04 November 2013

Wirehead Bliss vs. Eudaemonic Happiness

Keys to Happiness
Image ©elycefeliz
Among transhumanists, there are many proponents of hedonism. Pleasure is immersive. Captivated by the prospect of enhanced, futuristic forms of stimulation, some posit the push-button variety as the ultimate fix.

Wireheading – direct electrical stimulation of the brain's reward centres via wires inserted through the skull – cuts out the dealer; this transaction requires no intermediary. With no diffuse, unpredictable drug reactions to muddy the euphoric flow, it's a clean, precise high. And why not? Let us not be prudish about the attractions of instant turn-on; humans have always sought ways to better achieve this, and now it's within our sweaty grasp.

Experiments such as the ones performed on rats by Olds and Milner in the early 1950s demonstrated the addictiveness of brain stimulation reward (BSR). In those experiments, rats wired to experience pleasure via deep brain regions whenever they pressed a lever would stimulate themselves to exhaustion, leading eventually to starvation. The rats were getting an enormous, easily-repeatable high from the release of dopamine triggered by the electrical stimulation.

At around the same time, Robert Heath was performing similar experiments on humans. And the results were evidently similar; reporting ‘an almost overwhelming euphoria and elation’, the human subjects did not want to be disconnected from Heath’s thrill-inducing apparatus. While it would have been unethical for Heath to allow this intracranial self-stimulation (ICSS) to continue to the point where the subjects’ health began to suffer, it is reasonable to assume that at least some humans, given the opportunity, would self-stimulate to the point of collapse.

Many futurists welcome the possibility of easily-available wireheading. Crude forms, such as those I mentioned above, have been superseded by the kinds of subtle techniques used to treat Parkinson’s tremors, and depression. And indeed, there is ample evidence that scientists can develop forms of BSR that provide an intense high without ‘wirehead junkie’ side effects. I can go along with that, but only so far. We should have the freedom to choose, just as we should have the freedom to choose which recreational drugs we ingest. And it’s right that we should be able to choose highs that are safe for us; ICSS may sound dangerous, but compared to drug taking with its risks of substance contamination, dirty needles, overdose, and so on, it’s a less harmful alternative. (And potentially a lot less harmful than the addictive, complex, contaminant-laden chemical cosh that we call alcohol.)

Philosophically speaking, pleasure is a problem. Sometimes it is synonymous with happiness; sometimes, as in the case of a drug-addict’s euphoria, it’s almost impossible to see how we could describe the sensation involved as happiness. However, if we clean up that type of euphoria by providing it direct, without the nasty side effects, can we then call it happiness? And if we can all achieve such instant happiness at the press of a button, what is the point in sorting out the wider problems of our world to make it a better, happier place? And what about scope? How can we conceive of the breadth and depth – the raw scope – of the realm of all possible pleasures? Perhaps what we think of as the ultimate pleasure amounts to almost nothing – maybe a slice the size of a fraction of one percent – of this indescribably delicious pie chart. In short, we really don’t know how good things can get.

To circumvent this problem, we can separate happiness into two quite different forms. One form is the pleasurable kind that we get from drugs, sex, adrenalin rushes, etc. The other form is eudaemonic – it is a higher order sort of happiness that is selfless, moral, mutual, and timeless, but one to which, unfortunately, there are no self-stimulatory shortcuts. You may, of course, argue that, with the right technology, even this form of happiness could be simulated. But, its proponents would counter, eudaemonia is just not like that – it exists independently of all such methods.

Some linguists think that ‘human flourishing’ is a better translation of eudaemonia than is ‘happiness’. If we go along with this translation, we can see that self-stimulation – no matter how sophisticated – cannot produce such a condition. We can rubbish this idea by inventing a Brave New World type scenario where the people do not know that they are not truly experiencing eudaemonia, or by imagining a Matrix type simulation of some utopia taking place within individual minds. Nevertheless, I prefer not to rubbish it, for it has utility. You can, like me, choose to accept that utility, or you can reject it in favour of a definition of happiness that relies solely upon how happy you happen to feel.

We can alleviate suffering with wireheading.  The philosopher David Pearce sees this as a form of ‘paradise-engineering’. Modifying the ‘ground-state’ of human cognition to become one where the emotions and sensations associated with pain and suffering simply do not exist is certainly one path we could take, but would it be the right one? I prefer to think of paradise as a place where suffering has been abolished via the expedient of a phase transition in human ethics; utopia is a shared enterprise. We can go round in circles arguing about what triggers that phase transition. As an optimist, albeit an angry one, I think it is not only underway but also accelerating.

Perhaps someday I, too, will be a wirehead. That’s OK; sometimes I could use a quick fix – red wine is such a histamine sledgehammer. If I have a choice, however, I will also hang onto the concept of eudaemonia. It’s a welcome island in an otherwise featureless ocean of bliss. It’s a vantage point. It’s a place, perhaps, where we can come together, unplug, and truly engineer a paradise.

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