An Infinite Variety of Waste

Excerpt from The Mating Mind: How Sexual Choice Shaped the Evolution of Human Nature (2000) by Geoffrey Miller (pg. 128-129)

Zahavi’s handicap principle and the idea of condition-dependence* are different perspectives on the same thing. The handicap idea emphasizes that sexual ornaments and courtship behaviors must be costly in order to be reliable fitness indicators. Their cost can take almost any form. They can increase risk from predators by making an animal more conspicuous with bright colors. They can increase risk from germs by impairing an animal’s immune system (which many sex hormones do). They can burn up vast amounts of time and energy, like bird song. They can demand a huge effort to obtain a small gift of meat, as in human tribal hunting.

As with Veblen’s conspicuous consumption principle, the form of the cost does not matter much. What matters is the prodigious waste. The waste is what keeps the fitness indicators honest. The wastefulness of courtship is what makes it romantic. The wasteful dancing, the wasteful gift-giving, the wasteful conversation, the wasteful laughter, the wasteful foreplay, the wasteful adventures. From the viewpoint of “survival of the fittest,” the waste looks mad and pointless and maladaptive. Human courtship even looks wasteful from the viewpoint of sexual selection for non-generic benefits, because, as we shall see, the act of love considered most romantic are often those that cost the giver the most, but that bring the smallest material benefits to the receiver. However, from the viewpoint of fitness indicator theory, this waste is the most efficient and reliable way to discover someone’s fitness. Where you see conspicuous waste in nature, sexual choice has often been at work.

Every sexual ornament in every sexually reproducing species could be viewed as a different style of waste. Male humpback whales waste their energies with half-hour-long, hundred-decibel songs that they repeat all day long during the breeding season. Male weaverbirds waste their time constructing ornamental nests. Male stag beetles waste the matter and energy from their food growing huge mandibles. Male elephant seals waste a thousand pounds of their fat per breeding season fighting other elephant seals. Male lions waste countless calories copulating thirty times a day with female lions before the females will conceive. Male humans waste their time and energy getting graduate degrees, writing books, playing sports, fighting other men, painting pictures, playing jazz, and founding religious cults. These may not be conscious sexual strategies, but the underlying motivations for “achievement” and “status”- even in preference to material sources- were probably shaped by sexual selection. (Of course, the wasteful displays that seemed attractive during courtship may no longer be valued if they persist after offspring arrive- there is a trade-off between parental responsibilities and conspicuous display.)

The handicap principle suggests that in each case, sexual selection cares much more about the prodigious magnitude of the waste than about its precise form. Once the decision-making mechanisms of sexual choice get their necessary information about fitness from a sexual display, everything else about the display is just a matter of taste. This interplay between waste and taste gives evolution a lot of elbow room. In fact, every species with sexual ornaments can be viewed as a different variety of sexually selected waste. Without so many varieties of sexual waste, our planet would not be the host of so many species.


* (from Glossary, pg. 437) Condition-dependence: A trait’s sensitivity to an animal’s health and energy level. For example, dance ability is condition-dependent because tired, sick animals can’t dance very well.

The Meaning Machine

Excerpt from Every Cradle Is a Grave: Rethinking the Ethics of Birth and Suicide (2014) by Sarah Perry

Suppose there were an experience machine that would give you any experience you desired. Superduper neuropsychologists could stimulate your brain so that you would think and feel you were writing a great novel, or making a friend, or reading an interesting book. All the time you would be floating in a tank, with electrodes attached to your brain. Should you plug into this machine for life, preprogramming your life’s experiences?

– Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia 

I believe that we should be very cautious about creating conscious beings, and I believe that the ideal number of conscious beings (and perhaps even living beings) in the universe is probably zero, for the good of those beings themselves.

Since suffering and misery are inescapable parts of life, if we are to justify creating life there must be something that outweighs suffering and misery within the space of universal judgements. Candidates generally fall into two categories. The first category is essentially hedonist: pleasure or good experiences are said to outnumber or outweigh bad experiences. This is the objection Bryan Caplan is making with his Free Disposal argument, discussed in the first chapter; assuming preferentism (that people choose what is good for them), and assuming that people have free choice in the relevant arenas, people would merely commit suicide if it were not true that the pleasure of life outweighs the suffering. And since only a million people per year commit suicide, creating life is obviously the right choice. A more subtle variation of this argument does not rely on suicide, but on a sort of imaginary survey: most people would probably report that their lives are worth living, that the good outweighs the bad, and therefore it must.

The second category of responses is that there is something valuable and meaningful about life that makes it worth living even if the bad vastly outweighs the good. In the previous chapter, we explored and categorized some of the things that people find meaningful, noting how these change according to circumstance and over time. One of the most salient features of the things that make life seem meaningful is that they frequently rely on illusion: the illusion of unchanging permanence, of a future state of happiness, of one’s ability to affect the world. It is my view that the sense of meaningfulness is itself an illusion, a cognitive phenomenon that is very adaptive for individuals and groups. This illusion is maintained by communities in order to organize the behavior of individuals, in part by easing their suffering.

One response to this is to counter that meaning is not an illusion- that there is real value in the world beyond what is experienced by living beings. Unfortunately, the proposed real and true meanings are often difficult to express in words to others who do not sense their truth. The feeling that life is meaningful is a pre-rational sensory perception that is widely shared. However, the specific meanings that people find satisfying and convincing are disparate and often contradictory. These underlying realities should make us question whether the sense that life is meaningful- or that some specific meaning can be found in life- is a true observation, or merely an illusion. The very adaptiveness of this belief, even if it were not true, must also make us suspect its veracity. The meaning realist has the further problem that no specific meaning is held by a majority of humanity; if there is one true meaning, then whatever it is, the majority of people’s lives go very badly because they do not perceive it.

Another response is that while meanings vary, it is enough that almost everyone finds some meaning in life. In other words, that sense that life is meaningful is enough to justify life, and the myriad meanings found and elaborated by individuals are all, in fact, the meaning of life. This seems to be the most common position articulated in modern post-Christian Western societies: if a person finds his life to be meaningful, then it is meaningful- even if different people find contradictory meanings in life. One person might find a sense of meaning in fighting for equality, another in ethno-nationalism, and they are both right.

This second response is actually a variation on hedonism, in that the experience of meaning, rather than the experience of pleasure, provides value. According to this view, a life of overwhelming suffering but with a deep experience of meaning might be better than a life of joy and pleasure that is internally felt to be meaningless. But ultimately, divorced from the meaning realism of the first response, this grounds meaning in subjective experience; the sense of meaning becomes another form of pleasure. The modern ideas that it is up to each individual to find meaning in life, and that this meaning justifies life, means accepting a meaning-based Experience Machine.

The things that we find to be meaningful are, in fact, miniature Experience Machines. They rely on illusion and filter the information that reaches us so that we may continue to feel that life is meaningful, or continue to search for meaning in life if it is missing. They are very useful; they help us organize our behavior, coordinate with others, and manage our emotions. In a practical sense they often make the suffering of life bearable; but, once they are recognized to be illusions, they cannot justify suffering in an abstract sense any more than pleasure can.

We need not jump into a Nozickian Experience Machine to get pleasure and a sense of meaning from intricate illusions. The Reverse Experience Machine experiment is close to the illusion we find ourselves in- if we found out we were in an Experience Machine already, would we choose to leave it for the real world? Institutions, religions, social communities, and even individual people function as Experience Machines, creating and maintaining illusions that help us feel that life is worthwhile. A meaning realist would reject the Experience Machine, but to be consistent he must also reject those aspects of life that use illusion or information filters to provide meaning. A meaning subjectivist has little ground to reject the Experience Machine. This has implications for the justification of life’s misery based on meaningfulness.


Excerpt from SUPERHAPPINESS: Ten Objections To Radical Mood-Enrichment by David Pearce

The ‘EXPERIENCE MACHINE’ objection [to engineering superhappiness with genetic technologies]

According to this objection, the prospect of “artificially” ratcheting up our hedonic set-point via biotech interventions just amounts to a version of Harvard University philosopher Robert Nozick’s hypothetical Experience Machine. Recall the short section of Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1974) where Nozick purportedly refutes ethical hedonism by asking us to imagine a utopian machine that can induce experiences of anything at all in its users at will. A full-blown Experience Machine will presumably provide superauthenticity too: its users might even congratulate themselves on having opted to remain plugged into the real world – having wisely rejected the blandishments of Experience Machine evangelists and their escapist fantasies. At any rate, given this hypothetical opportunity to witness all our dreams coming true, then most of us wouldn’t take it. Our rejection shows that we value far more than mere experiences. Sure, runs this objection, millennial neuroscience may be able to create experiences millions of times more wonderful than anything open to Darwinian minds. But so what? It’s mind-independent facts in the real world that matter – and matter in some sense to us – not false happiness.

POSSIBLE RESPONSE

This Objection isn’t fanciful. In future, technologies akin to Experience Machines will probably be technically feasible, perhaps combining immersive VR, neural nanobots and a rewiring of the pleasure centres. Such technologies may conceivably become widely available or even ubiquitous – though whether their global use could ever be sociologically and evolutionarily stable for a whole population is problematic. [If you do think Experience Machines may become ubiquitous, then you might wonder (shades of the Simulation Argument) whether statistically you’re most probably plugged into one already. This hypothesis is more compelling if you’re a life-loving optimist who thinks you’re living in the best of all possible worlds than if you’re a depressive Darwinian convinced you’re living in the unspeakably squalid basement.]

However, feasible or otherwise, Experience Machines aren’t the kind of hedonic engineering technology we’re discussing here. Genetically recalibrating our hedonic treadmill at progressively more exalted settings needn’t promote the growth of escapist fantasy worlds. Measured, incremental increase in normal hedonic tone can allow (post-)humans to engage with the world – and each other – no less intimately than before; and possibly more so. By contrast, it’s contemporary social anxiety disorders and clinical depression that are associated with behavioural suppression and withdrawal. Other things being equal, a progressively happier population will also be more socially involved – with each other and with consensus reality. At present, it’s notable that the happiest people tend to lead the fullest social lives; conversely, depressives tend to be lonely and socially isolated. Posthuman mental superhealth may indeed be inconceivably different from the world of the happiest beings alive today: meaning-saturated and vibrantly authentic to a degree we physiologically can’t imagine. Yet this wonderful outcome won’t be – or at least it needn’t be – explicable because our descendants are escapists plugged into Experience Machines, but instead because posthuman life is intrinsically wonderful.

Perhaps. The above response to the Experience Machine objection is simplistic. It oversimplifies the issues because for a whole range of phenomena, there is simply no mind-independent fact of the matter that could potentially justify Experience Machine-style objections – and deter the future use of Experience Machine-like technologies for fear of our losing touch with Reality. Compare, say, mathematical beauty with artistic beauty. If you are a mathematician, then you want not merely to experience the epiphany of solving an important equation or devising an elegant proof of a mathematical theorem. You also want that solution or proof to be really true in some deep platonic sense. But if you create, say, a sculpture or a painting, then its beauty (or conversely, its ugliness) is inescapably in the eye of the beholder; there is no mind-independent truth beyond the subjective response of one’s audience. For an aesthete who longs to experience phenomenal beauty, there simply isn’t any fact of the matter beyond the quality of experience itself. The beauty is no less real, and it certainly seems to be a fact of the world; but it is subjective. If so, then why not create the substrates of posthuman superbeauty rather than mere artistic prettiness?

There’s also a sense in which our brains already are (dysfunctional) Experience Machines. Consider dreaming. Should one take drugs to suppress REM sleep because our dreams aren’t true? Or when awake, should one’s enjoyment of a beautiful sunset be dimmed by the knowledge that secondary properties like colour are mind-dependent? [Quantum theory suggests that classical macroscopic “primary” properties as normally conceived are mind-dependent too; but that’s another story] If you had been born a monochromat who sees the world only in different shades of grey, then as a hard-nosed scientific rationalist, should you reject colour vision gene therapy on the grounds that phenomenal colours are fake – and grass isn’t intrinsically green? No, by common consent visual experience enriches us, even if, strictly speaking, we are creating reality rather than simulating and/or perceiving it. Or to give another example: what if neural enhancement technologies could controllably modify our aesthetic filters so we could see 80-year-old women as sexier than 20-year-old women? Is this perception false or inauthentic? Intuitively, perhaps so. But actually, the perception is no more or less authentic than seeing 20-year-old women of prime reproductive potential as sexier. Evolution has biased our existing perceptual filters in ways that maximised the inclusive fitness of our genes in the ancestral environment; but in future, we can optimise the well-being of their bodily vehicles (i.e. us). Gradients of well-being billions of times richer than anything humans experience are neither more nor less genuine than the greenness of grass (or the allure of Marilyn Monroe). Could such states become as common as grass? Again, I suspect so; but speculation is cheap.


Analysis

Sarah Perry argues that we already live in a meaning-based Experience Machine. David Pearce reminds us that our experience of the world is itself just a phenomenal representation of a mind-independent quantum mess, and that what makes us feel good or bad is merely a reflection of what increases or decreases the inclusive fitness of our genes. In both cases, Nozick’s Experience Machine thought-experiment is turned on its head. Namely, that if we value life, we are inescapably already agreeing to living on an Experience Machine of sorts.

It is hard for me not to roll my eyes when someone says “I am not looking for happiness; I’m looking for meaning.” Although perhaps not obvious to everyone, the way in which your world-simulation is implemented is such that activities that foster the inclusive fitness of your genes feel good, while those that bring fewer future copies of your genes generally feel bad. Thanks to our neocortex, we are able to “encephalize” our deep primal emotions and render them in conjunction with (and indeed phenomenally embedded in) high-dimensional state spaces of consciousness. Key predictors of inclusive fitness such as social status, environmental stability, and the mutational load of one’s tribe are not explicitly rendered in our experience as “beneficial for your inclusive fitness.” Rather, they are rendered in a concrete simulation-congruent form (i.e. as meaningful), such as being a good person, having a home, and being able to tune in to highly evolved aesthetics, respectively. Indeed, we are adaptation executers rather than utility optimizers; the causal effect of our aesthetic preferences (e.g. preferring to think of ourselves as “meaning-seeking” rather than “pleasure-seeking”) is not legible from our subjective vintage point. But… the inherent entwining of meaning and valence (i.e. the pleasure-pain axis) is crystal clear as soon as we mess with one’s psychopharmacology, for people who fetishize meaning are not immune to mu-opioid antagonists. Unsurprisingly, it is hard to enjoy either a personal meaning, a sense of community, or even higher art while on the opioid-antagonist naltrexone. Likewise, isn’t it strange that psychedelics and empathogens seem to simultaneously increase depth of meaning and capacity for pleasure? Indeed, realizing that subjective meaning is implemented with valence gradients has extraordinary explanatory power. For this reason, it is thus clear that, as David Pearce likes to say, “if you take care of happiness, the meaning of life will take care of itself.”

What about anti-natalism? My take on anti-natalism is pretty standard for a negative leaning utilitarian and transhumanist. Namely, that selection pressures against any proclivity to self-limit human reproduction guarantees that the psychological traits that bring about hard anti-natalist views will not sustain themselves over time. If one impartially cares about the wellbeing of sentient beings, one should take into account how evolution works. Advocating for gradients of intelligent bliss rather than non-existence could satisfy anti-natalists’ craving for the absence of suffering while also being compatible with an understanding of the reality of selection pressures. Tongue-in-cheek, I thus advocate for antinatalists to have lots of children, and for pro-natalists to have no children at all. More seriously, the real solution is to develop and promote “Triple-S genetic counseling” so that every child that is born is emancipated from the agony of his or her- otherwise inevitable- future suffering.


See also: The Tyranny of the Intentional Object, Open Individualism and Antinatalism, The Purple Pill, and Consciousness vs. Pure Replicators

Frequency Specific Microcurrent for Kidney-Stone Pain

Excerpt from The Resonance Effect: How Frequency Specific Microcurrent is Changing Medicine (2017) by Carolyn McMakin 

Kidney Stone Pain

Everyone who has ever had a kidney stone will tell you that the kidney-stone pain is the worst. Emergency rooms treat it with morphine, and nothing else seems to touch it.

The phone rang on a summer Sunday morning and I hardly recognized the friend who grunted through gritted teeth to ask if “my machine” could treat kidney-stone pain. I told him that I’d never treated it before, but I’d be willing to try if he could make it to my house. He shuffled from the front door to the couch bent forward at the waist, sweating in pain. I put one wet graphite glove under his back and the other glove on his abdomen. He tried hard not to moan as I covered him with a soft blanket and placed my hand on top of the glove on his abdomen.

Education said that kidney-stone pain had to be about spasm in the ureter, the tube that carries the stone from the kidney to the bladder. The frequency for spasm was 29 hertz on channel A. The frequency for the ureter was 60 hertz on channel B. It did absolutely nothing: no warmth, no relaxation or softening, nothing. Maybe there was bleeding caused by the rough stone shredding the ureter as it traveled? I tried 18 hertz to stop bleeding on channel A. The glove didn’t get warm, and the pain didn’t change.

I really didn’t want my gray-faced friend to be my first failure. Reaching for inspiration, I tried the always-reliable 40 hertz to reduce inflammation. Nothing changed. Desperation amplified the small murmur of my intuition in my head, “Don’t get sloppy! Be thorough.”

There is a sequence of frequencies leading up to inflammation. The sequence was 20 hertz for “pressure or pain reaction,” 30 hertz for irritation, 40 hertz for inflammation. I never ran the whole sequence because 40 hertz always worked and I had no idea what a “pressure or pain reaction” might be. The buttons clicked down from 40 hertz to 20 hertz on channel A, and two things happened in seconds. The glove resting on his abdomen got hot — not just warm, it was hot. His abdomen started to soften. The feeling is hard to describe. It feels like a balloon feels when it has been sitting on the floor overnight. The tissue softens and stays soft while the correct frequency is working, and it returns to normal when the frequency is finished.

His voice was a little slurred when he fell asleep a few minutes later as he said, “Is that supposed to make me feel woozy?” His deep relaxed breathing said he was out of pain.

There are frequencies for the stone, so I tried those after twenty quiet minutes of watching him doze. The glove got hot, the abdomen softened, and ten minutes later he bolted awake and yelped, “The stone’s moving.” True to its promise, 20 hertz on A and 60 hertz on B reduced the pain again and put him back to sleep. Forty minutes later he left, pain-free, and passed the stone that night with no increase in pain.

I told this story at the Advanced Course in Australia a few weeks later, and one of the Australian practitioners reported that she treated her husband for kidney stone pain with 20 hertz on A and 60 hertz on B. He was out of pain in an hour and passed the stone uneventfully.

Every case of kidney stones treated since then has responded exactly the same way. When the patient has gripping lower back pain from lifting suitcases during a long dehydrating flight but treating the muscles doesn’t help, experience finally admits it’s not the muscle. Intuition says, “I wonder if it’s a kidney stone?” The learning curve is very steep and short when the glove gets hot, the muscles begin to relax, the pain goes down in minutes, and the patient falls asleep.

When one specific frequency combination, and only one, works every time anyone uses it, and when it does something that is otherwise impossible, then it can’t be impossible. It’s got to be resonance.

Every Child is a Genetic Experiment: FAAH Clinical Trials for Hedonic Recalibration as Educated Guesses Rather than Reckless Experimentation

by David Pearce, in response to Quora question: How do you break the hedonic treadmill?

 

The easiest pain to bear is someone else’s.
(François de La Rochefoucauld)

Could two small genetic tweaks get rid of most of the world’s mental and physical pain?
A tentative answer is: just conceivably. More cautiously, the problem of suffering should be genetically soluble this century. Before launching into a long list of caveats and complications – and outright scepticism – it’s worth considering a case study. The subject has waived anonymity.

Jo Cameron is a retired Scottish schoolteacher, a socially responsible vegan and pillar of the local community. Jo has gone though life in a perpetual state of “mild euphoria”. She has unusually high levels of anandamide (from the Sanskrit for “bliss”) and is never anxious, though her serenity may vary. Jo doesn’t feel pain, or at least not in any sense most of us would recognise: childbirth felt like “a tickle”. She is hyperthymic, but not manic. Unlike previously reported cases of congenital analgesia, Jo didn’t die young or find the need to adopt a “cotton-wool” existence to avoid bodily trauma. She came to the attention of medical researchers only when her disdain of painkillers for what “ought” to have been an excruciating medical procedure – a trapeziectomy on her right thumb – intrigued her doctor. “I had no idea until a few years ago there was anything that unusual about how little pain I feel – I just thought it was normal.
With CRISPR genome-editing, lifelong bliss could be normal.

Jo Cameron is first known case of someone with mutations in both the FAAH gene and its newly-discovered sister gene, FAAH-OUT, which modulates the FAAH gene. The FAAH gene (short for Fatty Acid Amide Hydrolase) is a protein-coding gene responsible for degrading bioactive fatty amides, most notably the endogenous cannabinoid anandamide. Previous mutations of FAAH are known, but the FAAH-OUT gene was previously reckoned a pseudogene. Single FAAH mutations are associated with high pain-tolerance, reduced anxiety and a sunny outlook without Jo’s “extreme” syndrome of well-being. Jo’s son has the single mutation.

Other case studies may be cited. I often use (again with prior consent) the example of my transhumanist colleague Anders Sandberg (“I do have a ridiculously high hedonic set-point”) – although Anders’ pain-sensitivity lies within the normal range. The pain-modulating SCN9A gene, which has dozens of alleles conferring varying pain (in)tolerance, is much better studied (cfHow much do our pain thresholds differ?).

What biologists call the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptation (EEA) ensures such outliers are rare. Although Jo Cameron shows accelerated wound-healing, not being a “normal”, neurotic mother on the African savannah would have carried a fitness-cost. Predators are unforgiving of relaxed moms. Our sugary “wildlife documentaries” barely hint at the cruelties of Nature. Pain, fear and anxiety are intimately linked. “Only the paranoid survive”, said Intel boss Andy Grove; and this bleak diagnosis can be true of market capitalism to this day. But we are not living on the African savannah – or even in a world of unfettered free markets. Looking ahead, all kinds of risks can be offloaded to artificial intelligence. AI and smart prostheses can potentially manage risks moreeffectively than bias-ridden humans. Intuitively, for sure, tampering with our reward circuitry will be hazardous. Genetically modifying or creating superhappy organisms with relative pain-insensitivity and enhanced zest for life will lead to increased personal risk-taking. Yet the story is more complicated. A great deal of risky and self-destructive behaviour in today’s world involves not happy, pain-free people, but the pain-ridden, depressive and psychologically disturbed. Life-loving optimists typically value life more – and seek to preserve and protect it. Anecdotally, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that some of the happiest people I know dedicate their lives to the study and prevention of existential risk.

So a practical question arises.
Should a large, well-controlled clinical trial of CRISPR babies be launched, with some babies carrying Jo’s two mutations, others a single FAAH mutation like her son, and controls?
If the trial is successful, then the controls and (in due course) the wider human population could enjoy remedial gene-therapy to share the benefits.

One of the few publications to recognise the far-reaching significance of Jo’s case is the magazine Wired (cfCrispr Gene Editing Could One Day Cut Away Human Pain). Instead of the double mutation promising “only” better drugs to treat pain, humanity can now tackle the problem of suffering at its source.

Bioconservative critics will be appalled at the idea: “Doctor Mengele!” “Eugenics!” “Designer babies!” “Gattaca!” “Brave New World!” Being malaise-ridden is normal and natural. Creating superbabies would be hubris. Where will it lead? How do we know gene-editing won’t be used by despots to create a race of fearless superwarriors?
In more measured language, how can experimentation with the lives of sentient beings without prior informed consent be ethically justified?

Indeed. Yet all babies born today are unique and untested genetic experiments. All baby-making entails creating involuntary suffering. None of our genetic experiments first passed muster with a medical ethics committee. Any proposal to create transhuman superbabies will probably strike our descendants as genetic remediation, not enhancement. If we reject the arguments of anti-natalists, who view Darwinian life as malware, then all prospective parents are committed to practising genetic experimentation – just not under that inflammatory label. So what’s at issue is not the principle of genetic innovation, only whether we should harness the new tools of CRISPR-Cas9 genome-editing to conduct our experiments more responsibly. If aspiring writers can benefit from proofreaders and editors, why not aspiring parents too – where the stakes are higher?

Your question asks about breaking the hedonic treadmill (cfWhat would people who never suffered be like?). Breaking or otherwise dismantling the hedonic treadmill is worth distinguishing from recalibration of its dial-settings. Hedonic adaptation can be broken in human and non-human animals by experimentally inducing “learned helplessness” and behavioural despair in response to chronic, uncontrollable stress. Hedonic adaptation can be broken at the other extreme by using intracranial self-stimulation of the mesolimbic dopamine system. “Wireheading” shows virtually no tolerance. Pathological cases of a broken hedonic treadmill occur “naturally” in chronic unipolar depression and, much more rarely, in euphoric unipolar mania. Attempts to cheat the hedonic treadmill via drugs are fraught with pitfalls. The most powerful mood-brighteners, namely the opioids, activate the hedonic treadmill rather than mitigate it. Some opioid users end up with a habit hundreds of times their starting dose. Natural selection did not design living organisms to be happy.

Functionally, therefore, genetic recalibration is a more fruitful strategy than abolishing the hedonic treadmill, both for the individual and society at large. For what it’s worth, I personally think we should aim for a hyperthymic civilisation built on a biology of invincible well-being. Future sentience will be underpinned by gradients of bliss. However, nothing so grandiose need be envisaged in order to warrant human CRISPR trials of happy babies. Grant some fairly modest ethical assumptions, e.g. other things being equal, intelligent moral agents should act so as to reduce the burden of suffering, or at least not wantonly add to it. For any genetic intervention that alters default hedonic tone, conserving information-sensitivity to “good” and “bad” stimuli is critical. In other words, we should aim to retain the hedonic treadmill but transform its negative feedback-mechanisms into a hedonistic treadmill – where “hedonism” is understood not in the amoral popular sense of a life of drink, drugs and debauchery, but as embracing Mill’s “higher pleasures”. Hence the hedonistic imperative. If clinical trials of superbabies go well, prospective parents world-wide could be offered the opportunity to have happy, heathy babies via CRISPR genome-editing, preimplantation genetic screening and counselling.

A biohappiness revolution would be extremely cost-effective. Depression, anxiety disorders and chronic pain-syndromes significantly reduce economic growth worldwide. By conserving hedonic adaptation, but ratcheting up hedonic range and hedonic set-points, humanity can conserve and enhance empathetic understanding, social responsibility and critical insight while enriching default quality of life. By conserving hedonic adaptation, we can also conserve cherished traditional values, if so desired. Yesterday’s utopias involved overriding the preferences of others, whether for their own notional good or in pursuit of some higher cause. By contrast, elevating your pain-tolerance and raising your hedonic set-point would radically enrich your life but wouldn’t challenge your values and preferences – unless one of your core values is preserving the genetic status quo.

What could go wrong with a biohappiness revolution?
Cue for vast treatises and a sci-fi movie.
However, as well as seriously – indeed exhaustively – researching everything that could conceivably go wrong, I think we should also invesigate what could goright. The world is racked by suffering. The hedonic treadmill might more aptly be called a dolorous treadmill. Hundreds of millions of people are currently depressed, pain-ridden or both. Hundreds of billions of non-human animals are suffering too. If we weren’t so inured to a world of pain and misery, then the biosphere would be reckoned in the throes of a global medical emergency. Thanks to breakthroughs in biotechnology, pain-thresholds, default anxiety levels, hedonic range and hedonic set-points are all now adjustable parameters in human and non-human animals alike. We are living in the final century of life on Earth in which suffering is biologically inevitable. As a society, we need an ethical debate about how much pain and misery we want to preserve and create.

Investing Time and Resources in Happiness

As a function of time and resources, what is the optimal way to reduce suffering and maximize happiness?

You have 1 minute and no money: Try to calm down and distract yourself with music.

You have 1 hour and 1 dollar: Ignore the dollar, just make a playlist of songs you really enjoyed in your life and play it as you dance.

You have 1 day and 50 dollars: Go get yourself some hard drugs.

You have 3 months and 1,000 dollars: Get some gym equipment, establish a workout routine, hangout with friends as much as possible, get laid, go to see movies, go to a beach.

You have 3 years and 3,000 dollars: Learn about Buddhist meditation, get fit, and then focus on achieving the Jhanas states. Stay in them for as long as you can.

You have 10 years and 10,000 dollars: Investigate charities that minimize suffering, or make your own. Fund-raise in order to eliminate suffering in people who have cluster-headaches by giving them access to tryptamine vape-pens, help the spread of pain-killers for people dying in hospitals in third-world countries, etc.

You have 50 years and 10,000,000 dollars: You found a research institute devoted to identifying the biochemical, functional, or behavioral causes of suffering, identify promising large-effect-size genetic modification technologies in order to enable sustainable hedonic-tone enhancement. You build a company that sells permanent hedonic tone amplification. With the money you get rid of factory farming and implement a wild-animal welfare system. Then you get rid of game-theoretical impasses using ultra-bliss technology.

On Hitting the Actual Target of Hedonic Tone

Practically speaking, I think that our single best psychopharmacological bet for tackling depression, anxiety, and above all chronic pain worldwide in the next decade is to:

1) Identify great, non-toxic, partial mu-opioid agonists with extremely high therapeutic index (e.g. tianepetine, 7-hydroxymitragynine, etc.), and

2) Prescribe them in conjunction with anti-tolerance drugs (such as proglumide, agmatine, black seed oil, small dose ibogaine, etc.).

I think that whomever manages to patent a mixture of partial opioid agonist + anti-tolerance drug that works in the long term will be a multi-billionaire within a couple of years while actually reducing/preventing massive amounts of untold suffering.

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Proglumide: A Promising Anti-Tolerance Agent (proof of concept of what is to come)


Ps. My core research at QRI is not pharmacological but rather phenomenological and “patternceutical“. So I am not pursuing the above line of research myself as the core objective of the next few years. But if I was looking into pharmacological options, that’s where I’d shine some light on. If you are in the field, I urge you to look into this option. For more info: “Anti-Tolerance Drugs“.

“Letter from Utopia” and Other Triple-S Transhumanist Media

by Nick Bostrom (2010)

Dear Human,

Greetings, and may this letter find you at peace and in prosperity! Forgive
my writing to you out of the blue. Though you and I have never met, we are
not strangers. We are, in a certain sense, the closest of kin. I am one of your
possible futures.

I hope you will become me. Should fortune grant this wish, then I am not
just a possible future of yours, but your actual future: a coming phase of you,
like the full moon that follows a waxing crescent, or like the flower that
follows a seed.

I am writing to tell you about my life – how good it is – that you may choose
it for yourself.

Although this letter uses the singular, I am really writing on behalf of all
my contemporaries, and we are addressing ourselves to all of your
contemporaries. Amongst us are many who are possible futures of your
people. Some of us are possible futures of children you have not yet given
birth to. Still others are possible artificial persons that you might one day
create. What unites us is that we are all dependent on you to make us real.
You can think of this note as if it were an invitation to a ball that will take
place only if folks turn up.

We call the lives we lead here “Utopia”.

*

How can I tell you about Utopia and not leave you mystified? What words
could convey the wonder? What inflections express our happiness? What
points overcome your skepticism? My pen, I fear, is as unequal to the task as
if I had tried to use it against a charging elephant.

But the matter is so important that we must try even against long odds.
Maybe you will see through the inadequacies of my exposition.

Have you ever known a moment of bliss? On the rapids of inspiration,
maybe, where your hands were guided by a greater force to trace the shapes
of truth and beauty? Or perhaps you found such a moment in the ecstasy of
love? Or in a glorious success achieved with good friends? Or in splendid
conversation on a vine-overhung terrace one star-appointed night? Or
perhaps there was a song or a melody that smuggled itself into your heart,
setting it alight with kaleidoscopic emotion? Or during worship?

If you have experienced such a moment, experienced the best type of such a
moment, then a certain idle but sincere thought may have presented itself to
you: “Oh Heaven! I didn’t realize it could feel like this. This is on a
different level, so very much more real and worthwhile. Why can’t it be like
this always? Why must good times end? I was sleeping; now I am awake.”

Yet behold, only a little later, scarcely an hour gone by, and the softly-falling
soot of ordinary life is already piling up. The silver and gold of exuberance
lose their shine. The marble becomes dirty.

Every way you turn it’s the same: soot, casting its veil over all glamours and
revelries, despoiling your epiphany, sodding up your white pressed collar and
shirt. And once again that familiar beat is audible, the beat of numbing
routine rolling along its tracks. The commuter trains loading and unloading
their passengers… sleepwalkers, shoppers, solicitors, the ambitious and the
hopeless, the contented and the wretched… like human electrons shuffling
through the circuitry of civilization.

We do so easily forget how good life can be at its best – and how bad at its
worst. The most outstanding occasion: barely is it over before the sweepers
move in to clean up the rice. Yellowing photos remain.

And this is as it should be. We are in the business of living, and life must go
on. Special moments are out-of-equilibrium experiences in which our
puddles are stirred up and splashed about; yet when normalcy returns we are
usually relieved. We are built for mundane functionality, not lasting bliss.

So the door that was ajar begins to close, disappearing hope’s sliver behind
an insensate scab.

Quick, stop that door! Look again at your yellowing photos, search for a
clue. Do you not see it? Do you not feel it, the touch of the possible? You
have witnessed the potential for a higher life, and you hold the fading proof
in your hands. Don’t throw it away. In the attic of your mind, reserve a
drawer for the notion of a higher state of being. In the furnace of your heart,
keep an aspiring ember alive.

I am summoning this memory of your best experience – to what end? In the
hope of kindling in you a desire to share my happiness.

And yet, what you had in your best moment is not close to what I have now
– a beckoning scintilla at most. If the distance between base and apex for
you is eight kilometers, then to reach my dwellings requires a million lightyear ascent. The altitude is outside moon and planets and all the stars your
eyes can see. Beyond dreams. Beyond imagination.

My consciousness is wide and deep, my life long. I have read all your
authors – and much more. I have experienced life in many forms and from
many angles: jungle and desert, gutter and palace, heath and suburban creek
and city back alley. I have sailed the high seas of cultures, and swum, and
dived. Quite some marvelous edifice builds up over a million years by the
efforts of homunculi, just as the humble polyps amass a reef in time. And
I’ve seen the shoals of colored biography fishes, each one a life story,
scintillate under heaving ocean waters.

The whole exceeds the sum of its parts. What I have is not merely more of
what is available to you now. It isn’t just the particular things, the paintings
and toothpaste-tube designs, the record covers and books, the epochs, lives,
leaves, rivers, and random encounters, the satellite images and the hadron
collider data – it is also the complex relationships between these particulars
that make up my mind. There are ideas that can be formed only on top of
such a wide experience base. There are depths that can be fathomed only
with such ideas.

You could say I am happy, that I feel good. You could say that I feel
surpassing bliss. But these are words invented to describe human
experience. What I feel is as far beyond human feeling as my thoughts are
beyond human thought. I wish I could show you what I have in mind. If
only I could share one second of my conscious life with you!

But you don’t have to understand what I think and feel. If only you bear in
mind what is possible within the present human realm, you will have enough
to get started in the right direction, one step at a time. At no point will you
encounter a wall of blinding light. At no point will you have to jettison
yourself over an end-of-the-world precipice. As you advance, the horizon
will recede. The transformation is profound, but it can be as gradual as the
growth that made the baby you were into the adult you think you are.

You will not achieve this through any magic trick or hokum, nor by the
power of wishful thinking, nor by semantic acrobatics, meditation,
affirmation, or incantation. And I do not presume to advise you on matters
theological. I urge on you nothing more, nothing less, than reconfigured
physical situation.

*

The challenge before you: to become fully what you are now only in hope
and potential. New capacities are needed if you wish to live and play on my
level.

To reach Utopia, you must first discover the means to three fundamental
transformations.

The First Transformation: Secure life!

Your body is a deathtrap. This vital machine and mortal vehicle, unless it
jams first or crashes, is sure to rust anon. You are lucky to get seven decades
of mobility; eight if you be Fortuna’s darling. That is not sufficient to get
started in a serious way, much less to complete the journey. Maturity of the
soul takes longer. Why, even a tree-life takes longer!

Death is not one but a multitude of assassins. Do you not see them? They
are coming at you from every angle. Take aim at the causes of early death –
infection, violence, malnutrition, heart attack, cancer. Turn your biggest
gun on aging, and fire. You must seize control of the biochemical processes
in your body in order to vanquish, by and by, illness and senescence. In
time, you will discover ways to move your mind to more durable media.
Then continue to improve the system, so that the risk of death and disease
continues to decline. Any death prior to the heat death of the universe is
premature if your life is good.

Oh, it is not well to live in a self-combusting paper hut! Keep the flames at
bay and be prepared with liquid nitrogen, while you construct yourself a
better habitation. One day you or your children should have a secure home.
Research, build, redouble your effort!

The Second Transformation: Upgrade cognition!

Your brain’s special faculties: music, humor, spirituality, mathematics,
eroticism, art, nurturing, narration, gossip! These are fine spirits to pour
into the cup of life. Blessed you are if you have a vintage bottle of any of
these. Better yet, a cask! Better yet, a vineyard!

Be not afraid to grow. The mind’s cellars have no ceilings!

What other capacities are possible? Imagine a world with all the music dried
up: what poverty, what loss. Give your thanks, not to the lyre, but to your
ears for the music. And ask yourself, what other harmonies are there in the
air, that you lack the ears to hear? What vaults of value are you witlessly
debarred from, lacking the key sensibility?

Had you but an inkling, your nails would be clawing at the padlock in sacred
frenzy.

Your brain must grow beyond the bounds of any genius of humankind, in its
special faculties as well as its general intelligence, so that you may better
learn, remember, and understand, and so that you may apprehend your own
beatitude.

Mind is a means: for without insight you will get bogged down or lose your
way, and your journey will fail.

Mind is also an end: for it is in the spacetime of awareness that Utopia will
exist. May the measure of your mind be vast and expanding.

Oh, stupidity is a loathsome corral! Gnaw and tug at the posts, and you will
slowly loosen them up. One day you’ll break the fence that held your
forebears captive. Gnaw and tug, redouble your effort!

The Third Transformation: Elevate well-being!

What is the difference between indifference and interest, boredom and thrill,
despair and bliss?

Pleasure! A few grains of this magic ingredient are dearer than a king’s
treasure, and we have it aplenty here in Utopia. It pervades into everything
we do and everything we experience. We sprinkle it in our tea.

The universe is cold. Fun is the fire that melts the blocks of hardship and
creates a bubbling celebration of life.

It is the birth right of every creature, a right no less sacred for having been
trampled upon since the beginning of time.

There is a beauty and joy here that you cannot fathom. It feels so good that
if the sensation were translated into tears of gratitude, rivers would overflow.

I reach in vain for words to convey to you what it all amounts to… It’s like a
rain of the most wonderful feeling, where every raindrop has its own unique
and indescribable meaning – or rather a scent or essence that evokes a whole
world… And each such evoked world is subtler, richer, deeper, more
palpable than the totality of what you have experienced in your entire life.

I will not speak of the worst pain and misery that is to be got rid of; it is too
horrible to dwell upon, and you are already aware of the urgency of
palliation. My point is that in addition to the removal of the negative, there
is also an upside imperative: to enable the full flourishing of enjoyments that
are currently out of reach.

The roots of suffering are planted deep in your brain. Weeding them out
and replacing them with nutritious crops of well-being will require advanced
skills and instruments for the cultivation of your neuronal soil. But take
heed, the problem is multiplex! All emotions have a natural function. Prune
carefully lest you reduce the fertility of your plot.

Sustainable yields are possible. Yet fools will build fools’ paradises. I
recommend you go easy on your paradise-engineering until you have the
wisdom to do it right.

Oh, what a gruesome knot suffering is! Pull and tug on those loops, and you
will gradually loosen them up. One day the coils will fall, and you will
stretch out in delight. Pull and tug, and be patient in your effort!

May there come a time when rising suns are greeted with joy by all the living
creatures they shine upon.

*

How do you find this place? How long will it take to get here?

I can pass you no blueprint for Utopia, no timetable, no roadmap. All I can
give you is my assurance that there is something here, the potential for a
better life.

If you could visit me here for but a day, you would henceforth call this place
your home. This is the place where you belong. Ever since one hairy
creature picked up two flints and began knocking them together to make a
tool, this has been the direction of your unknown aspiration. Like Odysseus
you must journey, and never cease journeying, until you arrive upon this
shore.

“Arrive?” you say; “But isn’t the journey the destination? Isn’t Utopia a
place that doesn’t exist? And isn’t the quest for Utopia, as witnessed
historically, a dangerous folly and an incitement to mischief?”

Friend, that is not such a bad way for you to think about it. To be sure,
Utopia is not a location or a form of social organization.

The blush of health on a convalescent’s cheek. The twinkling of the eye in a
moment of wit. The smile of a loving thought… Utopia is the hope that the
scattered fragments of good that we come across from time to time in our
lives can be put together, one day, to reveal the shape of a new kind of life.
The kind of life that yours should have been.

I fear that the pursuit of Utopia will bring out the worst in you. Many a
moth has been incinerated in its pursuit of a brighter future.

Seek the light! But approach with care – swerve if you smell your wingtips
singeing. Light is for seeing, not dying.

When you embark on this quest, you will encounter rough seas and hard
problems. To prevail will take your best science, your best technology, and
your best politics. Yet each problem has a solution. My existence breaks no
law of nature. The materials are all there. Your people must become
master builders, and then you must use these skills to build yourselves up
without crushing your cores.

*

What is Suffering in Utopia? Suffering is the salt trace left on the cheeks of those
who were around before.

What is Tragedy in Utopia? There is tragedy in Snowman’s melting. Mass
murders are not required.

What is Imperfection in Utopia? Imperfection is the measure of our respect for
things as they are and for their history.

What is Body in Utopia? Body is a pair of legs, a pair of arms, a trunk and a
head, all made of flesh. Or not, as the case may be.

What is Society in Utopia? Society is a never-finished tapestry, its weavers equal
to its threads – the parts and patterns an inexhaustible bourne of beauty.

What is Death in Utopia? Death is the darkness that ultimately surrounds all
life.

What is Guilt in Utopia? Guilt is our knowledge that we could have created
Utopia sooner.

*

We love life here every instant. Every second is so good that it would blow
our minds had their amperage not been previously increased. My
contemporaries and I bear witness, and we request your aid. Please, help us
come into existence! Please, join us! Whether this tremendous possibility
becomes reality depends on your actions. If your empathy can perceive at
least the outlines of the vision I am describing, then your ingenuity will find a
way to make it real.

Human life, at its best, is fantastic. I’m asking you to create something even
greater. Life that is truly humane.

Yours sincerely,
Your Possible Future Self


See also a musicalized video rendition of this piece by Mario Montano: Letter From Utopia


Analysis

Nick Bostrom is a prominent transhumanist philosopher and academic who works at Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute. An incredibly prolific writer, Nick has a very wide and comprehensive worldview. I find his work extremely valuable and worth diving into. Letter From Utopia is one of my favorite works of his, as it encompasses what David Pearce called “The Three Supers of Transhumanism“: Super-Intelligence, Super-Longevity, and Super-Happiness (cf. Triple-S Genetic Counseling). Bostrom also has other amazing stories and essays (such as The Fable of the Dragon-Tyrant, cf. story video rendition by CGP Grey: video), but Letter From Utopia takes the cake for not leaving behind anything of crucial importance.

Alas, despite Bostrom’s far-reaching contributions, many argue that Nick’s most important impact has been in the field of AI Alignment (cf. Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies). In 2009 AI safety research was perceived to be a fringe concern of sci-fi aficionados and weirdos. Today, partly thanks to Bostrom (along with Yudkowsky, Chalmers, and others), many top journals publish serious work in this area.

I worry that this is not as good as it may seem. Nick Bostrom’s name is first and foremost associated with AI safety, followed by the Simulation Argument and Existential Risk, and only later by his extensive work on all other areas of transhumanism. For example, if you search Youtube for his name, you will see that of the top 20 results, 15 concern AI safety/digital superintelligence. Of the remaining 5, 3 are about the Simulation Argument, 1 is about agnosticism, and 1 is CGP Grey’s Dragon-Tyrant video. Where are the Triple-S videos?

nick_bostrom_top_results

I remembered that I encountered the work of both David and Nick when I was 16, googling terms like consciousness, AI, psychedelics, and far future. I was drawn to both of them, though I particularly liked David’s focus on ending suffering as a priority and his acknowledgment of the scientific significance of altered states of consciousness. I thought that their work was complementary rather than redundant. Alas, Bostrom is far more well known than Pearce, perhaps due to his success as both a fringe philosopher and a mainstream academic. In contrast, David dropped out of Oxford out of frustration with the academic community; the analytic philosophy of the time was not empirical, and it focused on language use rather than real philosophical questions, including the nature of suffering, psychedelics, and physical causality (e.g. “Philosophy may in no way interfere with the actual use of language, it can in the end only describe it. For it cannot give it any foundation either. It leaves everything as it is. It also leaves mathematics as it is, and no mathematical discovery can advance it.” – Wittgenstein). Bostrom, unlike Pearce, has the blessing of Ra, the God of optionality, superlativity, status legibility, and groundless prestige. And yet, it was David’s conversation with Nick that gave rise to the creation of the World Transhumanist Association, and provided one of the most important memetic Schelling points of the early 2000s. Alas, David is not focused on AI Safety. Why?

People in the transhumanist community accuse David of not getting it. David, after all, is not a mathematician, computer scientist, or physicist; he is merely a philosopher. I must confess that the very first time I met David Pearce in person I got the sense that (1) he was an incredibly well-read and creative genius in most areas of philosophy, and yet (2) naïve and unenlightened in the field of AI. As a fan of his work, and having co-founded the Stanford Transhumanist Association a couple of months earlier, I thought to invite him to give a talk at Stanford (see: David Pearce at Stanford – 2011).

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David Pearce and the officers of the Stanford Transhumanist Association (December 1st 2011) at Palo Alto’s Chinese Vegan restaurant Garden Fresh, before David’s talk.

We had a lively conversation while eating dinner at a Chinese vegan restaurant before the event along with other members of the Association. I recall that he checked all of the right boxes when it came to personal identity (Open/Empty Individualism), ethics (consequentialism), physics (Everettian multiverse), psychedelia (they disclose new varieties of qualia), evolution (modern synthesis; selfish gene), social signaling theory (Mating Mind and sexual selection theory), and more (see his Reddit AMA). And yet, how could he dare to say that a digital computer would never be conscious? Meeting a brilliant thinker who had a better grasp of my favorite topics than I did and yet would try to hit on one of my core load-bearing beliefs was uncomfortable and unexpected. I dismissed his take on AI as that of a fuzzy thinker (at least in this area); I reassured myself by recalling that it was me who was studying AI academically at a top US institution and not him. Little did I know that over the next few years, and after hanging out with him in person for over 20 cumulative hours, he would finally change my mind- and worldview- concerning this whole field. If it wasn’t for him, I suspect I would have jumped on the bandwagon of AI-as-the-top-priority (cf. Altruists Should Prioritize Artificial Intelligence). Thankfully, I was already extremely interested in consciousness and didn’t have it in me to dismiss it. Additionally, my interest in personal identity reduced my (relative) interest in longevity research (at least as the top priority), for if we are all one consciousness, dying is more akin to forgetting a timeline than a true ontological death. The instrumental value of intelligence, however, ought not to be taken for granted, which is why I now advocate for a twin approach of improving subjective wellbeing while retaining critical insight. Figuring out that consciousness required more than digital computation utterly transformed my approach to transhumanism, and I largely credit this change to my conversations with David.

 

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Later on I met Mike Johnson, Romeo Stevens, and a number of other top thinkers in the field of consciousness who could both understand the genuine problems consciousness poses and at the same time grasp the broader transhumanist meme-plex, transcend it, and include it (cf. Why I think the Foundational Research Institute should rethink its approach). Thus we founded the Qualia Research Institute, in order to bring a new full-stack meme-plex where consciousness – and valence – are front and center. Alas, we have experienced some resistance…

AI safety is sexy. If you are a smart, industrious, open-minded, and systematizing undergraduate, studying AI gives you access to a wide circle of really fun people to hang out in. It also signals intelligence, sober-mindedness, and stoicism. It gives you both an in into smart cool kid circles, and a profitable career in Silicon Valley. It allows you to straddle the world of normies and cutting-edge thinkers.

But, crucially, you have to consider the opportunity cost that comes from directing such a large fraction of hyper-intelligent young altruistic systematizers to this problem. The field is plagued with misconceptions about pleasure and value; Eliezer Yudkowsky’s Fun Theory suffers from the severe delusion that value comes from the intentional object of experience, rather than from its phenomenal character. Brian Tomasik’s (admittedly tongue-in-cheek) People for the Ethical Treatment of Reinforcement Learners is seemingly unaware of the fact that neuroscience has found that pleasure/suffering and reinforcement learning are doubly dissociated. Pleasure is not reinforcement, and until you grasp this, your ethical models will output nonsense.

Tongue-in-cheek, perhaps AI risk is a real threat. Not because of the usual reasons, but because it siphons out top brain power into a relatively sterile field, leaving vast amounts of unclaimed marginal value in the fields of rejuvenation research and valence technologies by the wayside.

In light of all of this, I would want to advocate for the reinvigoration of the broader transhumanist meme-plex, now updated with a post-Galilean understanding of consciousness. Writers, animators, Youtubers, and philosophers ought to collaborate in creating more balanced Triple-S Transhumanist outreach in the form of widely consumable media. This, I think, is the path forward.

Cause X – What Will the New Shiny Effective Altruist Cause Be?

The Qualia Research Institute hosted an interesting event a couple of weeks ago. Here is how the event was advertised:

Description

Event NameQRI & Friends: “Cause X” – what will the new shiny EA cause be?
Time: Saturday, January 19, 2019 at 4 PM – 1 AM
Description: This event will consist of 4-minute presentations from attendees about what the “new EA cause area should be” (from 4pm to 6pm) followed by a casual and chill hangout for the rest of the evening.
There are 10 slots for the presentations, and we encourage you to sign up for one before they run out. If you want to give a presentation please fill out this form: [deleted link]
If you want to see people’s presentations please show up before 4:15pm (we will start the presentations at 4:30 sharp). Each participant will be given 4 minutes to present and 1 minute for Q&A. We will be strict on time. You should come prepared to defend your cause with logic, data, etc.
Everyone who sees the presentations will get to vote* at the end for the following three categories:
  1. Most likely to prevent as much suffering as possible with 1 million dollars of funding
  2. Most fun to think about
  3. Most likely to be the plan of a super-villain
There will be real prizes for each of these three categories!!!**
If you just want to come and hang out for the evening please show up from 6:30pm onwards. Vegetarian/vegan food and drinks will be served at around 7:30pm. Feel free to bring vegan/vegetarian food/drinks too.
As usual, feel free to invite people who are curious about consciousness and EA (but please let me know in advance so I can make a head-count for the event).

*Voting was carried out with Approval Voting (where every person can vote for as many presentations as they want and the ones with the highest number of votes win). This was chosen based on the assumption that some presentations might be similar, which would lead to an unfair penalty on similar presentations based on the spoiler effect. Additionally, voters who are undecided between more than one presentation can communicate their uncertainty via this type of voting rather than having that useful information be discarded.
**Prizes were announced the day of the event. For category (1) the prizes were “a fully-equipped first-aid kit plus a 16-bottle essential oils kit”. The winner of category (2) received a prize consisting of “a 3D Mirascope and an Ivy Cube“. And category (3) had as its prize an “Apollo Tools 39 piece general tool set (DT9706)“. These prizes were, of course, highly symbolic of their respective categories.

Winners

With the permission of the participants, here is what each of the winners presented:

For (1) two presenters tied in first place:

– Natália Mendonça presented about “Using smartphones to improve well-being measures in order to aid cause prioritization research” (link to presentation). She argued that the experience sampling paradigms that made waves in the 2000s and early 2010s happened at a time when relatively few people had smartphones. Since today smartphone adoption in developing countries has exploded we could use an experience sampling app to determine the major causes of suffering throughout the world in a way that wasn’t possible before. She specifically mentioned “comparing how bad different illnesses feel” in order to help us guide policy decision for cause prioritization.
– An anonymous attendee presented about “Psychedelic Drug Decriminalization“. Some of the core ideas involved taking a look at the effect sizes of the benefits of MDMA, LSD, psilocybin, etc. on various mental illnesses and comparing them against current alternatives. Also looking at the potential downsides they estimated that these only account for about 10% of the benefit, so cost-benefit wise it is very positive. They didn’t cover the entire presentation due to time – more details and a contact email can be found at https://enthea.net.

For (2) the winner was:

– Matthew Barnet who presented about “Timeloop Concept as Cause X” (link – slides don’t have much content; they were used just to keep the presentation on track). Matthew looked at the recent Qualia Computing article about the “Pseudo-Time Arrow” and wondered whether the importance of agents from an ethical point of view should be weighted at least in part based on their subjective time-structure. It’s true that 99% of experiences are experienced as having a linear causal time arrow, but this is not the case for the general space of possible experiences (e.g. including “moments of eternity”, “time loops”, “atemporal states”, etc. common on altered states of consciousness). He posited that perhaps time loop experiences have a much bigger moral importance because from the inside it feels like they never end. A discussion about infinite ethics and the quantification of consciousness ensued.

For (3) the winner was:

– Yev Barkalov, who proposed that rather than trying to endlessly battle in favor of digital privacy… how about we “just give up” and instead refocus the absence of digital privacy for social good. He mentioned China’s social credit score as a possible bad implementation of what he had in mind (“they have poisoned the well of the no-privacy camp by doing it so poorly”). Part of his argument was that technologies such as adblockers, crypto tokens, and the dark net further arms races in which advertisers, financial institutions, and governments become more clever at displaying ads, making you sign up for credit cards, and forcing citizens to abide by the law. Since arms races are dangerous and may lead to draconian systems while also being a waste of resources (due to their zero-sum nature), he suggested that we at least consider the alternative of seeing how a privacy-less world could work in practice. He posited that this could allow people to find quality collaborators more easily thanks to enhanced “people search” capabilities made available to the general population.

For completeness, the remaining presentations included:
Open Individualism as a new foundation for ethics
– Collective internet identities to replace countries
– The researching of possible Cause Xs as itself Cause X
– Automatic Truth Discovery neo-Wikipedia: like the current Wikipedia but with meta-analytic tools embedded into it, which provide confidence intervals for each claim based on the statistical robustness of the empirical findings that support it. And…
– A critique of utilitarianism that was more of a rant than a specific proposal (???)

Finally, I would like to add here some additional possible Causes X that I have thought about. These did not participate in the event because the organizers were not allowed to present (due to fairness and also because I didn’t want to “win a prize” that I bought myself):

  1. Subsidizing/sponsoring the use of HEPA filters in every house
  2. Distributing DMT vape pens that dispense in 4mg doses to deal with unexpected cluster headaches (this deserves an article of its own; cf. “Hell Must Be Destroyed“)
  3. Building a model that takes in genetic data and returns hedonic set point (and/or tells you which recreational drugs you are most likely to respond positively to).

In brief, (1) above might be a highly effective way of improving the health-span of a country’s population in a cost-effective fashion. As Robin Hanson has argued over the years, if we truly cared about the health of people, we would be spending more resources on the top 4 drivers of health (diet, exercise, sleep, and clean air) rather than on extravagant medical interventions designed to convince us that “an attempt was made.” Clean air, in particular, seems easy to influence at a rather minimal cost. HEPA filters capable of providing clean air to entire apartments (reducing by 10X the PM2.5 concentrations in the apartment) can cost as little as $70, with an upkeep of about $30 a year for renewing filters, and about $20 a year for electricity. Fermi calculation would indicate this would cut the average person’s daily PM2.5 exposure by half. I haven’t worked out the math concerning the amount of micromorts prevented per dollar this way, but the numbers seem extremely promising.

For (2) the rationale is that inhaling tiny doses of DMT aborts a cluster headache within about 3 seconds. Given the fact that about 0.1% of people will suffer from a cluster headache at least once in their lifetimes, and the fact that they are considered one of the most painful experiences possible, having a DMT vape pen within reach at all times as an insurance against spontaneous hellish levels of pain might be perfectly justified. A dedicated article about this specific topic will be posted soon.

And finally, (3) was recently argued in a Qualia Computing article: Triple S Genetic Counseling: Predicting Hedonic-Set Point with Commercial-Grade DNA Testing as an Effective Altruist Project. This may very well be a defensible Cause X on the basis that building such a model is already possible with the data available to commercial DNA testing companies like 23andMe, and that it might course-correct the reproductive strategy of millions of prospective parents within a few years, preventing untold amounts of suffering at a relatively small cost.

Triple S Genetic Counseling: Predicting Hedonic-Set Point with Commercial-Grade DNA Testing as an Effective Altruist Project

The term “Transhumanism” has many senses. It is a social movement, a philosophy, a set of technologies, and a conceptual rallying flag. David Pearce pins down the core sentiment behind the term like this:

If we get things right, the future of life in the universe can be wonderful beyond the bounds of human imagination: a “triple S” civilisation of superlongevity, superintelligence and superhappiness.

– David Pearce, in The 3 Supers

The concept of a “triple S” civilization is very widely applicable. For example, one can imagine future smart homes designed with it in mind. Such smart homes would have features to increase your longevity (HEPA filters, humidity control, mold detectors, etc.), increase your intelligence (adaptive noise-canceling, optimal lighting, smart foods), and happiness (mood-congruent lighting, music, aromas, etc.). Since there are trade-offs between these dimensions, one could specify how much one values each of them in advance, and the smart home would be tasked with maximizing a utility function based on a weighted average between the three S’s.

Likewise, one could apply the “triple S” concept to medical care, lifestyle choices, career development, governance, education, etc. In particular, one could argue that a key driver for the realization of a triple S civilization would be what I’d like to call “triple S genetic counseling.” In brief, this is counseling for prospective parents in order to minimize the risks of harming one’s children by being oblivious to the possible genetic risk for having a reduced longevity, intelligence, or happiness. Likewise, in the more forward-looking transhumanist side of the equation, triple S genetic counseling would allow parents to load the genetic dice in their kid’s favor in order to make them as happy, long-lived, and smart as possible.

Genetic counseling, as an industry, is indeed about to explode (cf. Nature’s recent article: Prospective parents should be prepared for a surge in genetic data). Predictably, there will be a significant fraction of society that will question the ethics of e.g. preimplantation genetic diagnosis for psychological traits. In practice, parents who are able to afford it will power ahead, for few prospective parents truly don’t care about the (probabilistic) well-being of their future offspring. My personal worry is not so much that this won’t happen, but that the emphasis will be narrow and misguided. In particular, both predicting health and intelligence based on sequenced genomes are very active areas of research. I worry that happiness will be (relatively) neglected. Hence the importance of emphasizing all three S’s.

In truth, I think that predicting the hedonic set-point of one’s potential future kids (i.e. the average level of genetically-determined happiness) is a relatively more important project than predicting IQ (cf. A genome-wide association study for extremely high intelligenceBGI). In addition, I anticipate that genetic-based models that predict a person’s hedonic set-point will be much more accurate than those that predict IQ. As it turns out, IQ is extremely polygenetic, with predictors diffused across the entire genome, and it is a very evolutionary recent axis of variance across the population. Predictors of hedonic-set point (such as the “pain-knob gene” SCN9A and it’s variants), on the other hand, are ancient and evolutionarily preserved across the phylogenetic tree. This makes baseline happiness a likely candidate for having a straight-forward universal physiological implementation throughout the human population. Hence my prediction that polygenetic scores of hedonic-set point will be much more precise than those for IQ (or even longevity).

Given all of the above, I would posit that a great place to start would be to develop a model that predicts hedonic set-point using all of the relevant SNPs offered by 23andMe*.  Not only would this be “low-hanging fruit” in the field of genetic counseling, it may also be a project that is way up there, close to the top of the “to do” list in Effective Altruism (cf. Cause X; Google Hedonics).

I thought about this because I saw that 23andMe reports on health predispositions based on single SNPs. From a utilitarian point of view, of particular interest are SNPs related to the SCN9A gene. For example, I found that 23andMe has the rs6746030 SNP, which some studies show can account for a percentage of the variance associated with pain in Parkinson’s and other degenerative diseases. The allele combination A/A is bad, making you more prone to experience pain intensely. This is just one SNP, though, and there ought to be a lot of other relevant SNPs, not only of the SCN9A gene but elsewhere too (e.g. involved in MAO enzymes, neuroplasticity, and pleasure centers innervation).

Concretely, the task would involve making two models and then combining them:

The first model uses people’s responses to 23andMe surveys to come up with a good estimate of a person’s hedonic set-point. Looking at some of the questions they ask, I would argue that there are more than enough dimensions to model how people vary in their hedonic set-point. They ask about things such as perception of pain, perception of spiciness, difficulty sleeping, stress levels, whether exercise is pleasant, etc. From a data science point of view, the challenge here is that number of responses provided by each participant is very variable; some power users respond to every question (and there are hundreds and hundreds), while most people respond to a few questions only, and a substantial minority respond to no questions at all. Most likely, the distribution of responses per participant follows a power law. So the model to build here has to be resilient against absent data. This is not an insurmountable problem, though, considering the existence of Bayesian Networks, PGMs, and statistical paradigms like Item Response Theory. For this reason, the model would need to both predict the most likely hedonic set-point of each participant, and provide confidence intervals specific to the participant based on the quality and relevance of the questions answered.

The second model would involve clustering and dimensionality reduction applied to the SNPs that are likely to be relevant for hedonic set-point. For example, one dimension would likely be a cluster of SNPs that are associated with “maximum intensity of pain”, another might be “how quickly pain subsides once it’s stimulated”, another “how much does pleasure counter-balance pain”, and so on. Each of these dimensions is likely to be determined by different neural circuits, and interact in non-linear ways, so they deserve their own separate dimension.

And finally, one would make a third model that combines the two models above, which predicts the hedonic set-point of a person derived from the first model using the genetic dimensions found by the second model. If you are an up-and-coming geneticist, I would like to nudge you in the direction of looking into this. As a side effect, you might as well get filthy rich in the process, as the genetic counseling field explodes in the next decade.


Bonus Content: What About Us?

Admittedly, many people will note that predicting a fraction of the variance of people’s hedonic set point with commercial DNA testing products will only really alleviate suffering in the medium to long term. The people who will benefit from this technology haven’t been born yet. In the meantime, what do we do about the people who currently have low hedonic set-points? Here is a creative, politically incorrect, and enticing idea:

Let’s predict which recreational drugs have the best cost-benefit profile for individuals based on their genetic makeup.

It is no secret that people react differently to drugs. 23andMe, among others, is currently doing research to predict your particular reaction to a drug based on your genetic makeup (cf. 23andMe can now tell you how you’ll react to 50+ common drugs). Unfortunately for people with anxiety, depression, chronic pain, and other hedonic tone illnesses, most psychiatric drugs are rather subtle and relatively ineffective. No wonder, compared to heroin, an SSRI is not likely to make you feel particularly great. As David Pearce argued in his essay Future Opioids, there is substantial evidence that many people who become addicts are driven to take recreational substances due to the fact that their endogenous opioid system is dysfunctional (e.g. they may have bad variants of opioid receptors, too many endorphin-degrading enzymes, etc.). The problem with giving people hard drugs is not that they don’t work in the short term; it is that they tend to backfire in the long-term and have cumulative negative health effects. As an aside, from the pharmaceutical angle, my main interest is the development of Anti-tolerance Drugs, which would allow hard drugs to work as mood-enhancers indefinitely.

This is not to say that there aren’t lucky people for whom the cost-benefit ratio of taking hard drugs is, in fact, rather beneficial. In what admittedly must have been a tongue-in-cheek marketing move, in the year 2010 the genetic interpretation company Knome (now part of Tute Genomics) studied Ozzy Osbourne‘s entire genome in order to determine how on earth he has been able to stay alive despite the gobs and gobs of drugs he’s taken throughout his life. Ozzy himself:

“I was curious, [g]iven the swimming pools of booze I’ve guzzled over the years—not to mention all of the cocaine, morphine, sleeping pills, cough syrup, LSD, Rohypnol…you name it—there’s really no plausible medical reason why I should still be alive. Maybe my DNA could say why.”

Ozzy Osbourne’s Genome (Scientific American, 2010)

Tentatively, Knome scientists said, Ozzy’s capacity to drink entire bottles of Whisky and Gin combined with bowlfuls of cocaine and multiple packs of cigarettes over the course of… breakfast… without ending up in the hospital may be due to novel mutations in his alcohol dehydrogenase gene (ADH4), as well as, potentially, the gene that codes for CLTCL1, a protein responsible for the intake of extra-cellular material into the cell’s inside. These are wild speculations, to be clear, but the general idea is brilliant.

Indeed, not everyone reacts in the same way to recreational drugs. A recent massive study on the health effects of alcohol funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (cf. No amount of alcohol is good for your overall health) suggests that alcohol is bad for one’s health at every dosage. This goes against the common wisdom backed up with numerous studies that light-drinkers (~1 alcohol unit a day) live longer and healthier lives than teetotalers. The new study suggests that this is not a causal effect of alcohol. Rather, it so happens that a large fraction of teetotalers are precisely the kind of people who react very badly to alcohol as a matter of poor metabolism. Hence, teetotalers are not unhealthy because they avoid alcohol; they avoid alcohol because they are unhealthy, which explains their shorter life expectancy on average. That said, the study did show that 1 alcohol unit a day is, although damaging, very minimally so:

Anyhow, the world’s cultural fascination with alcohol is bizarre to me, considering the existence of drugs that have a much better hedonic and cost-benefit profile (cf. State-Space of Drug Effects). Perhaps finding out with genetic testing that you are likely to be an above-average alcohol metabolizer might be good to lessen your worry about having a couple of drinks now and then. But the much bigger opportunity here would be to allow you to find drugs that you are particularly compatible with. For example, a genetic test might determine based on a polygenetic score that you might benefit a whole lot from taking small amounts of e.g. Khat  (or some such obscure and relatively benign euphoriant). That is, that your genetic make-up is such that Khat will be motivation enhancing, empathy-increasing, good for your heart and lungs, reduce the rate of dopamine neuron death, etc. while at the same time producing little to no hangovers, no irritability, no sleep issues, or social dysfunction. Even though you may have thought that you are “not an uppers person”, perhaps that’s because, genetically, every other upper you have ever tried is objectively terrible for your health. But Khat wouldn’t be. Wouldn’t this information be useful? Indeed, I would posit, this might be a great step in the right direction in order to achieve the goal of  Wireheading Done Right.


*23andMe is here used as a shorthand for services in general like this (including Ancestry, Counsyl, Natera, etc.)

Featured image credit: source.

What is Love? Neural Annealing in the Presence of an Intentional Object

Excerpt from: The Neuroscience of Meditation: Four Models by Michael E. Johnson


Neural annealing: Annealing involves heating a metal above its recrystallization temperature, keeping it there for long enough for the microstructure of the metal to reach equilibrium, then slowly cooling it down, letting new patterns crystallize. This releases the internal stresses of the material, and is often used to restore ductility (plasticity and toughness) on metals that have been ‘cold-worked’ and have become very hard and brittle— in a sense, annealing is a ‘reset switch’ which allows metals to go back to a more pristine, natural state after being bent or stressed. I suspect this is a useful metaphor for brains, in that they can become hard and brittle over time with a build-up of internal stresses, and these stresses can be released by periodically entering high-energy states where a more natural neural microstructure can reemerge.

Furthermore, from what I gather from experienced meditators, successfully entering meditative flow may be one of the most reliable ways to reach these high-energy brain states. I.e., it’s very common for meditation to produce feelings of high intensity, at least in people able to actually enter meditative flow.* Meditation also produces more ‘pure’ or ‘neutral’ high-energy states, ones that are free of the intentional content usually associated with intense experiences which may distort or limit the scope of the annealing process. So we can think of intermediate-to-advanced (‘successful flow-state’) meditation as a reheating process, whereby the brain enters a more plastic and neutral state, releases pent-up structural stresses, and recrystallizes into a more balanced, neutral configuration as it cools. Iterated many times, this will drive an evolutionary process and will produce a very different brain, one which is more unified & anti-fragile, less distorted toward intentionality, and in general structurally optimized against stress.

An open question is how or why meditation produces high-energy brain states. There isn’t any consensus on this, but I’d offer with a nod to the predictive coding framework that bottom-up sense-data is generally excitatory, adding energy to the system, whereas top-down predictive Bayesian models are generally inhibitory, functioning as ‘energy sinks’. And so by ‘noting and knowing’ our sensations before our top-down models activate, in a sense we’re diverting the ‘energy’ of our sensations away from its usual counterbalancing force. If we do this long enough and skillfully enough, this energy can build up and lead to ‘entropic disintegration’, the prerequisite for annealing. (Thanks to Andrés for discussion here)

If this model is true, it feels very important for optimizing a meditation practice. E.g., we should try to figure out some rules of thumb for:

  • How to identify a high-energy brain state, in yourself and others, and how best to create them;
  • Things to do, and things not to do, during an annealing process (‘how to anneal the right things’);
  • Identifying tradeoffs in ‘cooling’ the brain quickly vs slowly.

Off the top of my head, I’d suggest that one of the worst things you could do after entering a high-energy brain state would be to fill your environment with distractions (e.g., watching TV, inane smalltalk, or other ‘low-quality patterns’). Likewise, it seems crucial to avoid socially toxic or otherwise highly stressful conditions. Most likely, going to sleep as soon as possible without breaking flow would be a good strategy to get the most out of a high-energy state. Avoiding strong negative emotions during such states seems important, as does managing your associations (psychedelics are another way to reach these high-energy states, and people have noticed there’s an ‘imprinting’ process where the things you think about and feel while high can leave durable imprints on how you feel after the trip). Finally, perhaps taking certain nootropics could help strengthen (or weaken) the magnitude of this annealing process.

Finally, to speculate a little about one of the deep mysteries of life, perhaps we can describe love as the result of a strong annealing process while under the influence of some pattern. I.e., evolution has primed us such that certain intentional objects (e.g. romantic partners) can trigger high-energy states where the brain smooths out its discontinuities/dissonances, such that given the presence of that pattern our brains are in harmony.[3] This is obviously a two-edged sword: on one hand it heals and renews our ‘cold-worked’ brain circuits and unifies our minds, but also makes us dependent: the felt-sense of this intentional object becomes the key which unlocks this state. (I believe we can also anneal to archetypes instead of specific people.)

Annealing can produce durable patterns, but isn’t permanent; over time, discontinuities creep back in as the system gets ‘cold-worked’. To stay in love over the long-term, a couple will need to re-anneal in the felt-presence of each other on a regular basis.[4] From my experience, some people have a natural psychological drive toward reflexive stability here: they see their partner as the source of goodness in their lives, so naturally they work hard to keep their mind aligned on valuing them. (It’s circular, but it works.) Whereas others are more self-reliant, exploratory, and restless, less prone toward these self-stable loops or annealing around external intentional objects in general. Whether or not, and within which precise contexts, someone’s annealing habits fall into this ‘reflexive stability attractor’ might explain much about e.g. attachment style, hedonic strategy, and aesthetic trajectory.

Links: Annealing (metallurgy)The entropic brain

[3] Anecdotally, the phenomenology of love-annealing is the object ‘feels beautiful from all angles’. This may imply that things (ideas, patterns, people) which are more internally coherent & invariant across contexts can produce stronger annealing effects — i.e. these things are more easy to fall deeply in love with given the same ‘annealing budget’, and this love is more durable.

[4] It’s important to note that both intense positive and intense negative experiences can push the brain into high-energy states; repeated annealing to negative emotions may serve many of the same functions as ‘positive annealing’, but also predispose brains to ‘sing in a minor key’ (see ‘kindling’).


Related Work: Algorithmic Reduction of Psychedelic States, Principia Qualia: Part II – Valence, and Ecstasy and Honesty


Image credit: Fabián Jiménez