> Rats, of course, have a very poor image in our culture. Our mammalian cousins are still widely perceived as “vermin”. Thus the sight of a blissed-out, manically self-stimulating rat does not inspire a sense of vicarious happiness in the rest of us. On the contrary, if achieving invincible well-being entails launching a program of world-wide wireheading – or its pharmacological and/or genetic counterparts – then most of us will recoil in distaste.
> Yet the Olds’ rat, and the image of electronically-triggered bliss, embody a morally catastrophic misconception of the landscape of options for paradise-engineering in the aeons ahead. For the varieties of genetically-coded well-being on offer to our successors needn’t be squalid or self-centered. Nor need they be insipid, empty and amoral à la Huxley’s Brave New World. Our future modes of well-being can be sublime, cerebral and empathetic – or take forms hitherto unknown.
> Instead of being toxic, such exotically enriched states of consciousness can be transformed into the everyday norm of mental health. When it’s precision-engineered, hedonic enrichment needn’t lead to unbridled orgasmic frenzy. Nor need hedonic enrichment entail getting stuck in a wirehead rut. This is partly because in a naturalistic setting, even the crudest dopaminergic drugs tend to increase exploratory behaviour, will-power and the range of stimuli an organism finds rewarding. Novelty-seeking is normally heightened. Dopaminergics aren’t just euphoriants: they also enhance “incentive-motivation”. On this basis, our future is likely to be more diverse, not less.
> Perhaps surprisingly too, controlled euphoria needn’t be inherently “selfish” – i.e. hedonistic in the baser, egoistic sense. Non-neurotoxic and sustainable analogues of empathogen hug-drugs like MDMA (“Ecstasy“) – which releases a lot of extra serotonin and some extra dopamine – may potentially induce extraordinary serenity, empathy and love for others. An arsenal of cognitive enhancers will allow us be smarter too. For feeling blissful isn’t the same as being “blissed-out”.
Direct realism is the view that we can perceive “directly” the world around us. A direct realist may say things like “the color red is a property of objects” and “red is a frequency of light”. Contrast this view with representative/indirect realism, which posits that we all live in private world simulations that (for evolutionary reasons) accurately depict some of the important properties of our environment having to do with survival and reproduction but do not depict the environment as it truly is. A representative realist may say that “red is one of the underlying phenomenal parameters that furbishes the walls of my own private world simulation.” It so happens that the qualia of red is often triggered by such and such frequencies of light, but blind people with synesthesia of the sound-color variety can experience phenomenal red upon hearing certain notes anyway. We can indeed dissociate the medium as well as the sensory apparatus that usually triggers a given qualia variety from the qualia variety in and of itself.
Whereas direct realism about perception can be weakened with philosophy and psychedelia, most people are indeed direct realists about valence (i.e. the pleasure-pain axis) for their entire lives. To be a direct realist about valence is to believe that the only way for you to be happy is to experience the triggers that in the past have usually seemed like the source of positive and negative states. Valence- how good an experience feels- is a property of experiences, but these experiences are implemented in such a way that pleasure appears to come from outside rather than from within. Thus, a kid may conceptualize a clown as the personification of evil, and think of a chocolate bar as an object made of tiny particles of pure deliciousness. The experiential horizon, of course, is ultimately still within the bounds of the simulation, but we are so immersed in our minds and its value systems that at times it is hard to understand that what ends up triggering our states of wellbeing is programmable and somewhat arbitrary.
A direct realist about valence may say something like “the soup is delicious” and mean it full heartedly in a literal sense. Someone who is not a direct realist about valence would say that “your world simulation happens to get more pleasant when you are sipping the soup” not that “the soup, in and of itself, is delicious”. The direct realist about valence may insist that it is in fact the soup- out there in the real world- that has the property of “deliciousness” and that if others do not like the soup they are merely having a perceptual problem. The truth of the deliciousness of the soup, the direct realist claims, does not leave room for personal opinion. Of course few people are this extreme and bite the bullet of their implicit metaphysical intuitions. But a subtler version of this kind of realism does seem to permeate throughout the vast majority of human activities and rituals. To illustrate how direct realism about valence can influence one’s worldview let me introduce you to:
Sandy the Dog!
Sandy is a Golden Retriever that loves life and sand. He does not know why sand is so awesome, but he doesn’t care because it doesn’t matter, for all he knows “sand is awesome” is a brute fact of existence. He wonders whether the similarity between his name and his passion means that they were born for each other, but other than that he has no clue as to why sand and him partner so well. Other than this odd passion of his, Sandy has a normal life as a domestic dog; he responds to the same range of rewards as your typical Golden Retriever. He loves being pet by his owner, playing fetch and eating delicious food really fast. He is in generally good health, too.
Of all the wonderful things that Sandy knows about, nothing makes him happier than going to the beach. For Sandy the beach is the most beautiful thing in the universe because it is the maximum expression of sand. You wouldn’t believe how excited he gets when he approaches the beach. Then how incredibly meaningful it seems to him to finally get to touch the sand, and how happy and relaxed he ends up feeling after playing with the sand for a while.
For the sake of the argument let us say that Sandy’s life is strictly better than the life of most comparable dogs. His love for sand enriches his life rather than detracts from it (or so he would claim). The beach gives him a place to truly enjoy life to the maximum without hurting anyone (including himself) or missing out on other nice things about life. Now please take a moment and consider whether you think Sandy should be allowed to enjoy sand so much.
Now let’s talk about Sandy’s history. Sandy loves sand because his owner put a tiny implant in his brain’s pleasure centers programmed to activate the areas for liking and wanting when Sandy is in the proximity of sand.
Sandy is unaware of the truth, but does it matter? To him sand is what truly matters. The fact that what he is actually after is states of high-valence completely eludes him. The implementation of his reward architecture is opaque from his point of view.
Could it be that we all are under a similar spell, albeit a more complex one? The point to highlight here is that like Sandy, both you and I chase positive valence even when we don’t know that we are doing so. Our world simulations work so well that they hide the true nature of our goals, even to ourselves.
A side issue worth mentioning is that some people might react to this scenario by saying that we are robbing Sandy of his agency. But are we not all already enslaved by our evolutionarily ancient preference architecture? One can certainly argue that if we are going to improve Sandy’s life we should do so in a way that also increases his autonomy. Good point. But how do we increase his autonomy without increasing his intelligence? In the case of sapient beings, there are good reasons to request that people do not mess with one’s preference architecture without one’s knowledge. But for sentient non-sapient beings like dogs and pre-linguistic toddlers, there is a good case for leaving the hedonic recalibration up to a competent adult with its best interests in mind.