[Paleopsych] David Pearce interviwed by RU Sirius

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David Pearce interviwed by RU Sirius

    First published in the [1]NeoFiles
    Date: 16 December 2003

                                Feeling Groovy, Forever
                     David Pearce in Conversation with R.U. Sirius

      This manifesto outlines a strategy to eradicate suffering in all sentient
      life. So begins David Pearces Web-based manifesto [2]The Hedonistic
      Imperative. Pearce 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 [3]germ-line. If cunningly applied, a
      combination of the cellular enlargement of the meso-limbic [4]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 [5]HEDWEB includes the substantial Hedonistic Imperative
      treatise, as well as a [6]marvelous critique of Huxleys Brave New World,
      another lengthy discussion of [7]MDMA (ecstasy), a philosophical essay that
      tries to answer the question [8]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 lives quietly in Brighton, England. He communicates masterfully
      through his website and is unaccustomed to being interviewed. But I prevailed
      upon him in a transatlantic phone conversation.

      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 dont 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?

      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, its just as
      exhilarating having ones pleasure centers stimulated 24 hours after starting
      a binge as it was at the beginning.

      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 doesnt 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 Cuckoos Nest. And a whole society based on wireheading wouldnt
      be sustainable, in its crude forms at least. No one would want to reproduce
      and raise children.

      So, secondly, theres 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 Huxleys notorious Brave New World. At present were missing out on
      some incredibly beautiful states of consciousness because of the legacy of
      our brutish Darwinian past and the bioconservative ideologies that sustain

      Even so, I think drugs are only a stopgap. In the long run, if were morally
      serious about creating a cruelty-free world, were going to use the third
      option, genetic engineering. Right now, were 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, were only going to
      tinker with the genome. Eventually, I think were 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, its the
      most important. The good news here is that in future, such (un)happiness
      neednt be left to a cruel Darwinian genetic lottery or Fate. So its worth
      stressing that progress towards the abolition of suffering doesnt 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 whats best for their kids...

      Of course, this revolution in the technology of reproductive medicine is
      still some way off. Today, even early adopters arent doing anything much more
      ambitious than choosing their childs gender. But in maybe three or four
      decades or so, and possibly substantially sooner, well 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, were heading
      for a Post-Darwinian transition ultimately I believe to some form of
      paradise-engineering, but perhaps to something else altogether.

      In very rough terms, what were 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
      weve 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 wed 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.

      Thats 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, thats 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 isnt the same as being blissed out.

      What about the possibility that madness could come from these amplified

      Well, you cant 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 [9]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 dont 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.

      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?

      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, theres no denying that
      MDMA isnt 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 MDMAs (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 theres 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, theres no reason why states of
      blissful empathy cant 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.

      Perhaps. Alas the rather ill-assorted class of drugs today marketed as
      antidepressants dont do much to enrich our capacity for empathy or
      self-insight. But they are a good example of agents that dont 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 arent of benefit to anyone else. That may be true
      with most of the older tricyclics at least; and most of their current
      successors. But theres no reason, in principle, why everyone cant have their
      moods enriched and uplifted in a controllable way, whether by drugs or gene
      therapy. Although I cant 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 dont 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 wouldnt get a product license. Absurdly, theres 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)
      doesnt count. Crazy.

      You mention nanotechnology as part of the paradise engineered future but dont
      say much about its role. How do you see this?

      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. Its 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 isnt 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 well take our godlike
      powers seriously and use them ethically.

      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?

      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. Theyve only a limited capacity to anticipate reward or experience
      happiness. They arent 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 ones 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 cant help it, I was born like that. Its
      suffering that dehumanizes and demoralizes us, not well-being. Suffering is
      not ennobling or character-building; its 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 thats 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 isnt any more motivating than uniform despair.
      To enjoy a high functioning and intellectually discerning bliss, well 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 well 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

                                         * * *

                             [10]The Hedonistic Imperative
                                   [12]Future Opioids
                                  [13]Utopian Surgery?
                                 [14]Wirehead Hedonism
                                [15]The Good Drug Guide
                                [16]Paradise Engineering
                              [17]Nanotechnology Hotlinks
                             [18]MDMA: Utopian Pharmacology
                        [19]Critique of Huxley's Brave New World
                       [20]David Pearce interviwed by Jon Despres
                     [21]Sintiéndose maravillosamente, por siempre

                                      E-mail Dave
                                  [22]dave at hedweb.com


    1. http://www.life-enhancement.com/neofiles/
    2. http://www.hedweb.com/hedethic/hedonist.htm
    3. http://www.scienceblog.com/community/article588.html
    4. http://www.columbia.edu/~jh299/DA.html
    5. http://www.hedweb.com/welcome.htm
    6. http://www.hedweb.com/huxley/bnw.htm
    7. http://www.hedweb.com/ecstasy/index.html
    8. http://www.hedweb.com/nihilism/nihilfil.htm
    9. http://rae.tnir.org/cryonics/breakthrough/2.html
   10. http://www.hedweb.com/hedab.htm
   11. http://www.hedweb.com/index.html
   12. http://opioids.com/
   13. http://www.general-anaesthesia.com/
   14. http://www.wireheading.com/
   15. http://www.biopsychiatry.com/
   16. http://paradise-engineering.com/
   17. http://www.nanotechnologist.com/
   18. http://www.mdma.net/index.html
   19. http://www.huxley.net/
   20. http://www.hedweb.com/hedethic/interview.htm
   21. http://www.hedweb.com/hedethic/es.html
   22. mailto:dave at hedweb.com

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