Is the Hedonistic Imperative equivalent to wire-heading?
People are often concerned about the future being a cyber-puink dystopia where people are hard wired into pleasure centers like smacked out like lotus eating milk-sops devoid of meaningful existence. Does David Pearce’s Hedonistic Imperative entail a future where we are all in thrall to permanent experiential orgasms – intravenously hotwired into our pleasure centers via some kind of soma like drug turning us into blissful-idiots?
Adam Ford: I think some people often conflate or distill the Hedonistic Imperative to mean ‘wireheading’ – what do you (think)?
David Pearce: Yes, I mean, clearly if one does argue that were going to phase out the biology of suffering and live out lives of perpetual bliss then it’s very natural to assimilate this to something like ‘wireheading’ – but for all sorts of reasons I don’t think wireheading (i.e. intercrainial self-stimulation of the reward centers and it’s pharmacological equivalent) is a plausible scenario for our future. Not least there will presumably always be selection pressure against wireheading – wireheads do not want to have baby wireheads and raise wirehead children.
I think a much more credible scenario is the idea that were going to re-calibrate the hedonic treadmill and allow ourselves and our future children to enjoy lives based on gradients of intelligent bliss. And one of the advantages of re-calibration rather than straight forward hedonic maximization is that by urging recalibration one isn’t telling people they ought to be giving up their existing preferences or values is that if your hedonic set-point (i.e. your average state of wellbeing) is much higher than it is now your quality of life will really be much higher – but it doesn’t involve any sacrifice of the values you hold most dear.
As a rather simplistic way of putting it – clearly where one lies basically on the hedonic axis will impose serious cognitive biases (i.e. someone who is let’s say depressive or prone to low mood) at least will have a very different set of biases from someone who is naturally cheerful. But none-the-less it doesn’t entail, so long as we aim for a motivational architecture of gradients of bliss, it doesn’t entail giving up anything you want to hold onto. I think that’s really important because a lot of people will be worried that somehow that if, yes, we do enter into some kind of secular paradise – it will involve giving up their normal relationships, their ordinary values and what they hold most dear. Re-calibration does not entail this (wireheading).
Adam Ford: That’s interesting – people think that you know as soon as you turn on the Hedonistic Imperative you are destined for a very narrow set of values – that could be just one peek experience being replayed over and over again – in some narrow local maximum.
David Pearce: Yes – I suppose one thinks of (kind of) crazed wirehead rats – in fairness, if one does imagine orgasmic bliss most people don’t complain that their orgasms are too long (and I’m not convinced that there is something desperately wrong with orgasmic bliss that lasts weeks, months, years or even centuries) but one needs to examine the wider sociological picture – and ask ‘is it really sustainable for us to become blissed out as distinct form blissful’.
Adam Ford: Right – and by blissed out you mean something like the lotus eaters found in Odysseus?
David Pearce: Yes, I mean clearly it is one version of paradise and bliss – they call it meditative tranquility (not doing anything) – but there are other versions of bliss in which one is hyper-motivated. It seems that, crudely speaking, motivation (which is mediated by the meso-limbic dopamene system) and raw bliss (which is associated with mu-opiod activation of our twin hedonic-hotspots) – the axis are orthogonal. Now they’re very closely interrelated (thanks to natural selection) – but in principle we can amplify one or damp down the other. Empirically, at any rate it seems to be the case today that the happiest people are also the most motivated – they have the greatest desires – I mean, this runs counter to the old buddhist notion that desire is suffering – but if you actually look at people who are depressive or chronically depressed quite frequently they have an absence of desire or motivation. But the point is we should be free to choose – yes it is potentially hugely liberatery – this control over our reward architecture, our pleasure circuitry that biotechnology offers – but let’s get things right. We don’t want to mess things up and produce the equivalent of large numbers of people on Heroin – and this is why I so strenuously urge the case for re-calibration – in the long run genetically, in the short run by various no-recreational drugs.
Adam Ford: Ok… People may be worried that re-calibrating someone is akin to disrupting the continuum of self (or this enduring metaphysical ego) – so the person at the other end wouldn’t be really a continuation of the person at the beginning. What do you think? How would you respond to that sort of criticism?
David Pearce: It depends how strict ones conception of what personal identity is. Now, would you be worried if to learn tomorrow that you had won the national lottery (for example)? It would transform your lifestyle, your circle of friends – would this trigger the anxiety that the person who was living the existence of a multi-millionaire wasn’t really you? Well perhaps you should perhaps you should be worried about this – but on the whole most people would be relatively relaxed at the prospect. I would see this more as akin to a small child growing up – yes in one sense as one becomes a mature adult one has killed the toddler or lost the essence of what it was to be a toddler – but only in a very benign sense. And by aiming for re-calibration and hedonic enrichment rather than maximization, there is much less of a risk of loosing anything that you think is really valuable or important.
Adam Ford: Okay – well that’s interesting – we’ll talk about value. In order to not loose forms of value – even if you don’t use it (the values) much – you might have some values that you leave up in the attic to gather dust – like toys that you don’t play with anymore – but you might want to pick up once in a thousand years or what not. How do you then preserve complexity of value while also achieving high hedonic states – do you think they can go hand in hand? Or do you think preserving complexity of value reduces the likelihood that you will be able to achieve optimal hedonic states?
David Pearce: As an empirical matter – and I stress empirical here – it seems to be the case that the happiest are responsive to the broadest possible range of rewarding stimuli – it tends to be depressives who get stuck in a rut. So other things being equal – by re-calibrating ourselves, becoming happy and then superhappy – we can potentially at any rate, yes, enrich the complexity of our lives with a range of rewarding stimuli – it makes getting stuck in a rut less likely both for the individual and for civilization as a whole.
I think one of the reasons we are afraid of some kind of loss of complexity is that the idea of heaven – including in traditional christian heaven – it can sound a bit monotonous, and for happy people at least one of the experiences they find most unpleasant is boredom. But essentially it should be a matter of choice – yes, someone who is very happy to, let’s say, listen to a piece of music or contemplate or art, should be free to do so, and not forced into leading a very complex or complicated life – but equally folk who want to do a diverse range of things – well that’s feasible too.
– video/audio interview continues on past 10:00