JANUARY 2021 -
[on the Year 2020]
“For last year's words belong to last year's language
And next year's words await another voice.”
(T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets)
The prospect of life based on gradients of superhuman bliss is proving more elusive than one might wish.
Farewell Year 2020...
[on the raving twenties]
The world feels crazier by the day. But we're missing somethng. No individual craziness competes with the seemingly miraculous fact that anything exists at all. Existence never ceases to shock me.
January 2nd. Happy birthday Kane Tanaka (1903-):
The world's oldest person
("World's oldest living person celebrates 118th birthday. Tanaka, born in 1903, celebrates her birthday at care facility in Fukuoka, southwestern Japan, where she lives")
If we discount the Calment case, and (naively) assume enduring metaphysical egos, only Sarah Knauss (1880-1999) has lived longer. But the world is still ravaged by a pandemic worse than COVID.
[on transhumanism in Spanish]
Diego Andrade Yáñez has kindly translated
El imperativo de abolir el sufrimiento una entrevista con David Pearce
my interview (English version) with Sentience Research. My new year's resolution is to master Spanish. Apparently there is no exact translation of "information-sensitive" [gradients of bliss].
[on past suffering]
Adam, Alexey Turchin has written a very interesting paper "Back to the Future: Curing Past Suffering and S-Risks via Indexical Uncertainty, Acausal Trade and Domination in The Multiverse – or Time Travel". As you might guess, I'm pessimistic - I intend to send Alexey a critique. But such intuitively crazy ideas just illustrate the risk of premature defeatism and of getting indiscriminately "blissed out" out after we have eradicated suffering on Earth. Ratcheting up hedonic range and hedonic set-points will be wiser.
Can superintelligences have a false theory of personal identity? If enduring metaphysical egos are just a human fiction (cf. Ultra-Parfittianism), then the prospect that advanced superintelligences could share such a human misconception is vanishingly low. Moreover, what does one mean by "superintelligence"? A full-spectrum superintelligence can presumably access all first-person perspectives and act accordingly. Just as an intelligent mirror-touch synaesthete couldn’t wantonly harm you – harming you would be like harming himself – the all-round “mind-reading” powers of superintelligence will presumably vastly surpass human mirror-touch synaesthetes. So full-spectrum superintelligences won’t be Super-Aspergers. That said, I don't discount s-risks: DP on suffering risks. But (IMO) s-risks derive from biological humans, not insentient digital computers. I'm guessing that you'd argue instead that digital computers could one day become sentient. After all, Turing machines are substrate-neutral, and it is commonly believed that the conscious human mind-brain could be emulated via a Turing machine. But in my view, classical computers cannot solve the phenomenal binding/combination problem (cf. binding-problem.com). Phenomenal binding is immensely adaptive for animal minds. It's the key to our evolutionary success. Binding is too difficult for classical Turing machines – even if their 1s and 0s were fancifully replaced by discrete micro-pixels of experience. Complexity of code or speed of execution make no difference to their zombie status. At most, the upshot is a micro-experiential zombie. Now OK, unless you’re seriously troubled by the binding problem, I don’t remotely expect you to be persuaded by my tentative solution (cf. Quantum Mind). But the answer one gives to the binding problem has profound implications for the future of intelligent life in the universe. Moreover, Everett naturalised modality. There are no effectively decohered “branches” of the multiverse where classical digital computers are phenomenally-bound subjects of experience, let alone malevolent machine superintelligences. A classical digital computer has no understanding of the pleasure-pain axis or phenomenal consciousness of any kind. Everett’s one-and-only multiverse is very different from Tegmark’s hypothetical “Level IV" multiverse. If “Level IV" were real, then yes, so too (presumably) would be atypical evil super-AIs that torture folk. But Tegmark is assuming mathematical platonism rather than nominalism: DP on mathematics.
I’d love to think you are right that intelligent moral agents can somehow eradicate past suffering. But my working assumption is something like Jan-Markus Schwindt’s "Nothing happens in the Universe of the Everett Interpretation": https://arxiv.org/pdf/1210.8447.pdf
Let’s I hope I’m wrong. Victor, fascinating. Thanks. I didn’t know this (Schrödinger drawing a quantum brain/phenomenal binding link in his book What is Life?) Schrödinger also anticipates Everett (a jocular allusion in his 1952 Dublin lecture) AND the causally time-symmetric two-state vector formalism too – back in 1931 - but he seems to have lacked the courage of his convictions. Of course, the opposite problem is taking one's ideas too seriously and ending up as just another crank. Actually, a fair number of researchers have briefly wondered whether two classically impossible kinds of holism could be linked - QM and the unity of our minds. The expert consensus is no. The timescales are wrong by many orders of magnitude - scores of milliseconds versus less than femtoseconds. Decoherence is insanely powerful. But if one takes the intrinsic nature argument seriously, then the "dynamical timescales" objection of Tegmark et al. against quantum mind isn't decisive.
Only experiment, i.e. interferometry, can settle the issue. Dirk, it's not hard to program a digital computer rigged with a speech synthesiser to emit sounds we interpret as claiming it's a phenomenally bound subject of experience racked by existential angst.
It's a zombie.
If p-zombies or micro-experiential zombies were only an epistemological worry - just a version of the ancient sceptical Problem of Other Minds - then they wouldn’t be especially interesting. I don't think p-zombies or micro-experiential zombies are really feasible; they awill turn out to be unphysical. But if physicists and chemists really understood the properties of matter and energy, then all of us would be p-zombies. And if not p-zombies, then micro-experiential zombies. The spectre of zombies and micro-experiential zombies highlights the failure of science to explain subjective experience - the only empirical evidence one can ever access. It’s not hyperbole to say that scientific materialism is inconsistent with the entirety(!) of the empirical evidence.
How faithfully could an insentient connectionist system or a programmable digital computer emulate human behaviour - the by-product of a phenomenally-bound subject of experience? I don't know. I don’t think anyone knows. But connectionist systems and programmable digital computer are not spontaneously going to start taking about their non-existent consciousness minds - though they could be programmed or “trained up” to persuade credulous humans otherwise.
[on the dangers of transhumanism]
Dangerous to what or to whom?
The Transhumanist Project
("Transhumanism Explained and Examined (A Dangerous Philosophy?)")
I worry more about ineffectual transhumanism.
[on ending predation]
Max, many thanks.
1. The case for phasing out (human and nonhuman) predation doesn't depend on utilitarian ethics. The belief that all sentient beings should flourish accords with many ethical traditions. Indeed, genetically tweaking predators (and civilising the biosphere as described) is non-utilitarian, or rather only indirectly utilitarian; reprogramming solutions are designed to accommodate the bioconservative prejudices of people who want to preserve the cat family and other "charismatic megafauna".
2. Meta-ethics deserves a treatise. You'll forgive me for just hotlinking:
DP on meta-ethics
Even if you regard ethics as no different from supporting your football team, the “anti-suffering team" now has powerful tools (CRISPR, gene drives, cultured meat, cross-species fertility regulation, AI, etc) that we hitherto lacked.
3. I presume you give some weight to minimising, mitigating and preventing suffering.
4. Consciousness too deserves a treatise. But consider the reason that you'd insist on anaesthesia as well as a muscle-paralysing agent before surgery. The “raw feels” of agony are indescribably, shockingly bad. Agony, panic and despair and evolutionarily ancient and (a conditionally activated predisposition to) their neurological expression is strongly conserved. Such horrors will shortly be optional.
More generally, your worries about the apocalyptic implications of classical utilitarian ethics take us well beyond Alex's post. So does my response, so again I'll hotlink:
What is the secret of eternal happiness?
The advantage of focusing on ratcheting up hedonic range and hedonic set-points is that existing values and preference architecture can largely be preserved.
Markus, no one enjoys unbearable agony and despair. The fact that a minority of folk take pleasure in the suffering of others reflects human epistemological limitations, not a deep metaphysical truth. I'm unclear why you believe that I'm "completely degenerated by 'civilisation'".
Otto, the technical challenges of designing an ecosystem based on consensual cannibalism defeat the imagination.
[on primordial life]
Dark Forest Theory ("A terrifying explanation of why we haven’t heard from aliens yet. The Fermi paradox asks us where all the aliens are if the cosmos should be filled with them. The Dark Forest theory says we should pray we never find them") IMO, we’re probably alone. This doesn’t mean we’re special. Rather, the “thermodynamic miracle” (Eric Drexler) of our origin simply means that life-supporting Hubble volumes where primordial life arises more than once are vanishingly rare. If so, we’re typical.
[on intelligence and autism]
Why autism and invention are intimately related
("The prehistoric cognitive revolution that saw an explosion of inventions was driven by a new, pattern-seeking network in the brain – and that’s highly correlated with autism today, says researcher Simon Baron-Cohen")
A "hypermasculine" cognitive style takes different guises...
What does having high testosterone feel like?
[on free will]
Is free will an illusion? (Big Think)
("Philosophers have been asking the question for hundreds of years. Now neuroscientists are joining the quest to find out")
The idea of free will is hard to reconcile with modern science (cf. Determinism and physics). But could a society ever arise in which we don’t assume free will during the 99.999% of the time when we're not philosophising about its non-existence? Human social life and our criminal justice system are a form of organized psychosis:
We Wouldn’t Be Able to Control Super-Intelligent Machines
I've outlined my scepticism about a zombie putsch e.g. here: The Intelligence Explosion. Phenomenal binding gives biological minds computational power that wildly surpasses any classical Turing machine. So does the biggest threat to sentient beings lie in digital zombies or human paperclippers oblivious of the sentience of their victims, i.e. nonhuman animals?
There is a terrible irony. MIRI have done more than anyone to sound the alarm about the alleged threat of nonbiological machines taking over and exterminating humanity (“The AI does not hate you, nor does it love you, but you are made out of atoms which it can use for something else” - Eliezer Yudkowsky). Yet MIRI are also oblivious of the status of the billions of nonhuman animals whom humans asphyxiate (fish) or factory farm-and slaughter. MIRI even promote such ignorance: A debate on animal consciousness.
Less urgently, I view the AI revolution as both a blessing and an insidious threat to the growth of knowledge. Just as IQ tests and SAT scores reflect an impoverished conception of intelligence, likewise computer science encourage an impoverished conception of understanding. Our most profound sources of human ignorance are alien state-spaces of consciousness. Their investigation is unintelligible to digital zombies. Virtue-signalling? Tim, to what extent do people who complain against child abuse do so out of (1) ethical principle rather than because 2) they personally find child abuse upsetting or out of motives (3) virtue signalling? And more to the point, does the sheer complexity and messiness of human motivations for doing the right thing really matter? Exactly the same holds where the victims of abuse are nonhuman animals of comparable sentience to young children. What’s more, if (unlike me) you believe the Intelligence Explosion and paperclipper scenarios are serious threats to what passes as human civilisation, then shouldn't you be especially on guard against doing precisely what you warn against, namely treating sentient beings as mere biomass to be turned into something else? Devising ways to protect the interests of cognitively humble beings (i.e. humans) in the face of vastly superior intelligence is supposed to be what MIRI and other AI-risk focused organizations are all about. Short-term versus long-term ethics is a false dichotomy.
Tim, IMO smart angels would be especially likely to retire Homo sapiens. And as far as I can tell, AI-augmented transhumans will be able to do everything standalone digital zombies could do and more. But this topic takes us away from whether we should be trying to create sentience-friendly biological intelligence.
[on intelligence and depression]
"Happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know.”
But genome editing and neurochips can make blissful superintelligence the norm.
Are depression and intelligence related?
The Hippies Were Right
(It's All about Vibrations, Man! A new theory of consciousness")
Talk of the "neural correlates of consciousness" leads to David Chalmers' distinction between the "hard" and “easy” problems of consciousness. The existence of consciousness itself becomes miraculous, impossible to reconcile with the properties of matter and energy as described by chemistry and physics. Phenomenal binding becomes physically impossible. And how subjective experience exerts the causal power to inspire discussions of its existence becomes an unfathomable mystery. What a mess!
IMO, the distinction is bogus. Talk of the "neural correlates of consciousness" assumes perceptual direct realism. In reality, the lumps of exposed nervous tissue that you experience in a neurosurgeon’s operating theatre are as much part of your autobiographical consciousness as a headache. Likewise the membrane-bound neurons you experience that are seemingly accessible via light microscopy:
What is the Cartesian theatre?
This claim sounds like radical scepticism - or solipsism. But not so. As far as I can tell, physicalism (as distinction from materialism) is true.
"Becoming a part of a movement doesn't help anybody think clearly.” (Sam Harris)
But I try. Transhumanism 2021:
A Q-and-A with the Futurist Foundation
Q-and-A & MP4.
Donald, unlike p-zombies, which are (probably!) science-fiction, micro-experiential zombies may well be real. IMO, you are a micro-experiential zombie while dreamlessly asleep. If you are not a micro-experiential zombie when dreamlessly asleep, then we face the Hard Problem of consciousness. However, if awake minds are just a pack of classical neurons, as naive neuroscanning suggests, then how is phenomenal binding possible? Binding is insanely adaptive; just consider neurological syndromes when it partially breaks down. Binding is also classically impossible. Turing machines can’t do it. Science currently has no answer.
The binding problem & Binding-problem.com.
Donald, in the Q-and-A, I remarked that notionally replacing the 1s and 0s of a classical Turing machine with discrete pixels of experience, and then running the program, still wouldn't create a phenomenally-bound subject of experience, irrespective of the complexity of the code or speed of its execution. Or rather, if a unified subject of experience were to arise, then this would amount to spooky "strong" emergence: monistic physicalism would be false. The point of my fanciful thought-experiment was to highlight how even if consciousness is fundamental to the world, we need to explain how unified subjects of experience - running unified phenomenal world-simulations populated by multiple feature-bound perceptual objects - arise in biological nervous systems. Phenomenal binding has been critical to our evolutionary success over the past 540 million years. To solve the Hard Problem and the Binding Problem and the Problem of Causal Efficacy, we need to derive the properties of our phenomenal minds (ultimately) from physics.
Anyhow, to use your example, yes, to primitive tribes, a “foo”/car might seem a single object. But the tribespeople could be shown how to dissemble and assemble a functioning car from its components. Reductionism works with cars – demonstrably so. By contrast, neuroscience can identify distributed feature-processors in the CNS – neuronal edge-detectors, motion-detectors, colour-mediating neurons and so forth. But there is (apparently) a structural mismatch, i.e. you aren’t merely an aggregate of 86 billion membrane-bound pixels of Jamesian mind-dust. (cf. The unity of consciousness). David Chalmers regards this structural mismatch as an argument for dualism. I suspect that it's an artefact of our temporally coarse-grained tools of investigation. Either way, if phenomenal binding is non-classical, then the interference signature will tell us. It's an empirical question to be settled by the normal methods of science:
Testing theories of consciousness
And the relevance of all this for transhumanism?
Well, there are strong theoretical reasons for scepticism about digital sentience:
The Biointelligence Explosion
Compare an inspirational message of "The Singularity is Near" with the prediction that in 2045 we won't have ended aging; pain and depression will still be endemic; and digital computers will be ignorant zombies. I still cautiously prophesy a glorious transhumanist future of superhappiness, superlongevity and superhappiness - but not on a timescale an audience will want to hear.
Let’s hope I’m too gloomy.
Transhumanist podcast: SeVR & MP4.
[on happiness and the paradox of hedonism]
Hell has an escape-hatch. An infernal machine for creating suffering can be genetically hacked and reprogrammed into an engine of superhuman bliss. Tomorrow’s genome-editing should be underpinned by an ideology of liberation biology - and a socio-political revolution to match.
Alas, most academic philosophers still rationalise the status quo...
The flawed pursuit of happiness?
Dave what is sometimes true for individuals, namely the paradox of hedonism, will not straightforwardly be true of a civilisation that re-engineers its reward circuitry. However, in one sense at least, the paradox of hedonism could continue to play out even in a civilisation with a hedonic range of, say, schematically, +70 to +100, just as the paradox arises in our dismal Darwinian hedonic range of -10 to 0 to +10. The paradox of hedonism
[on suffering and negative utilitarianism]
A selection of Schopenhauer’s later writings:
‘On the Suffering of the World’
Maximilian, imagine the universe had a secret button you could press to create:
(1) a type-identical copy. Pressing the button would create more joy and more suffering than anyone in history. Would you press it?
2) a blissful paradise, New Omelas, marred by the torment of a single child - a mere pinprick in comparison. Would you press it?
People's response to the thought-experiment and its variants differs. But strikingly, refuseniks who say they wouldn’t press either button aren’t regarded by the button-pressers as deranged or depraved. Button-pressers recognise there are legitimate concerns. Such thought-experiments capture how so much of what passes as morality is really an expression of status quo bias, Alexander Pope’s “Whatever is, is right.” – the kind of attitude satirised by Voltaire in Candide.
As a negative utilitarian, I favour enshrining the sanctity of human and nonhuman life in law and working towards a world of superhuman bliss where all your dreams come true. And if a critic protests, "But that’s not negative utilitarianism!", well, I'd demur. The critic hadn't grasped what real-world, politically and socially credible NU entails. We want to abolish disappointments, blighted hopes, anything that distresses you in the slightest. The best way to do this is a biohappiness revolution.
Maximilian, NUs want to minimise, and ideally prevent, all experience below hedonic zero. This is our overriding ethical goal. To achieve this ambition, building the broadest possible political coalition of folk from different secular and religious traditions is essential. So other parameters should be accommodated - where feasible. Critically, ratcheting up hedonic range and hedonic set-points doesn't by itself challenge (most) other ethical traditions. For who doesn't want to wake up in an extremely good mood - and with his or her core values and preferences intact?
[on effective altruism]
Effective altruism: should elite hyperthymics be encouraged to become sperm donors? Alas raising global hedonic set-point averages via “designer babies” is still a futuristic fantasy.
Sperm donors on Facebook
("The Sperm Kings Have a Problem: Too Much Demand. Many people want a pandemic baby, but some sperm banks are running low. So women are joining unregulated Facebook groups to find willing donors, no middleman required.")
Murine empathy puts some humans to shame:
("Researchers identify mouse brain pathways active during feelings of empathy")
[on coffee, freedom and identity]
Large, black, no sugar:
Coffee and identity
("The Psychological Insight From a $2.95 Cup of Coffee. Every small purchase choice gives us a glimpse of our hidden self-identity.")
Is the fundamental distinction between “me” conceived as an enduring entity that began last century and everyone else or instead between this particular here-and-now and all the others?
Closed, empty and open individualism
[on olfactory syntax]
Avant-garde philosophers or demented glue-sniffers?
Should the study of mind be an experimental discipline...
("What would it be like to have a scent-based medium of thought, with grammar, generative syntax, subclauses, and intentionality? How do we go about exploring the full state-space of scents (or any other qualia variety)")
[on The Hedonistic Imperative]
"El placer es el objeto, el deber y el fin de todos los seres razonables."
Todos deberíamos ser más razonables.
Angela Merkel attacks Twitter over Trump ban
(1) Does Facebook - mission statement “To Bring The World Closer Together” - have an obligation to retain e.g. hate-groups or instead to promote friendliness in accordance with its raison d'être? Most people on this wall might not use FB for its original purpose, but many millions of people still do.
(2) Do the big social media companies have an obligation to give a platform to users promoting not just obnoxious views but violent insurrection? Imagine if the leader of the losing party in a German election incited his followers to storm the Bundestag, leading to death or injuries to members of Bundestagspolizei. Would we believe that e.g. Twitter had obligation to keep the insurrectionists so they could incite further lawlessness?
[on general intelligence?]
Alex, there are some cognitive tasks at which most chimps outperform most humans, just as there some cognitive tasks at which most high-AQ Ashkenazim outperform most low-AQ empaths. But the assumption that prowess in “mind-blind” STEM tasks exhausts general intelligence is as blinkered as the peahen’s assumption that the most spectacular peacock tails exhaust the nature of beauty.
It ain’t so!
("Chimps Outplay Humans in Brain Games. There are ways that chimpanzees are more intelligent than us") Ernie, when you think of human cognitive deficiencies, do you think of limitations of logico-linguistic reasoning ability, or "IQ", or perhaps our cognitive biases (cf. Cognitive biases), or maybe simply the inability of most of us to become true polymaths as distinct from specialists or superficial generalists? In my view, there are sources of ignorance much deeper: Alien state-spaces
[on infinitesimal ethics?]
The appalling possibility we are living in a multiverse should be distinguished from the still more appalling idea of physically realised infinities - although some multiverse scenarios assume the latter. Even if reality is finite - I’m not convinced the idea of physically realised infinities makes sense - the world is still intuitively unimaginably big; one sometimes reads expressions like “virtually infinite”. But any finite number is infinitesimally small compared to an notional infinite multiverse.
It’s still an appalling prospect.
[on the Hedonistic Imperative]
A Critique of HI
Felix, yes, I could be hopelessly wrong about timescales. In HI (1995), I predicted that the world's last experience below hedonic zero would be several centuries from now - and it's still my best guess. If Singularitarians and "hard take-off" prophets are correct - or if there is a sea-change in our attitude to the problem of suffering - then maybe a hundred-year timescale would be feasible. But compare the media hysteria over the first CRISPR babies in China, or the title of David Attenborough’s latest Nature "documentary" - Our Perfect Planet - which captures the depth of popular status quo bias about the living world. Pessimistically, maybe thousands rather than hundreds of years of suffering lie ahead. I don't know – and I don’t trust my intuitions either.
Perhaps I’ll take Conundrum's critique one point at a time.
1. "Humans are selfish"
Yes, Humans are selfish, vain, narcissistic, self-aggrandising and zillions more vices besides. But most of us are not malevolent. Sure, humans can sometimes be spiteful - whether to rivals in love, emeries in war, or opponents on a football pitch. There also exists a tiny minority of sadists and even serial killers. Yet most of us tend to be callous, not cruel. We aren’t mirror-touch synaesthetes, but the majority of people don't enjoy witnessing suffering - often it distresses us. So if and when a safe, effective therapy is developed that enables an architecture of mind based on information-sensitive gradients of bliss AND its global distribution is as feasible as, say, the new COVID vaccines, how will most people respond? Will they want the superior new architecture just for themselves and their "tribe"? Or for everyone? I predict most people will be supportive and universalist. I call this, rather grandly, the Principle of Weak Benevolence, aka “no skin off my nose”. Compare how if a beggar asks for money, most people will ignore the request, but if a stranger says they are lost and wants directions, most people will oblige. This trivial example of weak benevolence could be multiplied indefinitely. Tomorrow’s biotech promises to make life based on gradients of bliss equally trivial - that’s the very nature of information-based technologies. Moreover, humans are prone to virtue signalling – and what better way to signal one’s virtue than support for universal happiness? My benevolence is bigger than yours!
Our task is to make the price of benevolence utterly trivial or non-existent.
OK, but what about corporations? After all, corporations are not people; they are amoral and legally obliged to maximise shareholder returns.
Yet once again, corporations virtue-signal too – and their carefully burnished halo contributes to the value of their brands. For instance, how much of Apple’s two-trillion dollar plus valuation derives from brand equity?
Anyhow, I’m sounding like an optimist. I'm not: IMO words can’t do justice to the evil of Darwinian life and the viciously nasty surprises it probably still has in store. But I don’t see human selfishness as an insurmountable obstacle to the abolitionist project.
Will a reproductive revolution of designer babies lead to more genetic and phenotypic diversity or less? And is diversity inherently good or bad? Today, every child born using traditional sexual reproduction is a unique - barring identical twins, triplets etc - and untested genetic experiment. In some ways, genetic diversity will indeed soon diminish. Consider the two thousand or so disease-causing alleles of the cystic fibrosis gene. In a world of ubiquitous designer babies, selection pressure against all disease-causing alleles will be intense. Good! In some notional (Chinese-run?) state-run eugenics program, entire genomes might be standardised too. Yet my working assumption is that Western liberal democracy will prevail. Reproductive decisions will remain in the hands of prospective parents – probably with AI-assisted professional counselling. What hedonic range, hedonic set-points and pain-thresholds will most prospective parents want for their kids? I reckon selection pressure will intensify for the creation of ever happier kids in a recursive cycle of self-improvement. This intensifying selection pressure needn't entail reduced overall genetic or phenotypic diversity. For a start, happier people are responsive to a broader range of rewarding stimuli than depressives. Crudely, happiness promotes behavioural diversity; depression suppresses it. Depressives get “stuck in a rut”. And genome-editing can potentially create more genetic diversity, too, not less. This is because all sorts of new genes and allelic combinations can be created that could never have arisen under a regime of natural selection; their notional creation would entail crossing forbidden “fitness gaps”. Needless to say, I’ve no crystal ball. But we shouldn’t imagine transhumans as genetic identikit clones. Indeed, perhaps we may see an explosion of genetic, psychological and behavioural diversity to rival the Cambrian. My only moderately confident prediction is that hedonically sub-zero states will be become biologically impossible. Selection pressure against the nastier genes of Darwinian life will soon be ferocious...
The negative utilitarian may be sceptical that unethical behaviour can exist in a world without experience below hedonic zero - as distinct from the functional analogues of unethical behaviour. But let's stick to a more conventional ethic than NU. Let's further assume that no moral enhancement technologies or their genetic counterparts) become widespread in future, just hedonic uplift. Will radical hedonic enrichment leave us vulnerable to personal or sexual violation: simply too happy to care? I'm sceptical.
OK, take sexual coercion.
[“Consider a particular example. A person desiring sexual relations with another could pursue this activity even without consent of the other person. Maybe that person wouldn’t even be able to deny the advances, as that would require having a negative attitude towards the proposal. The only tool she’ll have is the gradient of bliss. Either she will be blissfully violated or the insistent romantic would have to be controlled away by an implant in his brain, as he himself would be unable to simulate potential negative experience from his victim’s point of view nor would he be capable of predicting negative consequences that could fall on him. Gradients of bliss won’t inform him it’s wrong to impose on someone. In the world where people see and experience only gradients of bliss, consent would not exist. No one would think of asking for consent, and no one could deny giving implicit consent. What this suggest is that the preference architecture would have to be rewritten and maybe supplanted by brain implants that would tell us what to want and not to want at any given moment.”]
Who are the most common victims of sexual exploitation and violence today? Depressed, downtrodden women who don't have the self-confidence to leave an abusive partner ("he only hits me because he loves me") are more vulnerable to abuse than emotionally robust self-confident women with healthy self-esteem. Other things being equal, raising hedonic tone makes people more emotionally self-sufficient and less willing to be bossed around. More generally, (super)happy people are more likely to be active citizens than depressives. Low mood is associated with weakness, subordination and defeat. Good mood is empowering. Let’s go for it.
“Julio Cabrera explains that moral life is impossible, for it’s too often the case that realizing a project of one person necessitates preventing other people from achieving their goals. Cabrera calls this inevitable fact of social life the moral impediment. So, if there are inherent conflicts when people aim for contrary objectives, then how would happy humans deal with this? Will they be programmed to want the same things, not to step on each other’s toes?”
One of the many beauties of hedonic recalibration is how conflicting preferences are sidestepped. Yes, Darwinian life is riddled with irreconcilable conflicts. So-called preference utilitarianisms is a contradiction-in-terms for social primates. Whether in football, chess, politics, or mating and dating, no one can have everything they want - not even close/. All traditional utopian dreams founder accordingly.
Optionally, at least, all such dramas (and more) can play out in a civilisation with a hedonic range of +5 to +15 – or indeed a hedonic +70 to +100. But critically, such conflict can be drained of the poison of hedonically sub-zero states. Future conflict won't matter ethically in the same way as now – even though some people may be (hyper-)motivated to pursue their sometimes conflicting goals. So whereas I might dream of social life as an idealised version of being perpetually "loved up" on MDMA, the real-life biohappiness revolution may take a very different course…
5. “Electronic shepherds”
"Without being sensitive to various negative stimuli and social signals, people wouldn’t be motivated to keep their hygiene, to sleep, to drink and eat. Without fear, what would stop them from walking into an incoming bus? Pearce imagines that gradients of bliss should overtake the motivational system. However, in our daily lives we don’t do the most pleasurable things all the time. We often choose to do things that give us less satisfaction. But when we can rely only on the gradients of bliss, what would stop anyone from doing something less pleasurable like going into the traffic and blissfully dying? The solution to this would take the form of electronic prostheses—implants in the brain that would recognize the dangers and take control of our volition and behavior to steer us into safety. These electronic shepherds, as I like to call them, would de facto control our lives, making us into very passive experience machines, unable to rebel. Pearce has a response to this attack at the ready. Supposedly the implants could be deactivated. But how a person swimming in the soup of bliss could recognize when to switch off the electronic shepherd and when to switch it back on? And after switching off the implant, what’s left to stop anyone from violating an innocent person, when the perpetrator is chasing a higher level of bliss like a junkie?”
Transhumanist speculation about a civilisation based on gradients of superhuman bliss as sci-fi. Consider instead today’s extreme hyperthymics – the global hedonic elite. (Recall that hyperthymia isn’t unipolar mania or bipolar disorder - pathologies of mind that can cause all manner of disaster). The elite 0.01% don’t manifest the signs and symptoms described in Conundrum’s quote above. Depressives are more likely to manifest self-neglect. Simply ratcheting up hedonic set-points to the level of today’s hedonic elite would massively enhance average quality of life. World-wide hyperthymia would be a godsend. Of course, there are still pitfalls. “Count no man happy until he is dead” (Solon), as the Greeks used to say. And I worry about cognitive bias. Truly happy people struggle to grasp the sheer enormity of suffering and the urgency of its abolition. But none of these pitfalls strikes me as fatal...
6. Extinction risk
“One of the most known critic of the technological society is Ted Kaczynski, also known as the Unabomber. He’s been writing articles and books on the dangers and detrimental effects of technology for decades. In his magnum opus Anti-Tech Revolution: Why and How, Kaczynski makes a reasoned case that the progress of technology will lead to extinction of complex life on Earth…”
Will advanced technology lead to human extinction?
Yes – but IMO not in some dire, apocalyptic sense. Take AI, which has currently superseded WMD in the rationalist community as the biggest threat to human civilisation: DP on the Intelligence Explosion. As far as I can tell, everything that AI can do can be incorporated on embedded neurochips so that you can do it too – and much more. Mankind’s successors won’t be insentient machines, but our genetically rewritten and AI-augmented descendants. OK, this response scarcely begins to get to grips with the risks posed by advanced technology. But surely these challenges are not peculiar to HI? A civilisation based entirely on gradients of intelligent bliss will grapple with the revolutionary potential artificial intelligence no less than today’s misery-ridden Darwinian regime.
7. Danger of System Malfunction:
If we do phase out the biology of suffering, could it ever recur? The most extreme example of recurrence would be an advanced civilisation that chooses to recreate Darwinian life in its entirety in the guise of running an ancestor-stimulation. Elsewhere I’ve outlined why I believe that ancestor-simulations (and digital sentience - Ancestor simulations and digital war gaming) are both technically and sociologically infeasible. Let’s here stick to the near-term future. Could a genetic mutation arise that generates hedonically sub-zero states again?
So long as we are mindful of the risk, a whole arsenal of fail-safe prevention mechanisms can be introduced. I presume we’ll map our the neurobiological contours of the Evil Zone, i.e. the molecular signature of experience below hedonic zero, and construct multiple molecular ring-fences around it. Half a dozen dangerous mutations would then simultaneously need to arise to penetrate the Evil Zone. And regardless of your favoured scenario of the future, some kind of global panopticon probably lies ahead. Genomes can be monitored. Privacy-protection is relevant to (trans)humans, not to a mouse or a mollusc. We’re not going to run out of computer power. In a Darwinian world, ubiquitous surveillance can be sinister. But to safeguard the molecular foundations of paradise, I don’t see a problem with “AI nannies” for humbler lifeforms any more than for human toddlers. The price of perpetual happiness may not be eternal vigilance; but let's assume otherwise. Surely it’s a price worth paying.
I guess Conundrum would respond that the risk of recurrence still exists. From the perspective of suffering-focused ethics, we should “walk away from Omelas”. But this objection takes us back to practical politics. Life-denying political prescriptions such as _naïve_ versions of negative utilitarianism, “strong” antinatalism, efilism, world-destructionism (etc) are at best a distraction. At worst, their advocacy alienates a vast swathe of life-lovers who could otherwise be powerful allies:
Benevolent World Exploders
“the whole abolitionist project is inherently doomed to failure”
Given the state of the world today, I can understand this sentiment. And if you contemplate just how socially marginal we are, the whole project can seem a pipedream. But imagine if – as is quite possible sooner or later – a larger-than-life billionaire or world-famous media-personality decides to make the cause his own. The example I often give is Elon Musk. Imagine if instead of a building ten-trillion-dollar colony on Mars, Elon were proposing an equally ambitious and expensive project to reprogram the biosphere. Would a Hundred-Year Plan to phase out the biology of suffering still seem so ridiculously far-fetched? And whether the abolitionist project takes a hundred, a thousand, or even ten-thousand years, I just don’t see any alternative. Life-denying solutions to the problem of suffering won’t fly – politically, socially, or demographically. They are a dead-end. Knowledge of their futility isn’t enough to suppress antinatalist or benevolent world-exploder fantasies about terminating the whole Darwinian horror-show. Occasionally, I have intrusive thoughts myself. Yet intellectually, we should recognise that such fantasies are sterile escapism. They won’t solve the problem of suffering.
By contrast, a biohappiness revolution can work – it’s just a monumental political, social and technical challenge.
[on transhumanism in Turkish]
Transhumanist ideas are somewhat controversial in Turkey. An English translation of my CINS magazine interview (pdf) is uploaded below:
Insanlik icin en buyuk tehdit transhumanizm degil, bizzat insan dogasidir
("The greatest threat to humanity is not transhumanism, but human nature itself")
Secular scientific rationalism can be a sign of masked depression. But posthumans will (probably!) be hyperthymic rather than hypermanic.
("An Atheist Neuroscientist Finds Faith in Bipolar Mania. Why does bipolar mania cause hyper-religiosity, even in a nonbeliever like me?")
Cynthia, I'm inclined to agree with you. But if we want to promote a biological-genetic happiness revolution, then the option of value- and preference-conservation is a strong selling-point. In practice, transhumans may come to regard most of the things humans care about as junk. This prediction is not a recipe for winning hearts and minds.
[on micro-experiential zombies]
Maximilian, from antiquity to the present, lots of philosophically-minded people have occasionally wondered if they could be surrounded by zombies, i.e. the sceptical Problem of Other Minds. (See too the non-sceptical belief that the inhabitants of your dreaming AND waking world-simulation are zombies, but the zombies of your waking life are the avatars of sentient beings: https://www.hedweb.com/quora/2015.html#cartesian). By contrast, far fewer people have sceptically wondered if they might live in a world of micro-experiential zombies, i.e. I am the only phenomenally-bound subject of experience. For even if consciousness is fundamental to the world, temporally-coarse grained inspection of your surgically-exposed cortex gives me no obvious reason to believe you are a unitary subject. Your CNS appears under light microscopy to be a pack of decohered neurons - just like your enteric nervous system, which I confidently believe is a zombie.
Anyhow, let's assume, as you suggest, that monistic physicalism is vindicated by future experiment. Tomorrow's neuroscience / interferometry detects a perfect structural match between our minds and (ultimately) the mathematical formalism of physics. (I can't overstress how far scientifically out a limb is my “Schrödinger’s neurons” proposal. Most professionals who understand decoherence would reckon it’s crazy, so the chances are they are right.) If this structural match is perfect, then why aren't we all just p-zombies, i.e. organisms devoid of qualia, whether phenomenally bound or otherwise?
To answer the question, we must return to the intrinsic nature argument. The only direct evidence you have of the intrinsic nature of the physical, as distinct from its structural-relational properties, consists of the properties of your own mind. You’ve no reason to believe that the intrinsic nature of the world’s fundamental quantum fields differs inside and outside your skull...
Tim, yes, a classical Turing machine can simulate any computer algorithm. But biological minds can do all kinds of things that Turing machine zombies can't, ranging from running phenomenally-bound world-simulations to exploring the nature, varieties and causal efficacy of conscious experience - as now!
No, quantum supremacy…
[on travel in twenties]
1 : 2 : 3 : 4 : 5 : 6 : 7 : 8 : 9 : 10 : 11 : 12
David Pearce (2020)
The Abolitionist Project
Quora Answers 2015-21
Social Network Postings (2021)