WHAT IS IT LIKE TO BE A PHILOSOPHER?
CS: So, where did you grow up? What was your family like?
DP: I grew up in the village of Burpham, near Guildford in Surrey. My parents, all four grandparents, and three of my eight great-grandparents were vegetarian. My paternal grandmother was an Anthroposophist – she converted from Zoroastrianism in 1930. Their only child, my father, was a Quaker. My maternal grandparents and great-grandparents came from the slums of Manchester. My great-grandmother was in the habit of singing the Internationale outside Strangeways in support of imprisoned “conchie” in WW1. She converted to vegetarianism with my grandmother rather than sacrifice another family rabbit for the pot: life up north was hard. My great-grandparents took in members of the Kindertransport before WW2. Their grandson, my pacifist vegan uncle, went to prison rather than serve in the armed forces or do war-related work. Their granddaughter, my mother, belonged to the Order of the Cross, a small mystical Christian offshoot who worship God the Father-Mother. My mother took her degree at Cambridge after the War. Young ladies who received male visitors were supposed to put their beds outside their rooms to discourage moral turpitude. After an affair with a rationalist, she met my father on the rebound. They had three children, of whom I’m the eldest. In short, I came from an ethically serious, religious-minded family. Alas, I have no natural spiritual sense. I went to Quaker meeting as a small boy; but God never deigned to talk to me. So I became a secular scientific rationalist aged 10 or 11.
CS: As a little kid, what were you interested in?
DP:I was preoccupied by death and aging. I was especially troubled by the existence of predatory carnivores, whom I hoped to see reformed or retired. Aged four or five, I used to rescue injured ants and desiccated worms from our garden path. A few years later, I resolved to find a cure for aging. Sadly it transpired the biological-genetic details were too challenging. So, I decided to be cryonically frozen before my dotage instead. With time, my view of existence darkened further. In my teens, I became preoccupied by the problem of suffering and the abolitionist project.
CS: How were you similar to, and different from, the rest of your friends and family?
DP: Any advanced intelligence would probably find all humans - and maybe all members of the animal kingdom - fairly similar. But like most people, I found myself at the hub of reality. Despite my depressive low self-esteem, I seemed special. After reading Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene, I realised I was prey to a genetically adaptive delusion.
CS: As a teenager, did you enjoy school? What was on your mind in general? What sort of things were you passionate about, if anything? What did you do to amuse yourself?
DP: I went to the local school, from which I derived no benefit, just emotional damage: most young male humans don’t behave very warmly towards each other. Creating sentience-friendly biological intelligence will prove harder than creating sentience-friendly AI. I was a melancholic, intensely introspective child with no close friends. At home, I read a mixture of history, science fiction and pop science. In my mid-teens, I was entranced to learn about what were then called the pleasure centres. Intracranial self-stimulation of the mesolimbic dopamine system shows no tolerance. Eureka. We could all be perpetually happy. I was disappointed to find that no one shared my enthusiasm for perpetual wirehead bliss. I realised that a more circuitous route to salvation would be needed. Information-sensitivity must be conserved. But how?
CS: Any early signs you'd end up being a philosopher?
DP: Potted life histories lend one’s existence a narrative coherence it lacks.
CS: True story!
DP: That said, around thirteen or so, I picked up Philosophy Made Simple from a newsagent bookstand. This seminal work turned me into something resembling a philosopher, although that’s not a label any normal British person will readily avow. I used to ruminate at length on why anything existed at all. What would a complete absence of properties amount to? I’d also ponder the mysteries of consciousness and perception. Losing faith in perceptual naïve realism involved a shattering loss of childhood innocence. I was deeply troubled by how the inhabitants of my phenomenal world-simulation were zombies – the avatars of hypothetical sentient beings in the wider world beyond my transcendental skull. Worse, I couldn’t work out (and still can’t work out!) how to naturalise semantic meaning and overcome the spectre of semantic solipsism. This inability deepened my adolescent loneliness beyond my inferential realism about external reality. The lucid dreamworlds fable that I devised a few years later still captures my sense of the human predicament.
CS: Are you still that reflective young person deep down?
DP: To a degree. I used to introspect for hours each day in a frenzy of teen angst. From an early age, I was in the habit of rocking back-and-forth in a darkened room with my eyes closed listening to pop music while thinking about the nature of thought, perception and reality. My mother claimed I rocked two sofas to death. She also said it was like having a handicapped child. Maybe so. I guess had the philosopher’s temperament par excellence. Reading about how smart people throughout history had been so deluded made me determined not to follow suit. I took seriously scepticism - and the possibility I was fundamentally in error about everything. It’s a possibility I take seriously to this day.
CS: Seems like you were a serious fellow. What did you do for fun?
DP: Fun did not loom large in my life.
CS: If the person you were when before you started college met the person you are now, what would he recognize, and what would shock him?
DP: My ancestral namesakes were fanatically oriented towards truth. Earlier iterations of DP would be surprised to learn that I now pine for ignorance. My romance with knowledge has ended. I now hope the whole Darwinian era can be forgotten like a bad dream. But tomorrow’s paradise engineers will need a deeper understanding of reality, not least for the purposes of genome reform and a pan-species welfare state. Knowledge of reality is a necessary evil - a stepping-stone (I hope) to something civilized.
CS: Speaking of knowledge, where did you go to college? Did you dig it?
DP: I won a scholarship to study Politics, Philosophy and Economics (PPE) at Oxford, though I never got around to finishing a degree. I was underwhelmed by Oxford-style philosophy. Ordinary language philosophy had passed its heyday; but the influence of the later Wittgenstein (“philosophy leaves everything as it is”) lingered.
CS: Into politics?
DP: My closest foray into orthodox politics was becoming chair of Oxford Labour Party Young Socialists; but my views on global veganism, hedonic recalibration and reprogramming the biosphere didn’t resonate with the party orthodox.
CS: Ha! Drugs?
DP: Slightly later, I explored psychedelia. The true empirical method discloses realms of existence that my shallow scientific rationalism had never conceived. My conceptual scheme was broken. The only scientific discovery I learned that came close to my shock at psychedelia was Hugh Everett’s relative state interpretation (RSI) of quantum mechanics, which profoundly disturbs me to this day.
CS: What are your favorite drugs and why?
DP: The empathogen MDMA ("Ecstasy") is a euphoriant hug drug. Taking MDMA creates an idealised version of you, a profound love of self and others, and a rose-tinted candour. On MDMA, everyone loves everybody. On MDMA, everyone trusts everybody; MDMA triggers the copious release of oxytocin. Hence the self-disclosure, emotional honesty and therapeutic potential. Feeling and emotion are intensified. Safe and sustainable analogs of MDMA – or better still, genome reform to engineer lifelong loved-up MDMA-like consciousness – would be my vision of paradise: universal love, hugs, cuddle puddles and a magical beauty that infuses everyone and everything. Sadly, this is not necessarily my prediction for the future of sentience. And MDMA itself has too many risks to encourage wider use. In the real world, I don’t drink, smoke or take exotic substances. I do take a fairly dopaminergic regimen of selegiline and amineptine together with strong black coffee, green tea and sugar-free Red Bull – Darwinian consciousness for a Darwinian world.
CS: After college, what were your thoughts on academia, generally? Sour grapes?
DP: My views on academia were unfair and simplistic. I associated university life with an arid scholasticism. My ancestral namesake was deeply committed to knowledge. Science is supposed to be an empirical (“relating to experience”) enterprise. All each of us ever knows, directly, are the subjective contents of one’s own mind-brain – external reality is hypothesised, not “perceived”. And yet the empirical method of investigation to expand one’s evidential base was scientifically and philosophically taboo. Thus you could be a professional philosopher – indeed, you can still be a professional philosopher - and never experimentally investigate anything more illuminating than ethyl alcohol. Last century, a post-Galilean science of mind was just a pipedream – and despite the so-called psychedelic renaissance, perhaps it’s a flight of fantasy even today. In my view, scientific materialism has been a catastrophe for knowledge – and I speak as someone prone to neurobabble who regularly consumes science news-stories and who can prattle on about reforming genomes, the wonders of molecular biology and the success of the Standard Model in physics. In my view, materialist chemists and physicists radically misunderstand the intrinsic nature of matter and energy. Neurobiologists radically misunderstand the CNS as a pack of decohered classical neurons. A pack of classical neurons couldn’t generate a mind running a subjectively classical world-simulation as you’re doing now (cf. The binding problem). .
On a more sober note, I have reverted this century to the same arid scholasticism that my ancestral namesakes once scorned. I’ve long retired as a psychonaut. Sadly, there are reasons of prudence to forswear the empirical method: Darwinian minds are too dark. Let’s get our reward circuitry sorted out first. But I still believe that ordinary Darwinian consciousness is a shallow puddle drawn from a vast ocean of state-spaces of experience beyond human comprehension.
CS: What is the Darwinian mind?
DP: First, a caveat. Despite the triumph of the Modern Synthesis, evolution via natural selection doesn’t explain our phenomenally bound minds in a deep sense. Daniel Dennett is hopelessly optimistic: Darwin's Dangerous Idea . For a complete mind-brain could be assembled from scratch in the laboratory from molecular raw materials. Compare today’s “mini-brains”. Your ahistorical molecular duplicate would presumably be subjectively type-identical too. It would run the same kind of phenomenal world-simulation. In other words, we’re discussing scientifically unexplained but intrinsic subjective properties of matter and energy. The genesis of our minds via hundreds of millions of years of evolution is a contingent historical fact rather than essential to their nature. What’s more, a materialist ontology of fields of insentience can’t explain the properties of any minds, whether naturally evolved or lab-grown.
That said, it’s still convenient to speak of “Darwinian” minds evolved under pressure of natural selection to maximise the inclusive fitness of self-replicating DNA. Evolution via natural selection is an engine for creating fiendish varieties of suffering. Discontent is fitness-enhancing. Mental and physical pain are fitness-enhancing. Darwinian minds are often jealous, spiteful, mean-spirited, envious, resentful, competitive and status-hungry. Darwinian minds behave in quasi-sociopathic ways towards each other, not least towards sentient beings from other species. The systematic abuse of our cousins in factory-farms and slaughterhouses could have come straight out of Dante’s Inferno. Darwinian minds are sentient malware. When I speak of “Darwinian minds”, I’m referring in particular to minds running egocentric world-simulations imbued with a pleasure-pain axis - rather than a post-Darwinian pleasure-superpleasure axis - and endowed with all our darker attributes. The psychotic self-centeredness of Darwinian minds is genetically adaptive and ethically catastrophic.
Darwinian minds occupy only a tiny fraction of the state-space of all possible minds. If e.g. “loved-up” MDMA-like minds and their rosy world-simulations had been fitness-enhancing in the ancestral environment of adaptation, then such beautiful minds wouldn’t have been technically harder for natural selection to engineer than Darwinian malware. Alas nastiness - to put it crudely - has been adaptive. However, we’re on the brink of a major discontinuity in the evolution of life. Imminent mastery of our genetic source-code promises access to states of consciousness previously forbidden by natural selection. The biotech revolution gives Darwinian malware the opportunity to bootstrap its way into paradise. Tomorrow’s sentience will be precision-engineered. Transhuman consciousness will have its source-code base-edited. Future minds will be innately superhappy. Post-Darwinian minds will be optimised for mental health, decision-theoretic rationality and morality – although moral value changes in a world without experience below hedonic zero: The Future of Sentience
CS: I imagine somebody reading this and thinking you are into, like, crystals and stuff.
DP: I realise such talk probably sounds crankish if not New Agey. So I should probably stress: I’m a monistic physicalist who believes reality is formally described, exhaustively, by the equations of mathematical physics. But in my view, our understanding of the intrinsic properties of matter and energy has scarcely begun.
CS: What did you do between the time you quit college and the time you published The Hedonistic Imperative?
DP: I travelled around the world – although my conception of foreign adventure involves chatting with friends in exotically located coffee shops rather than hitch-hiking across the Himalayas. My friends thought I was strange, but in many ways I’m terribly British – the weirdness lies within.
CS: Ha! Was it all philosophy all the time, or did you pursue other projects?
DP: I remained philosophically minded. I attempted a novel but failed.
CS: In that window of time, did you have doubts about your decisions and views?
DP: Until the advent of the new-fangled World Wide Web, I had no idea what to do with my life beyond pursuing curiosity about existence. Rightly or wrongly, I assumed that my views on the abolitionist project and paradise engineering were unpublishable. Likewise, my views on the philosophy of mind and scientific metaphysics. Temperamentally, I wasn’t cut out for a career in politics, so I’d no chance to make an impact there. If it weren’t for the Internet, then I would presumably have vanished without a trace.
CS: How did your views evolve?
DP: In 1991, I read Mind, Brain and the Quantum: The Compound 'I' by philosopher Michael Lockwood. Yes, the title is ominous, but I was intrigued. Although Lockwood disavows panpsychism, his work helped crystallize my non-materialist physicalism (the term itself is due to the late Grover Maxwell). Non-materialist physicalism is sometimes called constitutive panpsychism – though the term misleads. “Panpsychism” evokes property dualism. Non-materialist physicalism is monist – it’s a conjecture of the intrinsic nature of the physical, the mysterious “fire” in the equations of quantum field theory. Only the physical is real; but the essence of a quantum field differs from our materialist intuitions.
Also in 1991, I read PiHKAL. In my view, Alexander (“Sasha”) Shulgin's contributions to knowledge are on a par with Newton, Einstein and Turing. The magnitude of Sasha’s achievement isn’t easy to convey to the drug-naïve. But by analogy, imagine if you’d been dreaming all your life and then discovered a tool to create waking consciousness. Sasha devised hundreds of such tools to access hundreds of alien state-spaces of consciousness, each as different as waking from dreaming - and a methodology to match. We erratically corresponded, but alas I didn’t have the privilege of meeting Sasha in person (cf. The Sorcerer's Apprentice) until shortly before his death in 2014.
CS: Scientifically, how do we study non-material aspects of the physical?
DP: Well, as far as I can tell, all aspects of the physical are non-material. If the intrinsic nature argument is sound, experience discloses the essence of the world’s fundamental quantum fields. Phenomenal binding into virtual world-simulations, not subjectivity per se, makes Darwinian animal minds special. Our common-sense belief in a material world stems from (1) an obsolete they of classical physics (2) a misunderstanding of the measurement problem in quantum mechanics and (3) a pre-scientific theory of perception.
OK, that word-salad needs a bit of unpacking.
Formally, I assume nothing beyond the universal wavefunction of modern, unitary-only quantum mechanics. Most wavefunction monists, such as Sean Caroll, are materialists. Materialist physicalists face the insoluble Hard Problem of consciousness. Indeed, materialism is inconsistent with the entirety of the empirical evidence. For consciousness exhausts the empirical evidence; one has nothing else to go on. So my working assumption is non-materialist physicalism, i.e. experience expresses the intrinsic nature of the physical that the mathematical formalism of quantum field theory describes.
CS: Non-materialist physicalism ... explain!
DP: Surely a rock, for instance, is as material it gets?
Not so! I argue for a world-simulationist / inferential realist model of “perception”.
According to inferential realism, what naïve realists conceive as material objects are facets of one’s mind no less than one’s thought-episodes and feelings. The seemingly “material” objects that populate your phenomenal world-simulation - such as your computer, your body-image, your nearest-and-dearest and an airplane in the distant sky - are all phenomenal properties of your mind. Such robustly “material’ items of each other’s mental furniture can readily be studied by the scientific community. This is because during waking life their behaviour causally co-varies with fitness-relevant patterns in (theoretically inferred) extra-cranial reality beyond your (theoretically inferred) transcendental skull – and because material-seeming phenomenal objects in your awake classical world-simulation are typically similar to mine.
Pseudo-public, law-bound classical worlds that masquerade as shared external reality are an adaptive feature of Darwinian minds. Such virtual worlds explain our evolutionary success.
This kind of language is apt to sound antirealist - perhaps akin to Donald Hoffman’s “interface theory” of perception.
CS: So, is the world the way it seems?
DP: I’m both a realist and a physicalist. Reality long predates the existence of phenomenally bound minds. Anything other than realism and physicalism leaves the technological success of modern science a miracle. Anyhow, finally to answer your question, we need to combine the methodology of traditional materialist science with the methodologies pioneered by psychopharmacologist Sasha Shulgin in PiHKAL and (looking further ahead) technologies of reversible “mind-melding” prefigured by the conjoined Hogan sisters. In my view, science has barely begun to understand the intrinsic properties of matter and energy.
CS: In 1995, you self-published The Hedonistic Imperative. Tell me about the process of writing The Hedonistic Imperative. What was plan and goal there?
DP: I wrote The Hedonistic Imperative (HI) in around six weeks. I’d started taking the selective MAO-b inhibitor selegiline (2 x 5mg daily). After countless false dawns and missteps, I had finally banished the melancholia that stained my early youth. Writing involves taking oneself more seriously than the evidence warrants. No, I hadn’t developed messianic delusions; but I believed that HI was the future of sentience – a fairly bold proposal. Originally, my notional audience was analytic philosophers, a fairly limited group. Half-way through writing the manifesto, I realised that the Web allowed one to communicate with anybody and everybody. So, I jazzed it up a bit. The text is still heavy in philosophical academese, and I wouldn’t write anything in the same clotted style today. I think abolitionist.com offers a clearer overview of the abolitionist project.
But the core message of HI, namely that the biology of pain and suffering can and should be replaced by architecture of mind based entirely on gradients of well-being, is still my credo.
I was uncertain about the title, a nod to Kant. “HI” is not wholly inaccurate: I do indeed advocate (and prophesy) a “hedonistic” civilization underpinned by gradients of superhuman bliss. I would like to have called the manifesto “Our Moral Obligation to Use Biotechnology to Abolish Suffering throughout the Living World”; but alas this wouldn’t have the same ring. Also, back in 1995, the human genome hadn’t been decoded; cultured meat was science fiction; and the idea of synthetic gene drives to tackle inaccessible marine ecosystems was unknown - I was reduced to invoking self-replicating Drexlerian nanobots to rescue marine ecosystems. But the core idea, i.e. all future sentient life in the cosmos can be based entirely on information-sensitive gradients of bliss, was now public.
CS: Did you consider publishing it or try to publish it in a conventional venue?
DP: Not really. Just as some prophets now suppose that Web3 will swallow up Web 1.0 and 2.0, I naively imagined traditional print-publishing would soon fade into irrelevance.
CS: Was the reception what you anticipated? Was it an immediate hit?
DP: Compared to the reception accorded some modern “influencer” or TikTok star with a popular dance routine, I guess the impact was modest! But for the first time in my life, my views were noticed beyond my small circle of friends. A young postgrad called Nick Bostrom read HI and got in contact. We set up the World Transhumanist Association / Humanity Plus. Encouraged by the reception, I created a bunch more websites on HI themes. But my motherlode site hedweb.com still flies the flag for a biohappiness revolution – a revolutionary message conveyed in twentieth-century web-design that is now quaint.
CS: What did Bostrom say when he wrote you? How has your friendship evolved?
DP: Nick read HI. He emailed a few worries and thoughtful objections. I did my best to respond. We met up and talked. One thing led to another. We set up the World Transhumanist Association (H+) and helped hammer out core transhumanist principles: The Transhumanist Declaration (1998, 2009). Yet our preoccupations have always been different: Interview with Nick Bostrom and David Pearce
I am primarily focused on phasing out the biology of suffering, with paradise engineering as the icing on the cake. Nick has long been preoccupied by existential risk - a discipline he helped found - and he was interested mainly in HI's idea of a motivational architecture based entirely of gradients of bliss. I never managed to convert him to vegetarianism - though he supports cultured meat - and Nick thought the idea of fixing wild animal suffering was pretty crazy. But the biggest intellectual gulf between us has always been that Nick thinks of life as fundamentally good, whereas I think of reality itself as fundamentally evil. Nick is appalled by my button-pressing negative utilitarianism. Students of human irony may savour how a founder of existential risk research teamed up with a negative utilitarian who wouldn’t hesitate to initiate a vacuum phase transition - or a utilitronium shockwave - if he got the chance. Darwinian life has many ironies, some crueler than others. I trust that negative utilitarians can disappear into history along with the suffering that spawned them.
CS: Biggest misunderstandings of your views?
DP: Well, sometimes I hear that I want to “exterminate” predators - as distinct from herbivorise and reprogram them. Other critics latch on to my negative utilitarianism: yes, fancifully, I’d press a notional OFF button to bring the Darwinian horror-show to an end; but advocating a biohappiness revolution surely makes clear that the way to fix the problem of suffering is a genome reform - not plotting Armageddon, engineering a vacuum phase transition, or even Benatarian “hard” anti-natalism, which falls victim to selection pressure.
CS: Weakest but most popular objections?
DP: You can’t have the sweet without the sour! The weakest objection is also still the most popular. Pleasure and pain are largely if not wholly relative, one is told. Pain and pleasure are as essential to each other as positive and negative electric charge. So, they must balance out.
If pressed, critics acknowledge the existence of tragic people who endure chronic pain and lifelong depression. The reverse syndrome, i.e. architecture of mind and motivation based entirely on information-sensitive gradients of well-being, isn’t obviously more conceptually radical than its opposite. But most people still balk at the possibility. Hence the importance of case studies of extreme hyperthymics. Today’s freakish hedonic outliers could one day be the norm.
CS: Theoretically what, in your mind, are the biggest challenges to the views you outline in The Hedonistic Imperative?
DP: I’m here going to set aside my worries derived from the interpretation of quantum mechanics and the fear we may be living in an Everettian multiverse. Let’s consider just traditional space-time cosmology and our forward light-cone. I think the biggest obstacle to HI is traditional sexual reproduction. If the reproductive revolution of “designer babies” that I anticipate doesn’t come to pass, then pain and suffering will persist indefinitely - and indeed proliferate. This pessimistic worry would be ill-founded if pain and depression were widely recognised as heritable genetic disorders. If (a predisposition to) hedonically sub-zero states were regarded as akin to cystic fibrosis or the sickle cell disease, i.e. genetic disorders to be cured, then their genomic signature would be phased out over the next 100-150 years, perhaps sooner. Sadly, this isn’t the case.
CS: Sounds like you think ‘designer babies’ are inevitable…
DP: Well, imagine the world a few decades from now. Neuroscientific knowledge has advanced to the stage when humans have the technical ability to set the approximate hedonic range, hedonic set-points and pain tolerance of their future children. In other words, complicity in suffering is no longer hidden. The level of suffering for life on Earth will soon be an adjustable parameter. At least some parents-to-be will surely opt to have innately happy babies - and even superhappy babies. Crudely, happy kids are “winners” – as well as being more fun to raise. With time, how many prospective parents will still want to have – or merely risk having – unhappy, pain-ridden children? So selection pressure will intensify against the nastier alleles and allelic combinations of the human genome as prospective parents choose the genetic makeup of their children in anticipation of the likely effects of their choices. Alas, I must stress the “eventually”. Terrible and pointless suffering will play out in the meantime. Today’s genetic crapshoot is an engine of suffering on an unimaginable scale.
CS: Other obstacles?
DP:: I’m modestly optimistic that the cultured meat revolution will supersede animal agriculture later this century. Even the problem of predation - and wild animal suffering in general - is eminently fixable. But the timescale for a full-blown reproductive revolution in humans is unclear.
CS: Do you try to connect your work to the abstract, technical work in academic philosophy?
DP: Good writers know their audience. Here I fall short. I’m neither a professional academic nor a popular writer. I hope that academic philosophy – and indeed popular science – does spawn more work on an HI theme. A biohappiness revolution deserves to go mainstream.
CS: Are you a truly consistent hedonist?
DP: I wish I could spice up this interview with tales of hedonistic debauchery and wanton excess. But I’m a celibate teetotaler of austere habits.
CS: Would you say Darwin is more important than Plato?
DP: Darwin seems to have borrowed his theory from Patrick Matthew. However, saying that Matthew is more important than Plato sounds odd. I’m not sure if your question has an objectively correct answer. But phenomena as diverse as evolution via natural selection to Zurek’s “quantum Darwinism” are explicable via Darwin’s – or rather Matthew’s - fertile core idea. Consider Universal Darwinism, which aims to generalise the mechanisms of variation, selection and heredity as Matthew proposed.
CS: Future of humanity?
DP: This century? Nuclear war, I fear. On a brighter note, HI’s tentative prediction that the world’s last experience below hedonic zero will be a precisely dateable event a few centuries from now is at once highly specific – no more suffering! – and frustratingly vague: what will transhumans do with the eons of their quasi-immortal lives? Clearly, archaic humans don’t know the answer: I’m guessing. But one reason for focusing on hedonic range and hedonic set-points is because hedonic tone is what (IMO) matters ethically rather than any particular intentional objects, i.e. what transhumans and posthumans will notionally be happy “about”.
We may still speculate. What kinds of intentional object might future sentience celebrate?
Let me now distinguish between what I advocate and predict. When pitching to bioconservatives - both religious and secular - I normally stress how hedonic uplift can leave your core values, preferences and relationships intact. Hedonic uplift doesn’t entail sacrificing whatever you care about on the altar of someone else’s vision of paradise. Rather, hedonic recalibration just enriches your default quality of life. Recalibration involves no inherent loss of critical insight, social responsibility, potential for personal growth or disruption of personal relationships. Just imagine waking up tomorrow - and every other day - in an extremely good mood, both willing and able to pursue everything you value. That’s the pitch.
In practice, mature humans, transhumans and posthumans will probably occupy alien state-spaces of consciousness in immersive virtual realities endowed with different physical laws, different body-images and above all, outlandishly different modes of consciousness. What archaic humans call the “public” world of ordinary waking consciousness – aka being “awake” - will disappear into the dustbin of history. Here are 24 predictions for life in the Year 3000.
CS: You say, "Writing involves taking oneself more seriously than the evidence warrants."
DP: Yes. We churn out words, words, and then more words. I must have millions online. Does the world really need any more? That said, words can sometimes exert life-changing effects, for good or ill. For sure, 99.99+% of what one says is just verbiage – proverbial water off a duck’s back, for most readers most of the time. But occasionally, a writer expresses an idea that cuts to the core of one’s being - an idea that can delight or torment a reader for years or even a lifetime. So, one should aim to write responsibly.
Here’s an example of what I hope is mere writerly self-importance. I write only warily and sparingly about the few info-hazards and s-risks that really worry me because I worry about inadvertently doing harm. Self-delusion? Maybe. But why take the risk? Most of the time, however, one is just a wordsmith toiling in the Library of Babel. When will artificial intelligence spit out publishable philosophy papers superior to the output of tenured philosophers? Actually, I reckon the philosophy of mind may be one of the few bastions of academia not to fall to AI authoring. The idea that digital zombies will ever be more authoritative on phenomenally-bound sentience than conscious beings is problematic. But maybe I’m wrong and organic philosophers can be pensioned off to the reservation.
CS: Print-publishing is still, like, a thing...why?
DP: Indeed. Compare medieval illuminated manuscripts. If virtual books were the norm, then it’s hard to see how print-publishing would ever be invented. Instead of clicking on a hotlinked reference, the reader must manually type out its URL: how pointlessly inefficient! I guess a fetish for printed books is partly a function of the age of the reader. I’m a centennial at heart - although I’m currently writing on old-fashioned book.
CS: Good interactions with philosophers?
DP: David Chalmers got in contact after I wrote a review The Conscious Mind; David is a true gentleman - philosophy at its best. My personal interactions with professional philosophers have almost all been positive - despite the disputatious reputation of academic philosophy. They say don’t meet your heroes, but Peter Singer is a genuinely nice guy.
CS: Bad experiences?
DP: Naturally, it wouldn’t be hard to find philosophers who’d say dismissive or uncomplimentary things about my work – especially the negative utilitarianism or quantum mind stuff (“Schrödinger neurons”). But people who aren’t interested in your research just don’t get in touch to engage. In an attention-based economy, taking time to critique anyone’s work - however harshly - is to pay it the ultimate compliment. Also, unless one has a paid academic position, calling oneself a “philosopher” isn’t socially acceptable in the English-speaking world. If asked what I do, then I normally say “transhumanist”. What transhumanists actually “do” is unclear.
CS: Most fair, incisive philosophical criticisms of your work?
DP: I’m probably not the best judge. I was recently guest on the Philosophy Forum, so maybe take your pick.
CS: Most overrated famous philosopher?
DP: I don’t like to speak ill of the living, or even disrespect the dead. But maybe the Gettier problem doesn’t merit quite such a voluminous philosophical literature. My real bugbear is dead: Ludwig Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein’s anti-private language argument is interesting; but otherwise, I think Wittgenstein’s influence on academic philosophy, especially ordinary language philosophy, was disastrous. Good philosophy should be informed by science. Great philosophy shatters one’s naive conceptual scheme.
CS: Favorite living philosopher that you have not met?
DP: Antti Revonsuo. I especially appreciated Inner Presence for its development of the world-simulation metaphor of mind.
CS: Why do some Homo sapiens dig suffering so? Might a life of suffering be the best one for a person?
DP: Compare the history of surgery. Anaesthesia - briefly controversial - was a game-changer. Reverting to the pre-anesthetic era would now be unthinkable. We recognise that the optimal level of suffering during surgery is precisely zero. Likewise (I believe) with life itself: all unpleasant experience is pathological. We just need the right biological-genetic tools for the job - and the vision to deploy them wisely. In the meantime, humans rationalise. I used to say I thought that the biggest obstacles to the abolitionist project were ethical-ideological rather than technical. But really, the biggest obstacle to a civilised biosphere is plain status quo bias. To make the point, try to imagine a future world based entirely on information-sensitive gradients of bliss. If contemporary humans could taste such blissful post-Darwinian life, if only for a moment, then no one - literally no-one – would pine nostalgically for the good old days of misery and malaise. Yet in today’s world, both suffering and its rationalisation abound.
In fairness, rationalisation can sometimes be good. Compare how nonhuman animals and human babies can’t rationalise their distress in any shape or form. So their suffering can be worse than for accomplished rationalisers. But rationalisation is desirable only for problems that can’t be solved. Rationalisation will soon be redundant. The problem of suffering is now technically fixable. No sentient being needs or deserves any pain or suffering at all. Life on Earth calls for a more civilised signaling system. Classical Turing machines have utility functions.
Connectionist systems have training algorithms.
Post-Darwinian life can be based on information-sensitive gradients of bliss.
CS: I imagine people objecting to some of what you say about ‘genomic reform’ here. Is it eugenics?
DP : Yes, the “e” word can be a conversation-stopper: eugenics.org
So should genome reformers aim for what linguists call “reappropriation” – recall the once entirely derogatory epithets for black and gay people? Or is the “e” word beyond redemption: too tainted by past abuse to be unsalvageable? The dilemma is frustrating. After all, the race hygiene policies of National Socialism weren’t geared to promoting the well-being of all sentience. So the idea that genome reform is inherently neo-Nazi, racist or even right-wing is fairly risible. But the label sticks. Have I been compared to Hitler? Naturally. It’s par for the course.
Despite the usual knockabout rhetoric, all genome reform is fraught with perils, known and unknown. But all sexual reproduction involves unique and untested genetic experiments: the underlying ethical risk is natalism and procreation, not aspirations to genetically responsible parenthood. Germline editing is an expression of what effective altruists call "longtermism". First-generation EA was parochial in space and time. There are intimate links between transhumanism, genome reform, effective altruism and animal ethics. And without genome reform - OK, eugenics - there can be no transhumanist “triple S” civilisation of superintelligence, superlongevity and superhappiness.
CS: Is neurodiversity good?
DP: I associate neurodiversity with what are known, infelicitously, as autism spectrum disorders. Tragically, children with severe autism do tend to be deeply troubled; the “mind-blind” often bring less joy to their caregivers than neurotypicals. Contrast joyful, warm and affectionate children with Down’s or Williams syndrome. On the other hand, high-functioning Aspergers from Isaac Newton to Jeremy Bentham have contributed immeasurably to civilisation. If the abolitionist project succeeds, then its success will probably owe more to “autistic” hyper-systematisers than to soft-hearted empaths. Alternatively, perhaps fashionable talk of neurodiversity is overblown. By the lights of posterity, all Darwinian minds may be as similar as beetles.
CS: It doesn't appear you have a source of income, I am generally curious, how do you, like, make money?
DP: I am not a sophist! My role model is Diogenes in his tub. OK, for the benefit of the (I trust small) minority of your readers interested in the cash nexus, I erratically corresponded with the transhumanist I believe was Satoshi Nakamoto. If so, then heaven knows how much his bitcoin will be worth when he is reanimated from the cryonics tank. Zero or trillions? But crypto is not primarily how I’ve kept the wolf from the door. Domain names were the NFTs of my generation: Good domains for a better world
CS: Biggest political and economic obstacles to the future you hope for?
DP: “Elon Musk says, ‘Let’s use biotechnology to abolish suffering!’”
No, sadly, this headline isn’t (yet) a quote. But imagine the impact of such a breakthrough. The abolitionist project needs fame, wealth, charisma, and (dare one say it) a larger-than-life egomaniac to take the project forward. Action is needed rather than just my endless philosophical talk. As they say, “A man of words and not of deeds, is like a garden full of weeds.”
I don’t foresee insurmountable financial obstacles to paradise engineering. For one of the beauties of genome reform is that it’s cheap. Like computer power, the cost of genome sequencing and editing is crashing. Ubiquitous genome-editing will be highly cost-effective. Consider the global economic burden of depressive disorders. Likewise, tunable synthetic gene drives will save money by eradicating vector-borne disease in humans and non-humans alike. Compare scarce status goods, where the price can only rise. Mercifully, the source code for substrates of bliss won’t need to be rationed. True, pilot studies of self-contained blissful artificial biospheres will be pricey. Teething problems will need ironing out. But with the aid of artificial intelligence, nanotechnology and robotics, even a pan-species welfare state won't be prohibitively expensive. Later this century and beyond, every cubic metre of the planet will be readily accessible to surveillance, micromanagement and control. For sure, such Orwellian language can set alarm-bells ringing. But non-human animals are akin to toddlers; their lives don’t raise the same privacy issues as the affairs of mature humans.
By contrast, the political obstacles to genome reform continue to daunt me. I have fantasies about a Greta Thunberg haranguing the UN to live up to its statutory obligations to promote health via the WHO. Sadly, they are fantasies, not an active lobbying campaign. Despite such short-term political pessimism, I incline to a (bio)technological determinism. In the wake of the post-Darwinian transition, the replacement of the biology of suffering with life-based gradients of bliss will seem as crushingly inevitable as pain-free surgery does now. We already know a biohappiness revolution is technically feasible: blueprints exist. So eventually, a biohappiness revolution will come to pass. Tentatively, I subscribe to a version of the convergence hypothesis. The pain-pleasure axis discloses the world’s inbuilt metric of (dis)value. Posthuman superintelligences won’t entertain a false theory of personal identity. Therefore our successors won’t keep happiness just for themselves. There are technical reasons for believing that the future of our light-cone is blissful.
CS: How do you see the future of philosophy?
DP: Ultimately, IMO, everything in philosophy from metaphysics to the philosophy of mind - and even ethics (sic) - will be swallowed up by an (unrecognisable, post-materialist) science. And all science derives, ultimately, from quantum physics. In practice, I fear philosophy has a long future.
CS: If anything, it seems like people are using the internet, especially social media, not just to make themselves happy, but also to whip themselves into a state of perpetual agitation? A frenzy? As far as the internet is concerned, what is going on with us, psychologically?
DP: Indeed. I focus mainly on tackling severe mental and physical pain. But many people in the modern world aren’t depressed, anxious or pain-ridden. They are bored. A vigorous exchange of views – or insults – on social media takes away the tedium of life.
CS: Favorite fiction?
DP: Candide by Voltaire.
DP: The Matrix trilogy. After first watching The Matrix, I seriously wondered if we would all become world-simulationists and inferential realists. But the adaptive psychosis of perceptual direct realism is too deeply entrenched in our architecture of mind.
Otherwise, I enjoy James Bond and Jason Bourne.
I have fantasies unbecoming a pacifist.
CS: TV show?
DP: Here’s a list.
CS: Nowadays, what do you do to unwind?
DP: “Unwind” evokes a release from the tension of my high-pressure lifestyle.
I’m fairly unwound.
To unwind further, I enjoy first-person shooters. Especially Modern Combat Versus.
CS: Any interesting projects on the horizon?
DP: Half the people I know currently seem to be writing a book. Not wishing to be left out, I am working on “The Biohappiness Revolution.” I rather jumped the gun. A Portuguese friend and supporter, Duarte Balthazar, designed a splendid book-cover, which I impulsively uploaded to social media. The launch of my new book-cover was well-received. Convention dictates I supply an accompanying text. “The Biohappiness Revolution” is – or rather, it will be - “The Hedonistic Imperative” updated and written in a friendlier style. It’s crazy that HI isn’t yet orthodox wisdom. Until “The Biohappiness Revolution” hits the printing press, a Kindle collection of my online essays, “Can Biotechnology Abolish Suffering” (2016) was kindly assembled by my Danish colleague, the suffering-focused bioethicist Magnus Vinding. Here's a PDF.
And I’m currently tidying my Quora answers.
CS: If you were the king of the world, what would be your first move?
DP: Philosopher-kings have a slim and undistinguished track-record. But if the office were thrust upon me, then I would first outlaw animal agriculture. I’d mandate universal basic income. I’d grant free universal access to gene therapy - and preimplantation genetic screening, counselling and genome-editing for all prospective parents. I’d found institutes for paradise engineering – a discipline that would be part of the educational core-curriculum. And as king of the world, I’d use the money previously squandered on the global arms trade to create a pan-species welfare state.
Are there low-amplitude branches of the universal wavefunction where this scenario comes to pass?
Quantum mechanics without the collapse postulate is mind-boggling.
CS: Last meal?
DP: Just my usual healthy mix of nuts, seeds and salad - together with a cocktail of pills and a line of heroin (not hemlock!) before entering the cryonics tank.
CS: If you could ask an omniscient, omnibenevolent, perfectly honest being one question and get an answer, what would it be?
DP: What can I most effectively do to minimise suffering?
[interviewer: Cliff Sosis]
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1 : 2 : 3 : 4 : 5 : 6 : 7 : 8 : 9 : 10 : 11 : 12 : 13 : 14 : 15 : 16 : 17 : 18 : 19
Social Media (2023)
The End of Suffering
The Good Drug Guide
The Abolitionist Project
David Pearce (Wikiquote)
David Pearce (Wikipedia)
Quora Answers (2015-23)
The Reproductive Revolution
MDMA: Utopian Pharmacology
Critique of Huxley's Brave New World
The Wit and Wisdom of ChatGPT (2023)
Interview of DP by Immortalists Magazine
Interview of DP by CINS Magazine (2021)
The Imperative to Abolish Suffering (2019)
Interview of Nick Bostrom and David Pearce
Death Defanged: The Case For Cryothanasia (2022)