June 18, 2009

Eliminating All Pain, Forever

Michael Anissimov is guest blogging this month.

One of the most fascinating and ambitious of transhumanist ideas is the "Hedonistic Imperative", articulated by David Pearce, co-founder of the World Transhumanist Association (now Humanity Plus) with Nick Bostrom. To quote the site:

The Hedonistic Imperative outlines how genetic engineering and nanotechnology will abolish suffering in all sentient life.

The abolitionist project is hugely ambitious but technically feasible. It is also instrumentally rational and morally urgent. The metabolic pathways of pain and malaise evolved because they served the fitness of our genes in the ancestral environment. They will be replaced by a different sort of neural architecture - a motivational system based on heritable gradients of bliss. States of sublime well-being are destined to become the genetically pre-programmed norm of mental health. It is predicted that the world's last unpleasant experience will be a precisely dateable event.

The Hedonistic Imperative, which I like to call "eliminating all pain, forever", seems to me to be the logical conclusion of the simple belief that pain is bad. Our lives are filled with so much unnecessary pain, much of which doesn't even serve any operative function. For instance, if someone initiates a confrontation with me, even someone who I will never see again and whose opinion I shouldn't logically care about, I feel bad about it for a while, longer than I should. There's a reason for this -- in the ancestral environment, all humans lived in small tribes of just 100-200 individuals (Dunbar's number). If I had a confrontation with someone, it could be a really big deal, because I'm practically guaranteed to see them or their associates again. But I live in a city with almost a million people, so why should I have to deal with this?

The confrontation example is actually a very superficial one. Consider something more serious -- the mechanism of lethality behind the 1918 plague. Scientists think that the virus killed via cytokine storms, overreactions of the human immune system to the virus. The very bodily functions that were supposed to save us caused our doom. That's why the virus killed the healthiest human beings, not the very young or old, like typical flu. "Healthier" human beings had stronger immune systems, which went even more haywire when attacked by the virus, leading to their tissues being clogged up with excess fluids and macrophages, causing death.

Nature can be a cruel thing. There are endless examples. One of the most radical positions of many transhumanists is that the entire ecosystem should be reshaped to eliminate cruelty. Transhumanists have many "radical" positions, but this is one that even "moderate" transhumanists are prone to adopting, and for good reason. If human beings have no right to murder each other, then why should conscious animals have the same right? If a wolf kills a cat or a lamb that can feel pain, that represents negative utility. Yes, predators must eat prey to survive, but what if we could reengineer predators to eat "meat trees" or exclusively non-conscious animals?

Like many radical areas of transhumanism, these ideas are left insufficiently explored, for fear of being thought of as having our heads in the clouds. But why should academic philosophers have all the fun? Besides attracting thinkers to transhumanism with common sense ideas like "life shouldn't have to end at 120", why not give a try with more radical ideas, like "all of pain is reprehensible and it ought to be eliminated for all eternity"? There is little harm in pursuing simple moral ideas to their logical conclusions. From an information-theoretic standpoint, it's much simpler.

Though some people regard transhumanism as a complex philosophy, it is ultimately more mundane and simple than almost every other religious or secular worldview.

Michael's blog:
Accelerating Future.


Go Democrats said...

Sounds like the elimination of all human experience to me. It would be a shame if everything we learned as a civilization were tossed aside in favor of existence as sentient rats pressing the joy button over and over again.

Athena Andreadis said...

@Go Democrats -- One word: soma. Happified people would probably be found as skeletons in their beds. It's yearning (broadly defined) that motivates us to act, from feeding ourselves to holding demonstrations. But as an instrument of social control, this would be unparalleled. Happy slaves are far easier to control.

midnightsun said...

Brilliant post- less brilliant comments.

Let's go back and tell African-American slaves in the 1830s that their situation is ok, it's just another "human experience." Let's tell those people suffering in Africa now that they just have to experience a little more of that poverty and malaria for the rest of us humans and the collective "human experience." After all, if they were happy, they'd just be "skeletons in their beds," and that'd be worse than being depressed or experiencing constant suffering all the time.

"Happy slaves" is quite an oxymoron, and slaves wouldn't even remotely exist in such a society, although they certainly exist in today's society, which is so happily applauded by the previous two posters. If you're totally and completely happy, you wouldn't feel the need to enslave other people to try to create more happiness for yourself, and so in a society where we were able to engineer happiness there would be no slavery at all.

Those knee-jerk sentiments were addressed long ago on the Hedonistic Imperative site and are therefore more fully addressed in the link that the poster provided.

keystrike said...

There are some people who are born exceptionally happy and they do not experience as much suffering as the rest of us. Yet they are not found as skeletons in their beds.

George said...

@GoDemocrats: And what is it exactly that we have learned as a civilization?

Leafy said...

@Athena Andreadis Do you think "a motivational system based on heritable gradients of bliss" is not sufficient? Do you believe it's not possible to be happy and motivated?

midnightsun said...

Keystrike: "There are some people who are born exceptionally happy and they do not experience as much suffering as the rest of us. Yet they are not found as skeletons in their beds."

Yes, if anything, the opposite is true, where the people with the bad luck to be born with very low well-being and coping mechanisms are the ones who end up committing suicide and being found as "skeletons" in the bed/garage/closet, certainly not people dying from being too happy.

Michael Anissimov said...

Philosopher Mark Walker has pointed out that there are people with very high happiness set points that live quite normal and functional lives. It is extremely hard to make them sad, even when circumstances are tough. These individuals are called "hyperthymic". Here's Walker's paper.

Go Democrats said...

We have learned to strive for excellence, George. There would be no doing that if all we could experience were "gradients of bliss."

We have learned to solve problems, to meet challenges, to think critically, to create great art, great music, great philosophy. We have learned to value interaction with other humans, even though they sometimes anger us and disappoint us. We have learned to test ourselves in body and in mind.

Why is it that transhumanists make fun of religionists who think about heaven as a place where they can sit on a cloud and contemplate the face of God in eternal bliss, but then they want to forcibly engineer the material world to look like that?

@Athena: I have a friend who is working on a big project on biohappiness and he makes a good case that people who are happier achieve more, have more friends, etc. HOWEVER: part of his argument seems to be that even baseline happy people need to be able to feel a range of emotions in order to get motivated to do anything. I think he would agree that we would not have human achievement in a world where it was all "gradients of bliss." (Although perhaps he will post, as I hate to put words in his mouth).

keystrike said...

@Michael: Yes thanks, here is some more info about hyperthymic temperament, http://biopsychiatry.com/happiness/hyperthymia.html

midnightsun said...

"There would be no doing that if all we could experience were 'gradients of bliss.'"

A few people have commented about how there are people who are much more naturally happy. A scientific study could be done to quantify whether they have done anything of accomplishment compared to the rest of us with our great music and great philosophy and depressive thoughts.

Odin Xenobuilder said...

Two things jump out at me.

1. Regarding physical pain, a lot of the pain we experience is for a very good reason. It keeps us from destroying our bodies. This interview has an interesting delve into that subject.

2. The ability to wire people for hyperthymia may be desirable to some, but I think it would be a shame if everyone jumped on that bandwagon. Wouldn't it have a giant homogenizing effect of human personalities? And I have a similar fear as with physical pain. Aren't the temporary emotional downturns we experience when faced with failures in life a big part of what encourages us to improve?

Now say my concerns above turn out to be unwarranted. Meaning we still experience some kind of deterrent that is effective enough to help us protect ourselves. Won't that mean we've just traded a whole lot of effort for no difference? What I mean is, we experience things in a very relative way. If we change our range of feeling from between bad to great to between good to fabulous, after a while, does good just become the new bad?

I agree with Michael, there are numerous examples of unnecessary pain that should be pruned from our genes. It seems to me that specific, targeted, pain elimination techniques are effective for eliminating great suffering, and an "always on" no pain scenario is a recipe for unintended consequences. The Hedonistic Imperative or Abolitionist Project may seem grand and righteous, but I think the details that are at this point lacking will bite us before we start experiencing exponential bliss.

Gillsing said...

I have the same concerns as you do. I'm pretty sure that the lowest from of bliss would only end up as the new emotional pain. And physical pain is definitely needed until we have perfect bodies that never break. But perhaps we'll have perfect machine bodies that simply tell us when we're doing something bad, and beg us to kindly stop damaging them? Would that be the lowest form of bliss? When our perfect bodies fail to perform according to our wishes?

Mark said...

There are a number of different senses of the word 'happy' and its cognates. It is hard to have a productive conversation without distinguishing them. Here are three of the more important. Happy-about: This means a cognitive attitude of approval or disapproval about some state of affairs, e.g, I am happy about the outcome of the presidential election. A special case of happy-about is in reference to one's life: "I am happy about my life", meaning that your attitude towards your life is one of positive approval. The third is happy-moods: positive moods and emotions such as joy, euphoria, and being "up beat", etc. Obviously this distinctions have connections, but they are also independent. I may be unhappy about the Cowboys winning a game, but it is not likely to destroy my upbeat mood. One cannot effect a cure on someone who is clinically depressed just by making them happy about something, e.g. they may be happy about a Cowboys' lose, but not cured. Their disposition for black moods is not likely to evaporate. In any event, here is the relevance to the topic under discussion. People are right that unhappiness is necessary for anything to get done in this world, for individuals and civilization to achieve anything. If people are happy-about everything then there is no room for change or improvement. However, psychology research (e.g., Lyubomirksy, King, Diener, 2005) shows that those who are in positive moods are more likely to achieve. Happy-moods are more likely to turn something that we are not happy-about into something that we are happy-about. Consider a trite example. You are not happy-about the state of your backyard. Research suggests, you are more likely to start the project of fixing your moonscape if you are in a good mood as opposed to a bad mood. The same research suggests that the movers and the shakers of the world are more likely to be happy-mood types. This does not mean that the happy-mood types are happy-about the state of the world. No, they are more likely to be unhappy-about the state of the world. (Notice that those with the darkest moods, the clinically depressed, are often neither happy-about nor unhappy-about the state of the world, they don't care either way. They are not more likely to be unhappy-about global warming, they are more likely to be indifferent). So, if positive moods make for achievement does this mean that we should do away with negative moods? I can think of one reason to think this may not be wise. I am happy-about the experience of being in a dark mood and listening to Mozart's "Requiem Mass", and Joy Division's "Eternal". In such cases I am happy-about but not happy-mood. I want the full palette of human emotions, but I still want more positive moods than I now experience. Some people are already lucky in this connection: the hyperthymic. I want to get (if only in pill form) what they have through the genetic lottery. If I always had positive moods I think I would be less happy-about my life. I want more control over my emotions, I don't want less control.

davidpearce said...

Some people today endure chronic pain or depression. Their suffering still varies in intensity. Gillising, would you argue that days on which they don't feel quite so dreadful as others are somehow really pleasurable? On the contrary, gradients of pain and depression are all still painful, just as gradients of bliss are all still blissful.

Odin, I think it's worth distinguishing nociception from the subjective experience of pain. We don't yet have a deep understanding of why silicon (etc) robots can be programmed to respond functionally to noxious stimuli without feeling agony in the way organic creatures like us do. But in the long run, I think it would be kinder to offload our responses to noxious stimuli onto smart prostheses so that living creatures don't have to suffer horribly as now.

In the meantime, sensitivity to pain isn't an all-or-nothing phenomenon. It varies genetically from person to person. The imminent reproductive revolution will shortly allow us to choose the level of pain-sensitivity of our prospective children. Which of the different "natural" genetic variants that promote varying degrees of pain-sensitivity (e.g. variant alleles of the gene for COMT or mu opioid receptor gene) would you select if it were in your power? High pain or low pain?

Perhaps you'd prefer not to choose your future children's sensitivity to pain at all - or indeed their susceptibility to depression or anxiety disorders. Why not trust in God - or the wisdom of Mother Nature? After all, pre-selecting the genetic make-up of our future children would be an experiment. But all sexual reproduction is an untested genetic experiment too - a genetic version of Russian roulette whose outcomes can be incredibly cruel.

Athena, intuitively you're right: the utopians in Huxley's fictional Brave New World are controlled by soma administered by the ruling elites. But in reality, Rank Theory suggests happier people are typically far harder to control than depressives. [see e.g. http://www.biopsychiatry.com/depression/index.html] It's depression that is associated with subordinate behaviour, whereas (other things being equal) enriching mood enhances personal autonomy: its empowering. Boosting mood increases our sense of self-efficacy - and makes it less likely we'll simply do as were told.

Go Democrats, yes, a lot of great art, great music and great philosophy has been born of suffering. But is the subjective experience of suffering indispensable to its creation - or would its functional analogues minus the nasty "raw feels" do the same job? Would Deep Blue play better chess if it sometimes got depressed? OK, maybe the arts are different from the sciences. Shakespeare's Othello, for instance, is a powerful study of jealousy; and it's hard to imagine that Shakespeare could have written the play if he didn't sometimes feel intensely jealous. But do you think we should perpetuate our genetic tendency to sexual jealousy because it occasionally leads to great literature? At least 99,9999% of suffering in the living world is of no "value" beyond helping selfish DNA leave more copies of itself. Should we accept the cruelties of status quo because it's "natural" - or explore different blueprints for a cruelty-free world instead?

Athena Andreadis said...

My comment, though long, will be far briefer than it could be, because my time is limited. I agree that Mark's distinctions are important in having a meaningful discussion.

As Odin and Gillsing said, pain is there for a reason. People with reduced or absent pain perception live horrible and brief lives -- Hansen's disease is a mild example. Recent groundbreaking work suggests that "phantom" pain can be ameliorated not by painkillers or antidepressants but by low-tech methods that help the brain re-map areas that it mis-mapped due to a traumatic event.

Midnightsun, Keystrike, Leafy, the word I used, deliberately, is not "happy" but "happified". Someone who is given a pill to make them content is far less likely to start a revolution or ask for a raise. Slaves were given such "painkillers", in the form of alcohol or religion. The problem with the happification recipe is that it makes all problems rebound to the individual, rather than seeking to improve larger social conditions.

I think that for "external" unhappiness the focus should be on understanding and minimizing the desire to inflict pain, rather than the desire to be free of it. "Internal" unhappiness is often legitimate -- it arises from real losses of people, goals, careers that give us purpose and define our sense of self.

The detailed discussion of bliss gradients and genetic modification to achieve such will have to wait until my grant deadlines are past. The concept of selfish DNA, by the way, is quite passé, even among armchair biologists. Genes never work in isolation, but only as complex cooperative networks. The same, incidentally, is true of humans. It's far likelier that cooperation (particularly child-rearing, which is uniquely complex in humans) made us what we are, including evolution of language.

davidpearce said...

Athena, it's grim reading, but may I recommend Austin Burt and Robert Trivers' "Genes in Conflict: The Biology of Selfish Genetic Elements" (2006)

djadvance said...

@Athena: You bring up a very good point.

The hedonistic imperative has a lot to do with the physical basis of suffering, but I see it also implying that the social and political basis of suffering must be attacked, too. Both approaches must be made for an end to suffering to realistically occur.

That's why the elimination of poverty is such an important issue in transhumanism: it is a simplified way to eliminate much of the world's suffering.

As an end goal, we can all agree that gradients of bliss will be optimal. But let's not forget that to get there, we've got to change our brain wiring AND worldwide poverty, disease, and resource deprivation.

Athena Andreadis said...

David, I work with genes, cells and their interactions every day -- part of the night, too! Trust me, I know them very intimately. Lifeforms are jury-rigged across all scales. Genes and their products change according to environmental feedback (broadly defined). Humans in particular started counteracting genetic hardwiring as soon as they survived long enough to become grandparents.

The introduction to the Trivers and Burt book keeps saying "genes want..." Imputing motives to individual genes smacks of (un)intelligent design, not to mention sloppy anthropomorphizing. My counter-recommendation is Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, a refreshingly different note among the Tarzanists, crypto or otherwise.

davidpearce said...

Athena, perhaps we agree on more than I guessed: I was commending Hrdy's latest book "Mothers and Others" on Facebook in April.

I'm especially intrigued by Hrdy's explanation of the behaviour of the wild lioness who repeatedly adopted baby antelopes - a clue IMO to how eusocial predators might one day be "re-programmed" in humanely run wildlife parks of the future.

But I found Hrdy''s earlier "Mother Nature" deeply disturbing. I hadn't previously realized that infanticide was quite such a widespread reproductive strategy in the primate lineage. As you've probably gathered, I see our DNA is an extremely sinister light.

Athena Andreadis said...

Actually, infanticide argues against the primitive selfish-genes-want-reproduction-at-all-costs interpretations. What is suggests instead is that adults need to be spared so that they can take good care of both themselves and their offspring. Otherwise, mothers would be wired to sacrifice themselves in favor of their children regardless of specifics. Quality trumps quantity and has little to do with sinister DNA (which is actually dexter, in terms of its predominant helical configuration).

keystrike said...

I am putting our grant deadlines aside for now as this is a fascinating debate.

The lowest forms of bliss may end up as the new form of emotional pain in their informational ability to signal states which are suboptimal. However these states will not have the same raw phenomenal properties. As such, it will be possible to retain the motivational aspects which are intrinsic to our humanity while eliminating the raw nastiness of states which we were endowed with by evolution.

@Athena: You have used the word "happified", but we are not speaking about "happifying" people, so you are attacking a straw man. We are hypothesizing the ability of a mature technology which can recalibrate the pleasure/pain axis while retaining motivational states.

Alcohol is a very crude mind altering substance so the comparison is not apt. Religions have the power to make people accept things as they are OR to motivate them to change society. Many religious beliefs cause people to rise up against the oppressors and attempt to improve larger social conditions.

People have desires about desires which they have trouble making their actual desires. A mature science would enable us to make those our actual desires. If this was combined with the ability to make people as happy as they want to be, while remaining highly motivated, I could see enormous positive social change coming into the world.

Oddly nobody has mentioned love here. Perhaps it seems too touchy-feely. But I would also argue for the ability to increase the amount of love we all felt for one another. Now we seem quite limited in this respect. This would reduce the pain we cause each other as well and as such work in concert to promote our happier selves.

midnightsun said...

Odin XenoBuilder: "Aren't the temporary emotional downturns we experience when faced with failures in life a big part of what encourages us to improve?"

That is what we like to think because otherwise, it would be unbearable when we do feel pain. If we tell ourselves it's a learning experience, we think we can make it better. This is the same reason religious people believe that God has a plan for them and a reason for inflicting them with (what they hope is) temporary suffering before a final destination which will be revealed to the sufferer later.

Mark: "People are right that unhappiness is necessary for anything to get done in this world, for individuals and civilization to achieve anything."

You point out that you think unhappiness is an inspiration for accomplishment, and then you point out that the accomplishment won't be made unless the person accomplishing is happy (research and I agree with you on the last point).

Now, let's explain what the Hedonistic Imperative would mean using your example of the backyard. In today's world, I don't like how my backyard looks, whether it looks good or not. I might strive my whole life, planting various flowers, spending thousands of dollars, hiring experts, and straining my back pulling weeds to make my backyard look nice so I can be happy about it. In the Hedonistic Imperative world, it wouldn't matter what my backyard looked like, it would be beautiful to me. I would like it, and so would everyone else. I could spend time on it because I like gardening and being outside, not because I was unhappy with the way it looked or scared of what others might think of it.

And the way you're happy about Mozart now when you're in a dark mood could be the way you always feel about Mozart. In fact, everything would sound just as good to you as Mozart does, although of course they would sound different. You would be happy about all the music you heard, and maybe you would finally write that song you've always wanted to write, because you wouldn't have to be afraid of what everyone would think of it.

@ Athena: "Someone who is given a pill to make them content is far less likely to start a revolution or ask for a raise."

Mark and David Pearce addressed this in the comments directly above yours. Happy people are less likely to be compliant and more likely to achieve things. (Side note: revolutions and asking for raises aren't necessarily positive things- depends on who's doing the revolting and asking. Timothy McVeigh wanted a revolution, and I'm sure Kenneth Lay of Enron wanted a raise!)

@Athena - "Humans in particular started counteracting genetic hardwiring as soon as they survived long enough to become grandparents."

Yet many of the technologies which allowed them to live so long were fought against strenuously when they were first proposed.

@ Athena: "'Internal' unhappiness is often legitimate -- it arises from real losses of people, goals, careers that give us purpose and define our sense of self."

In fact, research has shown that the "hedonic baseline" basically controls how happy people will be regardless of their status in life or careers or anything of that sort. Outside factors may have a temporary influence but that abates eventually.

@djadvance "But let's not forget that to get there, we've got to change our brain wiring AND worldwide poverty, disease, and resource deprivation."

Yes, let's get started! :)

Go Democrats said...

@midnightsun: You make my argument for me when you
try to argue against Mark's reasoning. In your imagined world of the future there could me terrible injustice, complete lack of motivation, environmental depredation galore, even complete weakness to existential threats, and it wouldn't matter, because people would be "happy about" no matter what the objective reality of the situation. Why did we get rid of slavery at all? We could just have brought the slaves and the slavemasters and the Abolitionists happy pills!

That isn't planned evolution; that's devolution; of humans into unthinking bags of joy. It completely strips away human autonomy.

davidpearce said...

Go Democrats: clinical depression is often associated with "learned helplessness". By contrast, mood-enrichment via antidepressants ("happy pills") typically enhances a sense of personal autonomy. Motivation is improved. In short, it's empowering, at least when they work. Tomorrow's therapeutic mood-enhancers are likely to be better.

More ambitiously, it's worth distinguishing between being blissful and being "blissed out". A future of uniform bliss might indeed lead to the kind of indiscriminate responses you describe. But genetically-driven gradients of adaptive well-being are consistent with strong motivation, superior cognitive performance, and a desire to make the world a better place.

George said...

I'm sensing a bit of a trend here: those in opposition cite cultural conventions and inhibitions about removing pain and suffering from the human condition; those in favour are showing, through actual research papers and studies, that many of these conceptions are misconceptions and should be re-thought.

I would challenge the dissenters to start providing argumentation that can actually be backed by something other than Brave New World and the Western Puritanical instinct.

Athena Andreadis said...

Antidepressants completely flatten mood and creativity, a universally documented outcome admitted even by their proponents. They are generally considered "a lesser evil" and prescribed essentially to keep people quiet.

On a more general note, I'm curious to know the field of expertise of the people involved in this discussion.

davidpearce said...

Athena, this can certainly be true of SSRIs, whose mood-flattening effect has led them to be described as "psychic anesthetizers". But there is no evidence it's so of all antidepressants, whether MAOIs like selegiline (EMSAM) or the serotonin reuptake accelerator (sic) tianeptine (Stablon).

More generally, however, I'd agree with you that today's "antidepressants" are mediocre at best.

Mark said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mark said...

Here's Healy's "healthy volunteer" study, 20 health care professionals with no clinical signs of depression:

"Our focus group met two weeks after the study ended. We already knew that almost everyone preferred one of the two drugs. But two-thirds rated themselves as “better than well” on one of the two drugs.

Although this was a study of well-being, antidepressants weren’t supposed to make people who were normal feel “better than well”. Not even Peter Kramer had said this. The argument of his famous Listening to Prozac was that people who were mildly depressed became better than well. Here, people who had never been depressed were claiming to be in some way better than normal" (Healy, 2004: 180).

On emotional blunting:

"Chasing the question of whether Zoloft caused emotional blunting, half the group said had given them a “nothing bothers me” feeling. Reactions were split about this: Some liked the effect; others found it made them emotionally dead. Reboxetine, in contrast, didn’t seem to make anyone feel indifferent—calm, perhaps, but not indifferent. Its effects were better described as energizing—again, good for some but not for others" (Healy, 2004: 182).

Three morals. First, drugs affect people differently. We still live in an age of the "one size fits all fallacy". We are still in the dark ages--much like when people tried blood transfusions without knowing about blood types. Sometimes very good results, sometimes very bad results. Second, not all anti-depressants are emotionally blunting (as David noted). Third, emotional blunting is not necessarily a bad thing in itself. Sometimes being a little less annoyed by trivial things could be a good thing. I don't want to be laughing at the sight of tortured children, but I wish I was a little less annoyed by small things.

Athena Andreadis said...

George, calling those who worry about the potential of such measures to turn many humans into zombies bioluddites or puritans is not an argument, it's a short-circuiting tactic.

You must have seen the exchange between David and me about anti-depressants. Studies do show that they do not make people happier, more creative or likelier to change the world. I have provided names of books to support the points I have raised. I have cited results from biological research in the brain, which happens to be my field of expertise. A blog is not the right venue to write a thesis with footnotes.

Additionally, studies can only be taken seriously if they come from sources with objective credentials -- such as recognition by the larger scientific community. Otherwise, you're essentially articulating what Vargas (or was it Benavides?) said: "For my friends, everything. For my enemies, the law."

ZarPaulus said...

As Mark stated you cannot use "one size fits all" methods on humanity as a whole, which seems to imply that some people would be dissatisfied with a life without pain unless everyone was a perfect clone of everyone else. I'm sure everyone will agree that homogenization to that level would do more to stifle creativity than drugs ever could. And I'm surprised that no-one has brought up the fact that some people enjoy pain.

Go Democrats said...

Exactly what *would* give one the expertise to decide on behalf of humanity the question of whether or not everyone's emotions should be altered--whether that would be a good thing or a bad thing? Surely "lawgiver for all mankind" is nobody's job description in real life, which puts all of us on a level playing field when it comes to the question of "ought."

Having said that, I know for sure that, represented in this fascinating thread, are the following: one professional blogger, one academically employed historian, one professionally employed publicist, one academically employed philosopher, one philosopher working in the nonprofit sector, one academically employed scientist, one software developer, an Aspergian fan of Nietzsche, and then I have no idea who Leafy, Keystrike, or Midnight Sun are. I think having people of diverse views weigh in on an issue is fascinating. There's certainly no groupthink.

davidpearce said...

Go Democrats, it seems we agree here!
ZarPaulus, a couple of possible counterarguments....

First, just as there are innumerable ways to lead life free from physical pain, there are (potentially) innumerable ways to lead life free from psychological pain. Indeed happier people tend to find a broader range of stimuli rewarding than depressive people, making social uniformity less likely. Not for nothing are many life-loving extroverts described as "sensation-seekers".

Second, masochists don't enjoy the experience of accidentally hitting their thumb with a hammer any more than you or me. Oversimplifying a bit, the difference is that some forms of otherwise painful dominance-and-submission behaviour trigger the release of rewarding endogenous opioids in susceptible subjects. Compare the therapeutic use of acupuncture. Insofar as acupuncture works at all, it does so in virtue of the endogenous opioid release it triggers. If you co-administer an opioid antagonist, acupuncture isn't effective.

ZarPaulus said...

GoDemocrats has a point, there isn't anyone qualified to decide whether humanity as a whole should have their emotions and sensations altered. As we can see here not everyone thinks that all pain should be eliminated so at the very least it should be an individual choice.

Odin Xenobuilder said...

@keystrike Regarding:
"The lowest forms of bliss may end up as the new form of emotional pain in their informational ability to signal states which are suboptimal. However these states will not have the same raw phenomenal properties. As such, it will be possible to retain the motivational aspects which are intrinsic to our humanity while eliminating the raw nastiness of states which we were endowed with by evolution."

How does not having the same phenomenal properties translate into sufficient motivational aspects? I see the elimination of nastiness, but not he motivation. I am very interested in seeing some evidence that there is a way to influence us to change our state to prevent bodily harm by simply being in a state of less bliss when our body is being damaged and more bliss when it is not.

Your backyard example paints a picture of a world I'm not interested to living in. Aesthetics are as real as numbers, having roots in utility. Whether it is a well groomed backyard that facilitates the ability to actually use it for something, or a well crafted piece of music that is enjoyable because it stimulates my auditory system in such a way that elicits reminiscence or inspiration. These things are not tangible, but they are real none the less. To be happy about anything diminishes real accomplishment.

Are we trying to eliminate success and failure? Are we trying to further the "everybody's a winner" campaign? Lets not forget that If there are no losers, there are no winners. Pardon me for injecting an un-scientific reference here, but I am just the software developer in this conversation.

davidpearce said...

Zarpaulus: At present, the biology of suffering is involuntary. The point is to make it voluntary.
In practice, this may well lead to its abolition. But no one (to my knowledge) is arguing for compulsory bliss!

The issue of consent is more complicated in the case of our future children. Should they be able to choose whether to experience pain, depression, anxiety, jealousy and all the "normal" Darwinian emotions? Yes, we can agree that these options should exist. But what should be the genetic "default settings" of our children? Should prospective parents continue to throw the genetic dice as now - knowing that many of our children will be genetically disposed to low mood, anxiety disorders and all the "normal" emotional cruelties of Life? Or should our children be given a strong genetic disposition to lifelong well-being - e.g. a high "hedonic set point" - and later have the option of changing it? In practice, I think there is going to be extremely strong selection pressure in favour of "happy genomes" as the reproductive revolution gathers pace. Allelic variations predisposing to social anxiety/low mood were often genetically adaptive in social primates on the African savannah. But this will change. The nature of selection pressure is poised to alter dramatically as (post)human evolution ceases to be "blind" and "random".

Odin, you are sceptical that heightened well-being could be associated with heightened harm-avoidance. But here is a crude example. Whereas depressives give up easily in the face of threat or adversity ("behavioural despair"), a subject given amphetamines will typically experience both euphoria and heightened motivation. Dopaminergics are powerful painkillers as well as motivators. They give us a sense of "things to be done". Now I'm certainly not touting amphetamines or other "power drugs" as the route to a pain-free world. It's not even necessary to cite abused drugs. We can simply study the people most - and least - motivated to avoid harm today. Other things being equal, the more one loves life, the more one is motivated to avoid potential threats to one's well-being. By contrast, depressives are prone to self-neglect.

You argue that life needs "losers" as well as "winners". But surely we are all "winners" from e.g. abolishing smallpox or the use of pain-free surgery? Most relevantly here, there is no technical reason why we can't all enjoy maximally efficient reward circuitry i.e. life-long well-being and invincible mental health. The neural substrates of pleasure (in the richest sense of the term) don't need to be rationed - they aren't like an economist's "scarce goods and services". Yes, if I play you at chess, one of us will be the winner and one of us the loser. But we don't need to take this as a metaphor for life as a whole.

Dominic said...

Opiates already do a reasonable job of 'eliminating all pain.' Yet I do not imagine too many of you would promote the use of heroin.

"You have used the word "happified", but we are not speaking about "happifying" people"

@Keystrike; you cannot be naive enough to think that governments and even employers wouldn't jump at the chance 'happify' their populaces. North Korea, for example, would enjoy such a power.

Odin Xenobuilder said...

David, I very much appreciate your description of ...a strong genetic disposition to lifelong well-being - e.g. a high "hedonic set point"... I think that a cautious approach that seeks to improve happiness without eliminating the array of human emotion is desirable.

There is one aspect of the pain/bliss argument that has to do with avoiding harm which can be more related to emotional pain. What I am more concerned with is the effect of pain after harm has been stumbled into, and it's ability to cause us to act quickly. Being a software developer, I frequently bear witness to the ability of people to ignore or not notice sensory signals that are designed to notify them. There is something inherent to pain that makes you unable to ignore it. I think that a "stop doing that" light bulb going off in your brain will not carry enough weight, or if you somehow make it carry enough weight, it will become pain. But perhaps I'm getting into details that are too fine to know the answer to yet.

My winners/losers statement was directed solely at continuation of the argument for accomplishment, perhaps it looked more general because I made it a separate paragraph. I certainly don't think it applies to situations you cited.

davidpearce said...

Over half of soldiers wounded in the heat of battle reportedly felt no pain at the time; the agony came later. Clearly pain is often adaptive. But is it indispensable?

Presumably we could program our silicon (etc) robots with the functional analogue of pain's overriding "intrusiveness" in ways that kick in after they have undergone noxious damage, forcing them to disengage from whatever they are doing. If so, the raw textures of agony presumably aren't essential to their functional response. Indeed one long-term solution to the problem of phenomenal pain may lie, not in the information-bearing dips in invincible well-being I describe above, but in offloading nociceptive function onto smart prostheses: the "cyborg solution". The cyborg solution may be especially relevant in the case of very young children, who might otherwise behave even more unwisely than the feckless adults you describe.

Of course, most of us don't want to "become like robots". But I guess what we mean when we say this is that we don't want to lose the forms of sentience we find valuable, not that we wish to preserve the horrors of intense physical pain.

keystrike said...

@Dominic: At the moment many people self medicate with alcohol. As we know, this is not a good thing.

Here's some research from Nature Neuroscience:

"Deletion of the background potassium channel TREK-1 results in a depression-resistant phenotype"

"Depression is a devastating illness with a lifetime prevalence of up to 20%. The neurotransmitter serotonin or 5-hydroxytryptamine (5-HT) is involved in the pathophysiology of depression and in the effects of antidepressant treatments. However, molecular alterations that underlie the pathology or treatment of depression are still poorly understood. The TREK-1 protein is a background K+ channel regulated by various neurotransmitters including 5-HT. In mice, the deletion of its gene (Kcnk2, also called TREK-1) led to animals with an increased efficacy of 5-HT neurotransmission and a resistance to depression in five different models and a substantially reduced elevation of corticosterone levels under stress. TREK-1–deficient (Kcnk2-/-) mice showed behavior similar to that of naive animals treated with classical antidepressants such as fluoxetine. Our results indicate that alterations in the functioning, regulation or both of the TREK-1 channel may alter mood, and that this particular K+ channel may be a potential target for new antidepressants."

Y2 said...

I'm surprised that in such a lengthy debate on the future prospect of the elimination of pain no one has addressed one of the oldest methods of divorcing ourselves from if not pain, than at least suffering.

previous comments have well addressed pain's useful survival mechanism; an evolutionary tool to signal damage and/or danger, and i think the point of the post is not so much the elimination of these bodily signals, but of the suffering we attach to these signals.

you can probably see where i'm going with this. though the elimination of damage/danger sensors is a dubious goal, the elimination of suffering is perfectly reasonable and something that many parts of humanity have been hard at work on for some time, particularly in the science and practice of meditation.

With the recent advances in brain scanning and imaging technologies, studies linking the practice of meditation to a bevy of benefits including increases in the ability concentrate, to rapidly change focus on multiple inputs, and in feelings of well-being are being published at a steadily increasing rate. Anecdotal evidence abounds of the happy and peaceful countenance of monks and meditation practitioners who at the same time are deeply compassionate and devoted to increasing the well-being of others. This pattern has less to do with a luck of the draw for happy genes than a learned, repeatable process for increasing one's well-being and reducing feelings of suffering.

One thing you do not ever hear from these "enlightened" monk's is ya know, meditation is great and all, but i really wish i could get back all that suffering I gave up.

Is it really so strange or off-putting to consider this deliberate, devotional process of low-tech self-improvement through meditation that leads to an engaged state of happiness to be extended to a similar, yet faster, high-tech process of brain/mind improvement that leads to reduced levels of suffering for the individual and then by extension the whole world?

As a practitioner of meditation myself I know that the process not only works, but has much room for improvement in the manner it is taught and learned. Remove all the mysticism and replace it with process and technology. Make the tools cheap and available with quickly verifiable, step-wise results. Hook it up to the one laptop per child initiative. Perhaps if we stop looking at it from the perspective of some far off future transhuman goal then the steps that can be taken to get there in the near future will become more illuminated.

From this perspective it seems to me that the need to get into philosophical debates about the value of pain and suffering are missing the point. Who would not like to be more like the Dalai Lama? Peaceful, happy, compassionate, and yet wholly devoted to improving the world. And what would the world be like with a whole army of people, no longer focused on their own suffering or event hedonistic bliss, but universal well-being?

midnightsun said...

@Athena - Current anti-depressants that exist in the market today have many of the blunting effects you describe, but there are better alternatives that haven't gotten regulatory approval because they work too well-- they make people too happy with only rare side effects and therefore might have "addiction potential"!

ZarPaulus: "I'm sure everyone will agree that homogenization to that level would do more to stifle creativity than drugs ever could."

We currently have homogenization of Darwinian genes focused on reproduction and other such concerns, not happiness. We still have creativity, or what we view as creativity.

@GoDemocrats - Interestingly, I'm a philospher working for an academic nonprofit moonlighting as a publicist for professional bloggers while developing software for Asbergian fans of Nietzche and scientists, so I guess I came to the right place. ;)

@ Odin Xenobuilder "@midnightsun
Your backyard example paints a picture of a world I'm not interested to living in." "Whether it is a well groomed backyard that facilitates the ability to actually use it for something, or a well crafted piece of music that is enjoyable because it stimulates my auditory system in such a way that elicits reminiscence or inspiration. These things are not tangible, but they are real none the less. To be happy about anything diminishes real accomplishment."

Interestingly, the day after I made the backyard analogy I saw a video of Jane Poynter, who spent two years living in Biosphere 2. When she came back out, she noticed many things that she didn't like about Biosphere 1/Earth, including too much focus on making backyards look perfect! She urges everyone to "throw away the rake" and make their backyard an "oasis for fauna." So she thinks an un-manicured backyard is more usable, not less. Here's the video if you're interested:

Anyway, when many people first heard about, say, democracy or cars or anesthesia or the Internet, they dismissed these things as something they had no interest in. It's natural to be resistant to a new idea. If you think that unhappiness about certain things is necessary for accomplishment, perhaps it is just because we have a tendency to defend what we know.

It may be true that in our current world, if there are no losers, there are no winners in some things. That doesn't change us from trying to make everyone a winner, and it's not really applicable to a very technologically advanced society as would be a prerequisite for the Hedonistic Imperative.

@ Y2: There are merits to what you're saying, but monks are not perfect and even the happiest ones have moments where they suffer. It's not a matter of willing ourselves to be happier or learning to be happier since our brains simply aren't wired for happiness as a goal. As to whether we would not all like to be the Dalai Lama, this is true in many areas, but he is not perfect and is fallible like the rest of us, as the recent case of the young boy he chose as his successor brings to light- the boy said he was caused much suffering by the Dalai Lama's decision to take him away from his family.

The Dalai Lama has stated as much himself about suffering when he said in 2005: "If it was possible to become free of negative emotions by a riskless implementation of an electrode - without impairing intelligence and the critical mind - I would be the first patient."

Mark said...

midnightsun said...

"Current anti-depressants that exist in the market today have many of the blunting effects you describe, but there are better alternatives that haven't gotten regulatory approval because they work too well-- they make people too happy with only rare side effects and therefore might have "addiction potential"! "

Care to name names?

davidpearce said...

Mark, one example would be the "French" antidepressant amineptine (Survector). It's no wonderdrug, but IMO it should never have been pulled from the market (it never got a US license).

Y2, yes, you're right. My question is: do you think meditation - properly practised - can potentially work effectively for anything close to 100% of people?

Drawing (unscientifically) on the experience of my friends and acquaintances who've tried meditation over the years, I'd estimate that a minority found it didn't work; a minority found it brilliant; and the majority found it produced real but modest benefits. For example, is a victim of chronic melancholic depression -or for that matter just chronic "low normal" mood - likely to find meditation significantly raises his or her normal "hedonic set-point"? Alas the hedonic treadmill can be very hard if not impossible IMO to cheat by "natural" means. Evolution has given us a vicious set of negative feedback mechanisms that stop most of us being very happy for very long - unless we're "naturally" predisposed to be hyperthymic through the luck of the genetic draw.

A second point. I'm guessing you'll agree with me when I say that it's important that meditation leads, not just to compassion, but to action e.g. to campaigning vigorously against the cruelties of factory farming. Non-human animals in our factory farms can't benefit from meditational disciplines in the way that humans do.

Go Democrats said...

Eh, it doesn't sound THAT great.

Here is some language from the World Health Organization:

"The reports of adverse drug reactions collected by the international drug monitoring programme indicated a larger number of case reports of abuse and dependence for amineptine than for other anorectic stimulants currently placed in Schedule IV of the 1971 Convention, such as amfepramone. The responses of governments to the WHO questionnaire also indicated limited diversion and abuse of the drug although some reported hospital admissions have been linked to the use or abuse of amineptine.

Therapeutic usefulness

The therapeutic usefulness of amineptine is limited because of its hepatotoxicity, secondary features such as acne eruption and anxiety, and the availability of safer antidepressants. Of the 103 countries that responded to the WHO questionnaire, only 17 indicated amineptine use."

al fin said...

The elimination of all pain (and suffering) should not be the goal. Only the minimisation of pain and suffering to the lowest levels necessary to learn the vital lessons of living.

Consider someone who has never experienced pain, suffering, defeat, or inconvenience. What happens to his world when his power won't come on, when no water comes from his tap, when his supply of Soma runs out and he can't get any more, when a gang of aggrieved youth decide to make an example of him . . . . .

Such a person lacks the mechanisms to deal with reversals in life, reversals which are virtually guaranteed to occur sooner or later.

Such a wish to totally eliminate pain, discomfort, and suffering for everyone from cradle to grave ignores the vital role that uncomfortable emotions and feelings play in human learning from the earliest stages of life -- perhaps even in the womb.

Face it: while minimising suffering, pain, and discomfort to the absolute minimum for learning is a worthy goal, the elimination of all suffering would require the total overhaul of how humans grow and mature.

keystrike said...

Sex doesn't sound THAT great either if you read a functional description of it.

As for amineptine hepatotoxicity, even the recently approved and extremely effective agomelatine potentially causes elevated serum transaminase. Many drugs are potentially hepatotoxic, but the benefits are greater than the risks. These risks can often be managed with liver function tests.

If the drug can't be used safely even with liver function tests, perhaps a genetic screening could narrow down the population which is at risk. According to PMID 9204405, "Genetic predisposition to drug-induced hepatotoxicity", it is possible that genetic screenings could be done for those who are likely to have liver problems on amineptine. If this drug works where others fail, shouldn't we retain the option? It is ethically vital that we offer those with mood disorders every possible chance they can have.

Drugs with "abuse potential" will not be easily approved for marketing. It's too risky financially for pharmaceutical companies to even risk developing a drug which will be rejected on grounds of abuse potential.

A related drug, tianeptine, doesn't have mood blunting effects. It is actively marketed in Europe and many other parts of the world. You can find studies of both drugs showing their effectiveness in mood disorders.

However even without the existence of these drugs I would hypothesize that consciousness is far more malleable than we imagine. Once we develop a scientific theory of consciousness much more will be clear.