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Is Futurama the Best Argument Against Transhumanism?

February 08, 2013

While not an exact illustration of transhumanism, Futurama does show a future of vast technological ability, where today’s everyday problems are rendered moot, and yet the characters on the show still seem to find themselves in some very non-euphoric emotional states. Does this disprove what transhumanists expect for our future?  Do transhumanists underestimate the hedonic treadmill’s effect, that we will all get used to improvements as soon as we make them?


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Posted by Christian Corralejo  on  02/08  at  11:35 PM

If only more transhumanists listened to stuff like this.

Posted by Taiwanlight  on  02/09  at  02:48 AM

I think transhumanists (some of them anyway) argue that the hedonic treadmill point in each human will be able to be adjusted so that at the very least people like myself who have a rather low hedonic point can have it elevated. Thus, if suffering cannot be completely done away with, it may be significantly ameliorated at least.

The very notion of the hedonic treadmill has only been realized in the last few decades because of the development of positive psychology. Before that it was assumed that as people's lives got easier, they would become happier. Now that we know it isn't so, perhaps we can do something about it.

Another point is that much of our happiness depends upon our relationships with other people. It has been suggested that over the last 50 years as communities have broken up under the demands of modern life this has been the main reason for the increase in depression and unhappiness over the same period.

Incidentally the same thing has been noted in Taiwan over the last thirty years as the island has industrialized (as it happens, recently two of my students told me how happy they had been as children living on farms in the countryside compared with now working as engineers in a Taipei office).

Of course the same can also be true in reverse - Sartre wrote 'Hell is other people' over 70 years ago (and he had experience of Nazi occupation).

Sustainable technological development is important but we must try not to throw out babies with the bathwater.

Posted by Christian Corralejo  on  02/09  at  11:01 AM

"Now that we know it isn't so, perhaps we can do something about it."

Do you have any suggestions?

Posted by Taiwanlight  on  02/11  at  02:36 PM

It's an enormous subject, typified by just this one article in Wikipedia on one subject: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Positive_psychology. As mentioned in this article, philosophers having been discussing the idea of happiness for millennia.

Nevertheless especially with the development of positive psychology, a few things are becoming clearer.

1. There seems to be a definite effect from the loss of community and social networks as I mentioned above. So one obvious strategy is for societies (especially in the more developed countries where the process of industrialization and extreme individuality has gone furthest) to attempt to reverse this process as much as they can.

For example now with new technologies, it may be easier for people to stay in or near to the area where they grew up with relatives and friends they know and not have to travel so far away. I know not everyone relishes this but it seems there are a lot of people whose state of mind would greatly improve if this were possible.

It may also happen that if AI and robotization leads to serious and permanent unemployment, and assuming that the Basic Income Guarantee comes into force people can (if they wish) stay where they were born anyway. Of course if people are unemployed with no (or very low) income this is going to lead to great unhappiness.

The other hope would be that people who still have to move can more easily keep in touch with friends and indeed find them again with such sites as 'Friends Reunited and of course make new ones with social network sites. In my case I keep easily in touch with my daughter in Ireland which would have been a lot more difficult in the pre-internet age.

2. Martin Seligman, considered the father of positive psychology, has emphasized the importance of the bond between parents and children. I'm entering a minefield here but he claims that research has shown that divorce has a very bad effect on children. More controversially, he says that even if the marriage is a bad one it is still better for the child for the parents to stay together than break up - at least until he or she is about 14.

In my case I did just that, hanging on until my daughter was 16 and although my ex-wife appears to be a vicious (verbally) schizophrenic nutcase my daughter has turned out to be a fine confident woman who is now very much in control of her life at 18. So although it's not what everyone wants to hear, the research seems to show that a stable (even if not particularly happy) home life is important for the kids and if true, that it will help if more stable unions are encouraged.

3. As regards the hedonic treadmill and the set point this is more difficult to deal with. However there is a type of therapy that has had a high rate of success in dealing with dysfunctional emotions called cognitive behavioral therapy. Right now there aren't enough practitioners world wide and it occurs to me that if the number could be increased levels of happiness worldwide could be improved.

That's it for the moment. Just a few ideas off the top off my head.

I'm a philosophy graduate, TEFL teacher and textbook writer in Taiwan, not a trained psychologist. However, when researching the subject of happiness for one of my books (never published as it happens) I became aware of many of the ideas on this subject (and they helped me to improve my attitude and general contentment after the aforementioned marital disaster. If anyone is interested I might try and write up an article on the subject for IEET.

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