Robert Frost’s famous imagery—fire or ice, take your pick—pretty much sums it up. But lately, largely unnoticed, a revolution has unwound in the thinking about such matters, in the hands of that most rarefied of tribes, the theoretical physicists. Maybe, just maybe, ice isn’t going to be the whole story. Of course, linking the human prospect to cosmology itself is not at all new. The endings of stories are important, because we believe that how things turn out implies what they ultimately mean. This comes from being pointed toward the future, as any ambitious species must be.
Sep 29, 2014
Supertasking and Mindfulnessby Alex Nichols
In an age of unlimited access to information, coupled with an endless bombardment of stimulation from technology, I find it important to reassess our notions of bringing balance to what it means to be focused and present.
Sep 24, 2014
Timescales of the Hedonistic Imperative (6min 31sec)Adam Ford
IEET Contributor records IEET Fellow David Pearce talking about the future of the Hedonistic Imperative.
“The blueprint set out [in the Hedonistic Imperative] outlines only a cartoonish prototype of a mature post-Darwinian paradise. Its sketch of likely future neuro-scientific breakthroughs may well be wrong both in its few specifics and its projected time-scales. Experts in the relevant specialist fields will doubtless wince, at least in places. For The Hedonistic Imperative consists in a hand-waving, cross-disciplinary romp through dauntingly complex specialist topics. Inevitably, some of the pop neuroscience is simplistic to the point of parody. Eyebrows should be raised, too, at the dogmatic brevity with which various philosophical problems deserving book-length treatment are dispatched in a single sentence. The multitude of practical, medico-legal and socio-political problems which fulfilling our neurochemical Manifest Destiny will entail are largely passed over as well. These caveats are important. Yet leaving them aside, the biological program may be divided, somewhat arbitrarily, into three stages. They are here ranked in order of difficulty. Luckily, the stages happen to coincide in relative ethical importance, since crude harm-reduction, cruelty-prevention and pain-abolition are easier to accomplish than refining the architectural subtleties of paradise. Less happily, any biochemical description of the mechanics of the sublime just travesties the nature of the experience itself. The sub-academese prose below unavoidably debases what it aims to evoke. This is because of the contaminated associations of any terms associated with drug-abuse, genetic engineering, eugenics, or even the emotionally frigid atmosphere of the laboratory. Our present perspective on utopian biopsychiatry is jaundiced. For our education system virtually ignores the neurobiological foundations of all emotional life. Happily, that system also provides the formal tools for us to describe and escape from our predicament.”
“Unfortunately, there’s no way to map out the extent of our cognitive closure from within. This is frustrating. If quantum cosmologists can theorise about the first 10-43 second after the Big Bang, thirteen billion and more years ago, and still, rightly, be counted as practising hard science, it’s a shame that conjectures we do make about the living world a few thousand or million years hence have to be treated, not even as soft science, but as science-fiction. There are too many unknown unknowns to predict with any rational confidence. Merely extrapolating present trends is bound to mislead. The projected time-scales of even relatively predictable biomedical triumphs, e.g. the elimination of the ageing process, are vague. HI may veer towards heady speculation; but by the end of third millennium, life and consciousness may be more foreign to the contemporary imagination than even the most extravagant prediction dreamed up here. On the other hand, for all we know, some variant of the pleasure-principle is a universal - and universally intelligible - signature of sentient life; and its apotheosis in some sort of sublime cosmic orgasm is the ultimate destiny of the Universe. [This may overtax one’s credulity; the Big Bang indeed!] We simply don’t have enough evidence. That said, we may still incautiously proceed. Once suffering has been abolished, the era of old-fashioned moral choices will come to an end. The physiological mechanisms underlying the mind-brain’s value-creation processes will be unravelled during the invention of a pain-free world; but the kind of naturalised, mind-dependent value created by paradise-engineers after the phenomenology of nastiness has disappeared won’t embrace ethical categories in a sense we presently understand. The heroic moral urgency will have gone; indeed there is a risk that truly hedonistic themes as discussed in these sections of HI will divert attention away from the utter moral seriousness of the whole post-Darwinian project as conceived today. ” - Pearce
Sep 22, 2014
On Wellbeing, Bliss and HappinessAdam Ford
Adam Ford records philosopher and IEET Fellow David Pearce on the topic of wellbeing, bliss, and what the future has in store for us dealing with happiness-engineering.
David Pearce (born 3 April) is a British philosopher. He promotes the idea that there exists a strong ethical imperative for humans to work towards the abolition of suffering in all sentient life. His book-length internet manifesto The Hedonistic Imperative outlines how technologies such as genetic engineering, nanotechnology, pharmacology, and neurosurgery could potentially converge to eliminate all forms of unpleasant experience among human and non-human animals, replacing suffering with gradients of well-being, a project he refers to as “paradise engineering”.
“Well, there are technical obstacles and ideological obstacles to the abolitionist project. But if one deals first with the technical challenges, I think there are essentially three options. One is wireheading. Wireheading is (probably) a dead-end. But it is illuminating because the procedure shows that pleasure has no physiological tolerance. That is to say, it’s just as exhilarating having one’s pleasure centers stimulated 24 hours after starting a binge as it was at the beginning….”
“The neural basis of our so-called basic moods and emotions is simpler than so-called higher cognitive functions. But undeniably, this neural basis is still fiendishly complicated, the simplicity of wireheading notwithstanding. For instance, the mesolimbic dopamine system may not be, as we’ve sometimes supposed, the final common pathway of pleasure in the brain: dopamine apparently mediates “wanting” (i.e. incentive-motivation) as much as “liking”, which is signaled by activation of the mu opioid receptors. But if we focus here on the simple monoamines, an obvious target for intervention is indeed the mesolimbic dopamine system. One of the most common objections to the idea of abolishing suffering – ignoring here the prospect of full-blown paradise-engineering – is that without the spur of discontent we’d soon become idle and even bored. “If we were all happy, what would we do all day?” But enhanced dopamine function is associated, not just with euphoria, but with heightened motivation; a deeper sense of meaningfulness, significance and purpose; and an increased sensitivity to a greater range of rewards. So one possible option for paradise engineering is to focus on enriching the dopaminergic system to promote (a genetic predisposition to) lifestyles of high achievement and intellectual productivity.
That’s one option at least. Another sort of predisposition is to pursue a lifetime of introspection, meditation and blissful tranquility. If I seem to dwell unduly on ways of enriching dopamine function, that’s because exploring its amplification is a useful corrective to a widespread misconception i.e. that happiness inevitably leads to stagnation. The critical point, I think, is that to be blissful isn’t the same as being blissed out.”
Sep 22, 2014
Enhancing Virtues: Intelligence (Part 4): Brain Machinesby J. Hughes
The limitations of cognitive enhancement drugs will soon be complemented and surpassed by brain machine interfaces. The most consumer accessible brain machine devices that provide some intellectual enhancement are neurofeedback and transcranial direct current stimulation. Genetic and tissue engineering may provide avenues for at least the repair of cognitive deficits, and perhaps enhancement. Progress in actual nano-neural brain-machine interfaces, which will require advances in miniaturization, materials and nanotechnology, will enable more profound enhancement.
Sep 20, 2014
Enhancing Virtues: Intelligence (Part 3): Pharmaceutical Cognitive Enhancementby J. Hughes
There are limits to our ability to enhance intelligence, and the intellectual virtues, through social reform and lifestyle changes. For thousands of years we have used stimulants like caffeine, coca, qat and nicotine to boost attention. Now we have increasingly targeted drugs that improve attention, memory and learning, with fewer side effects.
Sep 10, 2014
Enhancing Virtues: Intelligence (Part 2)by J. Hughes
We can make the world more intelligent by reducing poverty and violence, and improving nutrition and education, and we can use exercise, diet, and life-long learning to improve our own intelligence.
Sep 5, 2014
Enhancing Virtues: Intelligence (part 1)by J. Hughes
The ability to think clearly and make good decisions is on almost every society’s list of virtues. In this essay I discuss the debate over different aspects of intelligence, the degree to which they are shaped by genes, chemistry and society, and the role of intelligence in other virtues.
Sep 3, 2014
Enhancing Virtues: Caring (part 3)by J. Hughes
We can encourage empathy and compassion through social policy and individual practices. But fully realizing our capacities for empathy and compassion will require careful, nuanced neurotechnological intervention.
Sep 1, 2014
Enhancing Virtues: Caring (part 2)by J. Hughes
The growth of our empathetic ability may have been key for the growth of civilization, and civilization may have selected for it. Two social policies that we can implement today to further empathy are reducing inequality, and screening and treating autism and psychopathy.