Interview with David Pearceby
(Andreas is the translator of the Greek version of The Abolitionist Project)
1. When do you think suffering in the living world originated, and why do you think it originated?
Shortly before the Cambrian explosion over half a billion years ago. The most rudimentary aversive experience may well be more ancient, maybe in the ancestors of choanoflagellates: free-living unicellular and colonial flagellate eukaryotes, which are the closest living relatives to animals. Choanoflagellates display key constituents of neurons, notably the same sodium channels. Nonsense mutations in our SCN9A gene, which encodes the Nav1.7 sodium ion channel, lead to congenital insensitivity to pain.
Clearly the exact date of the world’s first aversive experience, the first “micro-pinprick” so to speak, is a matter of conjecture. Yet dating the earliest forms of suffering is hard too. The experience of pain, I think, only amounts to full-blown suffering in multicellular creatures. Any distinction between mere pain and full-blown suffering is conventional; but it’s not arbitrary. Why don't vertebrates with central nervous systems - and likewise organisms in other phyla with complex cephalic ganglia - undergo not mere discrete neuronal “pinpricks”, but instead, on occasion, a unitary, ghastly experience of severe “physical” or emotional pain? Agony or despair can seem to consume one’s whole being, penetrating the very recesses of one’s soul. This is one aspect of the so-called “binding problem”, more commonly discussed in the context of the unity of perception.
In any deep sense of an explanation, we don't know why suffering exists. Wouldn't mere nociception be causally sufficient to generate the same range of adaptive behaviour? To the best of our knowledge, artificial silicon robots powered by digital computers don't suffer phenomenal distress. Silicon (etc) robots aren’t subjects of experience. Yet such robots can be programmed to avoid, and respond intelligently to, noxious stimuli. There’s no evidence that endowing them with a predisposition to phenomenal distress - if we knew how to program phenomenal distress - would improve their capabilities. So why do organic robots like us sometimes undergo such dreadful “raw feels”, as well as the subtler textures of sadness and malaise? Sometimes, indeed, we suffer neuropathic pain that lacks any signalling role at all. Or we undergo seemingly pointless depression. On an orthodox materialist understanding of the properties of atoms and molecules, we should all be zombies. The Standard Model in physics isn’t supposed to leave anything out, at sub-Planckian energies at any rate. Thus something is seriously amiss with our conceptual scheme here. The question is: what hitherto taken-for-granted presupposition or background assumption that we rely on is mistaken? Maybe something too “obvious” to state explicitly but false?
My own tentative answer to the Hard Problem of consciousness, and proposed closure of Levine’s infamous “Explanatory Gap”, involves a combination of Strawsonian physicalism (i.e. microqualia are the “fire” in the formal field-theoretic equations of physics) plus ultra-rapid macroscopic quantum coherence. Since it’s a speculative and controversial answer, I won’t explore the deeper issue here.
In a shallow sense, however, we do understand why our nastier core emotions exist. The answer lies in natural selection. Suffering exists because the many faces of misery helped our genes leave more copies of themselves (“maximise their inclusive fitness”) in the ancestral environment of adaptation. An organism that didn't feel anxious in the presence of potential predators, or didn't feel jealous in the presence of a conspecific who wanted to copulate with his mate, or who didn't perceive pathogen-signalling stimuli to be inherently disgusting (etc) would leave fewer copies of its genes than its more readily distressed counterpart. In general, evolution puts a premium on discontent - on our always wanting “more”: more food, more sex, more mates, more territory, more status, etc. What psychologists have christened the “hedonic treadmill” stops us being happy for long. The hedonic treadmill is the viciously effective suite of negative feedback mechanisms in the brain that regulate our hedonic set-point. An individual’s hedonic set-point reflects our tendency to revert to an average level of well-being - or ill-being - despite fluctuations caused by life’s ups and downs. Twin studies confirm an individual’s hedonic set-point is highly heritable.
Unless we recalibrate the hedonic treadmill, suffering and malaise in the living world will continue indefinitely.
2. Is there any point in the history of mankind - or of life in general - where you think that we might have lived in significantly more "ideal" (utopian? Brave-New-World-like?) state(s) before ultimately reaching our current state where suffering is so prevalent?
DP: In short, no. The brain’s hedonic treadmill operates even in the most idyllic-seeming tribal societies. Possibly the prevalence of clinical depression may be lower in traditional tribal societies than in modern urban civilization. But the loss of one’s child, for example - a common experience in pre-modern societies - is traumatic regardless of whether a grieving mother is optimistic or melancholic by temperament. In the developed world today, the vast majority of parents see their children grow to maturity. On a darker note, the suicide rate is much higher in modern society.
3. Do invertebrates with simpler nervous systems like the shrimp still experience suffering?
Shrimp do have a rudimentary nervous system. They respond to painkillers. But in the absence of a capacity for self-propelled motion, there won’t be selection pressure in favour of complex and energetically expensive nervous systems. Hence shrimp do not suffer as much as vertebrates or, say, a cephalopod (nautilus, squid, cuttlefish, octopuses). Indeed shrimp may not suffer at all. Perhaps they just support pinprick-like experiences or mild unpleasantness.
Constructing a hierarchy of suffering is invidious. But for now we must prioritize if we want to get anything done effectively. In the long run, posthumans can ensure that even the humblest creatures are blissfully happy. Until then, a welfare state for shrimps is unrealistic. This doesn’t morally entitle us to eat them.
4. Taking into consideration the ancient philosophy of yin/yang, how can the idea of having euphoria without dysphoria be explained?
A compass stuck on north is useless, says Professor Daniel Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness (2006). If we want to retain the signalling role of the pleasure-pain axis, then uniform bliss is indeed useless - just like uniform despair.
Yet this uselessness doesn’t mean organic life is trapped in the realm of suffering indefinitely. We’re just never going to “stumble” upon sustainable happiness with our existing biology. Lifelong well-being can be delivered only via genomic redesign. Even today, prospective parents could choose, say, the “happy and altruistic” version of the COMT gene and a high pain-threshold allele of the pain-modulating SCN9A gene (etc) for their prospective children via preimplantation genetic diagnosis. We needn’t play the usual genetic roulette of sexual reproduction. Later this century, such responsible choices will most likely be routine. In future, stimulus-sensitive dips in bliss can play an information-signalling role analogous to stimulus-sensitive gradients of pain and malaise today.
This isn’t just idle talk. Even now, a small minority of people with extreme "hyperthymia” are almost invariably happy - though not happy always to quite the same degree: some aspects of hyperthymic life are even more rewarding than others. Hyperthymia should be distinguished from mania or the “up” phase of bipolar disorder. A pathological form of perpetual euphoria is chronic unipolar euphoric mania. For evolutionary reasons, chronic unipolar euphoria is rare.
Elevating the rest of humanity via “naturally inspired” means to a hyperthymic hedonic set-point would prevent untold misery. By itself, preimplantation genetic diagnosis and embryo screening doesn’t involve untested genetic engineering; just judicious selection of what Nature has already thrown up. And a predisposition to lifelong well-being is just a foretaste of posthuman paradise-engineering.
Technically, engineering ourselves to enjoy lifelong bliss would be relatively easy, at least in principle, even without resorting to “wireheading” i.e. intracranial self-stimulation. The brain has two ultimate “hedonic hotspots”, located in the ventral pallidum and nucleus accumbens. Their neurons exhibit a unique gene expression profile; the role of the mu opioid receptor in their activation is critical. Genetically tweaking our hedonic hotspot neurons so that they churn out the molecular substrates of pure bliss indefinitely will be technically feasible – magnified to an arbitrary degree. The real challenge isn’t crudely “amping up the volume”, so to speak, to enrich hedonic tone. Raw bliss is easy. Rather the challenge is to engineer a default setting of profound well-being without impairing cognitive performance, triggering mania, or compromising our fragile sense of social responsibility. These constraints are more technically challenging to satisfy than crude pleasure-maximisation.
And we need to consider the wider picture. What will be the social dynamics of a posthuman society founded on a biology of intelligent bliss?
5. In order to work towards the achievement of the Abolitionist Project, do you find it preferable (or even necessary) for any changes to our legal systems to be made? For example, should some things like choosing against the inheritance of harmful genes be imposed by the law?
DP: The worst form of severe and readily avoidable suffering in the world today is probably factory farming. Even on some quite weak ethical assumptions, factory farming and the entire meat “industry” are indefensible; they should be outlawed. More generally, an indirect ethical utilitarian case can be made for legislation prohibiting the treatment of other sentient beings as property. A sentient being shouldn’t be allowed to “own” another sentient being. Such a relationship constitutes slavery.
Naturally, this kind of antispeciesist revolution won’t happen overnight.
However, great care is needed before proposing legislation that constrains the future genetic choices of other humans – despite the urgency of preventing wanton child abuse. For one of the biggest ideological obstacles to the abolitionist project is the anxiety many people express that someone, somewhere, might force them to be happy. Well-intentioned talk of constraining future parental choices will simply trigger such anxieties, and discourage responsible family planning.
If put on the spot, even professed opponents of the abolitionist project will typically concede that they don't believe anyone should be compelled to suffer against their will. If and when the biology of suffering becomes optional, critics will typically say, if pressed, that they wouldn’t seek to force its conservation on others. But sceptics are clearly troubled by the worry that powerful elites might manipulate them for their own purposes if we were ever to become hooked on the functional equivalent of soma (cf. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World). Hence the need explicitly to stress the abolition of involuntary suffering even if one predicts the abolition of all suffering.
As the reproductive revolution of designer babies matures, I think opting for natural reproduction will be recognized as akin to child abuse – or at least recklessly irresponsible. Ultimately, the (re)creation of any form of experience below hedonic zero may indeed be proscribed – or perhaps its existence will become simply inconceivable.
Consensus for such a proposal is centuries and perhaps millennia away. Indeed there are too many variables to be certain the Great Transition will ever come to pass at all. What I call scientific prediction might better be called scientific prophecy. The future may confound us all.
6. You seem to support the progress of genetic engineering and biotechnology, though I've never came across any opinion you might have on the testing on non-human animals done in this context (though I don't doubt that you have talked about it somewhere). What's your opinion, if any, on the use of non-human animals in experiments - should it be discontinued or do you find it necessary for a greater goal to be achieved?
DP: An immense variety of procedures can be performed on human and non-human animals without harming the subject. Regardless of where we draw the ethical line, what is needed, I think, is consistency - most critically, an absence of arbitrary anthropocentric bias. If it’s ethically wrong to perform an experiment on a human being, then it’s ethically wrong to do the same experiment on a functionally equivalent non-human.
Some animal advocates oppose any interventions at all - even if the subject is in no way harmed or distressed. I respect such arguments. But medical science can potentially benefit humans and nonhumans alike. Without biomedical progress, nonhuman animals are condemned to suffer and die horribly too – even in a world run by idealistic animal advocates.
There are also grey areas to consider. Let’s assume that in future our tightened ethical guidelines prohibit the infliction of harm or distress on non-consenting sentients of any race or species. What about the status of worms, for instance? C. elegans is the staple of innumerable kinds of biomedical research. C. elegans has 959 adult cells: 302 are nerve cells. Its 5000 odd synapses support a full complement of neurotransmitter signalling systems (acetylcholine, serotonin, dopamine, GABA, etc). Many scientists would disagree, but I suspect C. elegans does possess rudimentary sentience. If so, then strict ethical criteria mean we aren’t entitled to conduct many of the experiments we perform now.
All but the most uncompromising of animal activists might at least pause to wonder if harmful experiments may occasionally be justified on utilitarian grounds at the very margins of sentience. But “indirect” utilitarian arguments suggest that an absolute proscription of harmful experiments on even primitive multicellular life may yield the best utilitarian outcome in the long run. This issue is more subtle than a simple case of rights versus utility.
The real world is messy. I don’t know the least unsatisfactory answer.
7. In how many more generations starting from now do you think the Abolitionist Project could reach significant levels of completion and bring about the abolition of animal suffering?
DP: From a purely technical perspective, the abolitionist project could probably be completed this century if international consensus and funding existed. Such a Hundred Year Plan to phase out the biology of involuntary suffering is an unlikely, and perhaps fanciful, prospect – though I wish it were official UN policy. Piecemeal tinkering and incremental progress are more plausible than grandiose talk of “abolishing suffering”.
Yet the full-blown abolitionist project isn’t just utopian dreaming. Later this century, mankind will command the computational resources to micromanage every cubic meter of the planet. Increasingly, the existence of suffering in the world will (rightly) be perceived as an issue of complicity, not an immutable Law of Nature. It’s worth planning ahead.
Timescale? I’d hesitate to talk in terms of generations. Not least, the issue of human generations is complicated because it is by no means clear how much longer the ageing process will be inevitable. (cf. Aubrey de Grey’s groundbreaking Ending Aging (2007), though I'm rather less optimistic than Aubrey over timescales.) The obsolescence of ageing will entail the end of procreative freedom, too, on pain of Malthusian catastrophe. The implications of this dilemma have not been adequately explored in futurist literature.
So your question, then, is really about the sociology of belief. When will mankind’s “pro-suffering trance” be broken? My best guess is still that the last event below hedonic zero in our forward light-cone lies several hundred years ahead. This grievous delay is not because the technology to abolish aversive experience sooner will prove too difficult to master, but because of inevitable ethical / ideological objections from bioconservatives – and the simple weight of status quo bias.
8. You talk about how (future) biotechnology can help rid the living world from suffering. Are you ever worried about the world reaching a point where biotechnology is used for significantly more harm than good?
DP: We can certainly imagine scenarios more apocalyptic than anything in history to date. Biotechnology may be misused to kill hundreds of millions of people, perhaps several billion. For example, an infectious, 100% lethal weaponised airborne pathogen designed with an extremely long latency period between infection and the development of symptoms could wreak global havoc. Billions of people could perish. Perhaps any unimmunized person not cocooned in a sterile bolt-hole would die. Countermeasures are hard to devise because the very act of launching a vigorous biodefence program may make such a deadly assault more likely. Offence and defence are two sides of the same coin. Yet equally, it seems irresponsible not to plan for the worst.
In theory, we might call for a moratorium on biotech research. Such a moratorium is almost certainly not going to happen.
In the long run, if our native oxytocin and opioid systems are collectively enriched, then the notion of weaponizing and harming other sentient beings in such a manner may be inconceivable. But what is “the long run”? Suffering and existential risk might seem orthogonal themes; I think they are intimately connected. Although the thrust of The Biointelligence Explosion is optimistic, I fear hundreds of millions of people will die, most likely in thermonuclear war, before we edit our nastier bits of code out of the genome. Attempting to sustain the genetic status quo is at least as dangerous as engineering its replacement.
9. What is your opinion on the possibility that Earth / life could be completely destroyed at some point in the future? If you do consider that possible, how many chances do you think we have, as humans or as living organisms in general, for surviving such a destruction- and what would mostly help us survive?
DP: For now, global catastrophic risk strikes me as more credible than existential risk. Sterilizing the planet, or even wiping out 100% of humans worldwide, would be quite technically challenging even for a large modern state – though with biological weaponry, or a thermonuclear Doomsday Device, it could be done.
The creation of self-sustaining colonies on the Moon and Mars would substantially reduce existential risk. I think their establishment should be a priority. The price would be hundreds of billions of dollars, perhaps a trillion dollars or more: surely a cost-effective investment to safeguard the future of life within our cosmological horizon. Lobbying the major political parties for inclusion of such a policy commitment in their manifestos should be a priority.
Establishing self-sustaining colonies in nearby solar systems would reduce existential risk further still. Such interstellar spacefaring is presumably centuries away. Eventually, (post)humans are likely to radiate throughout the Galaxy and beyond, saturating our Hubble volume with intelligent bliss in guises beyond our imagination. However, there is a small window of existential risk later this century during which intelligent life could be snuffed out. Humanity's extinction would almost certainly be self-inflicted. Let’s not take the chance of messing up.
The following two questions are a bit personal, so you don't have to answer them if you don't feel like it:
10. It seems like you have written a very large number of essays that can be found on the web, but it's either impossible or just too difficult to find any of your writings on paper form. Did you ever publish anything on paper? If not, do you have any such plans?
DP: Printed books tend to gather dust. So until now I've only ever published online. However, I hope to bring out one printed volume at some stage: “The Abolitionist Project”.
I'll let you know.
11. Can you name some of your personal favourite philosophers?
DP: In no particular order: Michael Lockwood, Bryan Magee, David Chalmers and William Seager. None of these philosophers focus on the abolition of suffering. But we need to distinguish between what is intellectually interesting and what is ethically important.
12. Anything you would like to add?
DP: Really just a note of thanks Andreas. Despite the technical challenges to phasing out the biology of suffering, by far the biggest obstacles to a cruelty-free world are ideological. By spreading the word to a wider audience, you’re helping take things forward. I'm in your debt.
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more interviews 1 : 2 : 3 : 4 : 5 : 6 : 7 : 8 : 9 : 10
Manniska Plus (Jan. 2011)
UHI Interview (Jan. 2011)
H+ Interview (Sept. 2009)
Vanity Fair Interview (April 2007)
Leisure Only Interview (Sept. 2011)
Sentience Research Interview (Dec. 2019)