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What I've been thinking about...

David Pearce
"Can Drugs make us Happy?"
The Abolitionist Project

Should we use designer drugs to create a happier society?

I dare you to push Play, wait 25 seconds, and then see if you want to reconsider your answer.

This brief but insightful tidbit is from David Pearce’s lecture on the Abolitionist Project (referring to abolishing suffering).  You can find the full lecture here (about 30 minutes), or click here to see my other excerpted tidbits, with analysis.

David Pearce
"Can a Machine Suffer?"
The Abolitionist Project

"A silicon robot can be programmed to avoid corrosive acids without experiencing agony if it’s damaged…"

A little setup may be required… this is another very short clip (45 seconds) from my current favorite lecture by philosopher and transhumanist David Pearce.  Just before this clip, he’s talking about whether humans freed from suffering - by either drugs or “Wireheading” - could conceivably offload all unpleasant tasks to robots or computers.

He takes a brief tangent wondering whether these robots or computers might be feeling suffering in our stead.  Whatever he is, Pearce is NOT species-centric… he wants to eliminate suffering from all creatures.

The quote above, about silicon robots avoiding acids without feeling pain at their touch, gave me pause.  I suspect that anything that can avoid damaging situations with as much versatility as a human, would have the “agony” built in as part of the avoidance strategy.  And maybe anxiety thrown in.  I’m not at all certain that our subjective experiences are seperable from the complicated algorithms determining our behaviour.

To his credit, Pearce aknowledges this point of view as an “unless” at the end of the clip.  The lecture from which I took this excerpt is 30 minutes, and can be found here.  To hear the other short clips I’ve posted so far (with analysis), check out this post, or this one.

David Pearce
"Hedonic Set Point"
The Abolitionist Project

Another excerpt from David Pearce's talk on The Abolitionist Project.  See my overview here.  The Abolitionist Project is nothing short of ridding the world of human suffering.  How can that be bad, right?  Well, the gist of the project is that suffering coming from the external world can’t really be eradicated.  What we must do instead (says Pearce) is eradicate the feeling within ourselves.

The idea of self-tinkering to change my emotions leaves me feeling a little creeped out.  However, what Pearce has to say in this 1.5 minute clip is somewhat persuasive.  He talks of a hedonic set point - a level of happiness around which we vaccilate - and Pearce would like to elevate that point.

In my own life, I often find my happiness level rising and falling in ways that don’t seem to relate to the events.  I’ll simply feel “up” for no reason, or likewise “down” despite everything being fine.  Imagine reacting to some event in the two different moods.  Say you get into the car one morning, and it makes a terrible noise and won’t start.

  1. If I’m down, this could cause a near meltdown.  I’d stress over not showing up to work on time, the difficulty and expense (and feelings of helplessness) that come with auto repairs, etc.
  2. If I’m up, I might just mutter “damn”, make the necessary phone calls, and then whistle my way to the bus stop.

If we want to be charitable to Pearce’s view of self modification, I think we could say he’s just talking about modifying ourselves to be “up” in this sense more often, or even always.

  • Hyperthymia - The term “hyperthymia” implies an energetic, confident, active, sometimes irritable but essentially normal personality type who is successfully balancing a multitude of projects and relationships.

To argue the plausibility of genetically modifying for happiness, Pearce brings up Hyperthymia, a “disorder” usually considered to be in the bi-polar family, but with almost entirely positive effects.  There seems to be evidence that this positive disorder runs in families (along with it’s less positive cousins), suggesting that a person could be genetically modified to favour Hyperthymia.

The idea of modifying my own wants (or genetically modifying those of my successors) seems so complicated and dangerous to me that I can’t yet to commit to being for or against.  Still, Pearce makes the best argument for this that I could imagine.  He allows me to keep my current preference architecture intact, and just feel better all the time.  Hmmm…

David Pearce
"An End To Suffering - intro"
The Abolitionist Project

This is a 45 second introduction from one of the most enjoyable and challenging lectures I have heard this year.  The topic is the abolishment of suffering (the abolition project), and the speaker is philosopher David Pearce.

The whole talk was about 30 minutes (can be downloaded here), and was so full of new and worthwhile ideas that I don’t think I want to pack them all into one post.  For now, I thought I would provide this introduction, and say some things I liked about the lecture in general:

  • Pearce sounds like what I would call a Singularitarian, though he never calls himself that.  He believes in relatively near futures in which humanity is profoundly changed, either through combining ourselves with technology, or through genetic engineering.  These views are pretty extreme from my perspective, and yet Pearce speaks on these issues in a rational, decidedly non-ironic way.  Good arguments for a side of an issue you don’t usually consider are always valuable.
  • This lecture is information dense!! (two exclamation marks).  He manages to fit ideas worthy of whole essays into subordinate clauses of his sentences.  The volume of deep information in 30 minutes is staggering.  And yet, his delivery could be describes as “gentle”.  Very soft-voiced, never hard to hear, and with a cadence that maximizes receptiveness to his points.  The writing, and delivery of this lecture both impress me.
  • The general topic (relief of suffering) was cast in a new light for me.  This is never spelled out, but there is a theme of suffering existing in the mind, and not in the world.  Think of how you respond to both ups and downs when in a “bad mood”, vs how you respond to the same situations on a “good day”.  Pearce stresses that we don’t need to turn off our reactiveness to outside stresses… rather, we should consider moving our hedonic set point upward, so we’re all closer to having “good days” than “bad moods” on a regular basis.

I remember being told a little story to illustrate the virtue of Wisdom:

In response to sore feet, a human could respond by paving the ground wherever he/she is intending to walk.  On the other hand, it might be wiser simply to cover one’s own feet.

This message and Pearce’s feel similar: we want to change the world to stop human suffering.  Pearce suggests that we might instead change ourselves.