IM: We are now in a position where we can choose the level of suffering in the entire living world, why do it?
Immortalists Magazine interview
with David Pearce
DP: Around 850,000 or so people worldwide take their own lives each year. Tens of millions self-harm. Hundreds of millions are chronically depressed. These grim figures are just the tip of an iceberg of misery. Words and statistics can’t begin to convey the awfulness of suffering. Yet there is hope. For the first time in history, biotechnology turns the level of suffering in the living world into an adjustable parameter. The biosphere is programmable. Even a handful of genetic tweaks could massively reduce the level of suffering in the world. If used wisely, a combination of artificial intelligence, genetic engineering and synthetic gene drives could eradicate experience below “hedonic zero” altogether. Life on Earth deserves a more civilised signalling system – a motivational architecture based entirely on information-sensitive gradients of well-being. Today, a few fortunate genetic outliers enjoy hints of how such an architecture of mind will function. In future, life based on gradients of intelligent bliss can be the global norm. CRISPR makes paradise-engineering technically feasible.
On a more sober note, the easiest way to reduce to reduce suffering in the world doesn’t rely on gene editing, advanced technology or posthuman superintelligence. The biggest source of severe and readily avoidable suffering today is animal agriculture. Factory-farming is inherently abusive. Factory-farms and slaughterhouses are morally indefensible. Our victims are as sentient as small children, and they should be treated accordingly. The death-factories must be permanently closed and outlawed. Any civilisation worthy of the name will be invitrotarian or vegan.
IM: Isn’t suffering a necessary part of life?
DP: Misery and malaise are so common that it’s easy to believe they are integral to life itself. Gautama Buddha’s “Life is suffering” sounds like a simplistic slogan to temperamentally optimistic life-lovers; but for billions of human and nonhuman animals, it’s true. For over 540 million years, suffering has been endemic to the animal kingdom. A predisposition to mental and physical pain has been genetically adaptive. Discontent promotes the inclusive fitness of our genes. Evolution via natural selection is underpinned by random mutations and the genetic casino of sexual reproduction. Natural selection is “blind” and amoral. But a revolution in genome-editing promises to transform the nature of selection pressure. Parents will shortly be able genetically to choose the pain thresholds, hedonic range and hedonic set-points of their future children. Prospective parents will pick genes and allelic combinations in anticipation of the likely effects of their choices. As the reproductive revolution unfolds, selection pressure in favour of “happy” genes will intensify at the expense of their nastier cousins. Barring revolutionary breakthroughs, growth in subjective wellbeing may only be linear rather than exponential; but genetic engineering plus the pleasure principle are a potent mix.
IM: If we do raise the hedonic range, do we lose other values/attributes worth keeping?
DP: Engineering a world of indiscriminate bliss wouldn’t merely be risky. Uniform bliss would undermine human relationships, social responsibility, personal growth and intellectual progress. Most people aren’t classical utilitarians: getting “blissed out” would entail losing a lot of what we value as well as the miseries we hate. By contrast, ratcheting up hedonic range and hedonic set-points doesn’t entail adjudicating between different secular and religious values or sacrificing anything we hold dear. Hedonic recalibration doesn’t subvert existing preference architectures. An elevated hedonic set-point can also enhance the diversity of experience; compare how depressives tend to get “stuck in a rut”. Information-sensitive gradients of well-being can preserve what humans find valuable while enriching our default quality of life. Hedonic uplift will vanquish the feelings of emptiness, futility and nihilistic despair that stain so many lives today. Post-Darwinian life based on gradients of bliss will be saturated with meaning, purpose and significance.
For sure, there are tons of complications. The biohappiness revolution will be messy. We’d do well to preserve the functional analogues of depressive realism. But the basic point stands.
IM: How is genetic engineering different from eugenics?
DP: Just as the Soviet experiment polluted the whole language of social justice, likewise the early twentieth-century eugenics movement polluted the whole language of genetic health. Consider the commitment to the well-being of all sentience enshrined in the Transhumanist Declaration (1998, 2009), or the World Health Organisation’s definition of health as set out in its founding constitution (1948): “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” Lifelong health as so defined is impossible with a Darwinian genome. A living world where all sentient beings are innately healthy can be created only via genetic engineering. Societal reform on its own can’t manufacture the molecular substrates of happiness. Etymologically speaking, transhuman civilisation will be the product of eugenics. So in that sense, the critics are right. But genetically engineering the well-being of all sentience is far removed from the coercive “eugenics” and race hygiene policy of the Third Reich.
That said, a multitude of legal of legal and ethical safeguards will be essential to navigate the transition to post-Darwinian life – humans are untrustworthy creatures. Not least, we should uphold and extend the sanctity of life.
IM: How do we ensure genetic engineering is used safely?
DP: All genetic experimentation is inherently risky, not least the gamble of having children. Antinatalists might support a hundred-year moratorium on untested genetic experiments; but such prudence is unrealistic. For evolutionary reasons, most people are determined to have children via sexual reproduction. So we should focus on minimising the risks of such genetic experimentation. Let’s try to balance risk-reward ratios. Preimplantation genetic screening will be hugely cost-effective. Later this century, all babies could and should be CRISPR babies. In the meantime, access to preimplantation genetic screening and counselling ought to be universal.
For example, consider the genetic dial-settings that regulate pain-sensitivity. What level of pain tolerance is optimal for our future children – and our older selves? Even now, medical science could eradicate pain altogether simply by knocking out the SCN9A gene – the so-called “volume knob” for pain. However, instant eradication of pain is too hazardous. SCN9A-knockouts would lack not just the ghastly experience of pain but also the vital function of nociception. Children with congenital analgesia need to lead a cotton-wool existence or else they come to serious harm. For now, choosing benign “low pain” alleles for our offspring is much safer. In tomorrow’s world of advanced AI and neuroprostheses, even the mildest “raw feels” of pain could be abolished. In the meantime, we can ensure that new children (and maybe our future selves) have the same exceptionally high pain-tolerance of today’s high-functioning genetic outliers: folk who say things like “Pain is just a useful signalling mechanism.”
IM: Should we still pursue genetic engineering if there was peace on earth?
DP: Suicide rates typically go down in wartime. There isn’t peace on Earth for the same reason there isn’t peace among chimpanzee troops. Nature “designed” human male primates to (be genetically predisposed to) wage territorial wars of aggression against other coalitions of male primates. Let’s assume, optimistically, that we can prevent future armed conflict without any of the biological-genetic interventions discussed here. The negative-feedback mechanisms of the hedonic treadmill would ensure that countless people would continue to suffer – even in a peaceful world without war, poverty and disease. By its very nature, Darwinian life is sentient malware. Only a biohappiness revolution can fix our sinister source code for good.
IM: What other types of human enhancement technologies will considerably affect the nature of humans?
DP: Safe and sustainable analogues of empathetic euphoriants like “hug drug” MDMA will revolutionise human relationships. Compare the quasi-psychopathic indifference to most other sentient beings that humans display now.
Robolovers, sexbots and designer aphrodisiacs will revolutionise sexual experience.
Novel psychedelics, novel genes and novel neurons will open up billions of state-spaces of consciousness as different from each other as waking life is different from dreaming life.
“Augmented” reality will be followed by full-blown multimodal immersive virtual reality.
“Narrow” superintelligence-on-a-neurochip will be accessible to all; with digital intelligence implants, sentient beings can do everything machine intelligence can do and more.
Opt-out cryonics, opt-in cryothanasia, and finally tools to defeat the biology of aging altogether will transform our conception of life and death. Transhumans will be quasi-immortal.
But in my view, mastery of the pleasure-pain axis will inaugurate the biggest revolution of all. The end of suffering promises an ethical watershed. Invincible well-being for all sentience will mark a momentous evolutionary transition in the development of life.
IM: What are some ethical considerations worth arguing about at this stage?
DP: As a transhumanist, I look forward to a glorious “triple S” civilisation of Superhappiness, Superlongevity and Superintelligence. But more concretely, I’d like to see a coordinated hundred-year Plan to overcome suffering throughout the living world under the auspices of the World Health Organization.
Here are four policy proposals for a Biohappiness Revolution:
- Accelerate the development and commercialisation of cultured meat. Close and outlaw factory-farms and slaughterhouses. Rehabilitate the surviving victims.
- Genetically raise pain-tolerance. Genetically recalibrate the hedonic treadmill. Create life based on gradients of intelligent bliss.
- Offer CRISPR gene-therapy and preimplantation genetic screening and counselling to all prospective parents.
- Spread low-pain “happy genes” across the biosphere with CRISPR-based synthetic gene drives that cheat the “laws” of Mendelian inheritance.
At times, Darwinian life can be desperately grim. Yet depressive, pain-ridden people shouldn’t feel their lives are worthless. Even malaise-ridden lives can be valuable if one prevents more suffering than one undergoes. We should all aspire to be not just transhumanists but also effective altruists. Let’s use biotechnology to phase out suffering. Humans are stepping-stones to something better – something inconceivably sublime.
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Social Media (2020)
The End of Suffering
The Good Drug Guide
The Abolitionist Project
Quora Answers (2015-20)
The Reproductive Revolution
MDMA: Utopian Pharmacology
Critique of Huxley's Brave New World
Interview of Nick Bostrom and David Pearce
Interview of DP by Sentience Research (2019)