Source: AF
Date: November 2012


A World Without Suffering

Adam Saffron

AF: How did you and Nick Bostrom start WTA?

I wrote The Hedonistic Imperative in late 1995 - and uploaded the text to a new-fangled invention called the World Wide Web. In 1997, Nick was a postgrad at LSE. He stumbled across the manifesto and emailed a couple of penetrating questions. Later we met up. Nick sounded me out about the possibility of setting up the World Transhumanist Association as a kind of umbrella group for the disparate strands of transhumanism - ranging from left-liberal transhumanists in the European tradition to extropianism as pioneered by Max More and his colleagues at the seminal Extropy Institute.

Transhumanism is (at least!) as diverse today in 2012 as it was back in 1997. But the Transhumanist Declaration (1998, 2009) is, I think, a valuable statement of what unites rather than divides us.

AF: You mentioned: I'm much more confident about phasing out suffering than prognosticating about the Singularity! Firstly, do you think the singularity has a strong enough likelihood to make it worth thinking about? Acting upon?

DP: Prediction:
1) Classical digital computers will never be non-trivially conscious.
2) Software-based minds are physically impossible; the Strong Physical Church-Turing thesis is false.
3) Humans will never "upload" our minds; the phenomenal binding problem defeats the possibility of our digital emulation.

So no, I can't claim I'm holding my breath in a countdown to The Singularity.
Evolutionary biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky famously observed that "Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution". Likewise, I'd argue that nothing in the future of intelligent life in the universe makes sense except in the light of a solution to the Hard Problem of consciousness and the closure of Levine's notorious Explanatory Gap. I won't rehash here my views on the nature of mind and consciousness - basically a combination of Strawsonian physicalism and macroscopic quantum coherence, but with CNS decoherence timescales closer to the estimates of quantum-mind sceptic Max Tegmark than Stuart Hameroff. Either way, with tomorrow's technology these claims are empirically testable. They also yield the strong prediction that classical digital computers will always be zombies.

However, let's assume that I'm completely mistaken. [Some very smart people whose views I respect would certainly say so!] This in no way diminishes the moral urgency of tackling suffering in the world right now. The greatest source of severe, chronic and readily avoidable suffering worldwide is entirely man-made, namely factory-farming. Hence the priority of ending the animal holocaust.

AF: The Hedonistic Imperative
What is the hedonistic imperative all about?

DP: Mastery of biotechnology means that humans will shortly be able to abolish the molecular substrates of suffering throughout the living world. Over the next few centuries, experience below "hedonic zero" can in principle be phased out altogether. More speculatively, genetically enriched posthumans may enjoy gradients of lifelong happiness orders of magnitude richer than anything now physiologically feasible. In order to preserve cognitive function and social responsibility, genetic recalibration of our hedonic treadmill is a more likely prospect than a world of unvarying bliss. Yet even the worst days in posthuman paradise can be sublime.

Personally, I'm a negative utilitarian. I think we have an overriding ethical obligation to phase out suffering. But the beauty of hedonic recalibration is that biological mood-enrichment is neutral between differing utilitarian, deontological, virtue-based and pluralist approaches to ethics. Recalibration is also neutral between multiple religious and secular belief systems. Only if your value system is directly tied to the infliction of involuntary suffering on other sentient beings should you oppose HI. For sure, futurists hold pretty diverse views on where we're heading. Yet life based on gradients of intelligent bliss shouldn't be conceived as an alternative to other transhumanist conceptions of the good life. Not least, recalibration of your hedonic set-point can in principle leave your existing preference architecture more-or-less intact. Genetically tweaking our reward pathways just ensures that whatever your own conception of paradise, the reality will be incomparably better - and sustainably better too. By contrast, even today's greatest triumphs can turn to ashes with our existing biology. The negative feedback mechanisms of the brain's hedonic treadmill are brutally efficient. Studies suggest that six months after either winning the lottery or becoming quadriplegic after an accident, most people will have reverted to their previous level of (un)happiness before the win / accident. Without reward pathway enhancements, some people would still be depressive and angst-ridden in the Garden of Eden. Likewise in transhuman nirvana.

AF: Objections
What are the main objections to the Hedonistic Imperative?

DP: After debating with a fierce critic, I sometimes ask a question. When the biology of suffering becomes technically optional, would you actually force anyone to suffer against their will? How much, how often, and enforced by what means?

Typically, the critic then responds with varying degrees of reluctance that s/he doesn't favour forcing the biology of suffering on anyone, merely that s/he personally wouldn't want always to be happy. So we're in agreement! Almost no one is proposing coercive happiness Today, the biology of suffering is largely involuntary. Later this century, its biology will become optional. In short, we should all be free to choose.

AF: Why is it that we rationalize our suffering?

DP: If I hadn't lost my legs in the car accident, I'd never have written the novel I'd always intended to write (etc). Belief that suffering happens "for a reason" can make the unpleasant side of life a bit more bearable. Any suspicion that depression, pain, anxiety, jealousy, anger and all our nastier core emotions exist only because they promoted the inclusive fitness of our genes on the African savannah - in short, any suspicion that suffering is meaningless - seems to make life's miseries even worse. The same is true with ageing,. So long as suffering and growing old is inevitable, our capacity partly to rationalise their existence is a blessing. But now that humanity is poised to edit our own genetic source code, our rationalisations of suffering, ageing and all the ills of Darwinian life are an obstacle to getting rid of them. Now we need to overcome status quo bias.

AF: Unnatural?

DP: I wish critics who claim that lifelong happiness is "unnatural" would make their argument while not wearing clothes. Virtually anything we regard as worthwhile about civilisation, ranging from anaesthetics to antibiotics to iphones, is "unnatural" in the sense they weren't available on the African savannah. But why should their previous absence from Nature matter?

AF: Is well being dependant on a contrast with suffering?

DP: Intuitively, one might imagine that suffering is purely or largely relative. If this were so, then victims of chronic pain and / or depression today couldn't really be suffering since they lack a relevant contrast. Sadly this isn't the case. Such a suggestion would be cruel. Recall that some depressives can't even imagine what it's like to be happy, or even what the word "happiness" means. They still suffer terribly. Tragically, it's physiologically possible to spend life entirely below "hedonic zero". Conversely, life can be lived entirely above hedonic zero, too - although the creation of a superhappy population worldwide enjoying life animated by gradients of intelligent bliss will entail editing our genetic source code. Perpetual happiness wasn't somehow technically harder for Nature to engineer. Rather perpetual happiness wasn't genetically fitness-enhancing in the ancestral environment of adaptedness.

AF: Would we get anything done if we were not motivated by avoiding suffering?

DP: Historically, discontent has been the motor of progress. So it's easy to imagine that lifelong well-being must be a recipe for a stagnant civilisation of blissed-out lotus-eaters.

Not so. Blissful tranquility is only one option among many. Hedonic tone and motivation are mediated by distinct neurotransmitter systems in the CNS. If we want to be both superhappy and hyper-motivated, then we can boost mu-opioid and mesolimbic dopamine function alike. Yes, discontent can be a powerful incentive to action. So too can its more civilised functional analogues. The functional analogues of discontent can be conserved even if the lower depths of tomorrow's hedonic range surpass today's "peak experiences".

Mastery of motivation and mood - coupled with a genetically enhanced empathetic capacity for co-operative problem-solving - promises that posthuman life can be hugely more productive than our dysfunctional messed-up lives today.

AF: Unanticipated side effects of perpetual bliss?

DP: This issue should be taken especially seriously. The historical record suggests that socio-political utopias, at least, frequently go wrong and end up creating more suffering than they banish. Could something analogous happen here?

On the face of it, no. If we use biotech to abolish the molecular signature of experience below hedonic zero, then the very meaning of things "going wrong" changes in the wake of the transition. No doubt the functional analogues of misfortune will persist this side of the millennium. But critically, these functional analogues needn't have the ghastly "raw feels" of suffering as undergone by misery-ridden Darwinian life.

Yet might this response be too complacent? In order to "play safe", I think it's prudent that we aim, not for direct happiness-maximisation, but merely to recalibrate our hedonic set-points - and the hedonic set-points of our prospective children - so that life is animated by information-sensitive gradients of bliss. We already know several of the relevant alleles and benign allelic combinations we might choose for our prospective children if we opt to use preimplantation genetic diagnosis rather than play genetic roulette. This hedonic recalibration scenario differs from wireheading or the pursuit of unvarying maximum pleasure as dictated by classical utilitarianism, in its naive direct guise at any rate. Uniform bliss, like uniform despair, is inconsistent with critical insight and intellectual performance - at least for as long as sentient beings rely on the signalling function of the pleasure-pain axis rather than its nonbiological artificial alternatives.

Anyhow, let's assume for a moment that blissful, genetically enhanced transhuman life is indeed prudently based on information-sensitive gradients of well-being. Even then, could things still go horribly wrong?

Here we hit something of an impasse. Informed speculation about "unknown unknowns" is always a challenge. I'd certainly like to see systematic research into the happiest "hyperthymic" people alive today. Some hyperthymics are extremely high functioning and productive. But do these hedonic outliers have e.g. cognitive biases that might stand in need of correction in a collectively superhappy civilisation? The functional analogues of so-called depressive realism may sometimes be cognitively useful. Clearly, the long-term sociological ramifications of raising hedonic set-points worldwide via preimplantation genetic diagnosis and "designer zygotes" need thoroughgoing research. Biohappiness research is still in its infancy. Yet I don't think humanity's genetic choices lie straightforwardly between risk and safety. All our options are risky. All children are unique genetic experiments. Rather we need to weigh risk-reward ratios. Thus the biology of suffering is not just a source of horrific personal distress. In an era of weapons of mass destruction, the biology of suffering is also a source of existential and global catastrophic risk. These issues are normally considered orthogonal. I'd argue they are intimately connected.

And next? Well, after we have phased out suffering on Earth, I think we should prepare for responsible stewardship of our Hubble volume rather than strive single-mindedly for an absolute maximum of Earthly bliss - at least until we understand the ramifications of what we're doing. Responsibility for sentience within our cosmological horizon most likely falls on humans and our descendants as we radiate across the Galaxy and beyond. Cosmic stewardship is a job for posthuman superintelligence. If we're going to practise paradise-engineering, let's get it right.

* * *


some more DP interviews
1 : 2 : 3 : 4 : 5 : 6 : 7 : 8 : 9 : 10 : 11


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