IEET > Vision > Virtuality > Interns > HealthLongevity > Enablement > Kris Notaro
Can We Be Happy Forever In Robot Bodies?
Kris Notaro   Aug 14, 2010   Ethical Technology  

This may come as a surprise to many, but apparently near the end of last year golfer Tiger Woods found himself in the middle of a sex scandal that was covered extensively throughout almost every news outlet.  During all this, a sub-scandal erupted when Fox News correspondent Brit Hume said that Woods should convert from his previous religion of Buddhism to Christianity, as Christianity offers more forgiveness than Buddhism.  Woods did not convert and, in fact, during his public apology for all that had happened, discussed his adherence to Buddhism and an intention to reapply himself to its teachings in an effort to change how he was living his life.

Bill Maher later commented on Woods’ apology, saying that Buddhism as a religion is “outdated” and that “the -Life sucks, and then you die.’ This philosophy was useful when Buddha came up with it around 500 B.C., because back then life pretty much sucked, and then you died - but now we have medicine, and plenty of food, and iPhones, and James Cameron movies - our life isn’t all about suffering anymore. And when we do suffer, instead of accepting it we try to alleviate it.”  And this is really where this article begins.  Is this true? Have advances in science and technology improved the condition of life on this planet to the point that as a species we no longer suffer?  If so, does this cause Buddhism, and by extension other religions, to become outdated beliefs that humanity should throw out?

I personally do not think so.  While it’s true that, especially in the first world, we have reached an advanced enough level of technological sophistication that human beings as a whole live longer and live lives less prone to disease, thus decreasing physical suffering, the phenomena itself of physical suffering has not been eliminated. We all still get old, get sick, and eventually die, and up to this point there has been no exception to this.

In addition, I think that we still suffer a great deal mentally and existentially and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.  Smartphones, iPods, Facebook, and Twitter all help us distract ourselves from this more subtle form of suffering, but they do not take it away.  We still feel anguish, we still feel uncertainty, and we still feel resentful when we want things that we can’t have. In fact, as the things that we want grow more complex, the angst that we feel when we don’t get them seems to increase as well.  We have various psychotropic drugs designed to alleviate mental suffering, though once again it still exists and is only lessened, not taken away.  So, for lack of a better phrase, life still sucks, not necessarily in the same way as it did 2500 years ago, but enough that this is still a defendable statement.

Looking forward, specifically looking towards a transhumanist future, our technology and understanding of science will probably improve further from the point that they are at now.  This will bring with it less disease, longer (possibly indefinite) life spans, and more advances in eliminating physical suffering.  Thinking in the arena of smart drugs and the like, we will have further control over our mental states.  Eventually, we may reach a point where humans (or our descendents, whatever form they may take) are immortal, hyperintelligent, and don’t suffer from mental illness.  However, I don’t know if we will ever be able to overcome the mental suffering we all experience.  We will still probably argue with those we love, want things we don’t have the ability to get, and experience stress from most of the same factors we have experienced it from since the dawn of time.  Smart drugs can help, but unless we use them to numb ourselves completely from any sort of feeling at all, I don’t feel that we’ll be able to eliminate mental and existential suffering.

Bill Maher’s summation that Buddhism is founded on the principle of “Life sucks, and then you die” is true to an extent.  Traditionally, the first teaching Siddhartha Gautama espoused was the life is filled with suffering.  If this were to change, if we were able to create a world in which no one ever suffers, then Buddhism would become antiquated, and it would be obstructive to the further development of humanity or posthumanity.  However, in many ways I think that suffering may be integral to the human experience, that it is a natural reaction to a world that does not always operate in the way we want it to.  The core of Buddhist thought has always been learning to live in such a world, and both now and in the future it appears that the world will not conform itself to our desires.  In this respect, Buddhism as a philosophy has a continued usefulness to the human race and, as our technology becomes more complicated may offer even further use. As the phenomena of suffering diminishes, the times when it occurs are felt more deeply, and in that way not throwing the philosophy away may greatly improve lives in a transhumanist future.

By Andrew Cvercko and Kris Notaro

Artwork by Alex Grey

Kris Notaro, a former IEET intern, served as the IEET's Managing Director from 2012 through 2015. He is currently an IEET Program Director. He earned his BS in Philosophy from Charter Oak State College in Connecticut. He is currently the Bertrand Russell Society’s Vice-President for Website Technology. He has worked with the Bertrand Russell A/V Project at Central Connecticut State University, producing multimedia materials related to philosophy and ethics for classroom use. His major passions are in the technological advances in the areas of neuroscience, consciousness, brain, and mind.


Suffering is the thing we most easily forget about (fortunately for our peace of mind, although unfortunately inasmuch as the management of our woes is concerned), but as a matter of fact it is still as present as ever on our planet, not only in the ways that you describe, but also in other ways such as those affecting billions of poor, (s)exploited women, human-serving animals…

As for the future, let’s hope that posthumanity will not turn out to be even worst than humanity. Let’s hope that suffering instead will disappear completely thanks to some kind of paradise-engineering à la David Pearce. If however some suffering remains, as you foresee (and I think also that we might forever be willing to take the risk of suffering because by nature we want to test or push out the frontiers of our individual consciousness), we will have to manage it, and some parts of Buddhism as well as a lot of other approaches from various fields might be indispensable.

In my view, what we need right now is what I call an algonomy, i.e. an area of work in which we concern ourselves with the systematic knowledge and management of suffering. Curiously this kind of work has never been organized yet, in spite of its obvious importance, feasibility, and superior appropriateness (as far as suffering is concerned) over religion, medicine, law, politics, economy, philanthropy, education or whatever…

The empirical evidence doesn’t supports Buddhism’s claims about happiness. The developed countries where Buddhism has had the least presence and influence, with the exception of Japan, now report the highest levels of happiness; while the poorer countries with the strongest and longest-lasting Buddhist presence rank considerably lower in happiness. It turns out that per capita GDP, which goes towards satisfying the “dukkha” Buddhists talk about, gets the job done more effectively than Buddhist traditions.

Re I don’t know if we will ever be able to overcome the mental suffering we all experience.  We will still probably argue with those we love, want things we don’t have the ability to get, and experience stress from most of the same factors we have experienced it from since the dawn of time.

Probably we will never be able to overcome the mental suffering we all experience. Even if your garden is as green as your neighbor garden, you still want your neighbor’s Iphone 4. There will still be differences between posthumans, and these differences will create conflict.  Our (western) world is a paradise compared to a few centuries ago, because now almost everyone has enough to eat, which was not the case a few centuries ago. But we are still unhappy when we compare our own situation with others’.

The Buddha did teach about the existence of suffering.  More importantly, he also taught about the cause of suffering and the fact that it is possible to end suffering.  Finally, he taught the method to end suffering.  This is just as relevant today as it was 2500 years ago.
From a Judeo / Christian perspective, when God finished creating the heaven and earth he saw that it was “Very Good”.  So if we see through to the ultimate heart of reality we, too, will see that it is very good.  This equates with the end of suffering.  The Buddha’s method of insight leads us to the truth, and the truth sets us free.

The Buddha did indeed teach about the cause of suffering - and the fact that it is possible to end suffering. In the future, we will call this “wireheading” - and it will probably be illegal and heavily supressed.

Suffering is in us to be overcome, without suffering man is not. Without suffering no rage and no compassion is possible. In robot bodies another being would come to life.

@pitvok - if you like suffering, please feel free to suffer. But please don’t tell us that we should like it. I think a certain amount of suffering is inevitable (see comment above), but we can and should do our best to minimize it.

People in Buddhist countries don’t necessarily practice their religions correctly - many pray to the Buddha… and they have terrible governments. It isn’t GDP that makes the difference.

The “inevitability of suffering” is a bias born of the present condition and lack of imagination.

The Buddha’s observation is a fact,of life, especially with over 6 billion people alive and consuming the finite resources, but why stop at this ancient concept. Even before the ancient nation of Israel was founded the idea of “peace offering” was a requirement for certain serious violation of man’s cruelty to his fellow men/women/children. Their solution makes no sense to me, but the “peace offering” of an unblemished firstborn male animal; reminded the people that it was very serious crime in their community.

Christianity, unlike Buddhism, is a belief based on the communal exploitation of resources or missionary work. Look for its past; the Crusades, the Colonialization of the populations of the world, Industrialization and today’s idea that only the fittest survive by maximizing profits. Buddhism gives us a respite from all that. I appreciate their contributions, but I do not endorse any of them. I am still looking for a better way.

Christianity has sought solutions to our socio-political challenges by de-personalizing personal accountability. Look at Karl Marx’s dialectic or Pres. Ronald Reagan “Trickle down” economics both of which appear to promise great freedom to the small people, but have encourage endless wars.

I thought this would be about the Bruce Willis movie Surrogates, and was disappointed it wasn’t even mentioned.

I am not certain that Buddhism at its core actually does teach that life is suffering.  If what I was taught as a meditator is correct, then what Buddhism and related spiritual teachings say is that the essence of Being, the stuff that make up all things, is Bliss.  Our true nature therefore is bliss and what makes us suffer are imperfections in our bodies and nervous systems.  The purpose of practicing one or more of eight limbs of yoga is precisely to correct imbalances and imperfections in our physiology (brain and body, so mental and physical) and this will allow us feel gradually happier.  I mostly think of the post-human state as one in which science and technology have achieved what yoga failed to achieve: perfect mental and physical health.  We seem to have come some bit on the way: I believe that the quality of life now is immensely superior to what it was in say the 17th century.  We have forgotten what life was like when everyday experience would include toothache, skin disease from lice and lack of hygiene, chronic malnutrition, no painkillers and an amount of violence that we don’t even encounter in video games.  What remains is to engineer away some of our Darwinian tendencies such as competition for goods (no need for that in a world of nano-and biotech abundance), envy ( if everybody is healthy and beautiful it will be hard to be envious) and violence.  Even here we have come a bit on the way: people are more generous when affluent and less violent when they don’t have to struggle to survive.  Once we know the genetic basis for some of our not so flattering inclinations, we might be able to modify them away.

Good comment Catarina. Also the fact that we weigh the good things we have relatively (needing suffering to feel or believe in happiness, etc.) is just an evolutionary thing that doesn’t apply to all kinds of minds. We can get rid of it and feel absolute happiness without necessity to weigh it in relation to suffering.

Just how complex is the molecular biology of suffering compared to, say, the biology of aging? For a start, we know that nonsense mutations of a single gene can abolish the capacity to experience phenomenal pain:
Other mutations of the 5CN9a gene amplify or diminish normal pain-sensitivity. At least until smart prosthetic aids to nociception are feasible, I think it would be kinder and more ethically responsible to pre-select one of the less nasty variants of 5CN9a for our future children when preimplantation diagnosis becomes routine over the next few decades.

Emotional pain is clearly more complex than physical pain. But once again, dramatic differences in our propensity to misery / hedonic capacity can result from mutations in a single gene. [ see for example ]
I know of no reason why genetic interventions can’t recalibrate the “set-point” of our hedonic treadmill, allowing us to be naturally superhappy from birth.

The real technical and social challenge, I think, will be ensuring that we are intelligently blissful rather than “blissed out” i.e. ensuring that mastery of our reward circuitry permits full critical insight and high cognitive function to be retained. Ensuring we are animated by information-sensitive gradients of bliss should allow us to act not as “wireheads” but responsible citizens.

Are there pitfalls to a world without suffering? Yes, naturally. But how do these pitfalls compare with the miseries of the genetic status quo?

I think Benjamin Franklin says it best “The Constitution only guarantees the American people the right to pursue happiness.  You have to catch it yourself.” People will never be happy until they first look for the answer inside.
David Bohn

It’s manifestly untrue at the moment, but I’m eager to reach that point. While I’ve practice a little zazen and find it worthwhile, I’m committed to changing unpleasantness rather than coming to accept it.

Even if your garden is as green as your neighbor garden, you still want your neighbor’s Iphone 4.

That problem would be trivial to solve in world of molecular nanotechnology and artificial intelligence. The species already has the theoretical productive capacity to provide everyone on the planet with material plenty. The absurd status quo of engineered scarcity won’t necessarily endure forever.

One problem with nanotech nirvana is that it can never deliver enough status-goods. If productivity increases by many orders of magnitude, there still won’t be any more “positional goods” [Old Masters, Shakespeare first editions, etc] than now.
So are we doomed to a discontented future of competitive status-seeking, even as material abundance increases leaps-and-bounds?
Yes - but only on the assumption that we don’t gain mastery of our neural reward circuitry. For there are solid technical grounds for believing, not merely that suffering can be abolished, but life-long wellbeing surpassing today’s peak experiences is genetically feasible from birth.

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