Interview with David Pearceby
1.- You’ve said that abolishing suffering should be humanity’s higher priority. Why? What would be the benefits of this achievement?
Imagine you have a migraine. A well-meaning friend tries to remind you there are more important things in life than migraines – art, literature, music, love, friendship, your family, the beauties of Nature, having fun. And in a sense, your friend is right. But getting rid of your migraine is a precondition for your being able to appreciate anything else. Generalising, hundreds of millions of human and nonhuman animals are undergoing comparable levels of distress right now – either “physical” pain or “emotional” pain, or both. If we take an impartial “God’s-eye-view”, then relieving their suffering should be our global priority – as urgent a priority as if their pain and suffering were one’s own.
Of course, there’s nothing original about the vision of a world without suffering. Not least, the end of suffering has been the overriding goal of one of the world’s great religious traditions, Buddhism. Ending suffering is implicit in the secular ethic of classical utilitarianism. What’s different today is biotechnology. The CRISPR genome-editing revolution turns utopian dreaming into a concrete policy option.
The benefits? Well, as anyone who has ever experienced the horrors of depression or severe physical pain can testify, abolishing suffering is a benefit in itself. Yet the economic costs of chronic pain, depression and anxiety disorders are vast and incalculable too. And although we tell ourselves that suffering can be ennobling and character-building, all too often suffering simply embitters its victims – and causes misery to others in ways ranging from personal disputes to international war.
Phasing out the metabolic pathways of pain and suffering isn’t some vision for a “perfect” world. It’s not a prescription for how to live your life. But freedom from involuntary suffering is the precondition of any civilisation worthy of the name.
2.- Could you explain the concept of ‘paradise engineering’ and the ‘hedonistic imperative’? Is it possible to reach complete happiness?
The world’s last experience below “hedonic zero” will mark a momentous evolutionary transition in the development of life on Earth. But what then? As a civilisation, we could settle for the mediocre – the pleasant, the pretty and the bland. Compare Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World”. Yet biotechnology can potentially deliver life based on gradients of superhuman bliss – in principle, gradients of intelligent bliss orders of magnitude richer than today’s peak experiences.
“Complete” happiness? Recall the admirably ambitious WHO definition of health - "a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being":
Maybe this conception of health is too bold. Constant, uniform bliss for an entire civilisation would be much harder to engineer than life based gradients of well-being – although not technically impossible if we ever “upload” the nasty and mundane side of life onto smart prostheses. The molecular signature of pure bliss seems to lie within our twin “hedonic hotspots” in the ventral pallidum and medial rostral shell of the nucleus accumbens. Perpetual activation of our hedonic hotspots via designer drugs, altered gene expression or microelectrodes would ensure lifelong perpetual bliss worldwide. However, a world of uniform bliss is not what I’m advocating, let alone predicting. Hedonic recalibration is smarter than crude pleasure-maximisation. What’s technically challenging – and what I advocate - isn’t the mass-production of raw bliss, but rather delivering a biology of information-sensitive gradients of intelligent bliss - high-functioning well-being that preserves critical insight, social responsibility and intellectual progress: true paradise engineering. I hope we can eventually achieve a “Triple S“ civilisation of superintelligence, superlongevity, and superhappiness.
One advantage of using biotech radically to elevate hedonic set-points is that your existing core values and preference architecture can in principle be preserved while also radically enriching everyone's quality of life. Shifting the upper and lower bounds of your hedonic range, and lifting your typical hedonic set-point, needn't involve sacrificing anything you value. So long as “informational sensitivity" to good and bad stimuli is retained, critical insight and social responsibility can be preserved too. Indeed, there is no technical or sociological reason why experience below "hedonic zero" need be conserved at all. For an existence-proof that life based on gradients of intelligent bliss is feasible, we need merely study extreme outliers: some of the very happiest and most productive "hyperthymic" people alive today. Sadly, chronic pain and chronic depression are far more common.
The idea that the “raw feels” of pain and suffering are functionally essential to life is still widespread. Yet compare Deep Blue, Watson or AlphaGo – or AlphaDog. Artificially intelligent systems can computationally outperform humans in ever more domains without experiencing any psychological distress at all.
3. In technical terms, how could we achieve this objective (to abolish suffering)?
You don't tell someone whose house is on fire that their reward pathways need enhancing. You don’t tell a mother whose child is dying of malaria or other readily preventable disease that her hedonic treadmill needs recalibrating. Social, economic and health reforms as traditionally conceived are vital to overcoming suffering. But the problem with believing that environmental enrichment alone could ever cure all our ills is illustrated by an IPSOS study simply asking people to rank their subjective well-being or ill-being – not “adjusted” for how (un)happy we think people “ought” to be according to their life-circumstances:
If the typical dirt-poor Indonesian peasant reports being happier than the typical malaise-ridden Westerner, then clearly our usual nostrums for a happy world simply won’t work – not on their own. Discontent has been genetically fitness-enhancing. Nature didn’t design most of us to be permanently happy, but rather to maximise the inclusive fitness of our DNA. Hence the negative feedback mechanisms of the hedonic treadmill. In short, we need a twin-track approach. The only long-term way to deliver mental superhealth for all entails biological-genetic tweaking.
We could start by offering universal access to preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) and counselling for all prospective parents. PGD is extremely cost-effective. Pain thresholds and depression demonstrably have a high genetic loading – as twin studies attest. Yet not just future generations can benefit from responsible genetic choices: PGD followed by germline editing. In principle, CRISPR/Cas9 genome-editing allows multiple simultaneous corrective genetic modifications of existing people. Multiple simultaneous “enhancement” genetic modifications are feasible too, not just what we call “remediation”. Multigene editing is currently performed only in "animal models", but CRISPR/Cas9 genome-editing could be used to transform the quality of life of today’s humans – if popular prejudice and the regulatory hurdles can be overcome.
OK, some concrete examples.
If you were choosing via preimplantation genetic screening the attributes of your future children, which variants of the following genes would you select:
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17687265 (COMT - a high hedonic set-point)
http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/newsandevents/pressreleases/danish_dna_could/ (serotonin transporter gene – depression-resistance)
http://www.medicaldaily.com/pessimism-genetic-research-shows-your-outlook-might-be-cloudy-genetic-design-259573 (ADA2b deletion variant - an optimism or pessimism bias)
And so forth.
Selection pressure in favour of “happier“ genomes is likely to accelerate as the reproductive revolution of designer babies gathers pace.
Pitfalls? Yes, lots.
But every child born today is a unique and untested genetic experiment too.
The multiple simultaneous genetic modifications allowed by CRISPR/Cas9 genome-editing could in future allow you reversibly to modify and control the expression of your own emotional genetic makeup as well, though DIY biohacking is still in its infancy.
For non-human animals, the biggest ethical challenge we face is to shut down and outlaw factory-farms and slaughterhouses. Pigs, for example, are as sentient and sapient as human toddlers; they deserve to be treated accordingly. Industrialised agriculture is perhaps the worst source of severe and readily avoidable suffering in the world today. Alas I’m sceptical that the death factories will close until mass-produced in vitro gourmet meat makes traditional methods of meat-production redundant.
And free-living nonhuman animals (“wildlife”)? What about the untold miseries of “Nature, red in tooth and claw”?
In principle, the burden of suffering in Nature could be cheaply and dramatically reduced and then abolished via CRISPR-based gene drives (cf. gene-drives.com). Just don’t expect a Five Year Plan. The sociological and political challenges to creating a blissful post-CRISPR biosphere are immense.
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