L’impératif hédoniste – Chapitre 1
« God’s in His Heaven – All’s right with the world! »
1.0 Sabotage at the Mill.
To escape from the hedonic treadmill we must first sabotage a small but vicious set of negative feedback mechanisms. These are genetically coded into the mind/brain. Recreational drugs of abuse do not transcend or subvert such mechanisms. On the contrary, they actually bring them into play with a vengeance. Today’s quick-and-dirty euphoriants are nonetheless instructive. They give us a tantalising glimpse of what humanity’s natural state of consciousness could become if several ugly neural metabolic pathways were inhibited or eliminated.
A better clue to organic life’s emotional future dates from the early 1950s. The unlikely guinea-pigs were veterans at a U.S. tuberculosis sanatorium. Residents prescribed the MAO-inhibiting drug iproniazid were not merely cured of their tuberculosis. After a few weeks of treatment, many of them started to feel exceptionally happy. Doctors described their patients, rather over-colourfully perhaps, as « dancing in the aisles ». For the most part, the veterans had not previously been clinically depressed, as distinct from rather crotchety. Nor was their new-found euphoria simply an understandable reaction to restored good health. Moreover, in contrast to most recreational drugs, tolerance to the MAO-inhibitor’s mood-brightening side-effect, and the consequent danger of uncontrolled dose-escalation, didn’t set in. Instead, it transpires that MAO-inhibitors as a class can induce a benign, long-term re-regulation of several families of nerve-cell receptor proteins involved in making us happy or sad. Quite by accident, modern medicine had stumbled on the sustainably mood-lifting properties of a remarkable and diverse category of drugs, the monoamine oxidase inhibitors.
Monoamine oxidase has two main types, uninformatively labelled A and B. MAO is an enzyme responsible for the deamination of monoamine neurotransmitters such as dopamine, noradrenaline and serotonin. It also deaminates trace amines such as phenylethylamine, found in chocolate and released when one is in love. MAO isoenzyme-A deaminates serotonin, norepinephrine and, to a lesser extent, dopamine. Isoenzyme-B breaks down dopamine and phenylethylamine. The action of monoamine neurotransmitters on the post-synaptic receptors, and the post-transduction intracellular cascade they induce, plays a vital role in mediating mood and emotion. Depletion of monoamines in the synaptic vesicles e.g. by the anti-hypertensive drug reserpine, can sometimes precipitate severe and even life-threatening depression. Elevated levels of dopamine, on the other hand, are associated with (hypo-)manic euphoria.
By modulating the synaptic availability, and consequent receptor re-regulation, of simple neurotransmitters on a long-term basis, the MAO-inhibitors were to serve as the first of a disparate group of drugs uninvitingly categorised as « antidepressants ». Some of today’s mediocre crop of licensed products, such as the tricyclics, are in general unrewarding to people who aren’t rated clinically depressed. They tend to be sedating. Their action dulls, however mildly, the intellect and sensibility. Most traditional therapeutic agents – at least until the development of (relatively) selective serotonin re-uptake blockers such as fluoxetine (Prozac) and noradrenaline reuptake blockers such as reboxetine – are « dirty » and unselective drugs. They have lots of troublesome side-effects. They frequently flatten rather than deepen the emotions. Several brands, such as the older, unselective and irreversible MAO-inhibitors, are potentially dangerous if taken in the absence of rigorous dietary restrictions. All of them, thanks to the puritanical ethos of the medical establishment, have been tested and brought to market with the deliberate additional aim of not inducing a euphoric sense of well-being (« abuse-potential ») in the user. Most contemporary « antidepressants » only modestly outperform a placebo in well-controlled clinical trials.
It is the twenty first century’s successors to these unpromising-sounding drugs, however, and not today’s fast-acting recreational euphoriants, that promise to deliver the world’s supposedly « euthymic » population from the sick psycho-chemical ghetto bequeathed by our genetic past. Potent, long-acting mood-brighteners – but not clinical « psychic anaesthetisers » or « quick-hit » street-drugs – will serve as a life-enriching stop-gap until radical gene-therapies enable us to knock out the Darwinian pathologies of consciousness altogether. Time-delayed designer euphoriants will foreshadow an extended product-line of innovative treatments for all kinds of malaise. Collectively, such interventions will cure what post-human posterity will recognise as a gene-driven spectrum of psychiatric disorders characteristic of Darwinian life. A lot of the time at present, we just don’t – and can’t – conceptualise the full extent of how unwell we are. For there are powerful arguments to suggest that everyday consciousness, insofar as it is not transcendentally wonderful, is symptomatic of profound psychological ill-health.
This possibility is not widely acknowledged in public today. Mental illness still carries a stigma. « Of-course-I’m-all-right. There’s nothing wrong with me! », one may sometimes snappishly be told. To be depressive is to be fitness-impaired, low-status, a poor choice of mate, and generally uncool. So there are self-protective defence- and denial-mechanisms, as well as a plain failure of the imagination, at work.
Defensiveness and denial won’t be needed for ever. A few generations hence, the intoxicating joy of normal post-Darwinian life will be genetically pre-programmed. A reproductive revolution of « designer babies » will hardwire happiness from the womb. Psychoactive drugs may become redundant, or rather tools for consciousness research and life-enrichment rather than self-medication. For pure well-being can potentially become a deep and natural presupposition of everyday life. Undiluted existential happiness will infuse every second of waking and dreaming existence; and pervade every aspect of one’s body and psyche. Sadly, the sort of germ-line gene-therapy needed to achieve gradients of lifelong, high-functioning euphoria for everyone who thinks they can handle it is still some way off. In the transitional era before global paradise-engineering unfolds, chemical mood-uplifters will be essential too.
1.1 The Biological Program.
Grand meta-narratives currently aren’t very fashionable. History can indeed seem like one damn thing after another. The nearest we get these days to some kind of plot or story about where life on earth is heading usually adds up to some simple-minded technological determinism. Nevertheless, a sketch of one possible route by which all sources of negative value will be purged from the world is set out below. Other biological strategies for Cosmic Value-Maximisation – or simply making everyone a great deal happier – are in prospect too. Details and variations matter. Every family of options for naturalising heaven-on-earth needs to be exhaustively researched – and not just idly philosophised about. Yet it is vital to distinguish the overall goal of abolishing suffering from our first faltering blueprints of how the abolitionist project should be implemented. The technical shortcomings of anything proposed here should not be allowed to taint the overall strategy of the abolitionist project itself.
This particular biological program, at least, is inspired by an almost desperate sense of moral urgency, not gung-ho technophilia. It’s not « hedonistic » in the popular sense of term. For it’s worth pausing and trying to practise, quite literally, a few minutes of systematic empathy. Atrocious, agonising things are happening to people like you, me and our loved ones right now. The full horror of some sorts of suffering is literally unspeakable and unimaginably dreadful. Under a Darwinian regime of « natural » reproduction, truly horrible experiences – as well as endemic low-grade malaise – are both commonplace and inevitable. In Chapter Two, the moral case will be argued that this nastiness should be stopped. Since ‘ought’ implies ‘can’, however, it must first be established that scrapping unpleasant experience really is a biologically feasible option. It will be argued that the lesson of intracranial self-stimulation studies – despite their lamentable contemporary image – is yes. It is harder to establish that life-long, intellectually discerning bliss is feasible, either via rationally designed drugs or gene therapy or both. But from an information-theoretic perspective, what counts is not our absolute location on the pleasure-pain axis, but that we are « informationally sensitive » to fitness-relevant changes in our internal and external environment. Gradients of bliss can suffice both to motivate us and offer a rich network of feedback mechanisms; so alas today do gradients of Darwinian discontent.
The blueprint set out below outlines only a cartoonish prototype of a mature post-Darwinian paradise. Its sketch of likely future neuro-scientific breakthroughs may well be wrong both in its few specifics and its projected time-scales. Experts in the relevant specialist fields will doubtless wince, at least in places. For The Hedonistic Imperative consists in a hand-waving, cross-disciplinary romp through dauntingly complex specialist topics. Inevitably, some of the pop neuroscience is simplistic to the point of parody. Eyebrows should be raised, too, at the dogmatic brevity with which various philosophical problems deserving book-length treatment are dispatched in a single sentence. The multitude of practical, medico-legal and socio-political problems which fulfilling our neurochemical Manifest Destiny will entail are largely passed over as well.
These caveats are important. Yet leaving them aside, the biological program may be divided, somewhat arbitrarily, into three stages. They are here ranked in order of difficulty. Luckily, the stages happen to coincide in relative ethical importance, since crude harm-reduction, cruelty-prevention and pain-abolition are easier to accomplish than refining the architectural subtleties of paradise. Less happily, any biochemical description of the mechanics of the sublime just travesties the nature of the experience itself. The sub-academese prose below unavoidably debases what it aims to evoke. This is because of the contaminated associations of any terms associated with drug-abuse, genetic engineering, eugenics, or even the emotionally frigid atmosphere of the laboratory. Our present perspective on utopian biopsychiatry is jaundiced. For our education system virtually ignores the neurobiological foundations of all emotional life. Happily, that system also provides the formal tools for us to describe and escape from our predicament.
What is really needed, above and beyond mere chemical formulae, is a new network of concepts – a user’s guide to map out the magically alien realms of consciousness ahead of us. Yet by the time such tools can be developed as new state-spaces of experience are accessed, the revolutionary conceptual scheme they embody will be less urgently needed. One day, we may have thoughts like sunsets! Their brilliance will replace the elusive and phenomenologically thin series of sad little cognitive tickles which we (apparently) shuffle around and via which this manifesto is written and read. In the meantime, the impersonal vocabulary of chemistry and molecular biology is all we can rely on for communicating how to get things done. An earthly paradise can be achieved only by the profane application of science. World-wide mental superhealth won’t be achieved via the edifying discourses of religion or magic.
1.2 Pumping Up The Volume.
One crude but effective ingredient of the initial stage of the biological program will involve modifying the meso(cortico-)limbic dopamine system. Controversially, and oversimplifying a little since dopamine is not itself a magic « pleasure molecule », the mesolimbic reward pathways play an intimate role in the final common pathway for pleasure in the brain. Neuronal dopamine-release may be elicited « naturally » via biochemical transduction-mechanisms. It is usually triggered by adaptive environmental stimuli. On the other hand, dopamine-release may also be induced more directly via the use of recreational drugs. The « rush » of crack cocaine, for instance, falsely signals a huge Darwinian fitness benefit. Either way, although the central nervous system has tens of billions of cells, its mesolimbic wellspring of pleasure, motivation and libido has only some 30-40 thousand neurons; and clearly this isn’t nearly enough.
The axons and dendrites of mesolimbic dopaminergic neurons innervate the higher cortical regions of the brain. They thereby help mediate the genetically adaptive « encephalisation of emotion ». This neat little trick has served our DNA, but frequently not us, fiendishly well. Emotional encephalisation convinces its victims that happiness is inseparable from presence or absence of variously innervated types of intentional object. We are happy or sad ‘about’ things. Entirely non-coincidentally, the realisation of our most emotionally charged types of intentional object tends to promote the inclusive fitness of our genes. Crudely, we like most what’s good for them.
Unfortunately, they don’t care about us. Our genes don’t look after their vehicles for very long. In adult life, dopaminergic neurons die off at a rate of over 10% per decade. Their death ensures that senescence is marked by a decline in drive, libido, pleasure and the intensity of experience itself. Even in one’s youth, the fullest and most beautiful scope for expression of the dopaminergic pleasure-cells is continually frustrated by inhibitory feedback. This derives both from the cells’ own pre-synaptic autoreceptors and the processes of other, often less benign, neurons that synapse upon them.
Thus what must be included in any program of systematic life-enrichment is a strategy of at once multiplying the numbers of, and selectively reducing feedback inhibition on, mesolimbic dopamine cells. Targeting the medium spiny neurons of the rostral shell of the nucleus accumbens is critical. Achieving a modest initial hundredfold, say, enrichment of an organism’s capacity for well-being is not, needless to add, simply a matter of genetically switching on an uncontrolled proliferation of dopaminergic neurons; though it has to be said that, as causes of death go, a tumour of the pleasure cells has a certain whimsical appeal. Nor, of course, does a regimen of sustained pleasure-amplification simply entail enhancing the levels of dopamine in the synapses. Excessive post-synaptic stimulation of particular dopamine receptor sub-types is implicated in, for instance, the florid symptoms of schizophrenia. Dopamine overdrive also marks the psychotic excesses of that ultimate egoist, the crack addict. So crude monotherapy surely won’t do the job alone.
1.3 The Civilising Neurotransmitter.
There is a more promising twin-track approach. This consists of boosting sub-types of both dopaminergic and serotonergic function.
Serotonin has been described as the « civilising neurotransmitter ». Such a label is a useful piece of mental shorthand. It’s still worth noting that even this simple monoamine has fifteen or more functionally distinct receptor sub-types. Serotonergic dysfunction is associated with irritability, explosive anger, violence, sociopathy, and suicide. Conversely, the extraordinarily deep sense of love, trust and empathy inspired by « the penicillin of the soul », MDMA, is due primarily to the massive release of serotonin which its use provokes. It causes only a modest release of dopamine. Both dopamine- and serotonin-release are needed for the inhibitory effects of MDMA on glutamate-evoked neuronal excitability in the nucleus accumbens to take its full magical effect. In any event, the result of casually popping a pill can be a life-defining revelation. The trouble today is that the magic doesn’t last.
There’s no good reason why it shouldn’t. In the new reproductive era of « designer babies » ahead, neurobehavioural systems that evolved to maximise Darwinian fitness of hominids on the African savannah can be redesigned to maximise personal well-being. A new kind of selection pressure comes into play when allelic combinations are deliberately chosen for a new child by its prospective parents in anticipation of their likely effects. Until invincible well-being can be genetically preprogrammed, however, it would be eminently sensible to develop a delayed-action, non-neurotoxic drug or cocktail-mix of sustainable mood-brighteners. This sort of designer elixir could make us all very happy and revolutionise our archaic conception of mental health. Day-to-day life in drug-assisted Eden can blend, if we so choose, the most exalted, life-loving euphoria of a potent dopamine or mu opioid agonist with the serene and mystical love of an ’empathogen’ or ‘entactogen’ such as MDMA (« ecstasy »). States of incisive, goal-directed thought can co-exist with a profound love for our fellow beings. If we want, we can make such states biologically natural; and eventually innate. There are unimaginably good times ahead.
As hedonic engineering develops into a mature biomedical discipline, the generic modes of paradise we opt for can be genetically pre-coded. Native-born ecstatics will flourish. All the wonderful models of mental superhealth discussed in this section of HI may come to be viewed as simple-minded prototypes. The innovative, high-specification bio-heavens beyond will be far richer. We lack the semantic competence to talk about them sensibly. Yet however inelegantly our goal may be accomplished at first, the ultimate strategic objective should be the neurochemical precision-engineering of happiness for every sentient organism on the planet.
Sounds flaky? Yes, but then so, originally, has almost every radical reform movement in history (including, of course, the genuinely flaky ones.)
1.4 The Cardinal Importance of Delayed Gratification.
Eventually, well-being will be part of our very nature. A robust network of homeostatic mechanisms will ensure all hereditary ecstatics have gene-coded hedonic set-points way beyond today’s puny maxima. In the Transitional Era, however, the widespread use of mind-healing drugs will in practice be unavoidable. Gene-therapy is still in its infancy; and germ-line clinical trials are time-consuming in humans. So crucially, the medically and socially responsible emphasis of the pharmacological arm of the biological transition strategy must be on the (relatively) long-term structural and functional effects in nervous tissue which a delayed-reward euphoriant-mix will induce in the individual mind/brain. Fast-acting recreational highs are a snare and a delusion. We must master – and educate our children in – the pharmacological equivalent of the principle of deferred gratification.
The delay in therapeutic benefit stemming from gene-triggered receptor re-regulation can actually be very useful. Not merely is the development of tolerance diminished. Uncontrolled and potentially noxious bingeing on a psychoactive drug occurs when there is minimal delay between ingestion and reward. By contrast, the anticipated gene-switched, up- or down-regulation of the pre- and post-synaptic neuronal receptors in a regimen of sustainable mood-enhancement will generally take up to several weeks to complete. Fortunately, enhancing serotonin function tends to increase patience and impulse-control as well as mood.
Perhaps a comparison with tobacco-smoking can be of use here. In its present setting, nicotine is so addictive, not because of the quite minimal « high » it induces, but because of the sheer speed of onset of its intrinsically mild hit due to the customary delivery mechanism. The « reward » comes about seven seconds after inhalation. If the whole-body orgasmic rush of even crack-cocaine were delayed for ten days or so after its consumption, then the drug would be far less of a social and medical problem than it is at present. Tragically, most of its current users seem unacquainted with, or have long since forgotten, the concept of delayed reward. They might now be unwilling to wait nearly so long.
1.5 The Molecular Genetics Of Paradise.
Strategic, species-wide pharmacotherapy of the kind advocated above can be complemented, and synergistically allied, with genetic engineering as it matures from mere genetic tinkering. Gene therapy will be targeted both on somatic cells and, with even greater forethought, the germ-line. If cunningly applied, a combination of the cellular enlargement of the meso-limbic dopamine system, selectively enhanced metabolic function of key intra-cellular sub-types of opioidergic and serotonergic pathway, and the disablement of several countervailing inhibitory feedback processes will put in place the biomolecular architecture for a major transition in human evolution – and life itself.
The re-engineering of bits of psycho-neural circuitry sketched above may, it is true, seem somewhat ambitious. Perhaps it sounds impossibly futuristic. Comparatively, however, these techniques amount to a primitively inept form of piecemeal tinkering compared to the revolutionary redesign of the mind/brain likely to be undertaken in millennia to come.
For it won’t just be the quality and quantity of consciousness in the world which will be transformed in the early stages of the post-Darwinian Transition. As humanity emerges from the psychochemical Dark Ages, enriched dopaminergic function in particular will sharpen the sheer intensity of every moment of conscious existence. For a generation whose lifetimes span both modes of awareness, it will be as if they had just woken up after sleep-walking through life in a twilit stupor. Thereafter their former mundane and minimal existence may be recalled only as some kind of zombified trance-state. Our own « ordinary » consciousness may be unmasked as a shallow and uninteresting vehicle of malaise whose properties we were physiologically incapable of recognising ‘from the inside’. At present, however, we lack the neural substrates of a capacity to set archaic consciousness in a pre- and post-Darwinian context. Or as Einstein says: « What does the fish know of the sea in which it swims?«
Other neurohormones, transcription factors, opioids, tyrosine-hydroxylase activators, oxytocin-releasers, receptor density-regulators, intra-cellular second- and third-messengers, phosphorylated proteins, and genetic repressors and promoters which are implicated in the modulation of mood, emotional tone and psychophysical pain will be reconfigured too as the biological program unfolds. The details are messy and complicated. Naturally, our neurotransmitter systems finely interlock. They can be treated in isolation only conceptually and for purposes of expository convenience. They form a complex and delicate interplay of feedback loops that defies easy simplification and synopsis. In centuries to follow, however, they will be collectively enlisted to re-work the texture of experience. Our happiness will be chemically and genetically enhanced with ever greater artistry and finesse. Conversely, several vicious triggers of extraordinary nastiness (e.g. bradykinin, nociceptin, substance P) will be banished from the sensorium, one trusts for ever.
1.6 The Re-encephalisation Of Emotion.
These procedures will lay the hedonic foundations for a dizzyingly exalted ground-state of conscious existence. The most pressing question to examine next is what will – and what should – be done with it? How, and why, should emotion be encephalised in an era when intentionality is no longer tied to furthering the inclusive fitness of self-replicating DNA in our ancestral environment? What’s worth being happy « about »?
For the real intellectual challenge won’t lie ultimately in sheer happiness-maximisation. After all, if eternal bliss were the sole objective of paradise-engineering, then a rat with electrodes fixed in its pleasure-centres already points the way forward. In fact, our descendants may find generating generic states of life-long happiness per se trivially easy. Most of us, however, are intellectually quite snobbish. We don’t want our emotions de-encephalised. We like good moods, but anything resembling the prospect of a perpetual orgasmic frenzy of delight stirs more ambivalent feelings. The limbic innervation of the neocortex has been so adaptive because it allows sophisticated genetic vehicles like us to feel some intentional objects are inherently good or bad. We want to feel that we are happy for good reasons – genetically self-serving as they may so often be.
We’ll soon be in a position to de-fang this dangerous tendency altogether. But we won’t want to abolish it. In generations to come, a primary focus of neuroscientific mind-making will be on remapping the axonal and dendritic arborisation of the neo-cortex which makes the rationalisation of emotion possible. The aim of this rational redesign can be to bootstrap our way into fulfilling our second-order desires (« desires about desires ») for who and what we want to become. What we will ultimately turn into is hard to imagine. One may predict merely that it will be utterly sublime.
Using biotechnology to select and fine-tune a post-Darwinian personality will partly depend on individual taste. One’s choice of identity even in paradise will still be tempered by genetic biases, ancient cultural stereotypes, and the latest vagaries of fashion. The lure of hot-button super-normal stimuli will at first be very potent. Yet we may also be enchanted by ideas and modes of experience that today haven’t even been conceptualised. Potentially, there are far more things to be happy « about » than we can possibly grasp.
On a societal level, some form of neuro-architectural planning permission will presumably still be needed for the purposes of orchestrating the multiple microcosms as each designer-heaven takes shape. Yet harmonisation should be more readily accomplished when people are already blissfully and empathetically happy – « all loved up ». Neurologically, in fact, there is nothing to stop co-operating with others from being a source of rapturous joy; as alas it isn’t always today. When life isn’t perceived as an approximation to a zero-sum game, social existence is going to be far easier to co-ordinate.
Initially, it may be tempting for newly-enlightened ecstatics to seek the idealised realisation of purely traditional objects of delight. Effectively, we’ll be able to have anything we’ve always wanted and more. This includes enjoying the biomolecular substrates of an unprecedentedly vivid sense of reality, a perpetually enriched feeling of meaningfulness and significance, a sense of heightened authenticity, and never-ending raw-edged excitement – or intense serenity and spiritual peace. In these early days, subjects may find the idea of fulfilling older conceptions of the good life a reassuring prospect. Prior to their own personal transition to heavenly superhealth, any paradoxical trepidation coming from candidates for hedonic enrichment should be laid to rest by the following reflection. Nothing we have previously enjoyed in the old Darwinian era will afterwards be unavailable or any less satisfying than before. In fact, we may be motivated to pursue old goals with far greater gusto once weakness of will becomes just an evolutionary curiosity. For weak will-power caused by dopamine hypo-function is one of those neurological deficiencies which effort alone can’t overcome. Happily, in Paradise the frailest spirit can move mountains.
1.7 How Could Anything Be So Good?
Perhaps a few examples of early post-Darwinian life are in order.
The Nature-lover, for instance, will be able to contemplate with awe-struck reverence scenes of overpowering sublimity eclipsing the superficial prettiness on offer before.
A musician may wish that those of his functional modules which mediate musical appreciation should receive especially rich innervation from his freshly amped-up pleasure system. (S)he might then hear, and have the chance to play, music more exhilarating and numinously beautiful than his or her ancestors ever dreamed of; the celestial music of the spheres heard by privileged medieval mystics will be as a child’s toy tin-whistle in comparison.
The sensualist will discover that what had previously passed for passionate sex had been merely a mildly agreeable piece of foreplay. Erotic pleasure of an intoxicating intensity that mortal flesh has never known will thereafter be enjoyable with a whole gamut of friends and lovers. This will be possible because jealousy, already transiently eliminable today under the influence of various serotonin-releasing agents, is not the sort of gene-inspired perversion of consciousness likely to be judged worthy of conservation in the new era.
A painter or connoisseur of the visual arts will be able to behold the secular equivalent of the beatific vision in a million different guises, each of indescribable glory. The toy-town lexical tokens we permute today will by then be an archaic residue of little use in evoking their majesty. As language evolves to reflect and navigate ever more exalted planes of being, fresh taxonomies of pleasure-concepts will be pioneered to help define newly-discovered modes of awareness.
As an exercise, the reader may care briefly to summon up the most delightful fantasy (s)he can personally conceive. Agreeable as this may be, states of divine happiness orders of magnitude more beautiful than anything the contemporary mind can access will pervade the very fabric of reality in generations to come. Even the most virile of imaginations can apprehend in only the barest and formal sense the ravishing splendour that lies ahead.
1.8 All We Need Is Love?
Still in a personal vein, fragile self-esteem and shaky self-images will be beautified and recrystallised afresh. For the first time in their lives, in many cases, human beings will be able wholeheartedly to love both themselves and their own bodily self-images. Bruised and mutilated egos can thus be strengthened. They can be regenerated anew from the wreckage of the Darwinian past.
Love will take on new aspects and incarnations too. For instance, we will be able, not just to love everyone, but to be perpetually in love with everyone, as well; and perhaps we’ll be far more worth loving than the corrupted minds our genes program today. It’s been said that when in love we find it astonishing that it is possible to love someone else so much, because normally we love each other so little. This indifference, or at best mere diffuse benevolence, to the rest of the population is easily taken for granted amid the harsh social realities of competitive consumer capitalism. Yet our deficiencies in love are only another grim manifestation of selfish (in the technical sense) DNA. If humans had collectively shared the greater degree of genetic relatedness common to many of the social insects (haplodiploidy), then we might already have been « naturally » able to love each other with greater enthusiasm. Sociobiology, and its offspring evolutionary psychology, explains our relative coldness of heart.
Happily, in future it will be possible to mimic, and then magnify out of all recognition, the kind of altruistic devotion to each other which might have arisen if were we all 100% genetically-related clones. We’ll all be able to love each other to bits. A delicious cocktail mix of oxytocin, phenethylamines and mu receptor-selective opioids – or potent god’s-own wonderbrews not yet genetically-coded – can be automatically triggered whenever anyone one knows is present or recollected. Darwinian man, by contrast, will be seen as a mean-minded crypto-psychopath. Our successors will be far kinder. They’ll combine absolute, unconditional and uninhibited love for each other with a celebration of the diversity of genes and cultures. At present this prospect seems some way off.
Another aspect of post-Transition love may be found even more surprising. Individual personal relationships may at last be bonded truly securely, should we so desire. Throughout the ages, dreadful pain has been caused by the soul-destroying cruelties of traditional modes of love. We acknowledge, in the main, that we hurt the most those we love. Yet we often simply can’t stop ourselves from doing so. Before very long, if we really care enough, we’ll actually be able to do something about it. Whatever their proximate causes, the distal origins of so many relationship break-ups lie, once again, in the competing interests of rival coalitions of genes. Just to take one example, two lovers, perhaps, who years before professed they would rather die than hurt each other, later part in tears and acrimony. The woman may find that with the decline in her reproductive potential over time she is no longer sexually attractive to the man who pledged his undying love. Her partner, quite possibly hating himself for his treachery, finds himself deserting her and their teenage offspring for a younger, sexier woman, and then fathers another family. Lives are destroyed; inclusive genetic fitness is served. Nature is barbarous and futile beyond belief.
After the Transition, on the other hand, one will be able to love somebody more passionately than ever before. In the post-Darwinian era, one will be safe in the knowledge that one will never hurt them, nor be hurt by them in turn. True love really can last forever, though responsible couples should take precautions. If one desires a particular relationship to remain uniquely and enduringly special, then the mutually co-ordinated design of each other’s neural weight spaces can ensure that a distinctively hill-topped plateau in the new hedonic landscape structurally guarantees that each other’s presence is always uniquely fulfilling. Choosing how big a hit we get off each other’s presence is not an exact science today. Of course, it is possible that, generations hence, exclusionary pair bonding may seem a quaint anachronism. It may be regarded as just one more vestige of the genetic past which is fated one day to pass away. The example above is recounted to show only how ill-defined worries that anything precious one wants to save will be somehow sacrificed in the post-Transition epoch can be discounted. We’ve nothing to lose.
1.9 The Taste Of Depravity.
Now before considering the prospects for the more distant future of affective states in the universe, the status of non-human animals must be addressed. This is because most of the world’s suffering is undergone by members of other species. A convergence of evidence suggests that the nature and relative extent of organic life’s biological capacity to suffer is mediated by key neuronal firing frequencies; cellular, synaptic and receptor densities; and a distinctive neurochemical and functional architecture of the central nervous system. Pain is not rooted in the unique human linguistic capacity for a generative syntax.
Humanity often behaves as though it were. For we presently keep hundreds of millions of other sentient beings in unimaginably frightful conditions. We do so for no better reason than to satisfy our culinary tastes. It has aptly been remarked that if animals had a conception of the Devil, he would surely have human form. Alas this is no mere rhetorical conceit. Contemporary humans deliberately incarcerate and butcher our fellow creatures in a vast, state-sanctioned apparatus of concentration and extermination camps. They are run with mechanised horror for commercial profit. In retrospect, our descendants may view them as a defining feature of our age in a way akin to our own conception of the Third Reich. Analogously, their sheer viciousness and even existence is usually camouflaged behind a morass of bland euphemism. Fortunately for our peace of mind, at least, we find it hard properly to conceive of what we’re being spared. Conditions inside the camps and factories are frequently so gruesome that members of the public have to be barred from watching the atrocities that go on inside them.
For the most part, however, we are willing accomplices in our own ignorance. By our purchases we pay others to commit acts of extreme violence which might otherwise upset our squeamish sensibilities. Ironically, anybody who practises, or connives in, the maltreatment of a helpless and undeveloped infant of our own species is likely to be demonised and reviled. Ordinary decent people will find it « inconceivable » how such an « inhuman » monster could cause such suffering to the young, innocent and helpless. So (s)he will be prosecuted and locked up.
What we are doing in the death-factories is so vile that a few lines of text can scarcely even hint at its ghastliness. Nevertheless, we are so inured to the notion of exploiting and killing other sentient beings to titillate our palates that many otherwise « sophisticated » people will find the starkness of expression of these paragraphs somehow sensationalistic; or perhaps « emotive », as if the reality of such suffering could properly be otherwise.
Caring about the plight of the non-human victims of our actions is not a case of sentimental bunny-hugging nor of child-like anthropomorphism. Nor is it a matter of caring more about animals than humans; nor even, as is sometimes suggested with all appearance of seriousness, outright misanthropy. « Tender-minded » people who worry about the torture of non-humans are on balance temperamentally more inclined to act in an effort to minimise human suffering too. Such contrasts and false antitheses are in any case unhelpful. Simply by abstaining from eating meat, for instance, one can still spend just as much time campaigning for exclusively human causes as one did as a practising meat-eater.
There is one real glimmer of hope amid the ongoing carnage. Within the next hundred years or so, and possibly sooner, biotechnology will enable the human species cost-effectively to mass-produce edible cellular protein, and indeed all forms of food, of a flavour and texture indistinguishable from, or tastier than, the sanitised animal products we now eat. As our palates become satisfied by other means, the moral arguments for animal rights will start to seem overwhelmingly compelling. The Western(ised) planetary elite will finally start to award the sentient fellow creatures we torture and kill a moral status akin to human infants and toddlers. Veganism, though not in quite the contemporary sense, will become the global norm. Thanks to genetic engineering, the huge reduction in gratuitous suffering forecast here is likely to take place even if none of the other predictions of HI are borne out. If they are, then the humblest snack will taste more delicious than the ambrosial food of the gods. Today’s gourmets might as well be feeding on greasy chips.
Much more seriously, in those traditional eco-systems that we chose to retain, millions of non-human animals will continue periodically to starve, die horribly of thirst and disease, or even get eaten alive. This is commonly viewed as « natural » and hence basically OK. It would indeed be comforting to think that in some sense this ongoing animal holocaust doesn’t matter too much. We often find it convenient to act as though the capacity to suffer were somehow inseparably bound up with linguistic ability or ratiocinative prowess. Yet there is absolutely no evidence that this is the case, and a great deal that it isn’t.
The functional regions of the brain which subserve physical agony, the « pain centres », and the mainly limbic substrates of emotion, appear in phylogenetic terms to be remarkably constant in the vertebrate line. The neural pathways involving serotonin, the periaquaductal grey matter, bradykinin, dynorphin, ATP receptors, the major opioid families, substance P etc all existed long before hominids walked the earth. Not merely is the biochemistry of suffering disturbingly similar where not effectively type-identical across a wide spectrum of vertebrate (and even some invertebrate) species. It is at least possible that members of any species whose members have more pain cells exhibiting greater synaptic density than humans sometimes suffer more atrociously than we do, whatever their notional « intelligence ». As a utilitarian [technically, an ethical negative-utilitarian – see below], I would have to say, counter-intuitively, that were this to be the case, then such « hyperalgesic » life-forms would intrinsically matter, and they would themselves find that things intrinsically matter, more so than we do. This sounds extravagantly overstated. But it is just the ethical yardstick by which we should be reckoned to matter more than our phenomenologically impoverished silicon etc intellectual mentors centuries hence. One must just hope the disquieting notion that anything, anywhere, can suffer more than humans do is ill-conceived.
1.10 On The Misguided Romanticisation of Feline Psychopaths.
In future, anyhow, the life-forms which exist on this planet will be there purely because we allow them to be so, or choose to create them. This smacks of hubris; it is also true. Increasingly, we are able to configure the matter and energy of the world in any way we so desire consistent with the laws of physics. So the moral and practical question arises: what other organisms, and therefore what other modes of experience, are we going either to create or retain « in the wild » outside the gene-banks and computer software libraries in millennia to come?
One may suspect that most people could bear the possible loss of a few hundred thousand species of beetle with relative equanimity. Familiar if eugenically-enhanced herbivores, on the other hand, can be allowed to graze securely within the confines of a well-regulated natural habitat. They will best be treated with long-acting depot contraceptives to stop uncontrolled breeding. Their happiness should prove easier to engineer genetically than is possible in humans. This is on the assumption that non-humans are less intellectually fastidious in their pleasures than are, on occasion, some members of our own kind.
Yet what about the carnivorous species? It is easy to romanticise, say, tigers or lions and cats. We admire their magnificent beauty, strength and agility. But we would regard their notional human counterparts as wanton psychopaths of the worst kind. So just as there is no need to recreate the natural habitat of smart, blond, handsome Nazi storm-troopers who can then prey on their natural victims (and Nazis are a no less natural and noteworthy pattern of matter and energy thrown up in the course of evolution, albeit of a type now fortunately extinct), likewise the practice of continuing to breed pre-programmed feline killing machines in homage to Nature is ethically untenable too. It is not, needless to say, the fault of cats that they are prone to torturing mice; but then, given the equations of physics, it isn’t the fault of Nazis they try to persecute Jews. This is no reason to let them continue to do so.
In a triumph of aestheticism over morality, many animal lovers otherwise sympathetic to the sentiments expressed here will doubtless be aghast at the very idea of losing such loveable companions and time-honoured killers as members of the cat family; but then they are unlikely to be hunted down in terror or physically eaten alive, which lends a rather different perspective to any issue at all.
1.11 The Last Twisted Molecule On Earth?
This meditation on the plight of our fellow species leads to one of the few precise, and potentially falsifiable, predictions to be hazarded here about the next couple of thousand years.
At some momentous and exactly dateable time, the last unpleasant experience ever to occur on this planet will take place. Possibly, it will be a (purely comparatively) minor pain in some (to us) obscure marine invertebrate. This event will occur well before the end of the fourth millennium. It may even be technically feasible – though in practice unlikely – for us to abolish unpleasantness altogether by the end of the third.
Heady stuff. Yet just as the smallpox virus was systematically hunted down to extinction, so the precise molecular signature(s) of aversive experience and its predisposing genes will predictably be hunted down and wiped out as well. The systematic application of nanotechnology, self-reproducing micro-miniaturised robots armed with supercomputer processing power, and ultra-sophisticated genetic engineering, perhaps using retro-viral vectors, will abolish the root of all evil in its naturalistic guise.
Of course, pain and unhappiness apparently take myriad forms. So it might be supposed that an impossibly large hotchpotch of biochemical reactions will have to be eliminated before the emancipatory project can be complete. The difficulty, and more controversially the impossibility, of establishing non-trivial type-type identities between physical and higher mental states would seem to make the task of purging unpleasantness from the world even worse.
In one respect at least, however, the many faces of misery are deceptive. Like the various nominal sources of happiness, they foster a genetically adaptive delusion. In this case, the delusion is that [Darwinian] fitness-diminishing phenomena are inherently bad. This delusion is an « adaptation » born of the mechanisms by which the primary neural processes that mediate emotion physically infiltrate and infuse the neo-cortex. Millions of years of DNA-driven encephalisation have obscured emotion’s primitive substrates deep in the mind/brain. These substrates can be coded out. And by striking at the ancient limbic motors of despair, future paradise-engineering specialists should induce its legion of cognitive hangers-on to dissipate too. First in humans and, progressing « down » the phylogenetic tree, eventually in every non-human metazoan as well, all of the incomprehensibly diverse modes of experience a mind/brain can undergo should share the property of being generically delightful. A uniquely vile era in the history of the world will then have drawn to a close.
1.12 The Persistence of Hard-Core Porn?
Quite what vestiges of the past will be archived after nastiness has been purged from our consciousness is hard to guess. Just as we have retained (but one may trust that we will never use) the precise information necessary to re-create the smallpox virus – for we know its entire genome precisely – so records of the phylogeny and molecular architecture of pain and depression will presumably be preserved too.
It is hard to see why unpleasant types of pattern should ever be physically revived. Perhaps they will remain largely undeciphered. The interpretation of their dangerous and quasi-pornographic formalism may be accessible to our descendants, if at all, only by ill-understood analogy. For post-humans will know about hedonic gradients. After all, insofar as shifting nuances of delight will imbue whatever they think about, pleasure differentials will most plausibly remain the primary motivators to action. So distant generations should be able, in the abstract at least, to conceptualise « pain » and « despair ». Such states can be imagined as modes of consciousness far lower in the heavenly hierarchy – a level where a generic property of experience itself undergoes a kind of mysterious phase change. But beyond the ill-defined cross-over point, perhaps, our ecstatic posterity will find the properties of experience on the wrong side of the great divide elusive.
For their sake, it must be hoped that purebred ecstatics keep any intellectual curiosity about such taboo mysteries in check. They will be in no position to make an informed choice before opting to go slumming in the abyss. Nothing could prepare them for the horror they would find. Fortunately, they will most probably lack our prurient interest in the depraved and obscene.
It might here be objected that states of comparatively diminished pleasure are tantamount to states of unhappiness. So short of promoting a uniform, action-paralysing level of lifetime happiness, then surely aversive states will be endemic even in the mature post-Darwinian regime.
This objection is plausible but ill-conceived. When faced with two painful alternatives, one’s opting for the lesser of two evils doesn’t make a still painful experience somehow pleasurable. Likewise, experiencing the lesser of two delights isn’t somehow really painful; it’s just that pleasure cells are very greedy indeed, and always avid for more of the same.
1.13 The Growing Pleasures of Homunculi.
On the assumption that they will indeed always ask for more, what else can be said about the distant future of emotion in the universe? How will post-humans actually spend their lives, and what will it feel like to exist, after Heaven has been biologically domesticated?
First, a note of caution. Today most of our futurist fantasies focus on hard-core hi-tech. We lap up the world of Star-Trek fantasy-physics. Exotic new emotions, however, are as unimaginable to us as exotic new phenomenal colours. They are just empty, abstract possibilities we can idly gesture at, but no more. Implicitly, we assume that our ancient vertebrate repertoire of fitness-enhancing sentiment will characterise both our post-human descendants and any alien life-forms they encounter. We’re even prone to anthropomorphise inorganic robots in the same manner. We assume they’ll « feel » superior and « want » to dominate us (shades again of the African savannah!) Yet the emotional economy of a post-Darwinian psyche may be incommensurable with anything that’s gone before. Indeed the entire inner life of post-Darwinians may be opaque to our hunter-gatherer minds. The first-person texture of their modes of experience may be nothing like our own in anything but name. Even if we could glimpse the future, perhaps we’d be like cats watching TV. We just wouldn’t understand the significance of what was going on.
Unfortunately, there’s no way to map out the extent of our cognitive closure from within. This is frustrating. If quantum cosmologists can theorise about the first 10-43 second after the Big Bang, thirteen billion and more years ago, and still, rightly, be counted as practising hard science, it’s a shame that conjectures we do make about the living world a few thousand or million years hence have to be treated, not even as soft science, but as science-fiction. There are too many unknown unknowns to predict with any rational confidence. Merely extrapolating present trends is bound to mislead. The projected time-scales of even relatively predictable biomedical triumphs, e.g. the elimination of the ageing process, are vague. HI may veer towards heady speculation; but by the end of third millennium, life and consciousness may be more foreign to the contemporary imagination than even the most extravagant prediction dreamed up here. On the other hand, for all we know, some variant of the pleasure-principle is a universal – and universally intelligible – signature of sentient life; and its apotheosis in some sort of sublime cosmic orgasm is the ultimate destiny of the Universe. [This may overtax one’s credulity; the Big Bang indeed!] We simply don’t have enough evidence. That said, we may still incautiously proceed.
Once suffering has been abolished, the era of old-fashioned moral choices will come to an end. The physiological mechanisms underlying the mind-brain’s value-creation processes will be unravelled during the invention of a pain-free world; but the kind of naturalised, mind-dependent value created by paradise-engineers after the phenomenology of nastiness has disappeared won’t embrace ethical categories in a sense we presently understand. The heroic moral urgency will have gone; indeed there is a risk that truly hedonistic themes as discussed in these sections of HI will divert attention away from the utter moral seriousness of the whole post-Darwinian project as conceived today.
Even so, here’s a quick run-down of some of the long-term options.
First, the present dimensions of the human mind and its affective capabilities are limited by the size of the female birth canal. So long as selection pressures favoured the evolution of more potently nasty biological substrates – primed to trigger adaptive bouts of agony and emotional wretchedness – then the birthing constraint has been one small mercy at least.
It won’t last; but then it won’t need to. After the global application of cross-species genetic engineering has ensured that suffering is physiologically impossible, such a restriction of size would only retard the emotional development and maturation of the living world. For healthy [non-hippocampal] neurons, unfortunately, don’t reproduce. We have almost a full complement at birth. They die off somewhat erratically thereafter. Once it becomes feasible to nurture the human embryo and foetus from conception to term in an artificial extra-uterine environment, however, then the number as well as quality and synaptic density of nerve cells can be selectively multiplied with a clear utilitarian conscience. So can receptor density, post-synaptic transduction-mechanisms and vital genetic transcription control-factors in the pleasure-pathways. The serotonin-producing subgenual prefrontal cortex can be enlarged and enriched too. Puzzlingly, today’s clinically acknowledged depressives have on average over 40% less brain tissue here than controls. This region seems to be critical for the processing of emotions related to complex personal and social situations. Its role should grow. After we’ve designed more sophisticated and socially responsible neural circuitry, all of our emotionally pre-literate modes of social life may come to be seen as shallow and rudimentary.
It is unclear quite how many orders of magnitude larger a super-organism’s mind/brain could in theory be scaled upwards before running up against insuperable design-constraints. It’s unclear, too, whether a « Jupiter brain » could undergo the quantum mechanical coherent states needed to sustain a unitary experiential manifold (cf. Sellars’ « grain problem » of consciousness) and thus support a potentially integrated « Jupiter-self ». In the meantime, and on a more conservative scale, gigantic societies of hedonistic super-neurons can be grown and self-sculpted to form progressively larger, happier and more richly variegated virtual worlds.
It might be supposed that access to unparalleled states of whole-body orgasmic euphoria fuelled by a vastly hypertrophied and souped-up pleasure apparatus would be quite enough for anyone. Well, perhaps; it depends on one’s circle of acquaintance. Two flavours of happiness always worth distinguishing are blissful satiety and euphoric incentive-motivation. If, as predicted, it’s the latter dopaminergic engine of progress which will power the post-Transition era, then the delights cited above will be only a foretaste of further millennial Transitions – and whatever mind-wrenching meta-paradigm shifts their advent entails.
For a start, the somato-sensory cortex and its bodily « homunculus » currently occupy only a very modest portion of the brain. Its comparatively small size marks it as another obsolescent relic from Darwinian antiquity. Using the great bulk of the cortex to run data-driven egocentric simulations of the external environment, and not just the egocentric body-image of the host vehicle, tended to maximise genetic fitness on the African savannah. With predatory lions long gone, such states of partial self-alienation become less useful. So in the future somato-sensory-style cells can be used to seed the other areas of the cortex and its adjacent structures. They can thereby selectively interpenetrate the rest of each person’s experiential manifold. Accordingly, whole-body hyper-orgasmic rapture can be optionally extended to impregnate an entire psycho-neural virtual world. The mystic’s dream of becoming one with the universe – albeit unwittingly only with his own neural micro-cosmos – can be realised in a total ecstasy of the senses and neurochemical soul.
Life could get better still. Today the nucleus accumbens and its allied mesolimbic structures don’t consist of raw pleasure circuitry. Certain biomolecules (e.g. the dynorphin which accumulates during chronic psychostimulant use and participates in the craving characteristic of cocaine withdrawal), are unpleasant and dysfunctional. They can be genetically edited out. There is a much more exciting possibility as well. Most cortical neurons have no inherent capacity for well-being, let alone autonomous hedonism. As noted, they rely on innervation from the monoaminergic etc neurons to lend an affective tone to whatever functional role and flavour of subjectivity they express. But once the precise molecular signatures of experiential ecstasy are isolated in the pleasure pathways, then their metabolic reactions can be transplanted to other types of neuron too: hedonic democracy.
1.14 Post-Perceptual Consciousness?
Many future intentional foci of delight (i.e. what we’re happy « about ») will be embedded in types of consciousness qualitatively as well as quantitatively alien to Darwinian humans. It is chastening to reflect that a seemingly minor molecular variation in neuro-protein generates types of experience as disparate as sight and sound. Heaven knows what further incommensurable modes of what-it’s-like-ness (« qualia ») will be disclosed when much more far-reaching changes in the architecture of excitable cells are engineered.
For the Darwinian status quo, based on natural selection acting on random genetic variation, is poised to crumble. All but a trivial volume of (what one may abstractly conceive as) experiential weight space has hitherto been physiologically out of bounds. There’s nothing unnatural about it. But until now, DNA coding for the structures that got us there would have involved crossing genetically maladaptive dips in the fitness landscape. Desert-hopping across maladaptive dips is a process which neo-Darwinian evolution precludes. There’s no mechanism that allows it. Natural selection has no foresight. Once such new kinds of consciousness are finally accessed by design, however, their different textures need not be deployed in a traditional role of tracking, or responding to, extraneous environmental patterns. They can first be hedonically colonised; and then artistically explored and reordered, woven into rich narrative structures and wild adventures, awarded new functional roles in the mind/brain, or perhaps just savoured for their intrinsic fascination.
Old definitions of self and reality are likely to fall apart in unpredictable ways. It’s worth recalling how, at present, occurrent thought-episodes are typically decomposed into their nominally cognitive, affective and volitional aspects: « thinking », « feeling » and « willing ». The mysterious trinity may prove just trifling variations, each with their own minor nuances, of a much wider phenomenological family of « serial » streams of consciousness. These new serial modes await discovery or biotechnical invention. Some of the new modes may eventually function computationally as quasi-virtual machines spun from massively parallel cerebral consciousness; but the rest needn’t play any distinctive functional role at all. Other than to describe all such subtle kinds of what-it’s-like-ness as generically delightful when suitably innervated, their nature can’t be intelligently speculated upon here. We’re just kidding ourselves when we brag about what a rich language we’ve got today. For it is easy to be seduced by the indefinitely large productive capacity of the early human language-generating mechanism into making a pardonably false assumption. This is that syntax enables one to think and speak about an unlimited variety of things. Yet lying latent among previously inaccessible and maladaptive neurochemical pathways are bound to be immense reaches of experiential hyper-weirdness which – shallow semantic paradoxes aside – can’t be properly thought of at all. Their alien exotica will still be cognitively closed off for a long time to come. In the case of unknown hell-states and worse, it may be hoped they will remain impenetrable for ever.
Such hypothesised new categories of experience will be empirically discovered, generated and decently emotionally encephalised only with the aid of first-personal exploration of their intrinsic properties. Observation without experimentation is not enough. Systematic experimental manipulation of consciousness via psychoactive agents will complement the third-person perspective of physical science. Exploration will be most prudently conducted by ecstatics, native-born or otherwise, rather than by gene-disordered Darwinian minds. This is because genetically undoctored savages like ourselves are liable to go off on worse trips than we’re on at present. At any rate, a priori philosophising on psychedelia’s possible nature, using our old neurochemical legacy hardware ploughing away in the same old conceptual ruts, simply won’t work. Contemporary experience and linguistic description lack the necessary semantic primitives to do the job. Only semantic primitives drawn from the new modes of experience – not mere inference-churning using our present limited repertoire of concepts – will conceivably allow a subsequent theoretical understanding of the psychedelic cosmos. New semantic primitives will be needed as well to express genuinely novel emotions, sensations, modes of introspection and reflexive self-awareness.
This isn’t yet consensus wisdom. In mainstream academia, any study of consciousness as a true experimental discipline rather than as a topic of scholastic disputation is nearly impossible. Accounts of systematic first-personal manipulation of its only accessible instance is generally reckoned unpublishable and discreditable. Ironically, we mock the obtuseness of Galileo’s clerical opponents for refusing to look through his telescope. Yet we treasure our own peace of mind no less dearly; so there is little reason for intellectual complacency. In our repressive drug laws we, too, outlaw and penalise forms of knowledge truly disturbing to the established order. Psychedelics trigger changes of mind which are radically subversive of the existing social, political and academic power-structure and its definitions of reality. The severe penalties for publicly advocating and spreading such dangerous knowledge are not notably more merciful than those of the Inquisition – our prisons are brutal places – though likewise public recantation and penance can sometimes mitigate the full rigour of punishment.
The psychedelias of post-human ecstatics are too hard to contemplate. Predictions for the more distant future of even affective states in the universe are liable to get wilder too. Not merely are we ignorant of the newly synthesised and discovered emotions that biotechnology will deliver. We can’t possibly know what neo-cortical « cognitive » processes they will saturate and enrich.
Will consciousness in its current guise of phenomenological and quasi-computational mind take on post-cellular or prosthetically enriched forms? Or, in defence of carbon chauvinism, is there a micro-functionalist argument that the unique structure of the carbon atom and its valence properties means that only organic experiential manifolds and their infused emotions are feasible? Will there come, eventually, a post-personal era in which discrete, gene-generated superminds choose progressively to coalesce; or will the fragmented island universes left over from the depths of the Darwinian past continue in semi-autonomous isolation indefinitely? If consciousness is ontologically fundamental to the cosmos, rather than a tacked-on « nomological dangler », do superstrings [or branes, etc] vibrating at energies orders of magnitude higher than ours support modes and intensities of experience correspondingly greater than those of the current low-energy regime? Or do they really lack what-it’s-like-ness altogether?
Needless to say, we don’t know the answers to such questions one way or the other. All that will be predicted here with any semblance of confidence is that one ancient, soul-polluting type of experience, the generically unpleasant, will soon go the way of the proverbial dodo.
[HI was written in 1995. Only the later Replies to Objections, added sequentially in Chapter Four, are more recent. For a contemporary outline, see The Abolitionist Project (2007) and Utopian Neuroscience (2008). Chapter Two can safely be skipped or aggressively skimmed even by the analytic philosophers for whom it was primarily intended. It contains a defence of HI on the basis of, first, practical means-ends rationality and, secondly, ethical negative utilitarianism. The instrumental case from means-ends rationality derives from the broad applicability of psychological hedonism. This isn’t here construed as a universal law. It’s just a trite everyday rule of thumb: we spend a lot of time trying to make ourselves happy. Often we fail. HI achieves what we’re striving for with unique efficiency and success. The ethical utilitarian case for HI, on the other hand, rests partly on a conception of how morality can be naturalised consistently with a recognisably scientific account of the nature of the world. Value is here construed as a distinctive – and biologically maximisable – mode of experience. Its subjective texture is coded by a particular type of biomolecular architecture. That architecture can be enriched and extended. Positive value can be maximised. Negative value can eventually be eliminated. Thus HI, it will be claimed, amounts to rather more than one individual’s quirky conjectures and value-judgements. The biological program is also our natural destiny. The coming of the pain-free post-Darwinian Era will mark both a major transition in the evolution of life and the moral foundation of any future civilisation.]