfish. The deep and subtle conceptual connection between the concept of action and the pleasure-principle may reflect an important feature of the world.
For if sceptical worries about the Problem of Other Minds may be set aside here as idle, it is natural to assume that in one’s core mental attributes one is a representative member of the species. On the unverifiable but cognitively indispensable principle of the uniformity of Nature, it would seem that something so fundamental as the affective coloration of willed action is unlikely to be sporadic, but biologically innate. Given the irreducibly personal nature of subjective what-it’s-like-ness, there is no way that natural science can prove that certain causally efficacious decision-making states actually have the differential hedonic tone one’s introspection suggests. But there is at least strong presumptive evidence that they do, and that our genes have biased our hedonic encephalisation accordingly. Indeed, it is the substantial overlap between sociobiology’s technical genetic definition of selfishness and less formally defined behavioural and psychological usage which suggests, yet again, that one’s defining attributes are a reflection of one’s status as a disposable genetic vehicle rather than an autonomous moral agent.
2.5 Let’s Get Rational.
What is crucial in the context of the biological program mapped out in this paper, however, is not to lose sight of the central and relatively uncontroversial proposition about human motivation. We spend a lot of time trying to make ourselves happy, whether « vicariously » via our emotionally encephalised concepts of other people or from more transparently self-regarding motives. Often, in fact, we are quite candidly explicit about our motivation. « I want to be happy – without hurting anyone on the way » is an astonishingly widespread secular sentiment. Instrumental, means-ends analysis is extremely useful in general as a way of helping us to pursue more rationally and intelligently all kinds of titular goals that we seek only some of the time. So possible counter-examples of people under weird self-destructive compulsions, of weakness of will, and problems caused by the lack of any unitary self are at best a diversion from the practical rationale of the biological strategy. Such anomalous phenomena are certainly intellectually interesting complications for the hypothesis of psychological hedonism if it is construed strictly as a universal generalisation about human motivation. They don’t challenge the large-scale instrumental rationality of the intra-cranial strategy as the only way to get everyone happy.
Thus the practical case for some variant of the biological program, stripped down to its essentials, is as follows. Convergent evidence from realms as disparate as introspection and neurobiology suggests that we all spend (at least much of) our time acting to try and satisfy the insatiable hedonic demands of the meso-limbic dopamine system, albeit under myriad nominal descriptions which spring from the different ways our emotions get encephalised. Everyone likes, if not only likes, the kind of experience which accompanies electrochemical excitations in the mesolimbic dopamine system, even though the idea of « electrochemical excitations in the mesolimbic dopamine system » is not one which is normally accompanied by any great mesolimbic pleasure (cf « the paradox of hedonism »). The earlier arguments of this paper have, I hope, substantiated the claim that what may be dubbed « Peripheralism » is hopelessly less effective than the direct biological route in achieving what we’re not always wittingly after. Environmental reformism of any conceivable kind fails, and will invariably fail, to overturn the hedonic treadmill. We’ve tried it for ages, and it doesn’t work. Given our (sometimes) nominally disguised purposes, and given that irrationalism is not a live option, the only countervailing reasons against pursuing the biological program’s rational strategic course of action will be moral considerations. So are there any countervailing moral reasons why we shouldn’t do what instrumental rationality otherwise dictates? Or instead are there cogent moral as well as practical reasons for adopting the all-out biological panacea? Is universal happiness a bad thing?
2.6 The Morality of Happiness.
It requires an effort of the imagination to conceive how a Universe in which all humans and non-humans alike led richly fulfilled and joyful lives could be a morally worse place than where we are now. If we were to discover an alien civilisation of ecstatics, would we try to introduce a bit of suffering into their lives to stiffen their moral fibre? I fear the critic, however, is likely to find this remark of only autobiographical significance. The question, (s)he would presumably reply, is where do we go from here, not how would we go from there. And at this point there might seem a danger that this paper will run into an all-consuming quagmire of subjectivism. For whatever other functions they may perform, the hard-headed scientific rationalist will argue, value-judgements don’t have propositional content and thus aren’t truth-evaluable. The universe may contain some extraordinary things, but objective values aren’t among them. After all, what in the world could make such judgements true?
In the remainder of this section, the course of the argument runs as follows. I shall first define and set out an ethical negative utilitarian case for abolishing all forms of aversive experience. It will be argued that only the apparently extreme overkill of the biological hedonist program can realistically achieve this. Hence the practical consequences here of the negative-utilitarian ethic will not significantly differ from standard utilitarianism in which maximising pleasure is accorded equal moral worth with minimising pain: both variants of the doctrine mandate implementing something akin to the program advocated just as soon as it becomes biotechnically feasible. The intimate links between both moral and non-moral value and happiness (construed here in the sense of generically pleasant experience), and between « disvalue » and misery, are noted. It will be argued that the mass-production of happiness will correlate with the production of actions and experiences empirically found valuable too. Hence the biological program will yield results which its beneficiaries will find vastly more valuable than the neurochemical status quo. Will they be right, or ultimately is this mere opinion? In misguided support of the latter, the orthodox physicalist and neo-Darwinian case against the objectivity of judgements of value will then be spelt out. This value-fictionalism will be countered by a form of value-naturalism. It is argued that value, no less than, say, redness, is an intrinsic feature of the world. It is so in virtue of being a unique quality of experience which is itself a spatio-temporally located and causally efficacious property of the natural world. Value judgements, it will be contended, are in fact truth-evaluable because they truly or falsely report the presence or absence of this property of experience – irrespective of their ostensible objects of reference. Several apparently devastating objections to this view are stated, not least charges of ignoring the fact that moral values may conflict, and of equivocation. These objections are then rebutted.
2.7 Why Be Negative?
But why negative utilitarianism?
Ethical negative-utilitarianism is a value system which challenges the moral symmetry of pleasure and pain. It doesn’t deny the value of increasing the happiness of the already happy. Yet it attaches value in a distinctively moral sense of the term only to actions which tend to minimise or eliminate suffering. It is counter-intuitive, not least insofar as the doctrine entails that from a purely ethical perspective it wouldn’t matter if nothing at all had existed or everything ceased to exist. No inherent moral value is attached to pleasure or pleasant states. Indeed, if the option were humanly available, the logic of the position morally obligates bringing the world to an end were this the only way to eliminate the suffering endemic to it.
Following through the logical implications of this seemingly bizarre and perverse perspective is clearly not for the faint-hearted. Negative utilitarianism nonetheless stems, not from sublimated self-hatred or a nihilistic death-wish, but from a deep sense of compassion at the unimaginable scale and dreadful intensity of suffering in the world. No amount of happiness enjoyed by some organisms can notionally justify the indescribable horrors of Auschwitz. [And the Universal Schrodinger Equation (or whatever) entails them both. Its solutions don’t allow one without the other, albeit in disparate bits of space-time/Hilbert space.] Nor can the fun and games outweigh the sporadic frightfulness of pain and despair that occurs every second of every day. For there’s nothing inherently wrong with non-sentience or [infelicitously] non-existence; whereas there is something frightfully and self-intimatingly wrong with suffering. This manifesto was written, and will typically be read, in a relatively « euthymic » condition. One doesn’t feel too bad. So it isn’t difficult to dissociate one’s feelings from a mere printed litany of frightfulness. It’s easy to convince oneself that things can’t really be that terrible, that the horror I allude to is being overblown, that what is going on elsewhere in space-time is somehow less real than the here-and-now, or that the good in the world somehow offsets the bad. Yet however vividly one thinks one can imagine what agony, torture or suicidal despair must be like, the reality is inconceivably worse. The force of « inconceivably » is itself largely inconceivable here. Blurry images of Orwell’s « Room 101 » can barely even hint at what I’m talking about. Even if one’s ancestral namesakes [aka « younger self »] underwent great pain, then the state-dependence of memories means that much of pain’s sheer dreadfulness is semantically, cognitively and emotionally inaccessible in the here-and-now. So this manifesto’s rhapsodies on the incredible joys that do indeed lie ahead tend to belie its underlying seriousness of purpose. For the biological strategy is propounded here in deadly moral earnest.
Negative-utilitarianism is only one particular denomination of a broad church to which the reader may well in any case not subscribe. Fortunately, the program can be defended on grounds that utilitarians of all stripes can agree on. So a defence will be mounted against critics of the theory and application of a utilitarian ethic in general. For in practice the most potent and effective means of curing unpleasantness is to ensure that a defining aspect of future states of mind is their permeation with the molecular chemistry of ecstasy: both genetically precoded and pharmacologically fine-tuned. Orthodox utilitarians will doubtless find the cornucopian abundance of bliss this strategy delivers is itself an extra source of moral value. Future generations of native ecstatics are unlikely to disagree.
Of course, there’s only any need for morality if there is anything wrong with the world. If there isn’t, and suffering becomes biologically impossible, then morality – in any sense we understand it – becomes redundant too.
2.8 The Moral Panacea.
A built-in biological warranty of happiness undercuts three standard critiques of utilitarianism. First, the utilitarian ethic is often contrasted with agent-centred moralities and charged with making impossibly onerous demands on people. According to the impersonal felicific calculus, one should, for instance, give away perhaps 95% of one’s money to feed the starving in the Third World. Most people just aren’t capable of such generosity to anonymous strangers: our genes wouldn’t let us. Thus utilitarianism may be a useful sovereign principle for legislators but, it is claimed, not much use as a personal moral code.
The effect of the biological program is to transcend such practical difficulties. There will come a time when saintly altruism can always be fun, albeit largely superfluous. Our genes can make it wretchedly difficult in the meanwhile, and much more necessary.
Second, utilitarianism seems to justify, on occasion, various types of behaviour e.g. lying, murder or even torture, that in most agent-relative moralities would be reckoned wrong or even wicked, if the net result is greater all-round well-being. Many critics have argued that this flexibility would, on balance, lead to a worse society. They have then gone on to develop their critiques of the principle on covertly utilitarian grounds of varying subtlety and sophistication.
The biological program sweeps these difficulties aside too. Its effect is to eliminate odious evolutionary hangovers such as murder and torture altogether. Lies, too, will become simply pointless.
Third, utilitarianism seems to demand, in effect, the ceaseless use of hand-held felicific super-computers to calculate the consequences of each of one’s actions. This might prove quite exhausting. Worse still, the distant long-term effects of what one does might seem incalculable; possibly, on the likely assumption chaos theory applies to human affairs, even incalculable in principle. So, ultimately, there can be no way of knowing at the relevant time whether a course of action is right or wrong on such a strict consequentialist ethic. One is reminded of an observation of Mao Tse-tung who, when asked for his opinion on whether the French Revolution had been a good thing, said that he thought it was too early to tell.
The biological program dispels such worries altogether. If it is carried through systematically, human action need never cause suffering again. The long-term effects of genetic engineering will predictably be the abolition of this category of experience.
2.9 The Significance Of An Empirical Correlation.
Now the effect of this sort of genetic enhancement and pharmacotherapy will be states of mind that are not merely overwhelmingly more pleasurable than anything physiologically conceivable before. Empirically, subjects will apprehend such states as self-evidently more valuable as well, again by a vast margin. At humanity’s current stage of development, countless actions and states of mind, and not infrequently life itself, are judged to be, truth-evaluably or otherwise, worthless and futile. After the post-Darwinian transition occurs, then every single state of consciousness in the world may be conceived as self-intimatingly valuable by its very nature. Futuristic biotechnology of a sophistication we can today only gesture at should enable the prolific mass-manufacture of states all apprehended as intensely valuable by their subjects. So in phenomenological terms, if no other, the quantity and quality of valued experience will skyrocket along with its biological substrates. Every moment of the day will be far better than the best sex anyone’s ever had anywhere with anyone to date; and a lot more productive.
Again, in an empirical sense at least, there is an extremely large overlap between actions and experiences that are found valuable and those found generically pleasant; and of those found pleasurable but not valuable, most are accounted as such because they are reckoned to endanger or diminish the likelihood of future pleasurable experience, whether in oneself or as imagined in others. All kinds of caveats, refinements and exceptions spring to mind at such a pronouncement. Yet in a secular age, this generalisation has extraordinarily wide scope. It would be wider still if the different intentional guises in which such judgements may be cloaked are included too. Some utilitarians, notoriously, have gone on to identify value with happiness. This is untenably simplistic. Too many plausible counter-examples present themselves for such a claim to be defended here. A far more modest position is all our purposes require. If an experience, either imagined vicariously as notionally undergone by others or unequivocally personal by self-ascription, is found to induce feelings of happiness or satisfaction, or reduce feelings of unhappiness or dissatisfaction, then it will be apprehended by its subject as valuable in the absence of any countervailing reasons. Less long-windedly, happiness is found valuable as the default condition.
Now this might serve as the cue for a heavy-duty treatment of the relationship between value and pleasure. All that’s needed for the argument to follow, however, is to note that the biological program will generate, both quantitatively and qualitatively, immensely more experiences found at once pleasurable and valuable than those characteristic of the neurochemical status quo. The program’s therapeutic strategy will eliminate a whole host of states that even today are thought worthless or obnoxious. With time, the correlation between states found valuable and states found pleasurable should get ever closer to 1. So if, first, value judgements are also truth-evaluable, and if, second, subjects were normally capable of reliably apprehending their truth, then the biological program would indeed prove ethically mandatory.
2.10 A Tough-Minded Scientist Replies.
Yet so what? The contemporary critic will not be impressed. Just as not everything that is more desired is more desirable, surely not everything that is more valued is thereby more valuable. Only if the valued were indeed also valuable would the biological program be vindicated in an ethical sense. It can’t be, because its defence attempts to derive, or somehow smuggle in, an « ought » from an « is », which is logically impossible. To argue otherwise is to commit the naturalistic fallacy. For is value supposed to be some property of the natural world over and above the ontology sanctioned by physics?
Physical science, the scientific rationalist may freely go on to admit, has not yet definitively settled on the ultimate ontological furniture of the universe. There is plenty of theoretical and experimental work to be done investigating whether its ontological primitives are particles, fields, probability waves, loops, superstrings or whatever. The relationships between these primitives still tantalisingly awaits a complete and unified mathematical description as well. But whatever really exists e.g. macroscopic objects, itself supervenes on mind-independent configurations of these ontologically basic primitive entities, events or properties. Values, on the other hand, are merely mind-dependent subjective fictions. We don’t read them off the world, but project them on to it.
The scientistic hatchet-job on the status of objective values is often supplemented with a neo-Darwinian account of their genesis. If one claims that something is illusory, then one wants to explain how and why the illusion occurs. Pro-Darwinian polemicists oblige. What might seem to be eternal moral verities are ritually unmasked by their debunkers as mere instruments of the genes. People’s devoutly-held personal convictions, we learn, are just another means by which competing alliances of information-bearing self-replicators – genes – manipulate their throwaway vehicles at one remove to promote their own inclusive fitness. Admittedly, genetic predisposition does not equate with genetic determinism. Sociobiologists, evolutionary ethicists and their ilk aren’t claiming that our genes directly code, rather than bias, the development of each idiosyncratic set of cultural values. Yet independently-arising cross-cultural universals e.g. religious and secular incest-taboos, can nonetheless best distally be explained by positing selective pressures which act over many generations to shape our moral fetishes and phobias. We would dearly love to believe that our subjective values are somehow objectively underwritten by the nature of the world, the scientific rationalist concludes, generally in tones which suggest he bears their absence with remarkable fortitude; but they are epistemically unserious verbiage. To believe otherwise is to fall victim to wishful thinking or the toxic mind-rot of New Age mysticism.
2.11 The Selection of Mysterious Reds.
I shall now defend a version of value-naturalism, and consequently the objective ethical rationale of the biological program, against this indictment. Is talk of objective values just claptrap? For it is ironic that at a time when the scientifically-informed current of analytic philosophy is witnessing an embarrassed scramble to « naturalise » everything from epistemology to consciousness, any similar bid to legitimate value should still widely be held to commit a logical fallacy. So it will now be shown how, and in what sense, moral judgements can and can’t have truth-conditions; and how the existence of objective values could be consistent with the apparently austere ontology of physical science. An analogy is drawn with phenomenal colour. It is argued that, appearances to the contrary, moral judgements in fact report, truly or falsely, a distinctive quality common to the experience of those who avow them. What such judgements express is mind-dependent, and on an identity theory thereby brain-dependent; and thereby value is as much a natural, intrinsic and objective feature of the world as phenomenal redness. The proposition that it is otherwise is unnaturalistic, the legacy of a dualistic perspective which sees mind and its experiential attributes as distinct from the physical world rather than as objectively existing features of it. We don’t simply « project » our values onto the world. For we are literally bits of the world itself. Four objections, each on their own apparently decisive, are levelled against this sort of value-naturalist position.
So to begin a value-naturalist defence, it is worth drawing an analogy with, say, redness. On a mind-brain identity theory, redness is a phenomenological property intrinsic to certain patterns of neuronal firing. The presence of light of a particular frequency impinging on the retina, or indeed of any light at all, is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for the production of red experience in a subject. When dreaming, for instance, one can inwardly see or instantiate red phenomena. Conversely, when one is awake and in darkness, then a sufficient condition of one’s having, say, a brief punctate red experience in front of one’s body-image is that the relevant cortical area is electrically stimulated.
On the assumption that one is wholly a part of the natural world, then phenomenal redness, too, is one of the properties of the world. It is predicated of, and appears to inhere in, many macroscopic objects. Yet it is an intrinsic property of certain mind/brain states, and is not some relational property involving the interaction of light from intrinsically colourless objects and the mind/brain. The presence or absence of red phenomenal experience can be truly or falsely reported by the subject, whether the subject believes it is a property intrinsic to mind-independent physical objects or otherwise.
Given the above, it is worth noting the sense in which redness can, and more importantly can’t, be explained within the current conceptual framework of the natural sciences. Natural selection has stumbled upon psychophysical phenomenal colour states. These states are not inherently representational. But natural selection has harnessed them so they now tend, in the awake brain, to track certain causally co-varying patterns in the organism’s environment. The capacity to recognise these patterns (simplistically, differential electromagnetic reflectancies of macroscopic objects) bears on the differential reproductive success of the genetic vehicles in which phenomenal colours are periodically instantiated. This explains why such states have been selected. It doesn’t explain their intrinsic phenomenal nature. So natural selection doesn’t in any but a shallow sense explain states such as redness (or, it will be argued, value). It explains why some such states have been selected rather than others. It doesn’t explain why any kind of experience has the phenomenal properties it does. Nor does it explain why experience exists at all. If telepathy had existed, evolutionary psychologists would doubtless offer excellent explanations and mathematical models of why telepaths had been selected over non-telepaths. Telepathy, we would tub-thumpingly be told, could thus be explained « naturalistically », not as some divine gift of God. Yet the phenomenon itself would still be utterly mysterious.
2.12 The Formal Successes Of Scientific Triumphalism.
Physics and, derivatively, the rest of the physical sciences can in principle provide a complete account of the natural universe. It is (potentially) complete only in the sense that the mathematical formalism of quantum mechanics is correct and isomorphic to the world. The equations themselves are topic-neutral. The intrinsic nature of the stuff they describe, what « breathes fire into the equations and makes there a world for us to describe » is, as even Hawking concedes, unknown, and perhaps unknowable. What can be known, however, since one is oneself a tiny fragment of the « fire in the equations », is that the experience of phenomenal redness exists as a matter objective fact. This is so even though a (mathematically) complete physics on its own has nothing to say about it.
This should be stressed because in conceptualising the contents of the world, it is tempting to defer, not merely to the unreasonable effectiveness of the equations, but also to one’s ill-defined notions of the basic physical stuff those equations describe. And these notions don’t include e.g. redness, or tickles, or happiness, or moral values. But, crucially here, the physicists’ potential candidates for the status of brute ontological primitives e.g. superstrings or fields etc., are defined, ultimately, in purely mathematical terms. So if particular phenomenal colours, say, were to be identified with the particular numerical values of a set of occipito-temporal cortical fields, this is in no way inconsistent with the physical formalism. Redness would in this case be just one spark of the « fire in the equations ». Likewise, if one identifies particular phenomenologically valuable states with a finite set of numerical values of intra-cranial fields, this is likewise consistent with the mathematical formalism. For they too are part of the fire in the equations which makes there a world for us to describe.
Unfortunately, it is all too easy to muddy the ontological issue here by confusing the two senses of the word « subjective ». It is the case, objectively, that the world contains subjective, experiential states such as redness with its unique, nameable, but ultimately ineffable what-it’s-like-ness. This property may be identified with complicated, occipito-temporal cortical patterns of cortical fields. Redness is a distinctive mind-dependent property. It lacks any mind-independent existence, since neither electromagnetic radiation, molecules nor their macroscopic object patterns are red. This doesn’t challenge its objective existence. When one experiences, or is presented with, or instantiates, redness, one can apprehend what colour it is and report the experience, sincerely or otherwise. This judgement has truth-conditions. Since red is mind-dependent it is also, on any mind-brain identity theory, brain-dependent. It is as such an objective property of the physical world. So what judgements of redness express is both mind-dependent and objectively true (or, if one’s avowals are insincere, false).
2.13 The Naturalisation of Value.
Now moral value itself will be examined. It is going to be suggested that value, and conversely disvalue, are distinctive features literally inherent in the world no less than phenomenal redness; and thus there can be objective, truth-evaluable judgements of value. This property is mind-dependent, hence brain-dependent, hence a natural and objective property of the world. In consequence, the states of mind of our ecstatic descendants are inherently more valuable by their very nature than the relatively worthless psychiatric slumlands of our own era.
Of the finite, potential 101 000 000’s of interestingly different types of conscious state of the human mind/brain, some are subjectively apprehended as experientially valuable and some aren’t. Some states seem essentially neutral; some are merely pleasurable but not valued; some are found complex and ambivalent; some involve the mere parroting of received wisdom in the absence of the relevant experience; and the fuzzy boundaries of what the concept of finding something experientially valuable entails are an added complication too. Some valuable qualities strike one as intrinsic to the very nature of (one’s emotionally encephalised virtual simulation of) the mind-independent world. Some seem to be local to one’s body-image. Yet the presence or absence of any particular mind/brain-independent state of affairs is in principle neither necessary nor sufficient for the experientially valuable states to occur; whereas a necessary and sufficient condition for those experiences is the occurrence of the relevant pattern of neuronal firings.
Once proto-utopian neuroscience can identify the biomolecular substrates of experiential value, or redness, or pleasure etc, it will be feasible to mass-manufacture redness, pleasure or value. Value can be biologically synthesised in extant organisms or in mind/brains-in-vats. [Hence the derisive tag earlier of « biological program for Cosmic Value-Maximisation ».] Futuristic vats could contain colours and values in virtue of containing brains. This sounds odd; but no category-mistake is involved.
So analogously to redness, then, value should be construed as a property of a delimited class of mind/brain states. In future it can be both quantified and synthesised. Certain forms of experience are indeed often said to be unquantifiable: happiness is the most commonly cited example. But if particular types of chemical (or perhaps, ultimately, relativistic quantum fields, or modes of vibration of 10-dimensional heterotic superstrings etc) embedded in the relevant neural state, are either identified with, or found to be invariantly positively correlated with, phenomenologically valuable states, then scaling up or down the number and size of the relevant states by the relevant number and disposition of molecules increases or decreases the level of happiness, redness, value etc in the world accordingly. Problems of vague concepts with fuzzy boundaries, and of ill-defined criteria of usage, complicate but do not change the issue. In an ideal taxonomy of the mind/brain, experiential states would be as quantifiable, and their exact texture as mathematically precisely defined, as any other feature of the natural universe. The notion that what-it’s-like-ness can be described by a set of equations is indisputably counter-intuitive; but this is what any scientific mind/brain identity-theory entails. And given such a theory, the biological program can vastly increase the amount of both happiness and naturalised value in the world.
2.14 Four Deadly Objections?
Now for four potentially devastating objections that can be levelled at the position sketched above.
First, when people express value-judgements, they frequently refer to states of the world. They’re not alluding to some distinctive quality of their own experience. They may indeed frequently project aspects of their experience onto states of the world. Yet it is the world they are referring to, not their own phenomenology.
Second, surely values can conflict. They are sometimes violently contested. We even go to war over them. If two putatively truth-evaluable judgements of value are mutually contradictory, they can’t both be objectively true; or perhaps they don’t, and can’t, have truth-conditions at all.
Third, by taking value to be an intrinsic phenomenological attribute of certain mental states, the value-naturalist position apparently makes some singularly obnoxious prejudices morally valuable, even immensely so. After all, Hitler found persecuting Jews extremely morally valuable. Given that, by every indication, Hitler was sincere in reporting at least this aspect of his mental states, albeit under another description, then from the value-naturalist perspective persecuting Jews would have to count as valuable: not as valuable as the exalted states alluded to in this paper, admittedly, but morally worthwhile nonetheless. This is surely a pretty conclusive reductio of the position. In any case, the above example exposes the argument’s internal inconsistency. Hitler’s value-judgements contradicted those of his victims. Therefore it is logically impossible for them both to be right.
Fourth, does not the value-naturalist case rest on an illicit equivocation? Not everything that is desired is desirable, a slide from the factual to the ethical. Likewise, surely not everything that is valued is valuable? Even if it were objectively the case that value-judgements obliquely reported, truly or falsely, a distinctive experiential state or family of states, this wouldn’t mean that such types of state actually ought to be valued, or that one ought to strive for their maximisation.
The reply given here to these seemingly knock-down rejoinders to the value-naturalist is highly counter-intuitive. For it depends for its key premise on what might appear to be a completely different issue altogether, the nature of what we optimistically call perception; and in particular the falsity of any sort of direct realism. The answer to be given is arguably consistent with several non-direct realist theories other than the one set out below; but the account, and the heuristic fable it contains, is designed to highlight as starkly as possible the falsity of a presupposition common to at least the first three charges above. The position defended here as a basis for the argument to follow is a radical selectionist account of perceptual experience. It contends that the difference between « dreaming » and « being awake » lies essentially in the mode by which states intrinsic to the mind/brain are selected. The most that the extra-neural environment can ever do is partially select which of a finite menu of mind/brain/virtual world states is instantiated at a given moment. Subjects can never, directly, do more than apprehend their own mind/brain/virtual-world states. The values they appear to find in the mind-independent world are instead intrinsic features of particular states of their own brains. And insofar as future ecstatics are capable of truly reporting this quality of experience, their states are objectively more valuable than anything existing today. So the world really will get better and better.
2.15 Alone Amongst The Zombies.
These rather dogmatic and elliptical pronouncements may first be illustrated by use of the following case study.
There is a rare sleep disorder in which the victims lack the muscular atony which, ordinarily, functionally decouples the bodily musculature from a dreaming brain. This decoupling is in the normal way highly adaptive. For it stops the rest of us from unwittingly acting out our dreams. In the absence of a functional decoupling of the musculature, all manner of dream-scenarios will be acted out. In such circumstances the external vocalisations and other forms of bodily behaviour of the dreamer are uncorrelated, except by chance, with the rest of the world outside the mind/brain.
Within the dreamer’s virtual world, however, nothing will seem amiss. The meaning and reference of terms used by the central body-image are grounded purely internally in its pseudo-perceptually apprehended environment. Inside the neural dreamworld, a conscious, unwittingly private language of thought masquerades as public speech. The dreamer’s body-image uses it to converse with the behaviourally intelligent homunculi his visual cortex intermittently activates. These noisily animated zombies, and other ostensibly perceptual experiences of macroscopic objects in a macroscopic world, are purely autobiographical. The whole virtual world flickers in and out of existence as its instantiator passes in and out of dreamless sleep. For it is not just the dreamer’s non-occurrent beliefs and desires which are dispositional, but the macroscopic dreamworld itself. Its episodes are nonetheless readily reactivated. This is because its features lie latently encoded in the connection and activation weights of the dreamer’s brain. The difference between us and a victim of this sleep disorder is that his extra-neural body acts out, obliviously, the actions performed by his body-image internal to the dream; whereas when we are asleep our bodies are effectively paralysed.
Now, counterfactually and for heuristic purposes, imagine a possible world in which this sleep disorder is both chronic and ubiquitous. Dreamers never « wake up ». Nor do they have any notion of what such a familiar if ill-understood expression might mean. Natural selection goes to work over millions of years. It differentially favours the genotypes of organisms whose dreamworlds, initially just by chance, serve as though they were akin to quasi-real-time simulations of certain patterns in the extra-neural world. For genetically selfish reasons, each differentially selected genotype spawns an egocentric virtual world. It is a virtual world centred physically and affectively around one focal body-image. More proximate selection of dreamworld events comes into play due to a bombardment of patterned sequences of electro-chemical impulses from various afferent proto-nerves. These extend to what serve to become peripheral transducers in the organism’s bodily surfaces. Over the generations, the fitness-enhancing correlations between the behaviour the extra-neural body unwittingly acts out and macro-patterns in its environment tend to get tighter and tighter.
With the passage of time, many dreamworlds quite regularly become, so to speak, thoroughly undreamlike. Normal infant dream-worlders will learn, over several years, pseudo-public criteria for language use from their virtual mothers. A maturing dreamer may discover that his body-image’s surroundings show a good deal of coherence, law-like regularity and even predictability. He may discover that his body(-image) can intelligently manipulate and re-engineer, within sharply constrained limits, aspects of the (neural dream-)world beyond itself. Obliquely and obliviously, dreamworlds will tend in some degree mutually to select each other’s contents. With time, the unwitting behavioural by-products of purposeful actions internal to billions of dreamworlds spin off an ever more elaborate material culture. The collective result of these by-products is that the eternal sleepers’ host bodies act out the construction of everything from skyscrapers to computer networks, particle-accelerators to jumbo jets. The resultant artefacts enjoy a dreamworld-independent existence. They themselves serve thereafter partially to select what kinds of dreamworld are neurally activated.
2.16 The Perils of Idle Scepticism.
Should an overly-lucid dreamer ever doubt the ontological integrity of his particular virtual world, the consequences may be grave. Dreamworlds can be refractory and inhospitable places. His virtual body-image may be mauled by virtual lions or, in a later era, knocked down by a virtual bus. Thanks to millions of years of selective pressure, such agonies correlate highly with parallel, mind-independent events befalling the organism whose skull encloses the dreamworld brain. So any genes notionally predisposing to such idle philosophers’ fancies tend not to be passed on to the bodily vehicles of potential baby-dreamworlds. Instead, each dreamer strives to re-order his emotionally encephalised world so that its unsuspectedly mind-dependent states more nearly match his desires.
Some dreamworlds are chaotic and schizoid; some are seemingly well-ordered and amenable to quasi-scientific investigation; some are happy and suffused with spirituality and magic; and some are violent and nightmarish. None of these gargantuan psychochemical extravaganzas is inherently about anything external to itself on the other side of its skull. Yet evolution has differentially selected genes which predispose to the self-assembly of a very particular range of phenotypical dreamworlds. These are the world-phenotypes which serve as effective vehicles for the propagation of more copies of the genes that made them. One of the properties of a successful vehicle is that periodically some of its patterns causally co-vary, albeit on a highly selective basis, with other patterns beyond itself.
2.17 The Price Of Inner Demons.
How is this relevant to a value-naturalist defence of an objective warrant for the biological program? The fable’s significance may be illustrated by envisaging a counterpart to Hitler, say, in the dreamworld scenario. In his dark and sinister virtual world, his body-image fights against terrible inner demons/neuronal firings. He spends his whole life pitted in a struggle to exorcise once-and-for-all their malevolent and conspiratorial presence. The evil occipito-temporal homunculi lurking beyond his somato-sensory body-image are of course mindless phantoms. But their hostile intent appears frighteningly obvious to their host. Tragically, Hitler’s dreamworld brain is fully coupled to the bodily musculature of the organism which houses such nightmarish neurochemical patterns. There is no muscular atony to prevent the microcosmic horror story from being acted out in the mind-independent macrocosm by the extra-neural body. Natural selection has ensured that many types of event in his dreamworld causally co-vary, albeit in a grotesquely selective manner, with the wider world, its organisms and the dreamworlds they host. In consequence, over fifty million people die in a brutal war.
Now this fable is all very well as a thought-experiment, it may be said. Even in our own world, there are rare and tragic cases of people who blamelessly and unwittingly kill their partner while asleep, whether during « night-terrors » or in the course of an exceedingly violent dream. But the real Hitler wasn’t asleep. He was fully awake and acted quite deliberately in full knowledge of what he was doing. He perceived real, flesh-and-blood, sentient people. They were wholly innocent of the monstrous crimes he imputed to them.
And herein lies the crux. If real-world Hitler did directly apprehend or perceive his victims, or alternatively if certain neurochemical events in his mind/brain/virtual-world were, somehow, inherently about Jewish people in the world outside, then the argument shortly to be presented is false. If, on the other hand, Hitler was wrestling with horribly emotionally encephalised inner demons, apparitions of his own (involuntary) creation whose foul behaviour really did blight his early virtual world, then his behaviour in trying to banish such sources of negative value amounted to an epistemic rather than evaluative failure. Likewise today, in billions of other egocentric virtual worlds, desperate and often ineffectual attempts are being made by each genetic host’s central body-image to exorcise all kinds of obnoxious phenomena. Unfortunately, in the absence of the biological program and the presence of naive realism, the net results are frequently tragic.
In the case of Hitler, profound sources of objective experiential « disvalue » did indeed neurochemically transmit and present themselves to the functional modules mediating his sense of self and neural body-image. It wasn’t the case that he somehow « projected » such experience onto his virtual world; instead that quality of experience was intrinsic to it. Natural selection ensured that Hitler, in common with all but a few philosophically and scientifically-minded humans, was implicitly a naive realist about a perceptual world. So when he apprehended great evil, a quality of experience located in what he couldn’t know was only his emotionally malencephalised virtual world, he tried to destroy it in the only manner he knew how. By his lights, he was trying to make the mind-independent world a better place. Had he been a brain-in-a-vat, he might temporarily have succeeded. Tragically, he wasn’t; and a mere epistemological error turned into a moral catastrophe.
2.18 Can We All Be Really Good?
Now if the human predicament were akin to that of a dreamworlder, a very big and controversial « if », admittedly, then the following answers may be given to the four objections to value-naturalism levelled earlier.
First, yes, people certainly believe many of their value-judgements refer to the world and its properties rather than to some distinctive quality of their own experience. But both the philosophy of perception and quantum mechanics suggest that what a person treats as the mind-independent world – and to whose properties he linguistically refers – are toy, data-driven simulations his mind-brain is running. If so, then he is referring in a direct way only to aspects of his own neural experience in another guise. What his value-judgements express is still an objective property of the natural world. But it is mind-dependent. Experiences found valuable, whether by brains-in-skulls or futuristic brains-in-vats, have a distinctive, nameable, but ineffable what-it’s-like-ness about which physical science has nothing to say.
Second, people’s value-judgements can mutually contradict each other only if they succeed in referring to the same thing. Hitler’s internally-issued value-judgements couldn’t really contradict those of his extra-neural body’s inadvertent victims. Those same judgements accurately reflected the character of the emotionally encephalised bestiary of monsters that populated his mind/brain; and against whose machinations he fought, at terrible cost.
Third, what is morally wrong on a consequentialist ethic is the effect of the unwitting behavioural spin-offs of Hitler’s attempts to extinguish his inner foes. He wasn’t mistaken to find certain phenomena obnoxious, sources of profound objective « disvalue ». Mein Kampf is testimony to their horrible phenomenology. He just mislocated their distinctive properties and origin as external to his composite self. The effects were of course catastrophic.
Now to what extent the dreamworld fable above does capture an aspect of the human predicament is, to say the least, controversial. Aside from certain details included for reasons of expository convenience, I would argue that the account is empirically indistinguishable, at least, from more familiar approaches to perception. To explore in any depth, however, the perceptual and semantic minefields into which the question leads, not to mention the paradoxes of self-reference it might seem to entail, would take us too far afield. The account does nonetheless offer one programmatic way to naturalise value, albeit at a price that may be considered too high for comfort.
2.19 Equivocal Values.
The fourth charge was one of equivocation. The valued is being confused with the valuable. Even if it is granted, the charge continues, that value-judgements are true or false reports of a distinctive type of neurophenomenological state, that state itself is, as the term suggests, just that: truth-valuelessly phenomenological. Finding an experience morally good or bad in such a sense doesn’t carry any logical implication that one should objectively do anything about it. Hence, whatever its instrumental merits, the claim that the biological program advocated here is ethically mandatory is untenable if construed as expressing an objective truth. Yes, executing the biological blueprint would vastly increase the number and intensity of states found phenomenologically valuable; and yes, it would abolish altogether states that aren’t. But value-judgements, and the qualities of experience they describe, are like tickles. They exist, and they may make you want to do something about them. Yet they don’t refer to anything beyond themselves and they don’t logically mandate any course of action.
I would argue that properly understood there is no equivocation. We happen to live in a universe whose ontology includes literally valuable experiences in the same way as it contains literally painful experiences, visual and auditory experiences, feelings of irritation or obligation or indignation, and a teeming profusion of other forms of what-it’s-like-ness most of which remain so far completely nameless. So the universe really does contain phenomena that are, literally and intrinsically, valuable. The utilitarian ethic championed here, and the biological program it instrumentally dictates, leads ultimately to the amount of intrinsic value as well as happiness in the universe being maximised; and all sources of negative value extinguished.
It will then no doubt be asked, perhaps somewhat impatiently as well as sceptically: but is an experience found really valuable really valuable? Why couldn’t it just seem to be valuable? Yet one wouldn’t, and couldn’t, sensibly ask if an experience found really painful was really painful. One can apparently imagine a universe without values, in the same way as one can apparently imagine one without pains or pleasures or redness. But for reasons we admittedly don’t understand, we don’t live in that sort of Universe. We live in a Universe where some things intrinsically matter and have positive or negative value. If our image of a respectable physicalist ontology can’t cope with the objective fact such modes of what-it’s-like-ness exist, then we are misinterpreting what the formal mathematical description of the world is telling us.
Now perhaps a value-nihilist can sincerely deny having any such quality of experience. The nihilist can ask why should (s)he value value, whatever that might be. Yet this scepticism doesn’t impugn the existence of value, any more than the status of pain is compromised by rare cases of people congenitally insensitive to it. The relegation of either kind of experience to some kind of ontological demi-monde is unwarranted and should be rejected.
This objectivity doesn’t entail that valuable experiences can have, as distinct from simulate, a type of mind-transcendent, truth-evaluable « propositional content » over and above their intrinsic phenomenology which somehow manages to alight on properties of the mind-independent world. But then there are desperately hard problems in the context of a naturalistic world-picture of explaining how any other spatio-temporal electrochemical event or episode of experience, whether deemed cognitive or otherwise, could literally have abstract propositional content either. Worlds where they don’t can apparently be empirically indistinguishable from ours – and a lot less ontologically fishy. A lot of the time, one just has to cross one’s fingers, whistle in the dark, mix one’s metaphors, and try and pretend otherwise.
2.20 Good Vibrations: The Value Of String.
Russell once observed that « Ethical metaphysics is fundamentally an attempt, however disguised, to give legislative force to our own wishes. » Perhaps he is right. Mixing up prediction and prescription is usually a recipe for confusion. Attempts to ground the post-Darwinian project – or any other moral enterprise – in something more exalted than the pleasure-pain principle may simply be spinning a fantasy world of self-deception. Perhaps talk of the moral goodness of eradicating suffering – or any other kind of moral discourse – is merely idle opinion: just a lot of high-falutin noise amid the digital babel of cyberspace.
The traditional-minded scientific rationalist, for one, will surely be unmoved. It will be claimed that the world’s [allegedly inherently] valuable and valueless experiences as touted in this chapter are « really » « just » something else: patterns of neuronal firings, the differential modes of vibration of superstrings (or whatever) with which they are posited to be physically identical. Yet this is sophistry. The reductionist argument can be turned on its head. Presumably certain modes of vibration of superstrings etc are « really » « just » valuable experiences. This isn’t very illuminating. Whether, why, how, and with what significance, different values of what-it’s-like-ness should be mapped on to, or read off, the different numerical values of solutions to the equations of physics are deeper questions altogether, and not ones that can be explored here. They may all just be glorified tickles; or they may not: we simply don’t know.
Instead, this section may be concluded with a quick restatement of the plot so far. The biological program holds out the promise that, within a few millennia at most, states of conscious mind everywhere will be by their very nature more enjoyable than anyone alive today can imagine. Our hereditary neurological pleasure-deficit stops us getting a grip on what biotechnology can genetically engineer. In (at the very least) an empirical sense, implementing the post-Darwinian program can fill the world with valuable experiences. They will be enjoyed by human, non-human and post-human beings. Post-Darwinian modes of experience are likely to be of a diversity, profundity and liquid intensity that goes beyond anything accessible to the impoverished hunter-gatherer-evolved imagination. All the moral ills identified by contemporary secular value-systems can be rooted out for ever. Suffering will one day become physically impossible. This all sounds rather bombastic; but the strategy is biologically feasible as a species-project should we choose to pursue it.
Whether maximising the valued in the world amounts, in practice and/or theory, to maximising the intrinsically valuable in the world is another, and harder, question. There is, I have argued, at least a prima facie case that it does. We may one day live in a Universe whose equations describe something which is intrinsically valuable by its very nature.