Interviewer Aron Vallinder
1. You founded the WTA/H+ with Nick Bostrom back in '97. What drove you? And what has happened since?
DP: It all started out rather informally. In 1995, I wrote an online manifesto, The Hedonistic Imperative, advocating the use of biotechnology to abolish suffering throughout the living world. At that time, Nick was a philosophy postgrad in London. He read the manifesto and fired off several incisive questions. Later we met up. I harangued Nick into getting a website. Nick then sounded me out about setting up a kind of umbrella organization for transhumanists - and overcame my doubts about whether overcoming suffering is really at the heart of a transhumanist agenda.
Cut to January 2011. What's happened since? Well, I guess a book could be written chronicling the twists and turns of the transhumanist movement over the past 14 years. I won't attempt even a potted history here. Perhaps I may instead sketch some currents in contemporary transhumanism.
All transhumanists salute the work on radical anti-aging technologies of Aubrey de Grey at SENS Foundation. I guess one self-interested question at the back of our minds about “longevity escape velocity” is timescale. When? Our grandchildren may not grow old. Realistically, can we hope to benefit as well?
More controversially, many transhumanists believe that the exponential growth in computer power is leading us to an “intelligence explosion”: the Technological Singularity. Various authors use the term "Singularity" in different senses, so they are worth distinguishing: http://singinst.org/blog/2007/09/30/three-major-singularity-schools/. The digital nirvana prophesied by Ray Kurzweil (The Singularity Is Near, 2005) is starkly at odds with the dark forebodings on recursively self-improving AGI of Eliezer Yudkowsky at the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence (SIAI). Will post-biological superintelligence be human-friendly – or better, sentience-friendly? A different road-map altogether is offered by James Hughes and his colleagues at the Institute of Ethics and Emerging Technologies (IEET); the IEET represents an academic, broadly left-liberal strand of transhumanism. Meanwhile Max More and Natasha Vita-More, who pioneered the modern transhumanist movement with their colleagues at the Extropy Institute, now serve on the board of WTA/H+. Max has also just been appointed CEO of Alcor Foundation, the world’s leading cryonics organization. Ben Goertzel, author of A Cosmist Manifesto (2010) and a hands-on AI programmer, is now chair of WTA/H+. Oxford University, once home of ordinary language philosophy, now has a Future of Humanity Institute. Nick Bostrom has done more than anyone to promote the study of existential risk as a rigorous academic discipline - as distinct from populist doom-mongering. Other well-known transhumanists defy easy categorization.
Of course, there's a world of difference between philosophizing and building a movement. The big beasts of the transhumanist jungle gain the most attention; the nuts-and-bolts organizers work behind the scenes and make things happen. The next big H+ event is at Conway Hall in London on 29th January: http://humanityplus.org.uk/speakers/. I hope Manniska Plus supporters can participate!
2. You are mostly known as a proponent of "abolitionism". Can you tell us something about this position, and how it relates to transhumanism at large?
DP: "Abolitionism" is just a fancy word for phasing out all unpleasant experience - the molecular substrates of psychological distress as well as physical suffering, in human and non-human animals alike. This goal sounds impossibly utopian. Yet thanks to biotechnology, the eradication of suffering of any kind is feasible, in principle, with recognisable extensions of existing technologies. A commitment to the well-being of all sentience is enshrined in the Transhumanist Declaration (1998, 2009): http://humanityplus.org/learn/transhumanist-declaration/. For what it's worth, I (tentatively) predict that the world's last unpleasant experience in our forward light-cone will be a precisely dateable event - possibly a micro-pain in some humble marine invertebrate several centuries hence.
So how do we get there? Pain and suffering exist today because they have been genetically adaptive. The signalling properties of our nastier primal emotions (sadness, disgust, anger, fear, etc) helped the genes of organic robots leave more copies of themselves ("maximise their inclusive fitness") in the ancestral environment of adaptation. Each core emotion has its own anatomical and neurochemical signature; and ancient functional role. Here I’ll sketch three broad categories of solution. They involve (1) microelectrodes, (2) neuropharmacology, and (3) gene therapy.
1) The crudest option is the easiest to implement but also the least politically credible. Thus even today suffering can be abolished by direct neurostimulation of the reward centres - the sociologically implausible option known as “wireheading”. The prospect of wireheading appeals only to severe depressives.
2) Later this century, rational drug-design harnessed to pharmacogenetics will offer a more fine-grained mastery of mood and motivation. In an era of personalised medicine, “magic bullets” can make us feel “better than well”. Yet drug-based interventions offer only symptomatic relief. Even the most innovative designer drugs can only be stopgaps. Psychoactive agents have multiple pitfalls, not least their abuse potential. Presumably we don’t want to medicate our children with chemical cocktails from birth.
3) By contrast, post-genomic medicine promises to tackle the genetic roots of suffering. The human species can tweak, edit and later rewrite our own source code. In consequence, our descendants can enjoy innate mental superhealth. The biggest technical challenge to an informational economy of mind based on gradients of bliss isn't manufacturing effectively limitless raw pleasure in the brain's "hedonic hotspots" i.e. the substrates of pure bliss in the rostrodorsal shell of the nucleus accumbens and the posterior half of the ventral pallidum. Rather the challenge is to deliver high-functioning, empathetic, information-sensitive gradients of well-being - and to take account of the societal effects of global mood-enrichment. What will be the ramifications of lifelong (super)happiness for the dynamics of society as a whole?
A classical utilitarian might ask why we shouldn’t seek maximum happiness indefinitely. Why aim merely at hedonic set-point recalibration? If in future we can “offload” everything nasty and mundane onto smart prostheses governed by formal utility functions rather than reinforcement learning, why aspire only to information-sensitive gradients of well-being? Why not strive for absolute perfection? Maybe so. The ultimate future of life in the universe is unknown. But the risk of inducing uniform bliss is stagnation, both personal and social: it’s the chemical analogue of wireheading. Uniform bliss entails a loss of insight and appropriate behavioural responses, a lack of motivation and social responsibility, and an absence of narrative structure to our lives. The blissed-out heroin user isn’t going anywhere. Collectively, humanity might lock itself into a Brave New World instead of exploring the fullest potential of life in the cosmos. I guess “fullest potential” here is a just a vague and woolly way of saying it’s prudent to avoid doing anything irrevocable until we’re sure that we understand the implications of what we’re doing. So for the foreseeable future, we’ll plausibly want to retain a signalling role for some of our Darwinian core emotions. We can maintain their functional analogues minus the nasty "raw feels".
Should we aspire to enrich the substrates of subjective well-being beyond the limits of normal human experience – true paradise engineering? Here we pass beyond the abolitionist project proper into more ambitious conceptions of mental health. The upper bounds of sustainable well-being are unclear. So too is its ideal cosmic extension: arguably the classical utilitarian is committed in the long run to some sort of cosmological "utilitronium shockwave". More modestly, the negative utilitarian aims to sustain all sentience at or above "hedonic zero". Either way, I reckon our descendants, and just conceivably our future selves, will be animated by gradients of intelligent bliss orders of magnitude richer than today's peak experiences.
Talk of abolishing suffering, let alone full-blown paradise engineering, would be idle philosophizing if there weren't substantive grounds for predicting such an evolutionary transition will occur. So it’s worth pausing to consider the implications of the imminent reproductive revolution of “designer babies”. Cheap access to our own personal genomes will soon be ubiquitous. Prospective parents will shortly be able to choose the genetic make-up of their future children via pre-implantation genetic diagnosis. Eventually, the old Russian roulette of conceiving children "naturally" may be recognised as reckless and irresponsible.
Later this century, most parents-to-be probably won’t have in mind any grandiose ideology of "abolishing suffering". Instead, parental decision-making will focus on genetically customising the mental and physical well-being of one’s own future children. The growth in genetically informed reproductive choices will exert intense selection pressure against our nastier genes and allelic combinations. Prospective parents won't want to make merely "obvious" choices like eliminating the cystic fibrosis allele and other monogenetic disorders. Most likely we’ll decommission genes that predispose to dysfunctional mental health too.
By way of illustration, imagine if you are a prospective parent genetically pre-selecting the hedonic set-point of your future children. What quality of life will you seek for your offspring? Would you prefer to raise an angst-ridden depressive - or an affectionate, happy child? If the latter, would you prefer your child to be mildly happy, moderately happy or profoundly happy? Twin studies confirm such traits have a high genetic loading. Already we can identify particular alleles (e.g. variants of the mu opioid receptor and COMT genes: https://www.reproductive-revolution.com/comt.pdf ) implicated in hedonic tone and subjective quality of life. In addition, medical geneticists now have the expertise, in principle, to choose a child's level of pain-sensitivity via variant alleles of the SCN9A gene ( https://www.opioids.com/pain/scn9a.pdf ) - ranging from nonsense mutations coding for no pain-sensitivity at all to variants promoting hyperalgesia. Benign, low pain-sensitivity-associated alleles will presumably be chosen until smart neuroprostheses enable us to dispense with the signalling role of phenomenal pain altogether.
In the new reproductive era, the nature of selection pressure will be radically different from the era of Darwinian life. Under a regime of natural selection, evolution is "blind". Genetic mutations are random with respect to the direction of evolution. By contrast, post-Darwinians will choose and design their children’s genomes in anticipation of their future phenotypic effects. Not just our children will benefit. Autosomal gene-therapy will empower mature adults to change their temperament, motivation and personality too. We may also “reprogram” ourselves by inserting cognition-enhancing "smart genes" and regulatory promoters as well. Ethical challenges abound. Maybe Chinese-style statism will triumph over Western-style individualism. Will state-directed eugenics resurface in new guise?
Set in a wider context, the abolitionist project extends beyond the well-being of members of a single race or species. Humanity currently factory-farms and slaughters billions of non-human animals (“livestock”) each year. The acts we commit against our fellow sentient beings would earn the perpetrators a lifetime prison sentence if the victims belonged to our own species. Of course, there are differences between human beings and factory-farmed animals. The question is not whether differences exist but whether they are morally relevant differences. A pig, for example, has the intellectual capacity – and, critically, the capacity to suffer - of a two-year-old human toddler. In the absence of morally relevant differences, a pig and a toddler deserve equal love and respect. The reason we don't regard non-human animal abuse with the horror we regard child abuse is that selection pressure has systematically warped our moral intuitions. “They” seem self-evidently inferior to “us”.
Animal activists hope that everyone will recognize the compelling arguments for embracing a vegan lifestyle. Millions of people worldwide have made the transition to a cruelty-free diet. Yet what if progress stalls? Perhaps the human capacity for self-serving rationalization will prove too deep-rooted to win over the meat-eating majority. On this scenario, the only solution to the animal holocaust lies in technology. The development of inexpensive, mass-produced in vitro meat (http://www.new-harvest.org/) of a taste and texture indistinguishable from the flesh of intact animals will enable even the morally apathetic to eat a cruelty-free diet. Thus global veganism - or at least global veganism plus cruelty-free cultured meat - isn't the pipe dream it may appear.
Finally, consider the horrors of "Nature, red in tooth and claw". Darwinian life is very cruel. It’s based on creatures eating each other. The experience of being eaten alive, disembowelled or slowly asphyxiated is terrible beyond words. This fate befalls millions of sentient beings every day. The “food chain” might seem an insurmountable obstacle to a world without suffering - short of phasing out free-living animals via habitat destruction. Yet fatalism about the plight of “wild” animals will soon be obsolete. Now we've unravelled the genetic code, we can envisage radically conservative policy options for the living world - an ethically revamped conservation biology. If we really want to abolish suffering and retain charismatic mega-fauna in our wildlife parks, then we can design compassionate ecosystems instead. Later this century, we'll have the computational resources to micro-manage every square metre of the planet. Potentially, biotechnology allows us to rewrite the vertebrate genome, “reprogram” today’s carnivorous predators, regulate the fertility of whole species via immunocontraception, police marine ecosystems with nanobots, and ultimately abolish suffering throughout the living world: https://www.abolitionist.com/reprogramming/
How does the abolition of suffering fit in with other strands of transhumanism?
Counterintuitively, all the wonderful stuff we seek as transhumanists - superintelligence, indefinite youthful lifespans, morphological freedom, augmented reality, immersive VR, unlimited nanotech abundance, and so forth – won’t leave us significantly (un)happier unless we also recalibrate our hedonic “set-point”. This is because none of these futuristic wonders disables the hedonic treadmill. The hedonic treadmill is the viciously effective set of negative feedback mechanisms in the vertebrate CNS that stops most of us being very (un)happy for very long. Empirically, there's little evidence that thousands of years of material progress have left Homo sapiens more (dis)contented than our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Almost one million people in the world take their own lives each year. Around twenty times that number make suicide attempts. Hundreds of millions more suffer from clinical or sub-clinical depression. Whereas computer power is growing exponentially, and economic growth continues unchecked, (un)happiness doesn’t even grow linearly: it stagnates.
So we need to tackle the biological roots of ill-being at its source. Compared to more exotic transhumanist technologies, the prospect of reward pathway enhancements doesn’t set one’s pulse racing. In the words of Jeremy Bentham, "Happiness is a very pretty thing to feel, but very dry to talk about". Yet direct interventions will be vital if the burden of low mood is to be lifted. Even if we’re living in a latter-day Garden of Eden, the only way to enrich lifetime well-being beyond an individual’s genetically constrained ceiling is to raise his or her hedonic set-point. Its heritable dial-settings vary. Some people today are (un)luckier than others in the genetic lottery of Darwinian life. But all of us lead impoverished lives compared to just how wonderful life could be in future. In short, the proposal to re-engineer ourselves to feel "naturally" happier cuts across different transhumanist ambitions and projects. Genetically preprogrammed well-being isn’t an alternative to other transhumanist visions but rather their backdrop. By the same token, not just the classical utilitarian ethicist, but also the preference utilitarian, the virtue theorist, deontologist and the ethical pluralist can all endorse radical mood-enrichment. Biohappiness may not be an obligation. Yet shouldn’t it at least be an option?
Another question is whether recalibration of the brain’s hedonic set-point can or should preserve our existing preference architecture. After all, as Wittenstein remarked, “The world of the happy is quite different from that of the unhappy.” Perhaps the world of the superhappy is not just different but inconceivably so. Some of us would like simply to banish Darwinian minds to the dustbin of history. However, not everyone seeks to reinvent themselves from scratch. Therefore let's take a reassuringly conservative example of recalibration instead. Musically, you love jazz and I love techno. Imagine if we both undergo a reward pathway enhancement that makes all music sound more enjoyable, but makes our favourite style of music sound unimaginably sublime – so sublime that the coolest music we enjoy now is a mere advertising jingle in comparison. After this seemingly miraculous transition, both of us can still disagree over the comparative excellence of jazz and techno. Critical discernment can be retained. Our musical preferences are intact. Likewise, we could still debate whether value-judgements are subjective or objective; and argue over whether the post-enrichment explosion of musical value in the experiential sense had been matched by an explosion of value in any metaphysical sense. Despite such disagreements, we would both emphatically agree that our subjective post-enhancement quality of life had dramatically improved. More generally, what is true of musical appreciation is also feasible for aesthetics, humour, eroticism and all aspects of human experience, not least the hedonic tone that pervades the textures of our everyday life. Enhanced reward circuitry can mean our descendants – and just conceivably our elderly selves - will enjoy hypervaluable states every day of their lives.
Yet will posthuman life "really" be orders of magnitude more valuable - or will it just feel that way? I'll pass on that one here. Is Heaven “really” better than Hell?
3. I think a lot of people find abolitionism just plain weird. What do you say to them?
DP: I guess weirdness is in the eye of the beholder. "God's in his heaven; All's right with the world”, said Robert Browning. Or as Bertrand Russell once observed, "Really high-minded people are indifferent to happiness, especially other people's." Phasing out suffering is implicit in a classical utilitarian ethic. It's the central tenet of Buddhism. The difference is that 21st century technology turns the abolition of suffering into a feasible policy option. Before it was just utopian dreaming. For you can't recalibrate the hedonic treadmill via legislation and socio-economic reform à la Jeremy Bentham. Nor can you design a cruelty-free ecosystem by embracing the Noble Eightfold Path laid out by Gautama Buddha. The underlying goal of abolishing suffering and promoting happiness hasn't changed - just the efficacy of the means. Most people seek to increase their own happiness. They try to achieve this goal by having children, taking a higher-paying job, buying things, etc. Multiple studies show such behaviours do not increase happiness over the long run beyond a person’s built-in hedonic set-point.
Whether you think the abolitionist agenda is "weird" or commonplace, no one is indifferent to their own suffering. Perhaps ponder the case for abolition when you next have a toothache. What varies hugely is our sensitivity to misery elsewhere: "We all have strength enough to endure the misfortunes of others”, said Francois de La Rochefoucauld with pardonable exaggeration. In the natural sciences, we aim for a notional God's-eye-view. I’d argue we should aspire to a notional God's-eye-view in ethics too. Impartial benevolence was genetically maladaptive on the African savannah. Hence our brains aren’t designed to find it easy now. So the challenge is to find ways to overcome not just egocentric bias, but also ethnocentric and anthropocentric bias: to develop an impartial perspective that recognizes how securing the well-being of another sentient being on the other side of the world - or held captive in a nearby factory-farm - should be as urgent as securing one's own.
Here's a thought-experiment for the sceptic. Imagine if we stumble upon an advanced extraterrestrial civilisation. All its inhabitants enjoy lives based on gradients of intelligent bliss. As it happens, I'm doubtful primordial life arises more than once in a typical life-supporting Hubble volume; but let's assume otherwise here. On this scenario, should defenders of Earthling commonsense try and persuade these sublimely happy extraterrestrials to recreate the discontents of their primitive ancestors? What precisely do we suppose was so worthwhile about the nastiness they’ve lost? Tertullian claimed one of the pleasures of paradise was watching the torments of the damned. Should we urge the extraterrestrials to run ancestor-simulations as a reminder of what long-forgotten "unweirdness" is like? I don't think members of such a superhappy civilisation would regard a human proposal to recreate Darwinian life as "plain weird" so much as utterly psychotic. Only status quo bias on our part - and the equation of the "natural" with the good - makes us cling to traditional biology.
The scenario above is just a thought-experiment. But I reckon our posthuman successors really will take invincible well-being for granted. The notion of reverting to the miseries of their ancestors might strike them as weird beyond comprehension - perhaps literally so.
4. What do you think of the current state of transhumanism? And what are your hopes for the future?
DP: In one sense, the past decade has been a resounding success. But let’s start in a more self-critical vein. The limited cross-fertilisation between different transhumanist traditions could be improved. Most transhumanists subscribe to the Transhumanist Declaration and the FAQ. Yet the diverse currents of transhumanism can sometimes resemble semi-independent solar systems more than a cohesive movement. The transhumanist community is male-dominated. It has some robust personalities: vital for success in a Darwinian world. Yet transcending our biological limitations means transcending alpha-male dominance behaviour - our greatest underlying source of existential and global catastrophic risk, and perhaps the greatest risk to the transhumanist movement as well.
On the positive side, transhumanist ideas have percolated into the wider world out of all proportion to our numbers. Transhumanist ideas have penetrated the academic mainstream - still hugely contentious for sure, but no longer solely the province of wild-eyed visionaries and science-fiction enthusiasts. Aubrey de Grey’s Ending Aging (2007), for instance, has been widely reviewed. Critics are now more likely to allege that the projected timescales are too optimistic than to deny the possibility of radical life-extension itself. On other fronts, OUP recently published the scholarly volume of essays edited by Nick Bostrom entitled Global Catastrophic Risks (2008). Springer have just commissioned an academic volume on the Singularity. And so forth. In fields of research most relevant to abolitionism, news of in vitro meat has penetrated the mainstream media. Even the proposal to phase out carnivorism in Nature was recently canvassed by philosopher Jeff McMahan in the New York Times. I think this is real progress. Life has a grim past but potentially a glorious future.
What do I hope for in the long-term? The well-being of all sentience, naturally. Alas, the devil is in the details.
Swedish translation here
German translation here
more interviews 1 : 2 : 3 : 4 : 5 : 6 : 7 : 8 : 9 : 10 : 11 : 12 : 13
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The Wired Society
Social Media (2020)
The Good Drug Guide
The Abolitionist Project
The Hedonistic Imperative
The Reproductive Revolution
MDMA : Utopian Pharmacology
The End of Suffering? (H+, 2010)
Critique of Huxley's Brave New World
H+/World Transhumanist Association
Quantum Ethics? Suffering in the Multiverse