L’impératif hédoniste – Chapitre 4
Dernière mise à jour le 09/02/2019
4.0 “Happy experiences, and the very concept of happiness itself, are possible only because they can be contrasted with melancholy. The very notion of everlasting happiness is incoherent.”
Some people endure lifelong emotional depression or physical pain. Quite literally, they are never happy. Understandably, they may blame their misery on the very nature of the world, not just their personal clinical condition. Yet it would be a cruel doctrine which pretended that such people don’t really suffer because they can’t contrast their sense of desolation with joyful memories. In the grips of despair, they may find the very notion of happiness cognitively meaningless. Conversely, the euphoria of unmixed (hypo)mania is not dependent for its sparkle on recollections of misery. Given the state-dependence of memory, negative emotions may simply be inaccessible to consciousness in such an exalted state. Likewise, it is possible that our perpetually euphoric descendants will find our contrastive notion of unhappiness quite literally inconceivable. For when one is extraordinarily super-well, then it’s hard to imagine what it might be like to be chronically mentally ill.
Here’s a contemporary parallel. It’s possible to undergo, from a variety of causes, a complete bilateral loss of primary, secondary and “associative” visual cortex. People with Anton’s Syndrome not only become blind; they are unaware of their sensory deficit. Furthermore, they lose all notion of the meaning of sight. They no longer possess the neurological substrates of the visual concepts by which their past and present condition could be compared and contrasted. Our genetically joyful descendants may, or may not, undergo an analogous loss of cognitive access to the nature and variant textures of suffering. Quite plausibly, they will have gradients of sublimity to animate their lives and infuse their thoughts. So at least they’ll be able to make analogies and draw parallels. But fortunately for their sanity and well-being, they won’t be able to grasp the true frightfulness lying behind any linguistic remnants of the past that survive into the post-Darwinian era. Such lack of contrast, or even the inconceivability of unpleasant experiences, won’t leave tomorrow’s native-born ecstatics any less happy; if anything quite the reverse.
It’s true that a world whose agents are animated by pleasure gradients will still have the functional equivalent of aversive experience. Yet the “raw feel” of such states may still be more wonderful than anything physiologically possible today.
4.1 “The scenarios mapped out in this paper are impracticable. None of them would work in reality. The human brain is too complex to be hardwired for lifetime bliss. Nature, in her wisdom, would ensure that some complicated cycle of feedback-inhibition eventually kicked in. This would restore more equable and subdued states of mind.”
Any attempt to hardwire into the cerebral cortex a functional understanding of the Theory of General Relativity, say, or perhaps to set “by hand” the neural connections and activation weights mediating an appreciation of Shakespearean tragedy, would presumably defeat all but the most utopian neuroscience. Such virtuoso feats won’t be necessary. The physiological roots of affective states lie mostly deep within the phylogenetically primitive limbic-system. They aren’t “merely” limbic; this is to miss the evolutionary significance of their encephalisation. The predictive reward value of different sensory cues, for instance, is encoded by the orbitofrontal cortex as well as the amygdala. Yet the neural basis of our emotional life is still incomparably simpler than the plethora of cognitive processes they penetrate. For sure, the functional pathways of our emotions are complicated to twenty-first century eyes. Yet they should prove tractably so. Just as we can, with horrible cruelty, administer drug-cocktails that induce unremitting despair – this is sometimes done in exploring animal “models” of depression – so we can crudely, and some day exquisitely, polarise mood in the opposite direction.
It will be recalled that the monoaminergic neurons, peptides and endorphins that underlie the emotional tone of experience play an essentially modulatory role. They are not individually directed on notional site-specific representations pre-coded by genes. If the receptors, enzymes, cytoplasmic proteins and genetic switches in one’s ventral tegmental area and nucleus accumbens are suitably reconfigured, and if these wonderful cells continue to fire away vigorously, then one is going to be outrageously happy indefinitely. Natural selection has no powers of foresight and anticipation with which to frustrate us. Nature isn’t waiting to take its revenge. Given a richer dopaminergic and mu opioidergic innervation of the neo-cortex, then the focus of future ecstatic happiness will be on a shifting and unpredictable panorama of intentional objects. The potential complexity and variety of those objects – i.e. what one will be nominally happy “about” – is indeed staggering. Yet when each fleeting neocortical coalition is blissfully innervated from “below”, every one of them can be a focus of delight. Life will always be exhilarating, and the fun simply won’t stop. For the hedonic treadmill will have been genetically dismantled for ever.
4.2 “If we were always elated, we’d suffer the same fate as intra-cranially self-stimulating laboratory animals. We’d starve, or die of general self-neglect. Both physical and psychological pain do more than promote the inclusive fitness of genes. For the most part, they protect the individual organism from harm too. If a regime of universal happiness were attempted, we’d never want to have sex and reproduce. Therefore we’d become extinct as a species.”
A project geared to crude biological pleasure-maximisation alone could well undermine the autonomous survival-skills of its participants. In a comprehensively automated, computerised, robot-served civilisation, this supposed incapacity wouldn’t in the long run pose a particular problem. Moreover it is only certain types, not intensities, of pleasure which are incompatible with efficient bodily self-maintenance. Pragmatically, however, worry over the incapacitating effects of excess well-being on its victims illustrates the advantages of retaining both well-defined intentional objects and the goal-directed behaviour advocated in this manifesto. Tomorrow’s paradise-engineering specialists will probably judge it prudent to keep these traditional forms of life. Such modes of old-style intentionality will be needed for the purposes of any practical medium-term utopia, at least. No heroic sacrifice of subjective well-being is thereby demanded.
The role of pain isn’t as straightforward as it seems. Its dreadfulness has been adaptive in our evolutionary past. Yet any full explanation of pain’s phenomenological nastiness, as distinct from the functional role of “nociception”, still eludes us completely; and perhaps it always will. The spectre of raw nastiness, however, is not the only way a complex adaptive system can be induced to avoid, and respond to, injury. Unfortunately, it seems to have been the only adaptive response open to primordial carbon-based organisms consistent with the principles of natural selection. Fortunately, other strategies are now feasible. Whereas Evolution can’t jump across deserts in the fitness landscape, paradise-designers in the era of post-genomic medicine certainly can. Humans can already build robots armed with “self-taught” artificial neural networks. These toy robots can learn to negotiate simple environments. They are capable of avoiding noxious stimuli via their responses to functional isomorphs of our pain states. Robotic silicon circuitry presumably lacks organic wetware’s raw feel of phenomenological nastiness. So a less barbarous and primitive means of avoiding tissue damage in organic life-forms can surely be devised as well. [This expression of carbon chauvinism is controversial. It is not idle prejudice, however, but an inference drawn from the structurally and micro-functionally unique valence properties of the carbon atom and complex organic molecules.]
One way to promote pain-free nociception would be to use inorganic prostheses adapted from the design of our own future robots. A slightly more elegant solution would exploit our innate if often inept tendency to pleasure-maximisation. Peripheral nerves signalling noxious stimuli currently synapse on neural pain cells. They could instead be re-targeted on neurons which were simply less efficiently hedonistic in their biochemistry than their cellular neighbours. With their post-sensory signals remapped, infants could then learn self-preservation and pleasure-maximisation in harmony. At least as a stopgap, exploiting pleasure gradients is a much more civilised way to live. It’s far more humane than responding to the contours of their nasty, and sometimes utterly excruciating, aversive counterparts.
A further presupposition of the question needs examining. One should be wary of assuming that we’re the folk who can properly look after ourselves, whereas our descendants, if they become genetically pre-programmed ecstatics, will get trapped in robot-serviced states of infantile dependence. For it shouldn’t be forgotten that exuberantly happy people also have a fierce will to survive. They love life dearly. They take on daunting challenges against seemingly impossible odds. One of the hallmarks of many endogenous depressive states, on the other hand, is so-called behavioural despair. If one learns that apparently no amount of effort can rescue one from an aversive stimulus, then one tends to sink into a lethargic stupor. This syndrome of “learned helplessness” may persist even when the opportunity to escape from the nasty stimulus subsequently arises.
Contemporary fatalism about the “inevitability” of suffering is analogous to this dysfunctional passivity (cf. the behavioural syndrome associated with the religious traditions of the Indian subcontinent). Yet passive acceptance of the dark side of life is no longer useful to contemporary humans now we’ve unravelled the genetic code. Species-wide hedonic engineering offers the prospect of eliminating all the vile types of experience we hate most; but even though it has become technically feasible to escape their clutches, a lot of us still aren’t energetically striving to get rid of them. Unlike tortured lab-rats and monkeys, we can verbally rationalise our perceived helplessness in the face of psychological trauma or malaise. Suffering, we say, is “natural”, “inevitable”, “the way of the world”, “Life”, etc. By contrast, our eternally youthful, psychologically super-fit descendants won’t need such coping-mechanisms. They are likely to be fired up with indomitable will-power. Their resourcefulness and zest for living should make them far better equipped to deal with life’s practical inconveniences. Potential problems will be viewed as tremendously exciting challenges to be overcome. But in any case, future generations of post-humans are destined to enjoy god-like powers unknown to the mythical Olympians – both inside their virtual reality software-suites and out. They may indeed be ecstatically happy. But we would be rash to patronise them. For we’re the ones who need help.
The argument that our descendants might become functional wireheads, too happy to reproduce, isn’t compelling either. Happy people tend to want more sex, not less. Not everyone may opt for erotic modes of pleasure. But amongst sensualists who do, then gene-coded hyper-dopaminergic well-being is likely to promote, not celibacy, but heightened sexuality. This isn’t simply a recipe for loveless orgies. Enriched serotonergic, phenylethylamine, oxcytocin and opiate function will allow us to care much more for each other and our dependants than selfish DNA normally allows today. Just how many newly-minted young ecstatics the world can ecologically accommodate, on the other hand, is uncertain. The elimination of functional pathologies like the ageing process is likely to make curbing rampant reproduction rather than promoting it a priority.
4.3 “This whole manifesto is flawed from the outset by its crudely reductionist approach to human beings. Our most profound spiritual experiences, and indeed what it is to be a person, can’t be reduced to a dance of soulless molecules.”
In the tough-minded reductionist camp, a hard-nosed atheistical scientist may be loath to see the beautifully choreographed neurons of his temporal cortex reduced to a spiritual buzz of religiosity. This isn’t a very fruitful perspective either.
In one’s eagerness to avoid an impoverished conception of human beings, it is easy to fall victim to an impoverished conception of chemicals. Natural scientists, no less than humanists, can easily fall into the same trap. On the assumption that all conscious experience – “what-it’s-like-ness” – is identical with certain physical events or properties, then our classical materialist image of the ontology of the physical world, and our concept of what it means to be “physical”, must be jettisoned as simply erroneous. It is not our fanciful mental images of matter and energy, but our deepening grasp of the formal mathematical tools needed for a description of quantum-mechanical events, that has enabled us increasingly to control and manipulate the basic stuff of the world. This grasp is now letting us control and manipulate, as well, the experiences with which at least some distributions of that “stuff” are identical. The phraseology sounds sinister and Orwellian. Yet if one’s sovereign ethical principle entails striving for the fullest possible development of personal well-being everywhere, then embarking on the post-Darwinian enterprise is the only rational option.
4.4 “All of the drugs and therapeutic interventions touted here could potentially have long-term side-effects that we can’t anticipate. The risk of another thalidomide tragedy writ large is too great to justify medical treatment of people who (by the norms of late twentieth century psychiatry, at least) are not suffering from any clinically recognised disorder.”
The thalidomide tragedy took place several decades ago. The scandal unfolded before the medical significance of different optical isomers of the same compound in the body was appreciated. Such a mistake will not be made again. Of course, it can’t be ruled out that other grave errors of judgement will be made instead. They probably will. In the early stages of any innovative treatment, the risk-reward ratio must always be finely weighed. This is all the more reason for preliminary experimentation to take place in the clinic and the laboratory, not on the street.
Presently, for instance, millions of young people are left to obtain and consume, in the most haphazard manner imaginable, the potentially neurotoxic compound MDMA. “Ecstasy” typically offers an enchanting state of consciousness while the trip lasts. Yet it’s a dangerous short-cut to mental health. Unless a subsequent dose of fluoxetine or another SSRI is taken soon afterwards, the drug damages serotonergic axonal terminals. Serotonin plays a vital role in regulating mood, impulse-control, anxiety and sleep. Thus in the long-term, MDMA and the other methoxylated amphetamines represent a poor choice of self-medication. It would be far better if the government were to take on the job of educating and training people in the most rational and effective ways to be happy. This role will involve sponsoring the research, development and widest possible distribution of the most safe, sustainable and beautiful empathetic euphoriants that medical science can formulate. Better still, research should focus on heritable gene-driven bliss. In the new reproductive era of “designer babies”, prospective parents will choose the hedonic set-point of their future offspring. Curing our hereditary pathologies of mood will banish the need for drugs altogether.
4.5 “The radical therapeutic interventions which the biological program entails will presumably necessitate large-scale testing on non-human animals. This is surely inconsistent with the animal welfarist stance adopted earlier in the manifesto.”
Given the feasibility, albeit not without difficulty, of implanting electrodes in the mind/brain’s pleasure centres, there can be no principled utilitarian objection to subjecting both human and non-human animals to a great deal of enjoyment in the course of medical research. Many of the practical difficulties that the abolitionist project will face, and which demand greatest depth of understanding, stem precisely from avoiding crude pleasure-maximisation in the absence of a suitably well-designed encephalisation of emotion throughout the neo-cortex. If the animals in any experimental procedure are kept exceedingly happy for its duration, then the utilitarian ethicist needn’t suffer any qualms of principle. At present, of course, the difference between an animal-experimenter’s laboratory and a torture chamber is often imperceptible from his victims’ point of view.
4.6 “Abolishing suffering is unnatural: in so doing we would forfeit our essential humanity.”
Warfare, rape, famine, pestilence, infanticide and child-abuse have existed since time immemorial. They are quite “natural”, whether from a historical, cross-cultural or sociobiological perspective. The implicit, and usually highly selective, equation of the “natural” with the morally good is dangerously facile and simplistic. The popular inclination to ascribe some kind of benign wisdom to an anthropomorphised Mother Nature serves, in practice, only to legitimate all manner of unspeakable cruelties. Extremes of suffering are inevitable under the neurogenetic status quo.
If a personified Nature did in some sense care about the progeny she prolifically churned out, then tampering with her benevolent handiwork might indeed represent a foolhardy Tempting of Providence. This sort of archaic romanticism about the natural world is impossible to reconcile with the neo-Darwinian synthesis. As has been all too aptly observed by “disposable soma” theorists, our genes just use us and then throw us away. “Unnatural” here is no more than a pejorative label. We use it to stigmatise, rather than rationally argue against, whatever we reflexively dislike. The very notion that a playing out of the laws of physics might ever yield something contrary to Nature is itself deeply suspect. Construed in any literal sense, it is false. Nothing that occurs in Nature is, or could be, unnatural. Both we and the transformed universe of our near and distant posterity are equally a part of the natural world. Metaphorically interpreted, on the other hand, the charge of unnatural tampering is too ill-defined to be refutable.
And, yes, we will lose some primitive, “essential”, human attributes. Yet why on earth should this be reckoned a bad thing? Until the development of powerful pain-killing drugs and modern surgical anaesthesiology, for example, frightful extremes of physical suffering were simply a part of the human condition. The unendurable just had to be lived through. Happily, in the present era our access to potent narcotics means, for the most part, that we no longer need to rationalise physical torments with the desperate sophistries typical of the past. Anyone arguing on religio-mystical grounds today that a loss of the agonies of the flesh is offensive to God, robbing us of a vital part of our species-essence, etc., is likely to get deservedly short shrift. Yet the supposedly ennobling properties of agonies of the spirit are still widely respected. Perhaps this attitude will change when retaining the capacity to feel psychological pain becomes a perverse genetic aberration rather than a condition of existence; and when inflicting it on others becomes an unthinkable crime.
4.7 “I’d get bored of being happy all the time. Variety is indispensable to personal well-being.”
As an empty verbalism, “perpetual bliss” does sound fairly tedious. As Bernard Shaw once remarked, “Heaven, as conventionally conceived, is a place so inane, so dull, so useless, so miserable, that nobody has ever ventured to describe a whole day in heaven, though plenty of people have described a day at the seaside”.
Successful paradise-engineering, however, must be the very antithesis of tedium by its very nature. If the prospect of paradise-engineering sounds unexciting, one has missed the point of what abolishing the substrates of tedium entails. In a different age, religious iconographers were able to derive much greater satisfaction in depicting the tortures of the wicked in Hell than in evoking the curiously anaemic delights of Heaven. Indeed, one could be forgiven for inferring that the eternal happiness of the Saved was dependent on contemplation of the eternal torment of the Damned. Likewise today, the secular equivalent of this syndrome is all too common. Potentially, however, there is no less a diversity of ways of being happy as being wretched. It is a grim reflection of the late-Darwinian human predicament that any notion of perpetual happiness evokes images of monotony. We can conjure up a rich and never-ending diet of disasters with ease.
Whatever humanity’s contemporary failures of imagination, within a few generations the experience of boredom will be neurophysiologically impossible. “Against boredom even the gods struggle in vain”, said Nietzsche; but he failed to anticipate biotechnology. From a naturalistic perspective, boredom amounts to just a complex of psychophysical states whose molecular substrate natural selection has chanced upon like any other. A capacity for boredom was retained because of the adaptive value its conditional activation can confer. Its more proximate physiological basis lies in the negative feedback mechanisms underlying the development of tolerance in the brain. These may be expressed in the form either of short-term habituation or a slightly more delayed process of gene-triggered receptor re-regulation. Such mechanisms can be disabled and replaced.
For as is experimentally demonstrable in the laboratory, the intra-cranial strategy of endless stimulation of the pleasure-centres of the brain confirms that happiness, and happiness itself alone, never palls. Out in the wider world, positive emotion just gets (re)directed to focus on and infuse a variety of intentional objects. None of our neocortical patterns is inherently nice or nasty in the absence of its distinctive signature of limbic innervation. Some of these patterns may in time cease to satisfy; stone-age love affairs are cruel. Given the mind-brain identity theory presupposed in this manifesto, however, there is no biological reason why each moment of one’s existence couldn’t have the impact of a breathtaking revelation. As the phenomena of déjà vu, and its rarer cousin jamais vu, strikingly attest, a sense of familiarity or novelty is dissociable from the previous presence or absence of any particular type of intentional object with which such feelings might more normally be associated. So the kind of thrill one might first have got witnessing, say, the Creation can in principle become a property of every second of one’s life. Cool.
4.8 “In the light of past horrors, from Auschwitz to the most private of griefs, it is disgusting even to contemplate celebrating existence by getting perpetually blissed out of one’s head. Happiness, and indeed any other emotional state or response, should be rationally justifiable. It should be experienced only when it is appropriate. Given the horrors existing elsewhere in space-time, pure bliss is rationally unwarranted.”
If it doesn’t diminish the well-being of others, does happiness stand in need of justification any more than does the experience of, say, redness? As long as there is any chance that what we construe as the lessons of history might be ignored, and the obscenities of our evolutionary past in some way re-enacted, then there are excellent ethical-utilitarian reasons for keeping accessible even the most dreadful of memories. It may be important to remember more recent history, too, so as to honour and be supportive of those who have suffered in it and are now plagued by memories of earlier traumas and sacrifice. Yet to enjoin a grim reflection on the nature of the past for its own sake, a form of melancholy which, self-consistently, must itself presumably be commemorated mournfully in turn, is to set in motion an escalating cycle of misery without end. It’s time to call a halt. Sometimes it is just better to forget rather than endlessly relive and recreate. If this sounds like shallow hedonism, it is worth recalling that HI’s negative utilitarianism is an ethical system against which such a charge can least plausibly be sustained.
4.9 “I don’t want a lifetime of enforced ecstasy. I want the freedom sometimes to be sad, and not to be enslaved to a false chemical happiness.”
It is most unclear how to unpack the notion of “false” happiness. Contaminating the God-given purity of one’s soul-stuff with alien chemicals is presumably offensive if one’s self-conception is essentially spiritual in character. If, on the other hand, all states of consciousness alike are physically mediated, then it is scarcely coherent to label some neurochemical patterns as inherently false, unreal or inauthentic. Such euphoric states have indeed hitherto been largely inaccessible and genetically maladaptive if prolonged. They are still natural properties of suitably structured metabolic pathways of matter and energy. So in that sense they are all “true”, though this is a most infelicitous way of putting it.
It is not, in any case, as though anyone will plausibly be forced to be happy against their will. Just as, historically, many slaves did not challenge the institutional legitimacy of slavery, and many self-confessed sinners believed they deserved to be damned to an eternity of torment in Hell, so many people have been able to convince themselves of the ennobling quality of suffering. They will scarcely be ambushed and hauled in off the streets one day by crack-demented ecstatics and forcibly pumped full of euphoriants. A more apposite question might be what instruments of repression should a coercive State apparatus be entitled to use on behalf of possible bigoted die-hards of the old Darwinian order against people who decide, reasonably enough, that they do wish to live happily ever after. To what degree, and for how long and in what form, should authoritarian reactionaries have the right to compel others to suffer, once emotional primitivism becomes simply one life-style option amongst many?
4.10 “Pharmacological hedonism would turn us all into junkies. Gene-driven hedonism wouldn’t be any different. We would lose all personal freedom because we’d be as helplessly addicted to our chemical fixes as the typical crack-head.”
Once one has tasted other-worldly transports of ecstasy, it is true, there is no foreseeable way one would choose voluntarily to renounce such a condition. For from our current perspective, we have no more grasp of the real glory of the sublime than a newly-instructed five-year old child has of all but the barest mechanics of love or sex. Does our absence of hyper-ecstatic experience entitle us to claim any greater authority than the precocious but naïve youngster? Is such a claim testable? In reality, the nature of what lies beyond the arid text displayed here will prove, on revelation, more wonderful than could currently be physiologically imagined. Enraptured, one will enter into whole new modes of being. Reality redefined will feel so good that any surrender of born-again existence would be unendurably traumatic.
This condition might seem almost definitive of addiction. Yet on a utilitarian metric (barring only the austere “negative” sub-species), if such marvellous states are reliably and universally accessible, then seeking to achieve and maximise them is straightforwardly the right course to take. Addiction will tend to be a problem only if, first, people are hooked on something noxious to themselves or others; or, second, there is any likelihood of an interruption to their supply of the relevant drug or gene therapy. At present, we are dependent for what passes as mental health on different precursor amino-acids, essential fatty acids, minerals, vitamins etc to synthesise the brain’s meagre dribble of pleasure-chemicals. We suffer gross psychophysical distress if we are deprived of them for long. This dependence, however, is regarded as wholesome rather than pernicious. It gets awarded the honorific “food”. To achieve optimum mental health, on the other hand, one needs to dine on the richer diet of therapeutic agents advertised in this manifesto. The principle is the same.
The sheer finality of the Post-Darwinian Transition may indeed appal the metaphysical libertarian. For there can be no going back. Yet any opponent of the abolitionist project should be unsettled, too, by how endorsement of the traditional Nature-knows-best stance turns on our not exploring, however fleetingly, one of the two alternatives at issue. Ignorance is not bliss. Anyone who does empirically investigate, and not just pronounce on a priori, the rival forms of life on offer will unswervingly opt for the healthier modes of existence pleaded for here. More tellingly for the libertarian, perhaps, there is a sense in which the right to select one’s own chemistry of consciousness, and thus to choose precisely who or what one wants to be, is as vital a sort of personal freedom as any. It is a freedom that we at present substantially lack. Any research program that opens up just such an option species-wide confers, surely, an incalculably life-enriching extension of choice.
Our own contemporary “choices” are in any case oversold. In the current era, we may seem relatively biologically unconstrained compared to our hidebound ancestors. Some of us feel we can be, and do, more or less who and what we want. In fact, we can subsist only within the largely insensible confines of an extremely restrictive state space of psychochemical reactions. We can’t hop outside their metabolic pathways to check what we’re missing. If we could, we’d find the contrast too mind-wrenchingly different for words. Soon, however, we need no longer languish in biological servitude to our genes and the disposable vehicles they throw up. Today’s junkies may vainly wish to be free from their inadvertently acquired addictions. This is only because the lows of illegal, dangerous and often self-defeating drug-taking ultimately outweigh the ephemeral highs of ill-chosen chemical euphoria. When, on the other hand, one opts once-and-for-all for a architecture of body-and-soul orgasmic sublimity, then one opts as well for a lifetime’s freedom from second thoughts.
4.11 “I sometimes like being sad; it’s an experience I wouldn’t wish to lose.”
An agreeable, wistful melancholy, a haunting lullaby nostalgically recalled from childhood, or perhaps the bitter-sweet memory of a long-lost love, are certainly preferable to the hell of unmitigated depression. Yet all too many types of experiences are unambiguously dreadful. They have no redeeming features at all. They don’t issue in great works of art, literature and scholarship etc. They would be far better abolished. All the positive aspects of the more complex and ambivalent states one may undergo can in future be magnified and sharpened; nothing enjoyable need be lost. But the negative undercurrents which still diminish the value and enjoyment of more perceptibly composite states can be chemically subtracted out.
4.12 “Without suffering, there can be no personal development; unearned happiness leads to stasis.”
Suffering is often just coarsening and brutalising. If one is sunk in hopeless despair, or even caught in the grip of an ill-defined malaise, it is as difficult to care about one’s inner growth as it is to care about other people. Personal growth is more likely to unfold if one’s appetite for life gets steadily keener. This will occur if one’s experiences get progressively richer and more rewarding. Odysseys of self-exploration across the hedonic landscape can offer scope for ever-deepening self-discovery and idealised self-reinvention. Odysseys of pain and misfortune are as likely to desensitise or crush one’s spirit as develop it.
Under the grisly genetic status quo, cultivating a sense of personal development is a comforting form of rationalisation, e.g: if I hadn’t lost my legs in the accident 20 years ago I would never have become a great artist. So it proved a blessing in disguise after all! Prospectively, however, if one were told 20 years of suffering lay ahead if one sacrificed one’s legs, but boundless self-development would follow in consequence, then one still wouldn’t opt for it; and quite right too. As long as suffering is biologically inevitable, fitfully at least, then its optimal rationalisation is important solace for its victims. Thus reading this manifesto may cause more distress than joy to inveterate rationalisers; I just trust any unease will be mild and temporary. Yet when the biochemistry of suffering becomes only an optional neural add-on, the solace that rationalisation provides will impede the abolition of the miseries that demand it.
4.13 “Why bother with this intentional flotsam and jetsam at all if happiness itself is supposedly the overriding goal? In the context of the biological program, aren’t intentional objects really free-floating and inessential frills to be varied or discarded at will? Isn’t invoking “sublimity”, “beauty”, “love”, etc, intellectually dishonest? Aren’t they just rhetorical camouflage to win over those whose ideal pleasures tend to the respectably cerebral and the ethereal rather than the orgiastic?”
Our emotions have been pretty thoroughly encephalised by evolution. So it is certainly easier to give some hint of the nature of the paradise that awaits us by evoking, one may hope, the feelings one’s audience associates with their own most cherished fantasies and objects of desire. Advocating happiness bereft of any nominal focus, on the other hand, entails working with a lifeless and unpersuasive abstraction. Advocating “hedonism” in the abstract is even worse. The term evokes something shallow, one-dimensional and amoral. Unfortunately, that’s the price of sacrificing an underlying seriousness of moral purpose for the sake of a snappy manifesto title.
Naturally, what we think and say we’re happy “about” is likely to change as the transition to paradise-engineering unfolds. Many highly-charged intentional objects of contemporary desires will seem historical curiosities even a few decades hence. In common with the particular time- and culture-bound conceptions of heaven and the good life in, say, different eras of the Christian and Islamic traditions, today’s favourite intentional objects may indeed be only of derivative value. The mesolimbic dopamine system is doing most of the real causal work. But if the lure of such idols can motivate us to act on the promise of the biological program, then they will have more than served their purpose.
There are, however, substantive reasons why non-arbitrary intentional objects, and indeed an ever-greater scientific understanding of the world, should remain accessible into the indefinite future. The pragmatic advantages of the intentionalist strategy compared to wirehead bliss have already been cited. Sometimes it’s useful to be able to look after oneself. There are powerful ethical reasons for keeping intentionalism as well. For ethically it is imperative that the sort of unspeakable suffering characteristic of the last few hundred million years on earth should never recur elsewhere. If such horror might exist anywhere else in the cosmos, presumably in the absence of practical intelligence sufficiently evolved to eliminate its distal roots, then this suffering too must be systematically sought out. It needs to be extirpated just as hell-states will have been on earth. Such inter-stellar rescue missions won’t be possible if post-humans have all become wedded to the functional equivalent of wirehead-style pleasure-frenzies. This is because planning, executing and then stewarding ethically-run ecosystems of primordial extra-terrestrial life will require ultra-high technology, wide-ranging research, and a very long time. Subject to a number of assumptions about the origin of information-bearing self-replicators, any primordial life-forms – as distinct from some of their possible artificial successors – will be carbon-based. If multi-cellular evolution occurs, such alien life-forms will quite plausibly run on the same pleasure-pain axis as we do. Of course, this is all hugely speculative. And if trying to save the world is ambitious, then trying to save the universe smacks of hubris; so this avenue won’t be pursued further here.
A negative utilitarian will still think that the striving for ever greater extremes and varieties of pleasurable experience while there remains any suffering whatsoever in this universe is a frivolous distraction from what morally matters. (S)he may be right. Certain contrived scenarios aside, however, the direct genetic and intra-cranial routes to paradise may serve the different flavours of utilitarianism equally well.
4.14 “Many of the greatest scientific and artistic achievements of humanity were born of tremendous struggles against adversity. Abolishing the biological substrates of suffering would mean there could be no fruitful inner struggle or creative tension, and hence no more Newtons, Picassos or Beethovens. Scientific and artistic genius demands a capacity for fierce criticism, both of one’s own work and the ideas of others. Even if inducing a state of perpetual euphoria is consistent with bodily self-survival, the lack of critical self-insight such states entail would bring intellectual progress to a halt for ever.”
It is worth distinguishing between the destiny of the humanities and the sciences after heaven has been biologically implemented. For a start, the exquisite aesthetic experiences on offer to our genetically enriched descendants may inspire an unprecedented flowering rather than a withering of the fine arts. Our current enjoyment of, say, Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” or Leonardo’s “The Last Supper” will seem distracting tickles in comparison. Those who would deny that beauty is in the eye of the beholder might, or might not, be impressed by the disposition of paint on canvass which inspires these rhapsodies. Yet any reservations will last only so long as they remain trapped in the neurochemical orthodoxy of the past. At present, cultivating a fastidious unresponsiveness to certain forms of artistic production is taken as a badge of sophistication and discernment; but then that is our loss.
One blessing of the transcendent beauty awaiting discovery is that it will not depend on the vagaries of artistic genius for its production. The mind/brain lacks “beauty centres” of the same relatively well-defined architecture as its meso-limbic pleasure-system. Yet once the neurochemical signature of aesthetic appreciation is pieced together, its varieties can then be enhanced and selectively amplified. It should be recalled that perennial happiness can as easily lead to more being done in one’s life rather than less. Intense episodes of creative energy today are often indistinguishable from mild euphoric hypomania. Some temperamentally laid-back lotus-eaters in the era ahead may indeed ultimately opt for meditative bliss and serenity. On the other hand, post-Transition society will probably be shaped by hypomanic “high-achievers” of formidable dynamism and productivity. Today’s thrusting, can-do go-getters will seem lackadaisical in comparison.
The modes of well-being optimal for doing first-rate science and mathematics are obviously different from those best for practising first-rate art, poetry or sex. There is no reason why they should be less intense and rewarding. As to any lack of critical insight, there are also intellectual advantages to be derived from states of invincible well-being. Criticism of one’s ideas in modern academia, for instance, is commonly taken as a full-frontal assault on the ego. In the future, critical scrutiny may be actively solicited and ecstatically welcomed. This might prove conducive to markedly better scholarship.
4.15 “The proposals of HI are too fanciful ever to gain credence, or even deserve serious critical consideration. They make a mockery of all our current values, aspirations and life-projects. A program so abhorrent to one’s common-sense and moral intuitions belongs to the realm of vulgar science fiction rather than serious applied science or ethical debate.”
Science has comprehensively confounded “common-sense” in all empirical matters. Our traditional ethical intuitions, when wrapped in secular guise, are less susceptible to experimental challenge. It would be a piece of singular good fortune if the least testable aspects of common-sense folk-wisdom just happened to be the ones that could most be relied on. At the very least, intellectual honesty demands that radically counter-intuitive challenges to received value-systems should receive close critical appraisal. The “values, aspirations and life-projects” typical of, say, classical antiquity or the Indian sub-continent may easily seem ridiculous to the jaundiced contemporary eye. Likewise, the disparate intentional objects with which our own well-being now seems inseparably bound may eventually be seen as no less superstitiously revered. They objectively matter, but only because they objectively matter to us. So on the assumption that ethics amounts to something more than truth-valueless word-spinning, then it is worth at least considering the merits of ethical standpoints no less repugnant to common sense than, say, the theories of contemporary physics.
Appearances to the contrary, there is in any case a sense in which this paper, however superficially outlandish its substance, does not demand any revolutionary transformation of the core values of our secular culture. Its thrust stems from taking a quite conventional principle with the utmost seriousness it deserves. Only a minority of contemporary philosophers or laypeople are expressly utilitarians. Yet a diffuse and unsystematic utilitarianism is extremely widespread in society. It permeates the outlook of many people who never use the term. More interestingly, perhaps, an extraordinarily large proportion of non-, or even professedly anti-, utilitarian positions are argued on, or are underlain by, grounds which on examination prove subtly utilitarian.
Paradoxically, for utilitarian reasons it is nonetheless probably all to the good, this side of paradise at least, that at least some expressly non-utilitarian values are still held. This is because traditional folk-verities offset the acute discomfort many people still feel at the full implications of an exclusively utilitarian ethic.
Of course, one does not have to be a utilitarian to endorse the proposals of this manifesto. To those who are broadly sympathetic to the ethical utilitarian approach, however, then the biological program amounts, figuratively at least, to a gift from the gods.
4.16 “Being trapped in a chemical paradise would leave one wholly at the mercy of the ruling elites. The authorities could then treat people as puppets to be manipulated at will for their own ends.”
The image that provokes this anxiety is presumably that of a drug-pacified class of helots. Perhaps a chemically enslaved underclass will work sweatshop hours for their masters simply to get their next chemical hit. In this fanciful scenario, it is in fact debatable who, if anyone, would really be exploiting whom. Also, certain sanctions are effective only if threatened rather than applied. No group is more ungovernably rebellious towards law and authority than addicts deprived of their fix. Moreover in our society, at least, the idea of the ruling elites engaging in a conspiracy to keep their population happy while they stoically shoulder the burdens of office tends to overtax the imagination; this is one conspiracy theory too far.
In any case, the conventional equation of happiness and docility owes more to distant memories of Huxley’s Brave New World than to any deep reflection on the genetic, sociobiological and social-scientific literature. Prozac-style serotonin-enhancing mood-boosters, for instance, dramatically and consistently increase the status in the social pecking-order of the animals to whom they’re administered. Such drugs may even lead them to reject a subordinate role altogether. It is revealing, too, that the manifestations of euphoric mania and melancholic depression also serve as descriptions of people occupying alpha and omega status-roles respectively. Mania, unlike most mental disorders, is most common in the upper social and economic classes. It typically involves an exaggeration of behaviour associated with achieving dominant status. By contrast, depression is most common among the poor. Even in today’s society, the persistence of depressive states and behaviour fosters stable hierarchies of social dominance. From the perspective of evolutionary psychology, the typical depressive syndrome is part of an adaptive coping-process. “Endogenous” depression involves the passive submission to a prolonged or uncontrollable stress. The elevated levels of cortisol and pain-relieving beta-endorphin characteristic of official clinical depression are also those which promote physiological adaptation to prolonged stressors. In the ancestral environment, depressive behaviour reduced the risk of physical damage by its tendency to reduce fighting within the group. In the post-Darwinian world, by contrast, depression simply won’t exist.
So the “Brave New World” objection needs to be turned on its head. Given the correlation between depressed mood and low social status, the project of radically enriching the mood and motivation of the bulk of the population will probably leave people much less, not more, vulnerable to exploitation by a power-elite. In Brave New World, members of the populace were effectively the opiated and tranquillised dupes of the ruling authorities. Soma was a pacifying agent of social control. The consequences of genetically pre-programming happiness, however, will be very different. This is because everyday mental super-health will undermine the biological underpinnings of the dominance- and submission-relationships characteristic of our evolutionary past. More specifically, boosting the efficiency of tyrosine hydroxylase, for instance, won’t just act to elevate mood. The consequently enhanced noradrenaline function in the locus coeruleus will tend to diminish subordinate behaviour. These simplistic “one neurochemical, one behaviour” stories are of course travesties of the truth, justified only on grounds of expository convenience. This doesn’t challenge the essential point.
This point is that happiness, and an enhanced responsiveness to a wider range of rewards, is potentially hugely empowering. We’re eternally slaves to the pleasure-pain axis; but a biologically enriched apparatus of pleasure and value-creation will help people assume a greater sense of control of their own lives. As noted, an all-action life-style fuelled by dopamine-driven well-being contrasts with the “learned helplessness” and “behavioural despair” characteristic of fatalists convinced that suffering is simply The Human Predicament. Either way, we shouldn’t simple-mindedly project the power-and-submission relationships typical of early humans on the African savannah into the indefinite future. For the genetic basis of our core repertoire of social behaviour will first be tweaked and then drastically recoded. Too many sci-fi romances rely on extrapolating primate dominance-rituals into the indefinite future. That’s what makes sci-fi soap operas set in one million years time so curiously (and so spuriously) intelligible. Whereas over the next few millennia and beyond, we’ll have the chance to leave endless re-enactments of the ritual power-plays of the ancestral environment ever further behind.
4.17 “I’d rather stay in touch with Reality than live in an escapist fantasy world.”
Some people enjoy the lucky conviction they have more intimate relations with Reality than the rest of us. A robust sense of intimacy is of course all the easier if one holds an agreeably commonsensical direct realist view of perception. Unfortunately, common sense is ill-named and at variance with the neuropsychological and quantum mechanical facts. Yet even a virtual worlder, for whom an awake mind/brain can aspire only to real-time data-driven simulations, may be sensitive to the charge of wanting to live in a fool’s paradise, blissed out of his head come-what-may. Better, surely, to live like a sad but wise Socrates than as a happy pig.
Happy pigs should not be despised, but Socratic intellectual heavyweights can be happy too. In a magically transfigured environment in which all one’s fellow creatures were fabulously well, it is not clear at all why occupying an affectively neutral or pensive state should promote greater realism and representational fidelity. Perhaps the only way to grasp the actual nature of the unexplored celestial chemistry that beckons is to try becoming blissfully happy as well; and this is surely as good a reason as any for seeking maximal comprehension.
4.18 “Any creature which enjoyed perpetual bliss would no longer be me. I’m defined as much by my sorrows as my joys.”
Winning £20 million on the national lottery, say, would wreak quite radical changes on most people’s consciousness and sense of self-identity. It may nonetheless be suspected that the millions of punters who indulge their gambling streak are untroubled by the thought that their picking the lucky number will allow “somebody else” to enjoy the proceeds.
Philosophically, the notions of an enduring metaphysical ego, or for that matter of so-called “relative” identity, are indeed problematic if not incoherent. So in that sense the anxiety noted above is well-founded. Yet in such case any anxiety over personal (non-)identity applies no less to the psychochemical Dark Ages than to the post-Transfiguration era. One’s namesake elsewhere in space-time who fell asleep last night is neither token nor even type-identical with the different configuration of matter and energy which bears one’s name right now. Fortunately, even if personal identity is formally disavowed, one can normally muster the degree of altruism necessary to promote the future well-being of one’s multiple namesakes, and likewise the namesakes and successors of one’s family and friends. If contemporary notions of personal identity are ever culturally displaced by a different metaphysic, it may be hoped that our successors can muster the necessary degree of altruism too.
4.19 “When much of the world is still mired in poverty, hunger and disease, it is at best a flippant irrelevance to dream up hedonistic utopias. Their practice, if not aim, will be the cocooning of an already over-privileged planetary elite. We should instead concentrate on putting all our efforts into ensuring that everyone in the Third World has enough to eat, clean water supplies, a decent education and medical care and a civilised standard of living.”
By most objective indices of well-being (the rates of marital breakdown, crime, suicide, clinical depression and other forms of psychiatric illness etc), the urban-industrial Western elite scores poorly compared to the materially underprivileged masses of the Third World. So the relative good fortune of the inhabitants of liberal capitalist democracies is easily overstated.
An “us and them” approach to life has its limitations. Within the next few hundred years, the invidious distinctions of class, nationality and race which poison the contemporary world will become redundant. On all but the most optimistic projections, the great majority of the world’s population aren’t going to achieve First World lifestyles for the foreseeable future; but we most assuredly do have the resources to enable the whole planetary population to be magnificently happy. If, for a start, a minute fraction of the resources currently poured into zero-sum status-goods and consumer fripperies were diverted to researching the development of safe, cheap, effective mood brighteners, delayed-action designer euphoriants, and genetically pre-programmed mental super-health, then we would all be far better off. This is no less true of the jaded plutocrat than the impoverished Third World peasant.
4.20 “The idea of spending one’s entire life consumed by whole-body-orgasmic states of hyper-crack-like intensity and euphoria is simply grotesque. It is an affront to human dignity.”
Unbridled sensual bliss will be merely one of the flavours of pleasure on the psychochemical menu, though not one that should cause us any embarrassment. In our own time, the dignified nature of such natural and short-lived routes to pleasure as sex is not always readily apparent to the untutored eye either. The more conspicuous pursuit of money, power and status characteristic of selfish DNA-driven civilisation tends to compromise human dignity in subtler but much more insidious ways. Champions of human dignity do not on the whole forswear such life-style choices, and understandably so; (in)dignity is very much in the eye of the beholder. Being made to suffer, however, is arguably the greatest indignity of all.
4.21 “The track-record of utopianism, whether romantic or allegedly scientific, is uniformly disastrous. Appalling crimes are committed on the assumption that the end justifies the means. A dystopian result is far more likely.”
A “dystopia” where everyone is superlatively happy and fulfilled is surely the ultimate misnomer. Perhaps, if one’s concept of perennial happiness still evokes images of bland and sterile monotony, then the charge may seem reasonable. In fact, the worst coercive excesses one can imagine, albeit somewhat implausibly, from a notional regime of State-sponsored hedonism might stem from the imposed penal sanction of compulsory biological euphoria – perhaps objectionable, but scarcely a cruel (though certainly an unusual) punishment.
4.22 “Genetically pre-programmed euphoria would undermine the basis of all human relationships. All this fancy verbal window-dressing about combining perpetual ecstasy with love, empathy, beauty etc is only superficial. Say, for example, some terrible physical misfortune overtakes a friend; after all, accidents can happen in even the best-run utopias. One will still be ecstatically happy: love for one’s friend may indeed feel intense; but it is completely shallow if one can’t grieve for a tragedy that befalls her.”
By hypothesis, one’s friend will be incapable of suffering; however badly mangled his or her body. Indeed (s)he will still be happy, albeit, we shall assume here, less intensely than before. Perhaps some of her favourite pleasure-cells are damaged. Let us also assume, in this scenario, that the molecular substrates of volition have long since been identified and toned up. One has chosen to blend the biochemical substrates of pleasure with those of dopaminergic “incentive” motivation rather than blissed-out satiety. If this is the case, then one will strive with all one’s prodigiously augmented will-power to find means to restore one’s friend to a state of maximal well-being. One will try far harder in dopaminergic overdrive than would be psychophysiologically possible if one were stuck in one’s current comparatively weak-willed and ineffectual state. Thus a life of unremitting happiness doesn’t entail that friendship is shallow or inauthentic; on the contrary, one will have the motivational resources to express depth of personal commitment all the more.
This is not to say that relationships won’t change in many different ways after the Transition occurs. At present, for example, friendship often consists of offering mutual support in times of hardship and despair. In future, it may consist of a shared celebration of life.
4.23 “One big risk posed by the global species-project of The Hedonistic Imperative is that (post-)humanity will get “stuck” in a better, but perhaps still severely sub-optimal, state. Evolutionary progress, if one may be allowed to use such a term, would thereby come to an end. This is too high a price to be paid, or to run the risk of paying.”
This worry shouldn’t be lightly dismissed. But perhaps three points are worth making here.
First, natural selection has promoted such an abundance of dreadful states that even a severely sub-optimal (by whose criteria? – presumably not the sublimely fulfilled super-beings themselves) result would ethically be far preferable to today’s status quo; and indeed preferable to any of our often hellish world’s environmentally-tweaked successors.
Second, the danger of getting irreversibly stuck is still present even if genetic engineering and psychopharmacology are renounced in favour of time-honoured “peripheralist” approaches to making the world a better place. In fact, for what it’s worth, psychoactive drugs potentially offer a form of “simulated annealing” [in artificial neural network-speak], enabling us to escape entrapment in local minima – though sometimes the jolt may be too uncontrollably violent and even dangerous to be commonly useful e.g. taking psychedelic agents such as lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), ketamine or DMT.
Third, the idea that the paradise-engineering project sketched in HI would more readily lead to us getting “stuck” stems, I think, from its conflation with one or both of its two immediate intellectual antecedents of which I’m consciously aware. These are opiated-style quiescence à la Brave New World and the endless, uncontrollably orgasmic lever-pressing frenzy of a rat-/human-driven pleasure-machine. Both stereotypes are deceptive. One consequence of enhancing dopamine function in the manner stressed in this manifesto is that not merely is overall motivation deepened, but also the range of different activities one finds rewarding is increased (cf. the recent excitement over finding the D4 “novelty-loving” gene). Consequently, the likelihood of an organism, or a species, getting stuck in rut is diminished, though certainly not eliminated, by a strategy which incorporates boosting key receptor sub-types of dopamine-mediated process. It’s worth noting that there is an experimentally demonstrable tendency of anti-dopaminergic mood-darkeners- and -flatteners, notably the D2-blocking major tranquillisers, to reduce incentive-motivation and novelty-seeking behaviour. They are “rut-inducers”. Analogously, most of us Dark Age humans, stuck on a hedonic treadmill way down in the historical abyss, don’t realise just how trapped we are.
On the other hand, there’s a sense in which getting generically “stuck” in paradise is precisely what some of us are after.
4.24 “The eradication of suffering via genetic engineering and nanotechnology is an admirable goal. So why the disproportionate and perhaps (since so easily misinterpreted) irresponsible emphasis on mood-elevating drugs?”
Advanced genetic engineering and nanotechnological paradise-construction may yield states of conscious existence so wonderful and god-like that the notion of chemically fine-tuning them will seem absurd. What transhuman super-being would wish to contaminate the natural beauty of his or her soul-stuff with alien dirt? Yet some boring level-headedness about prospective time-scales is in order. It is true that the human genome of three-billion-odd base-pairs will be decoded within a decade. A far greater problem for intelligently encephalised paradise-production is the combinatorial explosion issue. This arises, quite inevitably, from a genotype’s differential expression in differing environments. Airily invoking “genetic algorithms” and “quantum computation”, for instance, is not wrong; but it tends to gloss over the formidable technical difficulties first to be overcome.
In the meantime, many people alive today will want biologically underwritten fulfilment for themselves and their loved ones. Born, tantalisingly, just prior to the Transitional era, they will have only the suspect stop-gap of enhancements to contemporary psychopharmacology to fall back on. Their access to cheap-and-cheerful paradises born of quick-and-dirty chemical fixes will, no doubt, seem dreadfully makeshift by the exalted lights of our more distant posterity. This doesn’t mean that next century’s pharmacotherapies should be damned with the knee-jerk invocation of “Drugs” conjured up by our own era’s ill-judged recreational excesses. For one of the paradoxical effects, for instance, of a mind-healing strategy using even present-day selective serotonin reuptake blockers can be an enhanced sense of undrugged “normality” in the user. Such a sense can coincide with a biographically abnormal brightening of mood. Unacknowledged everyday states of derealisation, depersonalisation, and indeed other modes of depressive weirdness more typically associated with “bad trips” and “bad drugs”, are in fact disturbingly common. Low-grade forms are frequent even in the absence of any exogenous agent to precipitate them. Moreover it’s worth recalling that a subjective sense of humdrum, drug-naïve normality is itself just a chemically-induced adaptation. Neither we nor our blissful descendants need feel at all “drugged”; even if, in a sense, that’s what we are; and always have been. But if we want to glimpse, rather than talk about, the naturalistic implementation of Paradise, then our generation(s) at least will need to use psychoactive tools-of-the-trade to get there.
In any case, given that so much of our very essence comprises the chemical ingredients of our recent meals, it’s not as though one’s ontological integrity as a pure spirit-being, or whatever, will be under threat from alien soul-pollutants. The difference between a drug and a nutrient, after all, reflects little more than the accidents of evolutionary history.
4.25 “The whole manifesto presupposes a Benthamite utilitarian ethic. If we don’t accept its utilitarian presuppositions, then the abolitionist project collapses.”
The abolitionist project isn’t hostage to a single contested family of ethical theories. For it’s not only utilitarians who abhor cruelty and suffering. Admittedly, the utilitarian may find it a matter of moral indifference whether our potentially ecstatic descendants opt to become wireheads, blissed-out junkies, or emotionally enriched post-Darwinian superminds. On the hypothetical felicific calculus, it’s the sustainable intensity of our well-being (or the minimisation of malaise) that counts, not its peculiar flavours. But utilitarianism is a highly controversial ethic. So this manifesto, at least, lays stress on the quite extraordinary diversity of options for paradise-engineering. These options embrace a spectrum of intellectual, psychedelic, aesthetic, empathetic and even spiritual modes of well-being far richer than anything accessible today. There’s no obvious moral imperative driving us to unrefined pleasure-maximisation culminating in a perpetual cosmic orgasm.
Nevertheless, many contemporary thinkers will balk at any form of scientific utopianism. It’s not that non-utilitarian ethicists typically argue that the texture (“what it feels like”) of unpleasantness is inherently valuable. Instead, most non-utilitarians believe that a capacity for mental distress as well as physical pain serves an important functional role in life itself – and it always will. The many faces of suffering have been harnessed by natural selection [or more traditionally, Divine Providence] to promote the plurality of values that non-utilitarians uphold. Individual happiness is only one of those values. Much of what we care about isn’t reducible to a unidimensional pleasure-pain axis.
Yet bioscience and nanotechnology promise more than the abolition of suffering and the enrichment of our emotional well-being. Critically, the new technologies allow us potentially to create the functional analogues of aversive states – analogue states that can play similar or even enhanced functional roles in the informational economy of an upgraded organism, but without the “raw feels” of suffering as we know it. Genetically constrained gradients of immense well-being – or smart neurochips with the right functional architecture – can be harnessed to animate our lives and promote what non-utilitarians typically value, but without the texture of subjective nastiness. If this prediction is borne out by the implementation of the new neurotechnologies, then the core of the secular anti-abolitionist case collapses. For only the most misanthropic nihilist would contend that despair, agony and malaise are inherently good. Suffering that serves no instrumental purpose at all, not even the interests of the genes whose inclusive fitness it once served, can be phased out without loss.
Of course, functionalist philosophy of mind may turn out to be wrong. As the functionalist alleges, minds may indeed implement the same computation/function in different ways and in different substrates, but perhaps effective nociception, say, must always have an unpleasant textural essence. Functionalism fails to explain the “hard problem” of consciousness; and our ignorance of why sentience (or anything at all) exists may infect everything else – including plans to get rid of suffering. It would seem very odd to claim that the texture of experience is functionally irrelevant or incidental to the role played by its biological substrates. For it’s the sheer nastiness of suffering that ostensibly drives the abolitionist project in the first place. Yet we know we can build programmable silicon robots and embedded artificial neural networks to emulate the functional architecture of organic life-forms: we already engineer robotic sensory capacities, basic “appetitive” states, and the behavioural capacity to avoid noxious stimuli in ways that mimic feats of conscious human agency but without the merest whiff of sentience. On the other hand, today’s robots are still primitive in their capabilities; and bionic implants are barely in their infancy. We can’t simply extrapolate present-day technical successes into the indefinite future. Perhaps, contra functionalism as understood today, a subjective texture of unpleasantness will prove functionally indispensable for say, certain critical acts of judgement or discernment, or introspective self-examination. If these capacities are accorded a value potentially greater than the abolition of suffering, and if their subjective nastiness is functionally essential to the role they perform, then the abolitionist project may prove to have a more restricted appeal than the wider consensus canvassed here. If so, then seemingly abstruse debates about functionalist philosophy of mind would have an ethical significance beyond their technical merits.
Whatever the truth of functionalism, many non-utilitarian ethical positions are inconsistent with an abolitionist agenda; all the world’s major religions for a start, with the ambiguous exception of Buddhism. Ethical systems that mandate the infliction of misery on other sentient beings against their will can’t be reconciled with any form of paradise-engineering. But on the whole, religious and secular ethicists alike aren’t so much hostile to abolitionism as simply oblivious to its very possibility. Jesus, Mohammed and Buddha didn’t have anything to say on molecular genetics and nanotechnology. Indeed, it’s only in the past few decades that the abolitionist project could be contemplated as technically feasible on earth. Now that its blueprint can at least be formulated, all utilitarians should be abolitionists. But there’s no need to turn utilitarian to endorse abolitionism: what’s indispensable is an absence of malice.
4.26 “There will never be a Post-Darwinian Transition. There will always be selection pressure.”
So long as there is ageing and death – i.e. for many centuries and perhaps millennia – there will indeed be selection pressure. But in the new reproductive era, the nature of that selection pressure will be different. In the old Darwinian era, “natural” selection is based on random genetic variations i.e. genetic mutations that are random with respect to what is favoured by natural selection; and it is blind. Nature has no foresight. By contrast, post-Darwinian, “unnatural” selection will be neither blind nor random nor socially unregulated. For reproductive decisions will be taken by informed actors in anticipation of the likely neuropsychological effects of suites of alleles that are purposely pre-selected or designed. Genes predisposing to vicious traits that were adaptive in our Darwinian past will be at a selective disadvantage when we choose the attributes of our offspring, not through a cruel genetic lottery as at present, but by rational design.
The imminent arrival of cloning and designer babies brings profound ethical dilemmas of its own – not least because the new reproductive technologies will precede any post-abolitionist era of mature paradise-engineering. As life-span increases, and the ageing process is progressively defeated, will reproductive decisions remain the prerogative of individuals as now? Or will reproductive decisions be taken societally? All one’s libertarian instincts will be alarmed at this prospect. But the carrying capacity of the earth won’t allow more than 50 to 100 billion people at most. Either way, there will be selection pressure in the sense that some genes and behavioural dispositions will lose out, at least until we become quasi-immortals and reproduction effectively ceases.
Of course, this heralded post-Darwinian Transition might not be to a civilisation based on paradise-engineering. Post-Darwinian society may be based on something else altogether. Yet because the texture of suffering isn’t adaptive per se, whatever its current role in our legacy wetware, we can predict that the unsavoury genetic coalitions that manufacture its substrates will pass into evolutionary history.
4.27 “Paradise-engineering is impossible. It would not be evolutionarily stable. Game-theoretic modelling demonstrates that selfishness is always the most profitable strategy possible for replicating units – whether genes or “memes” – susceptible to invasion by “defectors”. Invincibly happy life-forms are inherently more vulnerable than their discontented, anxious and malaise-driven counterparts. A society of genetically pre-programmed ecstatics could not arise, let alone endure. It would be an environment open to invasion by mean-spirited defector mutants who would replace the hardwired sweethearts. Unpleasant states of consciousness will last forever.”
This objection conflates two issues. Could it ever be an evolutionarily stable strategy for our descendants to be 1) innately happy? 2) innately unselfish?
The answer to the first question depends on the sort of happiness hardwired. Are we modelling a civilisation of, say, quasi-immortal superminds animated by gradients of genetically programmed well-being? Or wireheads and their genetic equivalents – a “blissed out” rather than cerebral hedonism? Clearly, the option of global wireheading [or lifelong immersive virtual realities etc] isn’t an evolutionarily stable strategy, at least until the ageing process is conquered. This is because wireheads have no inclination to breed and certainly not to raise children. By contrast, fitness-enhancing gradients of well-being – and traditionally, ill-being – or their functional analogues can serve to motivate, protect and preserve us. Such gradients are adaptive when they are “encephalised” by evolution – and ultimately, shaped by rational design. Uniform euphoria [or chronic depression] and its insentient robotic analogues isn’t adaptive. For this sort of functional architecture doesn’t impel its subjects to do anything, learn anything – or nurture children. Either way, genetic fitness isn’t inseparably tied to a particular texture of experience, but to the way we behave and reproduce.
The controversial answer to the second question – namely that it is today’s hardwired quasi-sociopathy that will prove evolutionarily unstable – sounds woolly-minded and naive, not to say biologically illiterate. Surely a civilisation founded on blissful altruists can’t amount to a viable strategy? “Hardwired sweetheart” scenarios aren’t pivotal to the abolitionist project. They are also hugely more speculative. So why is blissful altruism an option for paradise-engineering worth exploring? Surely selfishness always wins?
Fortunately not. The (technical) genetic and metaphorical, behavioral and psychological senses of “selfish” are easy to confuse. This is because today they overlap so closely. Paradise-engineering can never be based on genetic unselfishness. But a genetic predisposition to altruism – in the metaphorical, behavioral and psychological senses of “altruistic” – can be evolutionarily stable against so-called defectors if and when it is also genetically selfish i.e. Darwinian fitness-enhancing. This is how our capacity for kindness, compassion and empathy – however meagre – arose in the first place. Even today, a genetic predisposition to individual “saintliness” isn’t always a losing strategy; recall the self-sacrificing holy man who attracts devoted female admirers and becomes the proverbial father of his nation. But on the whole, a capacity to cheat, to compete and to lie has proved adaptive; humans evolved as Machiavellian apes. Thus the proposal that unnatural selection pressure could ever cause “saintliness” to spread in a society of (non-clonal, genetically diverse) ecstatics looks implausible in practice. Surely alleles which promote competitiveness could never be outcompeted? Won’t our descendants be, at best, happier egotists?
Now this may of course be the case. Yet decoding the human genome puts us on the brink of a major discontinuity in the mode of selection of self-replicating DNA – an evolutionary transition as profound as any in the history of life on earth. The long-term consequences of our capacity to rewrite our own code for the nature of adaptive – and maladaptive – traits may be very different from what we imagine. In the Darwinian era of “natural” selection, a regime of blind, random genetic variation typically promotes an indifference to the fate of most of our fellow genetic vehicles. In the environment of evolutionary adaptation, this predisposition enhanced the inclusive fitness of our DNA. We have a “theory of mind”, but our minimal capacity for empathy is limited mostly to kith and kin. So callousness has flourished. “Nice guys” get eaten or outbred. Darwin himself speaks of “the clumsy, wasteful, blundering low and horridly cruel works of nature.” By contrast, the impending post-Darwinian era of “unnatural” selection portends genotypes that will be pre-selected/designed in anticipation of their desired effects. So genetic variation will no longer be random and undirected. Its consequences will be collectively planned – imperfectly at first, eventually perhaps via simulation and game-theoretic modelling with quantum supercomputers.
So questions of how we actually take the reproductive decisions, and on what criteria, are going to be crucial. What sort of traits do we want our offspring to have? Modelling post-Darwinian societies is immensely complex: post-humans may well rewrite their own individual genotypes [“genetic bootstrapping”] as well as the germ-line; and cloning will be trivially easy in the technical sense. Forms of “group selection” that simply weren’t viable in the Darwinian Era become workable when reproductive decisions are collectivised; the “tragedy of the commons” can be forestalled. In a post-ageing world, reproduction may well be rare – and become progressively rarer as the carrying capacity of the earth [and ultimately the galaxy?] is reached. But taking a (very) crude genes’ eye-view, in the era of designer babies a variant allele coding for, say, enhanced love-and-nurturance-inducing oxytocin expression, or a sub-type of serotonin receptor etc predisposing to unselfishness in the metaphorical, behavioral and psychological senses, may be differentially pre-selected and customised in preference to alleles promoting, say, sexual jealousy, aggressiveness or sociopathic behaviour. Genetically influenced “altruistic” traits that carry a higher payoff in the technical selfish genetic sense aren’t susceptible to invasion by mean-spirited “defector” mutants – even if genetic variation were to remain random rather than directed. Thus in generations to come, the genetic and non-genetic senses of the word “selfish” may diverge. Indeed as the abolition of suffering becomes first technically feasible, and later trivially easy, then the language and institutions of traditional morality may become archaic relics from a vanished age. What sort of values will replace them is hard to say. But as our descendants rewrite the vertebrate genome, and redesign the global ecosystem via nanotechnology, harsh “unnatural” selection pressure may penalise the very sorts of nasty traits that were genetically adaptive in the Darwinian Era. On this analysis, post-Darwinian superminds will be extraordinarily benevolent; but paradoxically, the science of paradise-engineering will have its origins in genetic selfishness.
Perhaps. Let’s take a more pessimistic scenario. Assume that (post-)humans continue to be selfish in every sense. After all, just because allegedly we all (obliquely) seek happiness, this doesn’t mean we seek happiness for everybody. Just because successful and intelligent life-forms will be able to underwrite their own happiness, why assume that they’ll care about others? Let’s further assume, contrary to the optimistic functionalist arguments above, that the textures of invincible happiness do inevitably make any coalition of alleles that promotes them potentially genetically vulnerable. After all, invincible well-being wasn’t a viable strategy on the African savannah; why should it triumph in an era of artificial selection?
Does this pessimistic set of assumptions predict the persistence of a legacy architecture of misery and malaise? Will unpleasant states of consciousness really last for ever?
No, not necessarily, not even then. The more vulnerable that enhanced well-being allegedly makes us, the more our self-interest will lie in ensuring that all others are happy and well-disposed too; and in ensuring that any novel life-forms we create in the new reproductive era are constitutionally happy and benevolent. If the discontent of others potentially threatens our own well-being, then genetically underwriting their empathetic bliss serves our self-interest. If mutant psychopaths pose a potential danger [though in fact strict sociopathy tends to diminish inclusive fitness even in the primordial Darwinian era], then self-interest dictates using prophylactic germ-line therapy against genes promoting sociopathy and its sub-syndromal variants; this is one state-space of genetic options whose full exploration we can live without. In the past, natural selection ensured that selfishness, in every sense of the word, frequently paid. This entailed “winners” causing often severe suffering to losers. According to rank theory, the far greater incidence of the internalised correlate of the losing [behavioral] sub-routine, depression, compared to the winning sub-routine, euphoric (hypo)mania, attests to the terrible price that social animals have paid for the advantages of group living. Until now, blind genetic competition has ensured overt individual competitiveness among reproductive vehicles. There has been a sometimes physically violent struggle for the best mates and scarce resources. Winners and losers alike have been trapped on the same hedonic/dolorous treadmill. But when unlimited emotional well-being is possible for everyone at no cost to the well-being of others – and an unlimited diversity of good experiences is accessible to all via immersive VR – then only sustained malevolence, not mere egoism, will suffice to perpetuate the cruelties of the old order.
None of this proves that our descendants will really be smarter, nicer and happier – the magic trinity predicted and endorsed here. This is scenario-spinning, not true game-theoretic modelling. There are suppressed premises and controversial assumptions in all the above arguments for paradise-engineering. Which strategies will really prove stable remains to be seen. The nature of the ultimate winning strategy is open. Certainly a transformation of human nature isn’t going to arise through a world-wide spiritual awakening, an innovative package of socio-economic reforms, or a spontaneous desire to be nice to each other. But it’s quite possible that, in the long run, the Darwinian genetic program based on suffering and quasi-sociopathy will lose out. Misery is not a stable strategy because by its nature rational agents seek to escape it; and soon a society of intelligent agents will have the collective capacity to do so.
4.28 “There is a contradiction at the heart of the abolitionist project. On the one hand, it is argued that suffering will be eradicated by biotechnology. On the other hand, it is claimed that no one will be forced to be happy: our freedom will allegedly be enhanced, not restricted, by the option of unlimited bliss. But perversely or otherwise, some people will always choose to be miserable – or at least to retain the traditional biological capacity to be so. Thus abolitionism can’t be reconciled with an absence of compulsion.”
Prescription and prediction are easily muddled. It is advocated that all involuntary suffering should be abolished. It is predicted that all suffering will be abolished. On this perspective, our descendants are no more likely to submit themselves to emotional pain and malaise than we would today opt to undergo a major surgical operation without an anaesthetic.
In practice, an ethic of absolute personal freedom is probably untenable. Even the devout libertarian will sanction, say, the administration of a foul-tasting medicine to an unwilling sick youngster, or the forcible injection of an anaesthetic into a struggling animal before veterinary surgery. We sometimes override the choices and desires of simple minds. It would be cruel to do otherwise. Non-human animals, the severely mentally disabled and very young children don’t know their own interests; mature adults are presumed different. The problem here is that super-intelligent extraterrestrials – or our own advanced descendants – may perceive us, primitive Homo sapiens, as comparatively no less mentally defective than are toddlers or pets in our eyes today. Any advanced intelligence may discern the analogous way that Darwinian minds are locked in dysfunctional cycles of self-abuse – unaware of our own interests. If so, then should we/small children be allowed to keep on hurting ourselves so badly?
As libertarians, we must presumably answer yes. This stance would seem hard to reconcile with a utilitarian ethic. For what are a few minutes of unpleasantness compared to an eternity of bliss? Yet even to moot the involuntary treatment of malcontents, let alone advocate its practice, is a dangerous line of argument for the abolitionist to pursue. For the misconception that anyone is going to coerce us into being happy is one of the biggest ideological obstacles to the future abolition of suffering. Fortunately, it is a mistake to believe that even a utilitarian ethicist is committed to mandatory therapy for the emotionally sick. This is because even the hint of compulsion causes distress to most people – thereby sabotaging the abolitionist project and defeating the utilitarian’s own ends.
So the spectre of dissident emotional primitives being dragged kicking and screaming into the pleasure chambers must not become the defining image of abolitionist ideology. Conjuring up such a travesty of paradise-engineering doesn’t show that a utilitarian ethic is mistaken. Instead it illustrates that the advocacy of compulsion is not a truly utilitarian policy at all. Like so many arguments against a utilitarian ethic, it relies on misconceived policy prescriptions wrongly derived from the sovereign utility-maximising principle.
In reality, abolitionists may call themselves fanatical libertarians on solid utilitarian grounds. For the freedom to transcend our Darwinian past and to choose our own homeostatic level of well-being is one of the most persuasive arguments for the abolitionist case.
4.29 “Why invoke nanotechnology? Surely genetic engineering alone can abolish suffering?”
If the abolitionist project is to be complete, then it must embrace the rest of the living world. In terrestrial ecosystems, the higher vertebrates can be genetically redesigned using foreseeable extensions of existing technologies. But pain and suffering will still fester in less accessible parts of the animal kingdom e.g. in the oceans. Fortunately, within a few centuries, our descendants will have the capacity to use self-replicating nanobots armed with supercomputing power to redesign the marine ecosystem. Today, needless to say, this sounds like the wildest science fantasy. But even if we rely only on extrapolation, not revolutionary conceptual and technical breakthroughs, then the implementation of the abolitionist program is still grounded in relatively well-understood science. The reason that the prospect of molecular hedonic engineering hasn’t yet been explored by nanotechnology theorists is not that the technology involved is uniquely challenging. It’s because tough-minded technocrats have different ends in mind.
In the present era, of course, it is hard to feel deeply exercised by the plight of marine invertebrates. We may feel that we have worries enough nearer home. But it is not pleasant to be eaten alive, even if one is a small mollusc. In paradise, it won’t happen.
4.30 “Suppose that biotechnology really does give birth to an entirely new reproductive era. Suppose that humanity really is destined, as claimed in HI, for an era of ubiquitous designer babies – the so-called post-Darwinian transition. This transition may not be to an era of paradise-engineering. The biological basis of suffering may never be abolished. For if prospective parents are free to choose the attributes of their children, their typical priority will not be the creation of offspring who are innately happy. Instead, innumerable “pushy” parents will continue to seek children who are smarter, better-looking, competitively driven, more “successful” – and choose genotypes to match. Such parental bias can be explained, ultimately, by evolutionary psychology. At present, of course, prospective parents can’t directly select allelic combinations of genes that promote such traits. In tomorrow’s genetic supermarket, they may be granted an opportunity to do so. But if so, then selection pressure – albeit artificial or “unnatural” selection pressure – will favour exaggerated versions of traits that were adaptive in the old Darwinian era of natural selection. The outcome of the imminent reproductive revolution won’t be a civilisation founded on genetically pre-programmed bliss.”
Assume, plausibly, that within a few decades prospective parents will be able to choose the genetic dial settings for their kids’ emotional well-being – the average “set-point” on our emotional thermostat around which well-being (or ill-being) tends to fluctuate. Grant too the key premise of the objection: many parents do indeed care far more about the worldly “success” of their children than their personal (un)happiness. This doesn’t entail that the substrates of suffering will be re-created indefinitely. Even parents for whom the emotional well-being of their offspring is trivial – of no more significance than, say, choice of eye colour – are still likely to opt for higher rather than lower dial settings on the hedonic treadmill i.e. alleles and allelic combinations that predispose their children to flourish. For most parents do prefer, on balance, their children to be temperamentally happy rather than miserable, even if happiness is only one desired attribute among many – perhaps not the most important – and in some instances perhaps only a minor or incidental trait. “I don’t care what [s]he does when [s]he grows up, so long as [s]he’s happy” expresses, not a revolutionary sentiment, but a clichéd platitude of Western liberal society. This preference is explicable in part because happiness, and the spectrum of behavior associated with the “winning sub-routine”, is positively correlated with social dominance and reproductive success. Ambitious parents certainly don’t want to produce “losers”. Depressive or anxiety-ridden kids can’t compete effectively against their peers. A tendency to low mood, and the spectrum of subordinate behaviour with which depression is associated, may have been genetically adaptive for low-status tribal weaklings on the African savannah. For depressive behaviour, contingently activated, can be a viable fallback strategy for stressed low-status tribal animals in an adverse social environment. This may explain why depressive disorders are so common. But a genetic predisposition to low spirits, or at least anything like unipolar depression as distinct from bipolarity, is not part of an optimal reproductive strategy for potential “winners”. If intelligently engineered, a genetically enhanced sense of well-being is empowering. Its behavioural phenotypes are potentially far more adaptive than the predisposition to learned helplessness and behavioural despair characteristic of the depressive spectrum. So in the new reproductive era, pushy parents in particular are likely to shun depressive genotypes. What guise their children’s well-being may take is another question. True emotional enrichment transcends the simple-minded recipes discussed here – mere modulations of the old Darwinian repertoire of sadness, happiness, disgust, fear, jealousy, anger and loneliness. Indeed the enriched emotional palette of our descendants may assume textures conceptually unimaginable to primordial Darwinian lifeforms. Our post-human successors may be rapturously happy about things we’ve never dreamed of, in ways we can’t imagine, and in a conceptual scheme that hasn’t yet been invented. But in today’s terms, parents who are ambitious in a conventional sense for their family may seek an egoistic rather than empathetic kind of well-being for their children. Such parents may also favour (genotypes predisposing to) hypomanic exuberance rather than serene happiness. Backwood-looking parents may even opt to endow their children with functional analogues of older Darwinian traits, but set against a much higher emotional baseline. None of this suggests that parents will opt, in the long run, for allelic combinations whose expression induces suffering or even unpleasantness in their carriers – even if medical ethics committees were to license their (re-)creation. Aside from anything else, children who are genetically predisposed to be depressive, sour-tempered or brattish are less rewarding to raise than children who are abundantly joyful and loving. Pre-selecting one of the nastier Darwinian genotypes for one’s progeny would be self-defeating. In an era of artificial selection, the partially heritable bundle of traits we call “lovability” promises to be highly adaptive for (post-)humans and their household pets alike.
The above account inevitably falls short on detail. Empirical cross-cultural studies of the (partially) heritable characters most favoured by contemporary parents for their offspring may serve as a better guide to the nature of tomorrow’s designer babies. However, such a yardstick implausibly assumes an absence of state regulation and control over parental genetic choices. Likewise, the question of the future intensity settings of genetically pre-programmed happiness is here left open. Oversimplifying hugely, and treating happiness on a crude one-dimensional scale, will successive generations of genetically enriched (post-)humans tend to be a bit happier, or blissfully happy, or orders of magnitude happier than their Darwinian ancestors, as predicted in HI? Most parents today, if pressed, might express a preference for their children to be very happy rather than happy; but only a minority of early adopters would opt for superkids who were constitutionally sublimely happy. Thus in the near future, the dial settings on enhanced kids’ emotional thermostats will probably encode lives animated by (homeostatic gradients of) modest well-being rather than (homeostatic gradients of) sublime bliss. Analogously today, parents are typically most comfortable with the idea of rearing clever children rather than a family of geniuses. Yet as our conception of psychological health is enriched, so presumably will its socially acceptable norms. Ambitious parents usually aspire to a higher quality of life for their offspring than their own. This generalisation holds even though a comparative poverty of ambition may initially induce many parents to settle for comfortable mediocrity for their kids rather than mental superhealth. Perhaps this pleasure-deficit will be remedied in our lifetime by somatic gene therapy and genetically personalised mood-enrichers; perhaps not. But ultimately our descendants are no more likely to pre-select genotypes coding for inherently nasty states of mind than they are likely to pre-select genotypes coding for neuropathic pain. The historical record notwithstanding, human perversity has its limits.
4.31 “There is a flaw, possibly a fatal flaw, in HI. Yes, there probably will be a reproductive revolution. True, over time, prospective parents are unlikely to choose “nasty” genotypes for their children. Yes, this reproductive shift may even represent a major evolutionary transition in life on earth. But, critically, a large percentage of the population will presumably continue to have children by “natural” means – whether out of bioconservative ideology, religious conviction, or just normal teenage fecklessness. Among this percentage of natural reproducers, a large and unknown number of couples will themselves be the offspring of natural methods of reproduction. Therefore a lot of the nastier code in our old Darwinian genome will be retained, together with the propensity to suffering it entails. Perhaps the natural reproducers will eventually interbreed with mature designer babies of more distant posterity. Who knows what will be the long-term consequences of mixing rational re-design and a legacy genome? But either way, unless the ideology of abolitionism is universally adopted as a value system – or ruthlessly enforced by a coercive state apparatus of unprecedented intrusiveness into the female body – then the global abolition of suffering will be postponed indefinitely. HI is a nice idea. But it’s hard to see how it could work.”
The key premise of the Objection is probably correct. So long as any pure-bred Darwinians continue to procreate by natural means, then suffering in some form or other will persist. The persistence of suffering is inevitable if archaic humans also reject as “unnatural” (etc) the other two core technologies of mood-enhancement, i.e. wireheading and sustainable pleasure drugs. So what grounds are there for believing that natural reproduction as practised today will ever cease? This is quite a radical prediction. And even if the abolition of natural reproduction is technically feasible, isn’t its disappearance too high a price to pay for mental superhealth and a cruelty-free world?
The reason for predicting that within a few centuries all human reproduction will be rigorously controlled, both in its timing and in its nature, stems from a second momentous technological revolution in prospect, namely the conquest of ageing. Whether you estimate that curing senescence will take another 100 years or 500 years, this genetic-cum-nanotechnological revolution is destined to sweep away the plague of human mortality. First on the horizon are interventions to prevent age-associated diseases (Alzheimer’s, osteoporosis, cardiovascular disease, age-related memory decline, etc). Such primitive gene therapies are only the harbinger of a massive repair-and-renovation job on the human genome. This mega-project will tackle the fundamental biology of ageing itself. Replacing the biology of ageing is much more ambitious. Since rational design of the genome from scratch is impossible, we can only “bootstrap” our way to millennial lifespans – a formidable genetic challenge. But as the era of eternal youth unfolds, our descendants are not going to pre-select genotypes predisposing to (“for”) age-associated diseases or senescence for their future offspring. Nor, realistically, are members of the older generation likely to shun rejuvenating somatic gene therapies for themselves. In consequence, the current slowdown in global population growth will reverse. The planet will fill up and approach the limits of its carrying capacity.
This physical constraint on our ability to multiply will recede but stays intact even if you think we are destined to colonise the galaxy, or even if (fancifully and implausibly) you think we are going to “upload” ourselves onto computers, or even if you think the sky’s the limit and intelligent life is limited in its expansion potential only by our world’s Bekenstein bound. Even if individual mobility and resource consumption weren’t an issue either, since we’ll all be plugged into immersive VR or an analogue of the Matrix (etc.), then this physical constraint still holds: if we phase out ageing and become quasi-immortals, then we’ll quite literally run out of Lebensraum in the absence of strict reproductive controls. The libertarian will find these words as uncomfortable to read as they are to write.
HI ducks the question of the specific social and biomedical mechanisms regulating reproduction in a post-ageing society. This omission is deliberate: control of human reproduction, whether sexual or clonal, will be a generic feature of any post-ageing civilisation. The need for social mechanisms of reproductive control on pain of Malthusian catastrophe isn’t a specific peculiarity of the abolitionist project. If (post-)humans aren’t going to grow old and die, as we do today, then we can’t go on having children at will indefinitely. A regime based on genetic Russian roulette will be replaced by an ethically responsible(?) policy of planned parenthood.
At what cost? Other things being equal, state-regulated birth-control might be expected to cause widespread and profound personal distress. Only a small minority of people in human society are happy to remain childless. Infertility causes much heartache. For most people, having children is to a greater or lesser degree our raison d’être. For evolutionary reasons, it would be astonishing if this were other than the case. We may fear death and growing old; but typically what makes life meaningful – and our death bearable – is the lives of our children and grandchildren. Thus as we’re constituted at present, the spectre of restrictions on our right to procreate is a disturbing idea. An intimate realm of our lives that has hitherto been essentially private could be in danger of intrusion by the state. Even a Chinese-style one-child campaign strikes the Western mind as a draconian curb on personal freedom.
So how will this dilemma be resolved? At present, we may try and persuade ourselves that we wouldn’t want to stay eternally youthful. But if the option of eternal youth or even its semblance were there, then it would be naïve to think most people wouldn’t discard a lifetime of rationalisations and seize it. This bold statement might seem to imply a rather facile biotechnological determinism. For it is being assumed without argument that just because 1) we don’t really want to grow old; and 2) technically it will be feasible to live indefinitely, we will therefore opt to do so – barring traumatic wetware accidents of course, though even here the use of prudent automated off-site self-backup policies should allow restores from last working copy. But for all its pitfalls, some sort of biotechnological determinism here is well-founded. Our fear of ageing, death and dying is simply too deeply rooted in the Darwinian psyche for us to perpetuate the senile holocaust into the era of mature genomic medicine. Renouncing the option of quasi-immortality may be conceivable in theory. Yet who’ll opt to live (and die) as a disposable Darwinian “crumbly” if one can live and look like a Greek god?
The solution to the psychological dislocations such sustainable youth may entail is more likely to be biological than sociological. Just as biotechnology can potentially allow us to become better, more loving parents (e.g. by use of agents that induce oxytocin receptor gene overexpression, etc), so conversely biotech can curb the craving to have children when reproduction is infeasible. These techniques may be pharmacological or genetic or both. Godlike lifespans needn’t have any adverse effects on our mental health; quite the reverse. Genetically enriched humans can feel utterly divine, not just look it. For lifelong well-being can potentially take many guises; and most forms of emotional enrichment won’t entail living vicariously through the lives of our immediate biological descendants – natural as this habit of mind still seems in our late Darwinian world.
Switching on or off some of our deepest human desires sounds more like a dystopian nightmare than a recipe for paradise-engineering. Who is to orchestrate the switching; and how? No such hard choices are thrust upon us today. We just reproduce, decline into our dotage and then die. Yet re-engineering the human soul and body alike can still strike even secular minds as almost sacrilegious. We admire excellence in the design of inorganic technology even as we abhor its prospect in ourselves. But whatever the mechanisms, if we cure ageing and don’t intervene to regulate other primordial human traits as well, then intolerable psychological stress and social conflict are presumably inevitable. All sorts of ugly scenarios can be envisaged if life-extension technologies are pursued in isolation from mental health research and therapeutic interventions to match.
Nothing in this analysis of a post-ageing world proves that the control (post-)human reproduction also entails the design of psychologically superwell (post-)humans. In overcoming ageing, it is possible if sociologically unlikely that we will opt to leave our repertoire of hunter-gatherer emotions unchanged – just as, conversely, it is technically possible we will conquer suffering without scrapping death and ageing. The response set out here aims rather to show why haphazard sexual reproduction isn’t an inevitable fixture of tomorrow’s post-Darwinian society; and how in future the creation of pain-ridden humans will demand an implausible measure of premeditation. So too, one day, may the creation of perishable human beings destined to grow old and die.
Yet just how likely in practice are our descendants to be eternally youthful, superintelligent, superempathetic – and to live happily ever after? A reality-check might seem in order. The post-ageing era is still far enough away to make any predictions hazardous. Those of us still in thrall to our Darwinian gut-instincts will find these scenarios all smack of wish-fulfilment and idle fantasy – mere fairy tales masquerading as science. HI certainly glosses over some very grim late Darwinian nastiness looming in the decades ahead: nuclear warfare, bioterrorism, global pandemics – and the usual soul-destroying tragedies of Darwinian-style personal life. Certainly, any futurology based on radical discontinuities rather than extrapolation rarely rings true at the time. But the (potential) beauty of genetic engineering, quantum supercomputing and utopian nanotech is the way these technologies can be used to convert wishful thinking into sublime reality. What it means to be “realistic” will shortly be redefined. One reason for researching the prospects of a post-Darwinian civilisation is that paradise-engineering can deliver a practical solution to everything that’s wrong with the world today.
4.32 “If (1) HI is correct, And if (2) HI should apply to all sentient beings, not just those on earth, Then (3) We have a moral obligation to spread throughout the universe as quickly as is practical, eliminating aversive experience and maximizing pleasure gradients everywhere.
Furthermore, if also (4) There are a very large number (let’s say at least millions) of intelligent life forms elsewhere in the universe, Then (5) It’s a virtual certainty that at least some of them (and more likely, most of them) are substantially more intelligent than us, And (6) It’s a virtual certainty that at least some of them are at least equally driven to their goals, at least some subset of which are likely to apply to the entire universe.
We can subdivide the life forms mentioned in (6) into three categories: Category A consists of those life forms which have the same goals and choose the same means as HI. This sounds unlikely but might not be. Consider: If (7) morality is absolute rather than relative (i.e. there is some correct way to behave), and if (8) morality has attractors (i.e. most or all sufficiently intelligent life forms will discover the right way to behave and at least some of them will choose to behave that way), and if (1) then (9) at least some other life forms will find HI persuasive and will work toward it.
If (9) and (4), and if (10) the most advanced life forms are best equipped to determine and then carry out HI to maximize the chances of success, then (11) it’s probably the case that there is no need for humans to get involved in HI. This logic isn’t airtight, however. For example, if (12) all life forms reason this way, then none would act, assuming that some other life form would take care of HI (unless one or more life forms thought or knew that they were the most advanced). In addition, it might be the case that (13) the best implementation approach involves several life forms, not just the most advanced one (perhaps to accomplish the goals of HI more quickly). Nevertheless, it seems fairly clear that if (9) and (4), then it’s highly unlikely that humanity is in the best position to implement universe-wide HI.
Category B consists of those life forms which have the same goals but choose different means than us. Some of the points in Category A would apply, but an additional conclusion given (5) seems to be that we should trust their judgement. This appears to be true even those life forms felt that the best approach included elimination of earthly life (and other similar life forms elsewhere).
Category C consists of those life forms which have different goals. If (6), then I believe that it is a virtual certainty that Category C is not empty; i.e., at least some life forms will have different goals than HI. If this is the case, and if (5), then it doesn’t seem to matter much what we do, as the outcome will almost certainly be the goal of whichever life form is most advanced. This doesn’t imply that (14) working toward earth-level HI goals is entirely pointless, but it does seem to substantially restrict the value of such efforts, making them local and temporary.” [with thanks to Tom Murcko]
Most people believe that the complete abolition of suffering in Homo sapiens is impossible. Extending the circle of compassion to other animals via ecosystem redesign and genetic engineering seems even more far-fetched. So the prospect of some kind of cosmic rescue mission to promote paradise engineering throughout the universe has a distinct air of science fiction. This may of course be the case. The timescales are certainly daunting even for a single galaxy of 400 billion stars some 100,000 light years across – on the order of millions or perhaps tens of millions of years. The level of intellectual, political and sociological cohesion over time required to mount such a project eclipses anything human society could organise today. Moreover recent evidence from distant type Ia supernovae suggests that the expansion of the universe isn’t slowing as hitherto supposed, but accelerating owing to poorly understood “dark energy”. In consequence, perhaps only our local galactic supercluster will ever be accessible to our descendants.
Viewed purely as a technical challenge, however, the use of self-reproducing, autonomous robots – “von Neumann probes” – to explore and/or colonize our galaxy is both feasible and well-researched. The difference is that their purpose hasn’t normally been conceived as a mercy mission for pain-ridden ecosystems that may have evolved elsewhere. [Ironically, notional “berserker probes” that sterilise all life have been discussed in science fiction, albeit not with a negative utilitarian ethic in mind.] Plausibility aside, it is ethically obligatory for utilitarians anywhere to maximise the well-being of all accessible sentience if it’s technically feasible to do so – in the absence of any countervailing argument like the Objection above. Less clearly, an obligation to promote the substrates of well-being throughout the cosmos is arguably a disguised implication of various ethical systems that deplore merely “unnecessary” suffering. What “necessary suffering” might mean here is critical but ambiguous.
The most problematic premise in the Objection is perhaps number 4, i.e. the hypothetical existence of millions of other intelligent lifeforms. This assumption relies on the Drake equation1 or one of its variants in estimating the number of extraterrestrial civilizations with which we might come in contact. Any such assumption must overcome the Fermi paradox: “Where are they?” No discernible sign of extraterrestrial life exists – whether its artefacts, physical presence or signals. There may indeed be an indefinitely large number of technologically advanced civilisations in the Multiverse as a whole, or in other domains, or in other branes on “braneworld” scenarios, or even in our domain outside the “Hubble Bubble” [according to the chaotic inflationary universe scenario pioneered by physicist Andre Linde, quantum fluctuations divide the inflationary universe into a vast multitude of exponentially large domains or “mini-universes” where the laws of low-energy physics may be different]. Counterintuitively, as Max Tegmark points out, one popular cosmological model apparently predicts that each of us has an effectively identical twin in a galaxy typically around 101028 metres away. These distance scales are quite dizzying.
The point in this context is that even if we are unique to the known universe, we need not be “special” – which would entail a rejection of the normal Copernican assumption. If inaccessible civilisations do exist beyond our cosmic event horizon, then their superintelligent inhabitants may well have transcended their evolutionary origins just as we are poised to do too. If such superbeings are benevolent, then they will presumably [given “moral attractors”] rescue others physically accessible to being saved within their light-cone (“Category A”). It would be nice to think that cross-species deliverance from suffering was a universal law; the Objection raises the disturbing possibility (“Category C”) that it isn’t. The existence of hypothetical advanced lifeforms with the same goals as us but who choose different means (“Category B”) might indeed shift the onus of responsibility away from the junior civilization. Yet how common is the multiple independent origin of technologically advanced civilizations within a cosmically narrow (space)time-frame?
This is all extremely speculative. Extensive scanning of the electromagnetic spectrum discloses no evidence that technologically sophisticated life exists in our galaxy, or anywhere else in the observable universe. This absence of evidence extends to what Russian astrophysicist Nikolai Kardashev described as “Type III civilizations” – supercivilizations that would employ the energy resources of an entire galaxy. Their electromagnetic signature could in principle be detected by SETI (Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence) researchers as well. Nothing has been found. The search continues.
Many explanations of “The Great Silence” have been mooted. Why assume, for instance, that intelligent extraterrestrials will manifest anything resembling the motives, values, conceptual framework or colonial expansionism of contemporary Homo sapiens? Is our conception of intelligent life and its signature too impoverished for us to have even located the relevant search-space to investigate? But (very) tentatively, the conservative explanation of why an immense ecological niche remains unfilled is that the silence is just what it seems. No technologically advanced, spacefaring civilisations exist within our few billion odd light years neighbourhood. It’s up to us.
This conclusion doesn’t mean we are locally alone. The Objection is right to take the status of sentient beings in other worlds extremely seriously. If we could really be confident that Earth-based organisms were the only lifeforms in the accessible universe, or if only minimally sentient microbial life exists in other worlds, then eliminating suffering on our planet would effectively discharge our ethical responsibilities. Once our world was cruelty-free, we could retreat into our own private nirvanas – or perhaps build heaven-on-earth and terraform it beyond. Yet it’s also possible that complex life and suffering – perhaps intense suffering – exists in alien ecosystems within our cosmic event horizon; and such lifeforms are impotent to do anything about their plight i.e. they are as helpless as are all but one species on contemporary Earth. The presence of such malaise-ridden lifeforms would be undetectable to us with current technology. We have no empirical evidence of their existence one way or the other.
So how likely is such a scenario on theoretical grounds? Life’s origins apparently lie early in Earth’s 4.6 billion-year history. Deceptively perhaps, its rapid emergence suggests that the process may be relatively “easy” – and thus spontaneously repeated on a massive scale on Earth-like planets across the cosmos. Yet we still can’t explain how the primeval “RNA world” preceding our DNA regime came into being. Nor can we yet synthesise life in vitro, or computationally simulate its genesis on Earth. So it’s quite possible that only a freakish chain of circumstances allowed life to get started in the first instance. Piling improbable event on improbable event, another chain of contingent circumstances over several billion years allowed multicellular eukaryotic life to evolve. Eventually, life arose with the capacity to rewrite its own source code. It’s unknown how many significantly different developmental pathways exist leading to organisms capable of scientific technology, or where the biggest evolutionary bottlenecks lie.
There is another imponderable here too. How likely is it that any primordial alien life will undergo suffering, or even be sentient, if its substrate differs from our familiar organic wetware? We know that our silicon (etc.) robots can be programmed to exhibit the quasi-functional analogues of “mental” and “physical” pain and pleasure, and display a repertoire of “emotional” behaviour without any relevant “raw feels”. Will putative extraterrestrials likewise be akin to zombie automata – “intelligent” or otherwise? [If so, would their fate matter?] Or more plausibly, will extraterrestrial life be sentient like us (or perhaps hypersentient)?
Here at least we can rationally speculate: the answer is probably the latter, though these modes of sentience may be very different. For there are powerful reasons for thinking that all primordial information-bearing self-replicators must be carbon-based owing to the functionally unique valence properties of the carbon atom. Likewise, primordial life-supporting chemistries probably require liquid water. [If and when organic life becomes technologically advanced enough to build silicon robots, create “post-biological” digital life, design self-replicating nanobots, run “simulations” in quantum computers, etc., all bets are off.] If such primordial organic life ever reaches a multicellular stage, then the binary coding system of a pleasure-pain axis embedded in a nervous system is an informationally efficient solution to the challenges of the inner and outer environment, albeit brutishly cruel. So if hypothetical early alien life stumbled upon the molecular mechanisms underlying the pleasure-pain axis, then the information-processing role of its gradients will plausibly have been harnessed by natural selection to boost the inclusive fitness of self-propelled organisms – as it has on Earth. No “programmer” or designer is needed. Moreover, given the comparatively narrow range of habitats in the physical universe that could sustain primordial multicellular life, the phenomenon of convergent evolution may mean that all such life, wherever it evolves, isn’t going to be quite so exotic as astrobiologists sometimes suppose. [By contrast, advanced life and consciousness could be unimaginably exotic.] If so, then the same abolitionist blueprint for ecosystem redesign and genomic rewrites should be applicable to other planetary biospheres – if we decide to intervene in Darwinian worlds rather than retain their ecological status quo.
That’s a lot of ifs. Right now, it’s difficult to care deeply about the plight of creatures who may not even exist, or who may be accessible only to our distant post-human descendants. Ecological charity, one feels, begins at home. Yet such indifference may be a reflection of our limited psychology, not a moral argument for inertia. Naturally, we may all be mistaken in ways that exceed our conceptual resources to imagine or describe. Alternatively, something on the lines of the Objection may be correct. Certainly we rarely, if ever, understand the full ramifications of what we are doing. It’s hard enough to plan ahead for the next five years, let alone envisage interstellar travel for the next five million. [This is one good reason not to get trapped in a rut of wirehead hedonism or its chemical counterparts rather than strive for superintelligent well-being.] Yet to opt for a deliberate policy of non-interference – whether in the lives of our suffering fellow humans, non-human animals, or primordial extraterrestrials – is no less morally fraught than paternalistic intervention. The argument that we should do nothing until we fully understand its implications cuts little ice in an emergency – and the horrors of a living world where babies get eaten alive by predators, creatures die of hunger, thirst, and cold, etc, must count as morally urgent on all but the most Disneyfied conception of Mother Nature. Analogously, it would be morally reckless for us to shun the use of, say, anaesthetics, pain-killers, veterinary interventions and similar “unnatural” novelties on the grounds that their use poses unknown risks – even though these risks surely exist and should be researched with all possible scientific rigour.
There are indeed ethical pitfalls in “playing God”. These pitfalls would be even greater if [as the Objection assumes] there exist god-like extraterrestrial lifeforms better equipped than us to do so. Yet on both a domestic and cosmological scale, moral hazards exist for absentee landlords as well as for hands-on managers. Inaction can be culpable too. Here on Earth, there might seem a moral imperative to intervene and rescue, say, a drowning toddler on (almost) any ethical system at all. But what if that child grows up to be Hitler’s grandfather (etc)? We can’t know this, since we don’t yet carry pocket felicific calculators. Yet the risk is presumably worth taking: we don’t let the child drown. Likewise, if your hand is in the fire, you withdraw it. If you are benevolent, then you do the same to rescue a small child or animal companion who is suffering similar agony – whether you are formally a utilitarian ethical theorist or not. The moral sceptic might argue that all value judgements are truth-valueless; but (s)he can’t argue consistently that we ought to believe this – or behave in one way rather than another. Taking the abolitionist project to the rest of the galaxy and beyond sounds crazy today; but it’s the application of technology to a very homely moral precept writ large, not the outgrowth of a revolutionary new ethical theory. So long as sentient beings suffer extraordinary unpleasantness – whether on Earth or perhaps elsewhere – there is a presumptive case to eradicate such suffering wherever it is found.
4.33 “Why does HI lay such stress on gradients of well-being? From an ethical perspective, wouldn’t a permanent maximum of bliss be better?”
A motivational system based entirely on heritable gradients of well-being is a less radical prospect than the abolition of motivation altogether. This is because hardwiring constant maximum bliss entails discarding the information-signalling role of the pleasure-pain axis completely – not just recalibrating its scale. Barring some extraordinarily advanced technology, uniformly happy beings will be out-reproduced. So for the foreseeable future, at any rate, encoding a physiological maximum of lifelong bliss is simply not an evolutionarily stable strategy. Then there’s ideology to consider. If maximising gross cosmic happiness depends on (post-)humans embracing a classical utilitarian value system, it’s presumably an unlikely scenario on that score too. Pluralist or perhaps quasi-utilitarian value systems are more sociologically plausible. Yet HI’s (tentative) forecast that a motivational regime of gradients of bliss will be conserved indefinitely is itself no more than a conjecture. One counterargument is that choosing less fulfilling states of mind runs counter to the hedonic roots of our decision-making psychology itself. When mature technologies of emotional self-mastery become ubiquitous, it’s uncertain who – if anyone – will really settle for what subjectively feels like an inferior option. What dial-settings will rational agents choose for their own mood-range when freed from the old Darwinian roulette? In practice, informed preference utilitarianism and classical utilitarianism tend to converge. Just possibly, the cumulative outcome of our choices may be the transcendence of traditional decision-making. As a slogan, “freedom to control one’s emotions” invites readier assent than “freedom to enjoy limitless bliss”. What’s unclear is whether the ultimate cosmic outcome will be substantially different – or ethically, whether it ought to be so. Obviously care should be taken here to separate normative judgement from positive prediction. Certainly, billions of years of pan-galactic hedonism isn’t quite what Jeremy Bentham had in mind when first enunciating the greatest happiness principle. A lawyer by training, Bentham had in mind institutional and legislative reform. Yet harnessing biotechnology to a classical utilitarian ethic dictates saturating the cosmos with blissful euphoria/positive value and then computationally sustaining this theoretical maximum indefinitely – whether in the form of discrete superminds or perhaps a Borg-like collective mind. The logic of “hedonistic” utilitarianism is inexorable, even if its premises can be challenged.
The issue of whether we should encode hedonic gradients or constant happiness should be distinguished from the related question of so-called “higher” versus “lower” pleasures i.e. the notional value of whatever we may be happy “about”. Gradients of cerebral well-being (or ill-being) can certainly facilitate critical discernment, rational decision-making, and motivated behaviour. Yet as our rapidly evolving computer software attests, neither qualia nor an organic substrate are essential to this functional role. So as our integration with intelligent software increases, the “texture” of subjective dips of bliss may turn out to be functionally unnecessary for sentient organic life too. Tomorrow’s technologies of fine-grained emotional control may enable early post-humans, for instance, to amplify their most treasured second-order desires for, say, cultural excellence, intellectual acumen and moral integrity while banishing the baser carnal passions. But after exploring the richest hedonic backdrop to whatever it is one most values – whether highbrow or lowbrow by today’s lights – will anyone revert to hedonically impoverished states on discovering what they’ve been missing? Does our contemporary revulsion from crude wireheading, for instance, lie in the unvarying bliss that it yields – or merely its unedifying focus? Thus it’s conceivable, as the Objection implies, that our distant descendants will enjoy some kind of ceaseless rapture – perhaps contemplating unimaginably sublime beauty or love or elegant mathematical equations. Or, less portentously, hilariously funny jokes. Naturally, these examples are purely illustrative, since post-humans may be imbued with kinds of blissful experience whose categories Homo sapiens can’t name or conceive. Perhaps post-humans will be temperamentally meditative; perhaps dynamic. Perhaps they’ll live in augmented organic virtual reality; or perhaps they’ll live in designer VR paradises run on different bylaws from our presumptive basement. Perhaps they’ll inherit a recognisable descendant of ordinary waking primate consciousness; or perhaps they’ll live in unknown realms of utopian psychedelia. Unfortunately, our ignorance of the potential varieties of blissful experience contributes to the misconception that such well-being will necessarily be “thin” or unidimensional rather than diverse. But whatever the scenario, there’s indeed no guarantee that a rational superintelligence will tolerate any decrements of well-being, information-signalling or otherwise.
The Objector’s vision of unvarying bliss doesn’t appeal to the dominant Western ethos. For the most part, modern capitalist societies prize innovation, creativity and change. So the prospect of a civilisation based (merely) on gradients of extreme well-being may be less unsettling than a future of constant bliss – though either condition is alien to Darwinian life. We associate permanence with stagnation; and passivity with low motivation and malaise. So any “static” vision fails to inspire. From a broader evolutionary perspective, self-propelled bodies exhibiting goal-directed behaviour arose early in the history of multicellular life on earth. This architecture has been strongly conserved over hundreds of millions of years. Looking ahead to an era when intelligent life has conquered raw suffering, and to an era when we can modulate our core emotions at will, enhanced hedonic gradients and/or their functional analogues may lead our post-human descendants, and/or our intelligent robots/cyborgs, to radiate and colonize every niche of the accessible multiverse within our light cone/galactic supercluster and intelligently re-engineer it. But what then? The (hypothetical) discipline of secular eschatology won’t always be the idle fancy it seems at present. After we can effectively ring the changes within the finite state-space of matter and energy in our cosmic neighbourhood, which kinds of supersentience will be judged worth instantiating? To use a lame analogy, will we opt endlessly to replay mediocre games of chess or painting-by-numbers? Or confine ourselves to the state-space of perfection? Is status quo bias as irrational in post-Darwinian paradise as it is in Darwinian purgatory? On the Objector’s “constant bliss” scenario, everything formerly unpleasant or mediocre – from avoidance of noxious stimuli to the mundane maintenance of the infrastructure of civilisation – will presumably have been computationally “offloaded” onto our intelligent machines/prostheses. Critically, selection pressure will no longer operate since post-humans will have occupied every possible niche and engineered themselves to have become effectively immortal. The old era of frenetic “action”, the sound and fury of imperfect lives played out against a backdrop of restless discontent and scarcity economics, will belong to our animalistic ancestry. Even the transitional era defined by gradients of cerebral euphoria will have been left behind. Quite possibly the molecular signature of all valuable experience will have been identified; and its substrates amplified to the full. Indeed, given the pleasure principle plus advanced technology, an evolutionary trajectory to the presumed attractor of ideal states of sentience may be inescapable. Once the transition to grown-up consciousness is complete, the theoretical possibility of venturing outside this state-space may be even less likely than, say, our now deciding to revisit the lives of savages in caves. If and when intelligent life reaches cosmic superheaven, perhaps the baroque scaffolding that got us there will be kicked away. Eternal bliss needn’t be orgasmic in the sense of lacking all intentional objects beyond itself; but presumably even this must be an open question. Either way, “timeless” bliss doesn’t have to feel static. Mastery of the neurochemistry of time perception may allow each here-and-now to have a vast temporal depth, a rich internal dynamics, and subjectively to last an eternity. But perhaps speculations about the far future of cosmic consciousness are best avoided.
It should be stressed that all such wild post-Darwinian scenarios are remote – and vastly more speculative than the abolition of suffering or radical motivational enrichment. Hitherto in history, fitness-enhancing gradients of discontent have been the motor of progress – intellectually, socially, aesthetically, morally, personally. Most of the discontent endemic to the living world has indeed been unproductive; but not all of it. So harnessing the information-bearing role of its functional analogues – i.e. dips or anticipated dips of subjective well-being that still feel wonderful, but not sublime – is a more practical stopgap than encoding constant bliss. After all, we’re barely on the eve of the reproductive revolution of designer babies, let alone an era of advanced paradise-engineering. In the near-to-medium term, recalibrating the genetic dial-settings that regulate hedonic tone is a less challenging bioengineering task than offloading everything to smart machines and replacing the old motivational and affective homeostatic control mechanisms of organic life completely. Gradient-surfing is also more ideologically realistic. Moreover even on the more conservative gradients-of-bliss scenario, any subjective “cost” of hedonically sub-optimal states i.e. information-signalling dips in well-being – is presumably acceptable to all but the most ardent utilitarian ideologues. Thus in future our hedonic baseline of mental health can still be richer than today’s peak experiences. Assuming that the information-signalling role of gradients in well-being is indeed retained, any functional decrements of bliss can still be small. Even if the gradients are exceedingly subtle, there is no risk of a “Buridan’s ass” scenario. [Buridan’s ass was a mythical mediaeval equine which starved to death from indecision after being presented with the option of two equally appetising stacks of hay]. It’s depressives who are prone to procrastinate; by contrast, happy people are typically decisive, extremely happy people more so. Indeed HI predicts that our immediate descendants at least will not be “passively”, uniformly happy but hypermotivated, albeit on a much higher plateau of well-being than our current neural architecture can support. Enriching the reward centres of contemporary organic life will tend to heighten both its sense of purpose and purposeful behaviour – though to what end we don’t know. Admittedly, this association of enhanced motivation with enhanced well-being may only be a contingent fact of our neural architecture – an accident of evolutionary history. The mesolimbic dopamine (“wanting”) and mu opioid (“liking”) neurotransmitter systems have co-evolved; their functional roles can in principle be disentangled. But again, a separation is scarcely imminent. (Post-)human agency still has a long future.
Depending on the strength of our bioconservative prejudice, gradients of adaptive well-being needn’t be heritable. In principle, designer drugs, neurochip implants, nanobots, or autosomal gene therapy could achieve the same result – even within the constraints of a contemporary genome. But if our existing motivational system is defective, then it would seem cruel not to cure the pathology rather than transmit it to future generations. We wouldn’t now consider it ethical deliberately to pass on genes for, say, a chronic pain syndrome on the grounds that our future pain-wracked offspring should be “free to choose” whether they wanted to be pain-free or not. Ethically, are our more pervasive syndromes of psychological malaise any different? Why shouldn’t mental superhealth be heritable too?
How about the very long-term future? Normative judgements aside, will motivation in the traditional sense endure as long as sentient life itself? Could a future informational economy of mind based on gradients of bliss culminate in some sort of timeless cosmic paradise? Early in the 21st century, at any rate, this sort of question is probably too difficult to answer.
4.34 “Why the headlong rush to paradise engineering? Why not wait until we have the wisdom to understand the implications of what we’re doing? Let’s get it right.”
We are faced with a “bootstrap” problem. Human beings may only ever be wise enough to understand the ramifications of what we’re doing after we have enhanced ourselves sufficiently to be able to do so. Perhaps La Rochefoucauld was wiser than he knew: “No man is clever enough to know all the evil he does.” Our species may take pains to avoid building a fools’ paradise or some sort of Brave New World. But when, and by what means, will we ever be intelligent enough to be sure of succeeding? When will we be wise enough to avoid making mistakes that we haven’t even conceived? As the reproductive, infotech and nanotech revolutions unfold, (post-)humans are bound to seek ways to make ourselves incrementally smarter. Does it really make sense to postpone a parallel emotional enrichment – assuming, naïvely, that emotional and cerebral intelligence could be so cleanly divorced? After all, narrowly-conceived intelligence-amplification carries risks of its own; greater wisdom may depend on emotional enrichment rather than being a prerequisite for it. For example, it transpires that genetically engineered “Doogie mice”, endowed with an extra copy of the NR2B subtype of NMDA receptor, have not merely superior memories, but a chronically enhanced sensitivity to pain. Imagine if, prior to clinical trials, ambitious prospective human parents had rashly arranged to insert multiple copies of the gene in their designer babies to give them a future competitive advantage in education. The outcome might be pain-ridden child prodigies. Vastly more subtle and complex pitfalls doubtless lie ahead that make any steps towards a post-human civilisation problematic, not just paradise-engineering. If the risk-reward ratio of a proposed intervention is unfavourable, then clearly a potentially life-enriching drug, gene therapy (etc) shouldn’t be rushed. But sometimes the risk-reward ratio is unclear. A more intractable problem is that some risks may be unknown, or inadequately quantified, or both.
So is the Objection essentially correct? Should we opt to conserve the genetic status quo of Darwinian life? Or at best defer the prospect of distinctively emotional enrichment to the presumed wisdom of our distant descendants?
Delay would be morally reckless for the following reason: ethically, even a non-negative utilitarian can agree that it’s critical to distinguish between the relief of present suffering and the refinement of future bliss – between the moral urgency of the abolitionist project and the moral luxury of a (hypothetical) full-blown paradise-engineering. The risk-reward ratio of proposed interventions will shift as life on Earth gets progressively better – both for an individual and for civilisation as a whole. We demand a far higher level of proven safety from an improved version of aspirin, for example, than from a potentially life-saving anti-AIDS drug. By parity of reasoning, the same yardstick should apply to their affective counterparts, the different forms of psychological distress. If, fancifully, we were already living in some kind of heaven-on-earth, or even just in a civilised, pain-free society, then it would indeed be foolish to put our well-being at risk by hazardous and premature enhancements designed to make life even better. Bioconservativism might be a wise policy. The Objection might then be tenable. Manifestly, we don’t dwell anywhere of the sort.
Compare the introduction of pain-free surgery. In the pre-anaesthetic era, a surgical operation could be tantamount to torture. Patients frequently died. Survivors were often psychologically as well as physically scarred for life. Then a wholly unexpected breakthrough occurred. Within a year of William Morton’s demonstration of general anaesthesia at Massachusetts General Hospital in 1846, ether and chloroform anaesthesia were being adopted in operating theatres across the world – in Europe, Asia and Australasia. Instead of embracing this utopian dream-come-true, would it have been wise to wait 30 years while conducting well-controlled trials to see if agents used as general anaesthetics caused delayed-onset brain damage, for instance? Ideally, yes. Should prospective studies have first been undertaken comparing the safety of ether versus chloroform? Again, yes – ideally. Rigorous longitudinal studies would have been more prudent. In the mid-19th Century, there were no professional anaesthesiologists, no balanced anaesthesia, no patient monitoring apparatus, muscle relaxants or endotracheal intubation. The mechanisms of anaesthesia in the central nervous system weren’t understood at all. Nor, initially, were the principles of antiseptic surgery: only the combination of anaesthesia plus antisepsis could ever make surgery comparatively safe. If the use of anaesthetics had led to delayed-onset long-term brain damage (etc), then the medical doubters might now be hailed as uncommonly prescient – instead of enduring the “enormous condescension of posterity”, relegated to a footnote in our incorrigibly Whiggish potted histories of medicine.
Despite these caveats, the world-wide introduction of general anaesthesia in surgery is, by common consent, one of the greatest triumphs of medical history. Why the precipitate haste of its adoption? In essence, anaesthetic use spread rapidly across the world because the horrors of extreme physical pain entailed by surgery without anaesthesia were judged by most (but not all) physicians and their patients to outweigh the potential risks – even though the risks weren’t properly known or adequately quantified. Surgeons, too, were able thereafter to attempt ambitious life-saving interventions that were effectively impossible before. By our lights, early anaesthesia was appallingly crude, just as narcotic analgesia remains to this day. But the moral urgency of getting rid of suffering – whether its guise is “physical” or “mental” or both – is obscure only to those not caught in its grip. This is why almost everyone will “break” under torture; and why, globally, hundreds of thousands of depressed people take their own lives each year: in fact “mental” pain effectively kills more people than its nominally physical counterpart. If one is looking for historical role-models, then perhaps Dr John Snow – “the man who made anaesthesia a science” – may serve as an exemplar. As the use of surgical anaesthesia spread like wildfire in the late 1840s, Snow didn’t advocate the “safe”, bioconservative option of abstinence or delay. That would have been callous. But unlike some of his more gung-ho medical colleagues, Snow was mindful of the potential risks of the seemingly miraculous discovery. His introduction of standardised dosing through efficient inhalers and careful patient monitoring saved many lives. Moral urgency is not a license for recklessness.
Like most analogies, this one is far from exact. Currently millions of sentient creatures, human and non-human, are indeed stricken by suffering no less grievous than patients in the pre-anaesthetic, pre-opioid analgesic era; and likewise, exciting but largely unproven technologies exist to remedy their plight. So to that extent, the historical parallel holds. But statistically, most people are not in the throes of extreme psychological distress. Thus if one is currently relatively satisfied with one’s life, and if one’s dependants are relatively satisfied too, then there are strong grounds for caution over experimenting with ill-tested interventions that promise to enhance one’s existing well-being. Thus the advent of a putative sustainable mood-enricher to reset one’s emotional thermostat, a novel intellect-sparing serenic to banish unwanted anxiety, an illuminating new psychedelic, a super-empathogen, a genius-pill (or whatever) might represent a tantalizing prospect. Yet they should presumably undergo rigorous prior testing before general public licensing – however dazzling the anticipated benefits. It might seem that delay is the only responsible option; there can be wisdom in inaction.
The pitfall to this “safety-first” approach lies in the extreme risk of moral complacency it breeds. Hundreds of millions of human beings, and billions of non-human animals, are not in such a fortunate position. On a universalist utilitarian ethic, or simply a Buddhist-style ethic of compassion, we should systematically apply the same level of urgency to relieving their suffering as one would be justified in exercising if one were oneself tormented by intense pain or suicidal despair. Extreme suffering is the plight of billions of sentient beings alive today, whether in our factory-farms, in a Darwinian state of nature, or a depressed neighbour. Desperate straits mandate taking risks one would otherwise shun.
On the face of it, if one aims to lead a cruelty-free lifestyle, one may disclaim personal complicity in such suffering. But this moral opt-out clause may be delusive. Simply by deciding to have genetically unenriched children, for instance, one perpetuates the biology of suffering by bringing more code for its substrates into world. A healthy caution toward untested novelties should not collapse into status quo bias.
Any plea, then, for institutionalized risk-assessment, beefed-up bioethics panels, academic review bodies, worse-case scenario planning, more intensive computer simulations, systematic long-term planning and the institutionalized study of existential risks is admirable. But so is urgent action to combat the global pandemic of suffering. “The easiest pain to bear is someone else’s”.
4.35 “HI claims that once the biological substrates of suffering have been abolished, it is ‘inconceivable’ that suffering will ever be recreated. But this isn’t so. According to the Simulation Argument, there is a significant likelihood that we ourselves are living in an ancestor-simulation run by our advanced descendants. If this is the case, then our simulated status entails that posthumans will not eradicate suffering. The Simulation Argument implies that our descendants will re-introduce suffering via their ancestor-simulations, or they never opted to abolish suffering in the first instance.”
The Simulation Argument (SA) is perhaps the first interesting argument for the existence of a Creator in 2000 years. It is worth noting that SA is distinct from the traditional sceptical challenge of how one can ever know that one’s senses aren’t being manipulated by an evil Cartesian demon, or be sure that one isn’t just a brain in a nefarious neurosurgeon’s vat, and so forth. SA is also distinct from the controversial but non-sceptical inferential realist theory of perception: inferential realists believe that each of us lives in egocentric simulations of the natural world run by a real organic computer i.e. the mind-brain. Instead, SA claims that given exponential growth in computing processing power and storage capacity, the entire universe as commonly understood could be a simulation run on an ultrapowerful computer built by our distant descendants. We may really be living in one of posterity’s versions of The Matrix. SA’s important subtlety – the subtlety that catapults SA from idle philosophical fancy to serious scientific metaphysics – is that if multiple ancestor-simulations are destined to be created whose inhabitants are subjectively indistinguishable from ourselves, then statistically it is much more likely that we are living with the great majority in one of these indistinguishable simulations rather than with the minority in pre-simulation Reality. Or rather, SA concludes that at least one of the following three propositions must be true: 1. Almost all civilisation at our level of development become extinct before becoming technologically mature; 2. The fraction of technologically mature civilizations that are interested in creating ancestor-simulations is almost zero; 3. You are almost certainly living in a computer simulation. Actually, SA’s proposed trilemma may shortly be simplified. The first of SA’s three disjuncts, the extinction scenario, can be effectively excluded within a century or two – an exclusion that ostensibly increases the likelihood one is living in a cosmic mega-simulation. For humans are poised to colonise worlds beyond the home planet, thereby rendering global thermonuclear war, giant asteroid impacts, a nanotech “grey goo” incident, superlethal viral pandemics and other Earth-ravaging catastrophes impotent to extinguish intelligent life itself. Even on the most apocalyptic end-of-the-world prophecies, intelligent life will presumably survive in at least low-density branches of the universal wave function. In the far future, superintelligent posthumans may at some stage mass-produce ancestor-simulations. If so, these computer simulations of ancestral life may include billions of human primates whose inner lives, the simulation hypothesis suggests, may be subjectively indistinguishable from our own.
What should we make of this? First, a familiar sociological point. The dominant technology of an age typically supplies its root-metaphor of mind – and often its root-metaphor of Life, The Universe and Everything. Currently our dominant technology is the digital computer. We may have finally struck lucky. Yet what digital computers have to tell us about the ultimate mysteries of consciousness and existence remains elusive. At any rate, no attempt will be made here exhaustively to discuss SA except insofar as its conclusion impacts on the abolition of suffering. But it’s first worth raising a few doubts about the technical feasibility of any kind of simulation hypothesis. These doubts will then be set aside to consider the likelihood that a notional superintelligence that did have the computing technology to run full-blown ancestor-simulations would ever choose to do so.
One problem with SA is that it rests on a philosophical premise for which there is no evidence, namely the substrate-independence of qualia – the introspectively accessible “raw feels” of our mental lives. This premise is probably best rephrased as the substrate-neutrality or substrate-invariance of qualia: SA functionalism doesn’t claim that the colours, sounds, smells, emotions, etc, of subjective first-person consciousness can be free-floating, merely that any substrate that can “implement” the computations performed by our neural networks will conserve the textures of human experience. The substrate-neutrality assumption is intended to rule out a [seemingly] arbitrary “carbon chauvinism”: take care of the computations, so to speak, and the qualia will take care of themselves. SA aims to quantify the likelihood of our living in an ancestor-simulation with a principle of indifference: the probability that we are living in a simulated universe rather than primordial Reality is equal to the fraction of all people that are actually simulated people. Critically for the argument, SA assumes the subjective indistinguishability of “real” from hypothetical post-biological “simulated” experiences. SA proposes that the power of posthuman supercomputers may allow vastly more simulated copies of people to exist than ever walked the Earth in the ancestral population. This is because once a single “master program” is written, copying its ancestor-files is trivially easy if storage space is available. Hence SA’s claim that if posthumans ever run ancestor-simulations, then we are almost certainly in one of them. But here is the rub. The prior probability to be assigned to our living in a simulated universe depends on the probability one assigns to the existence of superadvanced civilisations that are both able and willing to create multitudes of sentience-supporting ancestor-simulations. And there is simply no evidence that such computationally simulated virtual “people”, if they ever exist, will be endowed with phenomenal consciousness – any more than computationally simulated hurricanes feel wet. SA postulates that consciousness will supervene or “result” from supercomputer programs emulating organic mind/brains with the right causal-functional organization at some suitably fine-grained level of detail. The physical substrates of the putative supercomputer used to simulate sentient creatures like us will supposedly influence our kinds of consciousness only via their influence on computational activities. But it’s worth noting that silicon etc robots/computers can already emulate and exceed human performance in many domain-specific fields of expertise without any hint of consciousness. It’s unclear how or why generalising or extending this performance-gap will switch on inorganic sentience – short of the physical “bionization” of our robots/computers via organic implants. Without qualia, we ourselves would just be brainy zombies; yet qualia are neither necessary nor sufficient for the manifestation of behavioural intelligence. Thus some very stupid organic creatures suffer horribly. Some very smart silicon systems and digital sims aren’t sentient; they can defeat the human world-champion at chess. We’re clearly missing something: but where are we going wrong?
For SA to work in the absence of a scientific explanation of consciousness, some kind of cross-substrate qualia conservation postulate must be assumed on faith. Yet if phenomenal consciousness is really feasible in other substrates or virtual machines, does this synthetic consciousness have the same generic texture as ours – or might not synthetic consciousness be as different as is waking from dreaming (or LSD-like) consciousness? Assuming conscious minds can be “implemented”, “uploaded” or “emulated” in other substrates, what grounds are there for supposing that the uploads/simulated minds retain all, or any, particular qualia at every virtual level – assuming their specific textures are as computationally incidental to the mind as are the specific compositions of the pieces in a game of chess? Granted biological minds can be scanned, digitized and uploaded to/simulated in another medium, will the hypothetical sentience generated be sub-atomic, nano-, micro-, (or pan-galactic?) in scale? Can abstract virtual machines really generate spatio-temporally located modes of consciousness? Are multiple layers of qualia supposed to be generated by virtual beings in a nested hierarchy of simulations? Are the stacked qualia supposed to be epiphenomenal i.e. without causal effect; if so, what causes subjects like us to refer to their existence? By what mechanism? If ancestor-simulations are being run, then what grounds exist for assuming the conservation of type-identical qualia across multiple layers of abstraction? Are these layers of computational abstraction supposed to be strict or, more realistically, “leaky”? SA undercuts the [ontological] unity of science by treating Reality as though it literally has levels. Yet there is no evidence that virtual machines could have the causal power to generate real qualia; and the existence of “virtual” qualia would be a contradiction-in-terms.
None of the above considerations entail that phenomenal consciousness or unitary conscious minds are substrate-specific. Perhaps the problem is that there are microfunctional differences between organic and silicon etc computers/robots – microfunctional differences that our putative Simulators might emulate on their supercomputers with software that captures the fine-grained functionality which coarser-gained simulations omit. After all, it’s question-begging to describe carbon merely as a “substrate”. The carbon atom has functionally unique valence properties and a unique chemistry. The only primordial information-bearing self-replicators in the natural world are organic precisely in virtue of carbon’s functional uniqueness. Perhaps the functional uniqueness of organic macromolecules extends to biological sentience. These microfunctional differences may be computationally irrelevant or inessential to a game of chess; but not in other realms. Suppose, for example, that the binding problem [i.e. how the unity of conscious perception is generated by the distributed activities of the brain] and the unitary experiential manifolds of waking/dreaming experience can be explained only by invoking quantum-coherent states in organic mind-brains. Admittedly, this hypothesis resolves the Hard Problem of consciousness only if one grants a monistic idealism/panpsychism that most scientists would find too high a price to swallow. But on this account, the fundamental difference between conscious biological minds and silicon etc computers is that conscious minds are quantum-coherent entities, whereas silicon etc computers (and brains in a dreamless sleep, etc) are effectively mere classical aggregates of microqualia. Counterintuitively, a naturalistic panpsychism actually entails that silicon etc robots are zombies.
A proponent of the simulation hypothesis might respond: So what? A functionally unique organic neurochemistry needn’t pose an insurmountable problem for a Simulator. After all, there is no reason to suppose that a classical computer can’t formally calculate anything computable on a quantum computer, since (complications aside) a quantum computer is computationally equivalent to a Turing machine, albeit hugely faster. So if silicon etc supercomputers could simulate biological mind-brains with their putative quantum-coherence as well, then qualia might still “emerge” at this layer of abstraction. The technicalities of SA’s original, classical formulation aren’t essential to the validity of its argument. SA still works if it’s recast and the organic mind/brain is a quantum computer. The snag is that this defence of SA conflates the simulation of extrinsic and intrinsic properties: formal input-output relationships and the felt textures of experience. Computational activity that takes milliseconds will not feel the same as computational activity that takes millennia – quite aside from any substrate-specific differences in texture or absence thereof. If quantum coherence is the signature of conscious mind, then conscious biological minds are implicated in the fundamental hardware of the universe itself – the computationally expensive, program-resistant stuff of the world. As David Deutsch has stressed, the computations of a quantum computer must be done somewhere. If our minds by their very nature tap into the quantum substrate of basement reality, then this dependence undercuts the grounds for believing that we are statistically likely to inhabit an ancestor-simulation – though it doesn’t exclude traditional brain-in-a-vat style scepticism.
Of course, none of the above reasoning is decisive. We simply don’t understand consciousness. Many scientists and philosophers would dispute that quantum theory is even relevant to the problem. Or perhaps we are simulated quantum mind/brains running on a post-silicon quantum supercomputer. Or perhaps the laws of quantum mechanics itself are an artefact of our simulation in some kind of posthuman “computronium”. Who knows. Here we are veering into more radical forms of scepticism. But if insentient simulations of humans (etc) are feasible, then one may reasonably doubt all three disjuncts of SA. Maybe neither the premises nor the conclusions of SA are true. Intelligent life is not headed for extinction. Some of our descendants may conceivably run multiple ancestor-simulations in low-density branches of the universal wave function. It is exceedingly unlikely that we are participants in one of them.
However, let’s set aside technical doubts about computationally simulated sentience. Assume that posthumans have solved the Hard Problem of consciousness. The explanatory gap has been closed without unravelling our entire conceptual scheme in the process. Or perhaps qualia can themselves be digitally encoded and computationally re-created at will. Assume too that some analogue of Moore’s Law of computer power is not just a temporary empirical generalisation: computer power continues to increase indefinitely until superintelligence has to grapple with the Bekenstein bound – unless this limit on the entropy or information that can be contained within a three-dimensional volume is itself supposed to disclose the granularity of our simulation. Assume further that a supercivilisation reaches a stage of development where it has the technical capacity to run an abundance of ancestor-simulations and simulate [a fragment of] the multiverse disclosed by contemporary physical science – though computationally simulating the infinite-dimensional Hilbert space of quantum-mechanics is no task for the faint-hearted. Finally, if the ancestor-simulations running are supposed to be cheap simulacra rather than faithful replications, let’s assume like SA that the computational savings in taking “reality-shortcuts” outweigh the computational cost of the supervisory software – although in practice the computational price of intervening when ancestor-simulants get too close to discovering their ersatz status could make skimping on our Matrix a false computational economy. Granted all the above, then consider the scenario proposed in SA. Of all the immense range of alternative activities that future Superbeings might undertake – most presumably inconceivable to us – running ancestor-simulations is one theoretical possibility in a vast state-space of options. On the one hand, posthumans could opt to run paradises for the artificial lifeforms they evolve or create. Presumably they can engineer such heavenly magic for themselves. But for SA purposes, we must imagine that (some of) our successors elect to run malware: to program and replay all the errors, horrors and follies of their distant evolutionary past – possibly in all its classically inequivalent histories, assuming universal QM and maximally faithful ancestor-simulations: there is no unique classical ancestral history in QM. But why would posthumans decide to do this? Are our Simulators supposed to be ignorant of the implications of what they are doing – like dysfunctional children who can’t look after their pets? Even the superficial plausibility of “running an ancestor-simulation” depends on the description under which the choice is posed. This plausibility evaporates when the option is rephrased. Compare the referentially equivalent question: are our posthuman descendants likely to recreate/emulate Auschwitz? AIDS? Ageing? Torture? Slavery? Child-abuse? Rape? Witch-burning? Genocide? Today a sociopath who announced he planned to stage a terrorist attack in the guise of “running an ancestor-simulation” would be locked up, not given a research grant. SA invites us to consider the possibility that the Holocaust and daily small-scale horrors will be recreated in future, at least on our local chronology – a grotesque echo of Nietzschean “eternal recurrence” in digital guise. Worse, since such simulations are so computationally cheap, even the most bestial acts may be re-enacted an untold multitude of times by premeditated posthuman design. It is this hypothetical abundance of computational copies that lends SA’s proposal that one may be living in a simulation its argumentative bite. At least the traditional Judeo-Christian Deity was supposed to be benevolent, albeit in defiance of the empirical evidence and discrepancies in the Biblical text. But any Creator/Simulator who opts to run prerecorded ancestor-simulations presumably knows of the deceit practised on the sentient beings it simulates. If the Simulators have indeed deceived us on this score, then what can we be expected to know of unsimulated Reality that transcends our simulation? What trans-simulation linguistic apparatus of meaning and reference can we devise to speak of what our Deceiver(s) are purportedly up to? Intuitively, one might suppose posthumans may be running copies of us because they find ancestral Darwinian life interesting in some way. After all, we experiment on “inferior” non-human animals and untermenschen with whom we share a common ancestry. Might not intellectual curiosity entitle superintelligent beings to treat us in like manner? Or perhaps observing our antics somehow amuses our Simulators – if the homely dramaturgical metaphor really makes any sense. Or perhaps they just enjoy running snuff movies. Yet this whole approach seems misconceived. It treats posthumans as though they were akin to classical Greek gods – just larger-than-life versions of ourselves. Even if advanced beings were to behave in such a manner, would they really choose to create simulated beings that suffered – as distinct from formally simulating their ancestral behaviour in the way we computationally simulate the weather?
Unfortunately, this line of thought is long on rhetorical questions and short on definitive proof. A counterargument might be that most humans strongly value life, despite the world’s tragedies and its everyday woes. So wouldn’t a “like-minded” Superbeing be justified in computationally replaying as many sentient ancestral lives as possible, including Darwinian worlds like our own? Even Darwinian life is sometimes fun, even beautiful. Might not our Simulators regard the episodic nastiness of such worlds as a price worth paying for their blessings – a judgement shared by most non-depressive humans here on Earth. Yet this scenario is problematic even on its own terms. Unless the computing resources accessible to our Simulators were literally infinite, a claim of dubious physical meaning, every simulation has an opportunity-cost in terms of simulated worlds forgone. If one were going to set about creating sentient-life-supporting worlds in a supercomputer, then why not program and run the greatest number of maximally valuable paradises – rather than mediocre or malignant worlds like ours? Presumably posthumans will have mastered the technologies of building super-paradises for themselves, whether physically or via immersive VR. They’ll presumably appreciate how sublimely wonderful life can be at its best. So why recreate the ugliness from which they emerged – a perverse descent from posthuman Heaven into Darwinian purgatory? Our own conviction that existing life is worthwhile is itself less a product of disinterested reflection than a (partially) heritable expression of status quo bias. If prompted, we don’t believe the world’s worst scourges, past or present, should be proliferated if the technical opportunity ever arises. Thus we aim to cure and/or care for the brain-damaged, the mentally ill and victims of genetic diseases; but we don’t set out to create more brain-damaged, mentally ill and terminally sick children. Even moral primitives like contemporary Darwinian humans would find abhorrent the notion of resurrecting the nastier cruelties of the past. One wouldn’t choose to recreate one’s last toothache, let alone replay the world’s sufferings to date. How likely are posthumans ever to be more backward-looking, in some sense, than us?
Of course, predictions of “progress” in anything but the most amoral, technocratic sense can sound naïve. Extrapolating an exponential growth in computing power, weapons technology or the like sounds reasonable. Extrapolating an expanding circle of compassion to embrace all sentient life sounds fuzzy-minded and utopian. Certainly, given the historical record, envisaging dystopian possibilities is a great deal more plausible than a transition to paradise-engineering. However, a reflex cynicism is itself one of the pathologies of the Darwinian mind. As our descendants rewrite their own code and become progressively smarter, their conception of intelligence will be enriched too. Not least, enriched intelligence will presumably include an enhanced capacity for empathy: a deeper understanding of what it is like to be others – beyond the self-centred perspective of Darwinian minds evolved under pressure of natural selection. An enhanced capacity for empathetic understanding doesn’t feature in conventional measures of intelligence. Yet this deficit reflects the inadequacy of our Aspergersish “IQ tests”, not the cognitive unimportance of smarter mind-reading and posthuman supersentience. Failure to appreciate the experience of others, whether human or nonhuman, is not just a moral limitation: it is a profound intellectual limitation too; and collective transcendence of humanity’s intellectual limitations is an indispensable part of becoming posthuman. If our descendants have any inkling of what it is like to be, say, burned alive as a witch, or to spend all one’s life in a veal crate, or simply to be a mouse tormented by a cat, etc, then it seems inconceivable they would set out to (re-)create such terrible states in computer “simulations”, ancestral or otherwise. Achieving a God’s-eye view that impartially encompasses all sentience may be impossible, even for our most godlike descendants. But posthuman cognitive capacities will presumably transcend the anthropocentric biases of human life. HI argues that posthuman benevolence will extend to the well-being of all sentience; this is technically feasible but speculative.
However, there is a counter to such reassuring arguments. It runs roughly as follows. We can have no insight into the nature of a hypothetical posthuman civilisation that might be capable of running subjectively realistic ancestor-simulations in their supercomputers. Therefore we have no insight into the motivational structure of our Simulators and why they might do this to us. Or perhaps we are merely incidental to their simulation(s) – which exist for a Higher Purpose that we lack the concepts even to express. For instance, perhaps advanced posthumans can command the Planck-scale energies needed hypothetically to create a “universe-in-the-laboratory”. For inscrutable reasons, such posthumans might decide to spin off a plethora of baby multiverses, making it statistically more likely that we are living in one of them rather than in the primordial multiverse. If so, we are emulating/simulating our ancestors in another multiverse that spawned us; and we are destined in turn to emulate/simulate our descendants in baby multiverses to come. This scenario contrasts with messy “interventionist” or conspiratorial simulations where posthuman supercomputers are supposed to be constantly rearranging stuff in our simulated world to keep us in ignorance of our artificial status. The point here is that we can’t rule out any of such scenarios because we know absolutely nothing of posthuman ethics – or posthuman values of any kind. Posthuman psychology may simply be unfathomable to Homo sapiens, as are our purposes to lesser primates – or to beetles. Or maybe an explanation of our simulated status may be inaccessible to us simply in virtue of our being the ancestor-simulations of real historical people. Our ignorance could be written into the script.
We can’t be sure this argument is false. There is nonetheless a problem with the unfathomability response. The prospect of using supercomputers to run ancestor-simulations belongs to the conceptual framework of early 21st Century human primates. The idea resonates with at least a small sub-set of social primates because running ancestor-simulations seems – pre-reflectively, at any rate – the kind of interesting activity that more advanced versions of ourselves might like to pursue. Yet if we have no insight into truly posthuman motivations or purposes, or indeed whether such anthropomorphic folk-psychological terms can bear posthuman meaning, then it’s hard to assign any significant probability to our successors opting to run sentient ancestor-simulations. In fact given the immense state-space of potential options, and the intrinsic squalor of so much Darwinian life, then the prior probability we should assign to their doing so might seem vanishingly small – even if the technological obstacles could be overcome.
Contrary to the Objection, then, the existence of a world full of suffering is not evidence that our advanced descendants will never abolish its substrates. The existence of suffering is strong presumptive evidence that our descendants will never run sentience-supporting ancestor-simulations.