In a recent conversation with a co-worker I had the opportunity to explore the potential endgame for human happiness.
That’s a strange sentence; let’s try to unpack it.
The conversation started with free will, as so many of my favorites do, and he accepted my argument instantly. He hadn’t considered it before, but instantly accepted it as true. For him it was the interesting start of a conversation rather than a topic in and of itself. He was basically like, “Hmm, yeah, hadn’t realized that…ok, so let’s talk about where we go from there…”
It was refreshing.
So, 30 seconds later we moved on to more important matters, i.e. a moral framework. So I gave him my whole spiel there as well: the Bertrand Russell / Sam Harris narrative of:
- The good life is one that inspired by love and guided by knowledge (Russell)
- The goal of everyone should be to increase happiness and reduce suffering (Russell)
- Morality is based on the happiness and suffering of conscious creatures (Harris)
- And since happiness and suffering exist in the brain, we need to tweak physical variables (Harris)
He accepted this instantly as well, and we began exploring the repercussions with technology added to the mix.
What happens when you add immortality and a full understanding of the brain?
As we hurl ourselves towards solving the riddle of immortality, which is inevitable through a full understanding of the brain and transferring of one’s exact brain configuration to digital form, what will happiness look like?
Initially it’ll be pretty simple: it’ll be the exact same as it is now. That is to say, we’ll still experience pain and boredom and joy and suffering, and we’ll seek to maximize the good feelings and reduce the negative ones.
But what happens when we understand every component of both the stimuli for those, as well as the receptors that make the experiences possible? In other words, what happens when we can, at will, increase our experience of joy, or remove our experience of negative feelings? What happens when we can add or remove memories as desired?
We’ll basically be able to hand-craft our experiences, from the outside. And we won’t really know, at any given moment, whether stimuli (internal or external) is real or not. We’ll be able to mimic memory, external stimuli like vision and taste, etc. So we’ll be experiencing exactly what we want to experience.
Total recall becomes the norm
In early stages we’ll have both wet and digital surgeries to both implant and remove parts of ourselves. We’ll remove (or dull) bad memories. We’ll remove self-doubt. We’ll implant positive, confidence-giving experiences. People will have a memory added of an ideal parting with a loved one before they died (which they will not afterwards know was implanted). Or will they?
People will also be able to live in the world of delusion, i.e. that they’re really a hero from another universe here to save everyone. Or perhaps that they are in touch with an all powerful God in another world who will prevent them from dying and teleport them to a heavenly sanctuary when they pass.
Oh, wait, that’s today’s form of delusion.
The point is that we’ll be able to build whatever narrative into our brains that we want to believe. Or, more cynically, people will be able to put anything they want into other peoples’ minds. We do so rather clumsily today by controlling media, but in this world you show up to get your government check and you have to spend some time in the total recall chamber. When you emerge you’re happy to take your check, punch some rivets, watch brainvision, and be a good citizen.
But I digress.
What happens when we can eliminate struggle?
It seems like a natural progression from here is having most (all?) everyone exist digitally. Bodies are fragile. They hurt. They suffer. They decay and die. Bits are more reliable–especially when you have real-time backups available.
So let’s say we’re a giant collective, with individuals floating around within it sharing information. I’m not quite sure why we’d still have individuals at all, but let’s ignore that for now. Let’s assume we do still have them, and let’s ask the question of what they’re about.
What is the purpose in life?
Explore. Study. Learn. Share experiences. Create art. Bask in beauty. Go on adventures. Take turns being the hero in a story. Take turns being the princess that gets rescued. Take turns killing the monster to save the day. Take turns being the monster.
Fine. Makes sense. Inevitable, really.
But isn’t this just yet another intermediary step?
What do all those experiences have in common? Struggle. A challenge. A gap. A desire. Ambition. Drive.
Are those not extremely…um…human? Are they not vestiges of a species struggling just to survive? Are they not primitive impulses in us that we now romanticize because they produce a satisfying squirt of hormones? Love. Lust. Victory. Discovery. Are these not all the same at the level of objective understanding of a digital brain?
And given that they involve, above anything else, struggle to achieve, will we not aim to conquer them? Why yearn for something if you don’t have to? Why be ambitious if you have the option not to? Why love? Why feel?
I think the answer is fairly clear: feeling and loving and weeping and winning–these things all make us feel alive. Perhaps they are the only things that make us so.
Artificial struggle, for artificial meaning
So this brings us to it. We cannot ever remove these (now artificial) obstacles and weaknesses within our brains. We cannot because they are what make us human. Without struggle and triumph, sadness and happiness, lust and achievement, beauty and wonder–what do we have?
Perhaps we’ll simply be so smart at that point that we’ll know it’s no longer necessary to be human: to want, to desire, to feel, to yearn, to struggle, and to overcome. But damn if I don’t find that to be a dreary existence. This of course is me, sitting here as a moist robot, realizing that all meaning in my life is based on those deceiving little squirts of hormones in my brain.
Still, I cannot imagine a “meaningful” life without them. Which is funny, since we don’t have true meaning with them either. But at least we can build a real meaning system on top of our understanding that it’s illusory. I am not sure what we’d be building on once we stripped even that away from us.
I’m struck by the religious narrative that God made suffering so that we’d know it was nice when it wasn’t happening. I find that ridiculous, but in this model there are elements of truth to it. I don’t see how we could completely remove challenge and struggle from our beings without stripping everything it means to be us.
And I simultaneously don’t know how we could base an existence on manufactured illusion–which is what it would be.
So what’s the endgame?
Ok, so we’re a massive collective of intelligence and knowledge, spanning 420,000 star systems. We’re doing interstellar travel, we’ve learned how to move through wormholes. And we keep exploring.
What are we doing it for?
We’re not suffering. We’re not appreciating beauty (that came from evolution, which we no longer need). What is the point of it?
I have one answer: we’re trying to solve the ultimate riddle that will destroy us all–the riddle of heat death. We’re trying to survive. That’s fairly epic, at the universe scale.
Why not just turn ourselves off and avoid the non-pain of the universe dying a cold death?
- Image from ubergizmo.com.