Source: City Magazine
Date: January 2012

Transhumanism and the Abolitionist Project


JML: 1. Do you define abolitionism or "paradise engineering" as a transhumanist project?

A commitment to the well-being of all sentience is enshrined in the Transhumanist Declaration (1998, 2009):
http://humanityplus.org/learn/transhumanist-declaration/
So yes: I think phasing out the biology of suffering is at the heart of becoming posthuman, not as an alternative to other transhumanist visions of our future, but as their backdrop. Indeed I can't think of anything more morally urgent than ending suffering in human and nonhuman animals alike. The world's last experience below "hedonic zero" will mark a major evolutionary transition in the development of life.

Vastly more ambitious scenarios are conceivable too. Thus posthumans may be animated by gradients of intelligent, empathetic and genetically preprogrammed bliss orders of magnitude richer than today's peak experiences: an era of true paradise engineering. The pleasure principle harnessed to posthuman superintelligence gives tentative grounds for believing that some such scenario may actually come to pass. Of course, the future may confound us all.


JML: 2. What would be the three most important technological breakthroughs that humankind should achieve in order to fulfill "the hedonistic imperative"?

Status quo bias aside, I think the biggest obstacles to phasing out the biology of suffering aren't technical but ideological. However, here are three significant technical challenges that must be overcome if the abolitionist project ( cf. http://www.abolitionist.com & http://www.abolitionist.com/finnish/) is to succeed:

First, we need to identify the molecular signature(s) of pure bliss in the brain. What is so special about the gene expression profile of neurons in our twin, cubic centimetre-sized "hedonic hotspots" in the ventral pallidum and rostral shell of the nucleus accumbens? Conversely, why does central kappa opioid receptor activation induce such profound dysphoria? For sure, there is far more to building a civilised society than gaining control of our biological reward circuitry. Not least, we need to find ways to deliver information-sensitive gradients of lifelong well-being that is empathetic, motivated and cerebral rather than merely orgasmic. In addition, we must develop a deeper understanding of how to recalibrate the "set-point" of our hedonic treadmill - the viciously efficient network of negative feedback mechanisms in the brain that ensures most of us aren't very (un)happy for long. Genetically choosing an elevated hedonic set-point for our prospective children via preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) will be the mainstay of responsible parenthood as the imminent reproductive revolution (cf. http: //www.reproductive-revolution.com) of designer babies unfolds. Yet underlying all these developments, a mastery of the molecular machinery of pure bliss will be pivotal in everything from treating refractory depression to the transhuman promotion of invincible well-being to the creation of (currently hypothetical) "utilitronium". In short, we'll soon have possession of the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven minus the old theological fairy-stories.

Second, in order to end the horrors of animal exploitation and abuse, we need to develop and commercialise in vitro meat. Currently, only mincemeat-quality in vitro meat can be lab-grown, not gourmet in vitro steaks. Replicating the precise muscle structures found in live nonhuman animals remains a challenge for tissue biologists. Ideally, humankind shouldn't wait on technological progress before ending our systematic animal abuse. Rather we should embrace an impartial anti-speciesist ethic and adopt a cruelty-free vegan lifestyle now. A pig, for example, has the intelligence - and critically the sentience and capacity to suffer - of a two-year-old human toddler. Yet we treat pigs in ways that would earn the perpetrators a prison life-sentence if our victims were human. In the absence of any moral relevant difference between "livestock" and pre-linguistic toddlers and infants, I think factory-farming should be outlawed and the death factories closed down: they are the greatest source of severe and readily avoidable suffering in the world today. However, many consumers believe that abstaining from meat and animal products would involve heroic personal self-sacrifice on a scale they find impossible to contemplate ("But I like the taste of meat to much to give it up.") So in practical terms, the only way to overcome moral apathy and secure global veganism / invitrotarianism by the middle of the century is probably to get cheap, delicious mass-produced gourmet in vitro products to the market as rapidly as possible.

Third, if we are to extend the abolitionist project to the rest of the living world, then we'll need to develop e.g. nanobots to police the oceans and compassionately re-engineer otherwise inaccessible marine ecosystems. Once again, this kind of utopian-sounding technology sounds fanciful. Yet if we accept the ethical case for a cruelty-free biosphere, then the exponential growth in computer power makes such a project eminently feasible later this century and beyond.


JML: 3. What have been the three most important transhumanist technological breakthroughs of the 2000s so far?

First, the construction of prototype quantum computers. Mature artificial quantum computing will change the world in unimaginable ways. Today's classical digital computers will seem mere toys in comparison. It's impossible to predict with confidence where the development of quantum computing may ultimately lead. For instance, in my own work I explore scenarios such as their use as cosmic felicific calculators in the propagation of a utilitronium shockwave across all accessible Everett benches of the multiverse. No doubt such scenarios are exceedingly far-fetched. The reality will probably be wilder and weirder still.

Second, rapid developments in stem cell technologies. We're still a long way from eternal youth. But it's possible at least to glimpse how a future of indefinite lifespans might unfold. I'd highly commend transhumanist Aubrey de Grey's "Ending Aging: the Rejuvenation Breakthroughs that Could Reverse Human Aging in Our Lifetime" (2007).

Third, let's consider the explosive growth of novel designer drugs in the scientific counterculture allied to the rigorous scintific methodology for their development and exploration pioneered by Alexander Shulgin in "PiHKAL"(1991). Transhumanists typically focus on intelligence-amplification rather than sentience-amplification. Yet if you were congenitally blind, what cognitive deficit should worry you most:

1) your cognitive biases and limitations in logical reasoning power?
2) your inability to undergo visual experiences and acquire a visually-based conceptual scheme?
I ask because by analogy I wonder what is mankind's greatest cognitive deficit compared to posthuman superintelligence? Does that cognitive deficit lie in our comparative deficiencies as logical inference engines - or alternatively in our absence of entire state-spaces of experience that are cognitively closed to us? I think this problem is especially intractable because just as the congenitally blind don't grow up in darkness - a popular misconception - likewise normal humans don't grow up sensing gaping deficits in our knowledge of alien state-spaces of experience. Ignorance that isn't explicitly represented in our conceptual scheme is the most far-reaching and profound. Or if I may quote William James:
"Some years ago I myself made some observations on ... nitrous oxide intoxication, and reported them in print. One conclusion was forced upon my mind at that time, and my impression of its truth has ever since remained unshaken. It is that our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the flimsiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different. We may go through life without suspecting their existence; but apply the requisite stimulus, and at a touch they are there in all their completeness, definite types of mentality which probably somewhere have their field of application and adaptation. No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded. How to regard them is the question -- for they are so discontinuous with ordinary consciousness. Yet they may determine attitudes though they fail to give a map. At any rate, they forbid a premature closing of our accounts with reality." ( William James,The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902). Lectures XVI and XVII: Mysticism)


JML: 4. What do you think are the three greatest hazards that lie in transhumanist technologies? And how should we protect ourselves from these?

I think the single greatest underlying risk to the future of intelligent life isn't technological, but both natural and evolutionarily ancient, namely competitive male dorminance behaviour. Crudely speaking, evolution "designed" human male primates to be hunters/warriors. Adult male humans are still endowed with the hunter-warrior biology - and primitive psychology - of our hominin ancestors. For the foreseeable future, all technological threats must be viewed through this sinister lens. Last century, male humans killed over 100 million fellow humans in conflict and billions of nonhumans. Directly or indirectly, this century we are likely to kill many more. But perhaps we"ll do so in more sophisticated ways.

Anyhow, three potentially dangerous technologies may be noted here:

First, weaponised biological pathogens. Engineered, readily transmissible viruses, perhaps with a long latency period, could be used to incapacitate or kill any humans who weren't vaccinated against them. This threat is especially serious given that research into possible countermeasures may itself render the hostile use of such agents more likely.

Second, the military use of "narrow" AI. In recent years transhumanists have focused on the risks of recursively self-improving AI leading to non-friendly artificial superintelligence. I think the risk from narrow AI in the service of human war-fighting capabilities is both more pressing and more credible.

Third, nonfriendly, nonbiological Superintelligence.
Perhaps see http://singinst.org/
I'm more cautious than some of my transhumanist colleagues about the likelihood of a mid-century Technological Singularity, let alone nonfriendly "strong AI." (cf. http://www.biointelligence-explosion.com) But perhaps I'm mistaken. Some very smart thinkers disagree.


JML: 5. Personally, I'm very interested in the connection of paradise engineering and animal rights philosophy. Also, many of our readers are vegetarians or vegans. In what ways do you consider the transhumanist development could benefit animal welfare?

At this moment, millions of nonhuman animals are literally starving or dying of thirst, parasitism and disease. Others are being asphyxiated, disemboweled or eaten alive by predators. Such are the savageries of a "food chain": "Nature, red in tooth and claw". So-called conservation biology - an ideology masquerading as a scientific discipline - aims to preserve the traditional horrors of Darwinan life indefinitely. By contrast, revolutionary tranhumanist technologies offer the prospect of a compassionate biology instead. For a cruelty-free living world is technically feasible if and when a consensus for such a project gains acceptance. Thus we can "reprogram" predators and obligate carnivores (cf. http://www.abolitionist.com/reprogramming/) while using cross-species fertility control (immunocontraception, etc) to regulate population numbers of free-living nonhumans in our "wildlife" parks. In fact the exponential growth of computer power should allow us to micro-manage every cubic meter of the planet. Our transhumanist commitment to the well-being of all sentience has extraordinarily radical implications for humans and nonhunan animals alike.

More practically, however, I think our first priority now should be to commercialise in vitromeat. I suspect our grandchildren will view humanity's treatment of highly sentient nonhuman animals as a crime on a par with the Holocaust.


JML: 6. Do you feel that there's a spiritual side to transhumanism?

Most tramshumanists are atheists and scientific rationalists. The most prominent tranhumanist forums are a spiritual wasteland. I've no natural capacity for spiritual experience myself. However, biotechnology promises to deliver the substrates of a lifelong spirituality far richer than anything physiologically accessible with existing human biology. Once we have identified the molecular substrates of the divine - primarily it seems in the temporal cortex - we can pharmacologically and genetically enrich the neural pathways of spiritual experience. Further, our imminent mastery of the brain's reward circuitry should allow exploration of entheogenic drugs free from the risk of "bad trips" that constrain responsible advocacy of psychedelic research today. For posthumans won't merely be smarter than Homo sapiens in the narrow intellectualistic sense of having off-the-scale IQ scores. Posthumans will also occupy completely alien state-spaces of consciousness. We have at present no way of understanding the significance of such modes of sentience: our ignorance of their nature isn't explicitly represented in our conceptual scheme. Humans don't even have the primitive terms to discuss what we lack.

Yet what is the significance of spiritual experiences? Do they hint at some transcendent spiritual Reality? Or are they just glorified tickles? Given our complete scientific ignorance of the origins and nature of consciousness, I'll just have to say, lamely, that I don't know.

David Pearce
January 2012
more interviews 1 : 2 : 3 : 4 : 5 : 6 : 7

David Pearce Video Interview
MP4(511Mb)
(interviwer Andrés Gómez Emilsson)

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