Posted: Sat, November 03, 2012 | By: David Pearce
(interview by RU Sirius)
RU Sirius: David Pearce, in his Hedonistic Imperative, believes that through such technological manipulations as genetic engineering, better drugs, and precise stimulation of various localities in the brain, human beings (just for starters) can live in a sort-of paradise in which all unpleasant states of consciousness have been banished to the old “Darwinian Era.” These new-found paradisical brain-states will exist within the context of an advanced, nanotechnologized society in which oppressive external conditions have also been eliminated.
For Pearce, the great shift into a hedonic society will come about by genetic intervention: “Gene therapy will be targeted both on somatic cells and, with even greater forethought, the germ-line. If cunningly applied, a combination of the cellular enlargement of the meso-limbic dopamine system, selectively enhanced metabolic function of key intra-cellular sub-types of opioidergic and serotonergic pathway, and the disablement of several countervailing inhibitory feedback processes will put in place the biomolecular architecture for a major transition in human evolution…”
His website HEDWEB includes the substantial Hedonistic Imperative treatise, as well as a marvelous critique of Huxley’s Brave New World, another lengthy discussion of MDMA (ecstasy), a philosophical essay that tries to answer the question “Why does anything exist?”, and a section advocating Animal Liberation, or at least something akin to a global welfare state for higher non-human lifeforms.
Pearce was unaccustomed to being interviewed, but I prevailed upon him in this 2003 transatlantic phone conversation.
RU Sirius: While initial steps towards your Hedonistic Imperative seem to involve improved drugs and “wireheading” (stimulating pleasure centers in the brain), what you are really talking about is biological manipulations that will produce humans who experience a variety of positive states ranging from high functioning well-being to serene bliss, and who don’t experience negative states - or at least only the functional analogs of negative states that lack the “raw feel” of mental pain as we understand it today. Can you say a bit about the technology behind this idea?
David Pearce: Well, there are technical obstacles and ideological obstacles to the abolitionist project. But if one deals first with the technical challenges, I think there are essentially three options. One is wireheading. Wireheading is (probably) a dead-end. But it is illuminating because the procedure shows that pleasure has no physiological tolerance. That is to say, it’s just as exhilarating having one’s pleasure centers stimulated 24 hours after starting a binge as it was at the beginning.
RUS: …in contrast to recreational drugs where euphoriants and even the best hallucinogens have diminishing returns…
DP: Yes, the high is typically followed by the low, or at least by severely diminished rewards as the negative feedback mechanisms of the brain kick in. Something similar occurs with “natural” rewards such as food, drink and sex. But with wireheading this doesn’t happen. Pleasure, and perhaps pure pleasure alone, shows no tolerance. Of course, our image of wireheading itself is dreadful. People confuse it with torture or the coercive psychiatry of “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest”. And a whole society based on wireheading wouldn’t be sustainable, in its crude forms at least. No one would want to reproduce and raise children….
So, secondly, there’s the option of designing better drugs. The prospect of lifelong drug-induced happiness strikes many people as unappealing. Drug-induced happiness sounds shallow, amoral and one-dimensional. But the pleasure drugs of the future will be far richer in their effects than, say, soma in Huxley’s notorious Brave New World. At present we’re missing out on some incredibly beautiful states of consciousness because of the legacy of our brutish Darwinian past – and the bioconservative ideologies that sustain it.
Even so, I think drugs are only a stopgap. In the long run, if we’re morally serious about creating a cruelty-free world, we’re going to use the third option, genetic engineering. Right now, we’re on the brink of a reproductive revolution, the era of “designer babies” if you will, where responsible parents will choose the genetic makeup of their kids. Initially, we’re only going to tinker with the genome. Eventually, I think we’re going to rewrite it altogether. And to be deliberately simplistic: imagine if you could choose the average lifetime mood level of your future offspring on a genetic dial - with number 1 on the dial representing modest well-being and number 10 representing sublime bliss. What setting would you choose for your child? Most prospective parents, I think, will choose settings at the higher end of the scale – not sublime bliss perhaps, but certainly genotypes encoding a predisposition to lifelong happiness.
We may perhaps want many different things for our kids (high intelligence, good looks, “success”), but their happiness is at least one of these criteria; and ultimately, I think, it’s the most important. The good news here is that in future, such (un)happiness needn’t be left to a cruel Darwinian genetic lottery or Fate. So it’s worth stressing that progress towards the abolition of suffering doesn’t entail the global adoption of an ideology of paradise engineering - or anything so grandiose and utopian as the abolitionist project I advocate. Initially at least, progress to a kinder world merely entails parents taking genetic decisions about what’s best for their kids…
Of course, this revolution in the technology of reproductive medicine is still some way off. Today, even “early adopters” aren’t doing anything much more ambitious than choosing their child’s gender. But in maybe three or four decades or so, and possibly substantially sooner, we’ll be choosing such traits as the average hedonic set point of our children. Over time, I think allelic combinations [suites of variant copies of mission-critical genes] that leave their bearers pre-disposed to unpleasant states of consciousness – unpleasant states that were genetically adaptive in our ancestral environment - will be weeded out of the gene pool. For a very different kind of selection pressure is at work when evolution is no longer “blind” and “random” i.e. when rational agents pre-design the genetic make up of their future offspring in anticipation of its likely effects on their kids. In that sense, we’re heading for a Post-Darwinian transition – ultimately I believe to some form of paradise-engineering, but perhaps to something else altogether.
RUS: In very rough terms, what we’re talking about is juicing up the dopaminergic and serotonergic systems, among a bunch of other neurochemical tweaks, in very precise ways, at the level of the genes, once we fully understand how genes control these things.
DP: Yes. The neural basis of our so-called basic moods and emotions is simpler than so-called higher cognitive functions. But undeniably, this neural basis is still fiendishly complicated, the simplicity of wireheading notwithstanding. For instance, the mesolimbic dopamine system may not be, as we’ve sometimes supposed, the final common pathway of pleasure in the brain: dopamine apparently mediates “wanting” (i.e. incentive-motivation) as much as “liking”, which is signaled by activation of the mu opioid receptors. But if we focus here on the simple monoamines, an obvious target for intervention is indeed the mesolimbic dopamine system. One of the most common objections to the idea of abolishing suffering – ignoring here the prospect of full-blown paradise-engineering – is that without the spur of discontent we’d soon become idle and even bored. “If we were all happy, what would we do all day?” But enhanced dopamine function is associated, not just with euphoria, but with heightened motivation; a deeper sense of meaningfulness, significance and purpose; and an increased sensitivity to a greater range of rewards. So one possible option for paradise engineering is to focus on enriching the dopaminergic system to promote (a genetic predisposition to) lifestyles of high achievement and intellectual productivity.
That’s one option at least. Another sort of predisposition is to pursue a lifetime of introspection, meditation and blissful tranquility. If I seem to dwell unduly on ways of enriching dopamine function, that’s because exploring its amplification is a useful corrective to a widespread misconception i.e. that happiness inevitably leads to stagnation. The critical point, I think, is that to be blissful isn’t the same as being blissed out.
RUS: What about the possibility that madness could come from these amplified states?
DP: Well, you can’t just unselectively pump up the dopaminergic system and hope to induce states of high-functioning well-being. You might just induce chronic psychosis instead. Genetically enriching our mental health demands a deeper understanding of the workings of the brain than we have today. The era of mature genomic medicine is still decades away. But consider even something as simple and monogenetic as the association between one variant of dopamine DRD4 receptor allele and an unusually optimistic, novelty-seeking temperament. Other things being equal, this trait may be seen as positive. Most prospective parents, if given the choice, would probably opt for an allele predisposing to such a trait in preference to, say, any genotype predisposing to a depressive, anxiety-ridden temperament for their kids.
To take another example: prospective parents in future will probably opt for two copies of the longer version of the allele of serotonin transporter gene (5-HTTLPR) whose shorter version is associated with anxiety disorders and neuroticism. I stress that these are just toy examples. More sophisticated versions of genetic choices such as the above are likely to be commonly available later this century and beyond. Such choices will presumably be assisted by computational software with an ultra-friendly user interface so we don’t all have to become molecular psychiatrists and can concentrate on making “high-level” choices of trait instead.
One objection springs to mind here. Mood and personality are influenced by a multitude of different genes, not to mention the vagaries of the environment. So it might seem that all but the simplest interventions, involving only a handful of alleles, will lead to an impossible “combinatorial explosion” of possibilities - and unanticipated consequences to match. This may indeed be the case. The very expression “designer babies” conjures up a dystopian nightmare, not paradise-engineering. However, mature quantum computing will allow us (in a few decades??) to perform super-sophisticated modeling and fabulously complex simulations which are (many) orders of magnitude more powerful than anything feasible today. I think the pessimists will be confounded. I could be wrong. We shall see.
RUS: Returning to the intermediary stage… drug development, you seem to find the greatest promise in the development of anti-depressants and in MDMA. Care to explain this?
DP: Yes. MDMA (“Ecstasy”) is interesting not least because of the way its use challenges our notion that drug-taking must be inherently selfish i.e. “hedonistic” in the baser sense on the term. At its best, the MDMA experience shows that drug-induced well-being can be profoundly loving, insightful and empathetic.
Unfortunately, MDMA itself is potentially neurotoxic to the serotonergic axons - even at non-heroic dosages. Although the claims of the drug warriors about its dangers are clearly overblown, there’s no denying that MDMA isn’t the sort of agent you can use regularly on a long-term basis in the way you would take a so-called anti-depressant or other psychoactive prescription drug. Yet here I think lies the crux. The mainstream medical conclusion drawn from MDMA’s (probable) human toxicity is that MDMA - and other insight-and empathy drugs used by the scientific counterculture - should be banned, or at least their use discouraged. But there’s a better option: we should be systematically researching ways to design safe and sustainable entactogen/empathogens.
Critically, their neurotoxicity can be dissociated from their therapeutic effect. And once the neurological signature and precise molecular mechanisms underlying both the “magic” and the ugly post-E serotonin dip are worked out, there’s no reason why states of blissful empathy can’t be sustained indefinitely. If we consider the goal worthwhile, then this task is just a technical challenge with a technical solution. Something akin to Naranjo’s “brief fleeting moment of sanity” [induced by taking MDMA] can become our default condition of mental health.
Alas the rather ill-assorted class of drugs today marketed as “antidepressants” don’t do much to enrich our capacity for empathy or self-insight. But they are a good example of agents that don’t have a fast, up-down effect. Rather, they induce a steady improvement of mood, reduced anxiety levels, and enhanced emotional resilience - for at least some of the people who take them. The mood uplift they offer is quite modest: only a small percentage of people ever feel “better than well” on Prozac; and some people even feel worse. Also, the reward is often delayed by as much as several weeks, possibly to allow nerve cell growth in the hippocampus.
Right now the drug companies are working on faster-acting antidepressants - with only limited success it has to be said, owing to the taboo on targeting the dopaminergic and opioid systems. But delayed drug-induced reward is actually a long-term therapeutic advantage for any good psychoactive agent because it minimizes the likelihood of uncontrolled dosage-escalation posed by the use of fast acting euphoriants. Of course, conventional wisdom is that anti-depressants exist only to help people who are diagnosed as clinically depressed; and such drugs aren’t of benefit to anyone else. That may be true with most of the older tricyclics at least; and most of their current successors. But there’s no reason, in principle, why everyone can’t have their moods enriched and uplifted in a controllable way, whether by drugs or gene therapy. Although I can’t prove it, I think our descendants will be animated by gradients of well-being beyond the bounds of normal human experience. I stress the “controllability” here because we don’t want genetically susceptible people switching to uncontrolled manic exuberance – though mildly hypomanic states can sometimes be extraordinarily productive.
In short, we need a vastly enriched conception of mental health. At present, if a drug company came up with the ideal pleasure drug - a real blockbuster wonderdrug designed to enrich the lives of everyone who took it - then it simply wouldn’t get a product license. Absurdly, there’s no way it could be legally marketed. [Nor could, say, an authentic intelligence-booster or “smart drug” be marketed either] This is because to get a product license for an investigational drug you have to indicate some officially recognized disease or disorder that the drug potentially alleviates or cures. Just helping the dull-witted and malaise-ridden (as we all are, by the lights of posterity) doesn’t count. Crazy.
RUS: You mention nanotechnology as part of the “paradise engineered” future but don’t say much about its role. How do you see this?
DP: The role of nanotechnology in keeping us all physically healthy and wealthy is covered in admirable depth elsewhere. So I just focus on one particular application of nanotechnology, albeit (I think) a morally important application. If the abolitionist project is ever to be completed, then it must extend not just to humans but to the rest of the living world. It’s easy to dismiss nonhuman suffering as comparatively trivial in its intensity compared to our own. I hope the skeptics are right; but all the indications are this isn’t the case. The more “primitive” the feeling or emotion, the more intense it typically feels. The biological substrates of suffering are disturbingly constant throughout the vertebrate line. I think a lot of the animals we abuse and kill are functionally and morally akin to human infants and toddlers.
Anyhow, in this context, if one believes that it is ethically desirable to eliminate suffering from the world, then nanotechnology will be necessary to penetrate the recesses of the oceans and the furthest reaches of the reaches of the animal kingdom. If we do ever want to redesign the global eco-system and rewrite the vertebrate genome, then this is the kind of mega-project that could only be done with nanotech. At any rate, it will be within our computational resources to do so. I hope we’ll take our godlike powers seriously and use them ethically.
RUS: Lots of people will think this is a bad idea, even if it can be achieved. You seem to cover every conceivable objection in the manifesto and in your critique of Brave New World but can you speak briefly to the likely main objection; that personalities that are not forged out of difficulty will be lacking and somehow de-humanized?
DP: I think the opposite is true. Other things being equal, enhancing our enjoyment of life is character-building. This sounds a bit odd, even paradoxical, but one of the nastier aspects of melancholic depression and its common “sub-clinical” variants today is the syndrome of so-called “learned helplessness” and “behavioral despair”. Milder forms of this syndrome are endemic to the population at large. People prone to depression give up too easily. They’ve only a limited capacity to anticipate reward or experience happiness. They aren’t easily motivated. By contrast, the new mood-enriching technologies will cure “weakness of will”. They are potentially empowering, even liberating. For the more one loves life, the more motivated one is to carry out one’s goals and life projects. When feeling happy and energized, one takes on challenges that would daunt frailer spirits. Ideally, one will be able to use biotech to transform oneself into the sort of person one wants to be – rather than passively accepting “I can’t help it, I was born like that”. It’s suffering that dehumanizes and demoralizes us, not well-being.
Suffering is not ennobling or character-building; it’s ultimately just nasty - and potentially functionally redundant. Rationalizing its existence makes suffering (sometimes) more bearable; but that’s all. “That which does not crush me makes me stronger”, said Nietzsche; yes, but that’s the trouble: all too many people today do have their spirits crushed by the cruelties of Darwinian life. But not for much longer, I think.
A final point. Uniform bliss isn’t any more motivating than uniform despair. To enjoy a high functioning and intellectually discerning bliss, we’ll need to explore gradients of well-being. In the language of the information-theoretic paradigm, what matters to the way we function is not our absolute location on the pleasure-pain axis, but that we are “informationally sensitive” to fitness-relevant changes in our internal and external environment. Thus whereas today many people are driven by gradients of discontent, in the future I think we’ll be animated by gradients of bliss. Some days will be sublime. Others will be merely wonderful. But critically, there will be one particular texture (“what it feels like”) of consciousness that will be missing from our lives; and that will be the texture of nastiness. I think the absence of Darwinian suffering will be the foundation of any future civilization.
First published in the NeoFiles, December 16, 2003
This essay can also be found on David Pearce’s website, HERE