Excerpt from On utilitronium shockwaves versus gradients of bliss by David Pearce
Why is the idea of life animated by gradients of intelligent bliss attractive, at least to some of us, whereas the prospect of utilitronium leaves almost everyone cold? One reason is the anticipated loss of self: if one’s matter and energy were converted into utilitronium, then intuitively the intense undifferentiated bliss wouldn’t be me. By contrast, even a radical recalibration of one’s hedonic set-point intuitively preserves the greater part of one’s values, memories and existing preference architecture: in short, personal identity. Whether such preservation of self would really obtain if life were animated by gradients of bliss, and whether such notional continuity is ethically significant, and whether the notion of an enduring metaphysical ego is even intellectually coherent, is another matter. Regardless of our answers to such questions, there is a tension between our divergent response to the prospect of cosmos-wide utilitronium and intelligent bliss. People rarely complain that e.g. orgasmic sexual ecstasy lasts too long, and that regrettably they lose their sense of personal identity while orgasm lasts. On the contrary: behavioural evidence strongly suggests that most men in particular reckon sexual bliss is too short-lived and infrequent. Indeed if such sexual bliss were available indefinitely, and if it were characterised by an intensity orders of magnitude greater than the best human orgasms, then would anyone – should anyone – wish such ecstasy to stop? Subjectively, utilitronium presumably feels more sublime than sexual bliss, or even whole-body orgasm. Granted the feasibility of such heavenly bliss, is viewing the history of life on Earth to date as mere stepping-stones to cosmic nirvana really so outrageous?
For the foreseeable future, however, even strict classical utilitarians must work for information-sensitive gradients of intelligent bliss rather than raw undifferentiated pleasure. Classical hedonistic utilitarianism was originally formulated as an ethic for legislators, not biologists or computer scientists. Conceived in this light, the felicific calculus has been treated as infeasible. Yet a disguised implication of a classical utilitarian ethic in an era of mature biotechnology may be that we should be seeking to convert the world into utilitronium, generally assumed to be relatively homogenous matter and energy optimised for raw bliss. The “shockwave” in utilitronium shockwave alludes to our hypothetical obligation to launch von Neumann probes propagating this hyper-valuable state of matter and energy at, or nearly at, the velocity of light across our Galaxy, then our Local Cluster, and then our Local Supercluster. And beyond? Well, politics is the art of the possible. The accelerating expansion of the universe would seem to make further utilitronium propagation infeasible even with utopian technologies. Such pessimism assumes our existing understanding of theoretical physics is correct; but theoretical cosmology is currently in a state of flux.
Naively, the theoretical feasibility of utilitronium shockwave is too remote to sorry about. This question might seem a mere philosophical curiosity. But not so. Complications of uncertain outcome aside, any rate of time discounting indistinguishable from zero is ethically unacceptable for the ethical utilitarian. So on the face of it, the technical feasibility of a utilitronium shockwave makes working for its adoption ethically mandatory even if the prospect is centuries or millennia distant.
Existential Risk? Utilitarian ethics and speculative cosmology might seem far removed. But perhaps the only credible candidate naturalising value has seemingly apocalyptic implications that have never (to my knowledge) been explored in the scholarly literature. And can we seriously hope to be effective altruists in the absence of serviceable model of Reality?
Should existential risk reduction be the primary goal of: a) negative utilitarians? b) classical hedonistic utilitarians? c) preference utilitarians? All, or none, of the above? The answer is far from obvious. For example, one might naively suppose that a negative utilitarian would welcome human extinction. But only (trans)humans – or our potential superintelligent successors – are technically capable of phasing out the cruelties of the rest of the living world on Earth. And only (trans)humans – or rather our potential superintelligent successors – are technically capable of assuming stewardship of our entire Hubble volume. Conceptions of the meaning of the term “existential risk” differ. Compare David Benatar’s “Better Never To Have Been” with Nick Bostrom’s “Astronomical Waste“. Here at least, we will use the life-affirming sense of the term. Does negative utilitarianism or classical utilitarianism represent the greater threat to intelligent life in the cosmos? Arguably, we have our long-term existential risk-assessment back-to-front. A negative utilitarian believes that once intelligent agents have phased out the biology of suffering, all our ethical duties have been discharged. But the classical utilitarian seems ethically committed to converting all accessible matter and energy – not least human and nonhuman animals – into relatively homogeneous matter optimised for maximum bliss: “utilitronium”.
Ramifications? Severe curtailment of personal liberties in the name of Existential Risk Reduction is certainly conceivable. Assume, for example, that the technical knowledge of how to create and deploy readily transmissible, 100% lethal, delayed-action weaponised pathogens leaks into the public domain. Only the most Orwellian measures – a perpetual global totalitarianism – could hope to prevent their use, whether by a misanthrope or an idealist. Such measures would most likely fail. By contrast, constitutively happy people would be incapable of envisaging the development and use of such a doomsday agent. The biology of suffering in intelligent agents is a deep underlying source of existential risk – and one that can potentially be overcome.
A theoretically inelegant but pragmatically effective compromise solution might be to initiate a utilitronium shockwave that propagates outside the biosphere – or realm of posthuman civilisation. The world within our cosmological horizon could then be tiled with utilitronium with the exception of a negligible island (or archipelago) of minds animated “merely” by gradients of intelligent bliss. One advantage of this hybrid option is that most refusniks would (presumably) be indifferent to the fate of inert matter and energy outside their lifeworld. Ask someone today whether they’d mind if some anonymous rock on the far side of the moon were converted into utilitronium and they’d most likely shrug.
In future, gradients of intelligent bliss orders of magnitude richer than today’s peak experiences could well be a design feature of the post-human mind. However, I don’t think intracranial self-stimulation is consistent with intelligence or critical insight. This is because it is uniformly rewarding. Intelligence depends on informational sensitivity to positive and negative stimuli – even if “negative” posthuman hedonic dips are richer and higher than the human hedonic ceiling.
In contrast to life animated by gradients of bliss, the prospect of utilitronium cannot motivate. Or rather the prospect can motivate only a rare kind of hyper-systematiser drawn to its simplicity and elegance. The dips of intelligent bliss need not be deep […] Everyday hedonic tone could be orders of magnitude richer than anything physiologically feasible now. But will such well-being be orgasmic? Orgasmic bliss lacks – in the jargon of academic philosophy – an “intentional object”. So presumably there will be selection pressure against any predisposition to enjoy 24/7 orgasms. By contrast, information-sensitive gradients of intelligent bliss can be adaptive – and hence sustainable indefinitely, allowing universe maintenance: responsible stewardship of Hubble volume.
At any rate, posthumans may regard even human “peak experiences” as indescribably dull by comparison.
Image credit for the Buddhist monk picture “Is”: Alex William Hoffman.