Is Pain a Functional Necessity?

I have been active in transhumanism for several years and in most cases I find myself in agreement with many preferences, values and assumptions prevalent in Transhumanism. Transhumanism is an ideology of plausibles, arguables and fictionals. In other words – Transhumanists make statements on future developments that can be commonly regarded to be likely, debatable developments. These “developments” have no arrived yet, but there is merit to deliberate the potential for these developments arriving, even if some of these developments are “futuristic” or “speculative. The ideology of Transhumanism is essentially a belief system where believers transparently speculate on the feasibility of fictional technology that may plausibly and arguably emerge within near to remote human history. Some people of these speculations argue technologies that are likely (or inescapable), while other Transhumanists argue about the potential and implications on very speculative technologies.

Another way “to slice the cake” is that some speculate on “self-intuitive” technologies. Not all plausible technologies “make sense” in public discussions. There are examples of emerging technologies that have a high self-evident character. Examples of technologies where most laypeople (i.e. non-Transhumanists for the sake of this argument) can more easily see the implications are things such as cybernetic senses, 3D printing, biological life extension, virtual reality, etc. If I explain these emerging technologies to “everyday people” then mostly I find that these kinds of people (who don’t go around every day contemplating the implications of futurology) more or less have a clue where it might be headed, or what the consequences might be. There is not much dispute outside the “sacred halls” and “ivory towers” of Transhumanism that these technologies, while not yet existing, will this century become not just possible but also widely available and mature forms of engineering, commerce and design

The relevance is not the immediacy of these technologies might be – the relevance is that these technologies are so insightful and obvious that many educated people don’t seem to feel a high level of unease about them. I have found that as soon as some speculative technologies become less self-evident (opaque, speculative, abstract, outlandish), “laypeople” tend to exhibit emotional responses of dismissal (hostility, alarm, concern, resentment, denial). The combination of Transhumanist mental explorations on emerging (aurguable, plausible, speculative) technologies, with these technologies being “abstact, speculative or outlandish” tends to put “lay-people” off and make them overly cautious.

I’d love to see a scientific study of this phenomenon – how much people respond to speculative technologies of which the implications can be argued to be both far reaching, yet opaque.

Let me direct your attention to a particularly relevant example of such speculative endeavor. One acutely poignant example has been discussed in considerable detail by one David Pearce.

Evolution is directionless
Human nature is an intricate construct generated by a sequence of evolutionary twists and turns. A more recent term on how evolution generates solutions to survival challenges is the concept of “kludge“. It is important to emphasize that evolution does progress towards certain outcomes, but these outcomes are not goals, and there seemms to be no preconceived intent. Evolution does not follow a predetermined design (unless one believes in a well-intentioned deic mechanism of creativity compelling forward the mechanism of evolution – a view sometimes held by some Transhumanist deists) and is the result of replicating systems faced with selective pressure. It is interesting to realize that these days Evolution (while next to universally accepted in global scientific understanding) is still regarded as counter-intuitive. Even if people conclude that ”
evolution must be true”, largely because “so many scientists say it must be true”, many laypeople seem to have misconceptions on how the mechanism of Evolution yields solutions and generates results. Many laypeople still assume there is some kind of impetus at work in Evolution, a “teleology” or “deliberate goal”.

A critical mechanism that evolved in all creatures with a “complex” neurology, and most evidently in higher order primates, is behavior that causes its possessor (or actor) to shy away from negative experiences (specifically pain), and edge towards positive experiences (specifically pleasure). While this dualism of behavioral ‘seductors’ generally works to make higher neurology creatures choose preset behavior and actions that tend to yield a markedly higher incidence of survival, we can also conclude that humanity has evolved to be so “smart” the species literally started outwitting its own evolutionary behavioral feedback mechanisms. The human species started “hacking” (or kludging!) its own neurological hardwiring many thousand years years ago. I don’t need to emphasize that the discovery of alcohol was not part of original evolutionary functionality. Humanity may have evolved some minor adaptations to the technology of fermented products (1), and in some cases may have precariously benefited from this field (2).

The creation of Alcohol products has become a part of human nature and integrated in most cultures. Evolved consumption of alcohol products mostly pertains to low grade beers and wines. Distilled beverages are a more novel adaptation, at best a few thousand years old. The humane genome had little opportunity to evolve a resistance to concentrated alcohol beverages, since widespread availability of any licquor with an alcohol percentage over 15% has been limited to the late middle ages to renaissance. Spirits were by and large for medicinal use only well into the 16th and 17th century. That more or less implies that in evolutionary terms humanity is a “babe in the woods” when it comes to the neurological implications of alcohol intoxication. Alcohol is the first of many mechanisms of neurological experimentation by a conscious species that makes deliberated choices intended to maximize pleasure – occasionally at the cost of longevity.

We live in a world where this has become common. Food, drugs, entertainment, violence, sports, drink, toys, media, touch, sex – modern cultures are inundated with mechanisms that bypass the evolutionary mechanisms of reward (for evolutionary good or desirable behavior) squared against punishment (for evolutionary bad or undesirable actions). Our global human society has by and large seceded from biological imperatives, and it is no surprise that so many people die as a result of wrong choices in this realm. Addiction to degrees of pathological (ranging from unwise [1] to foolhardy to completely insane [1, 2, 3])

David Pearce is one of the founders of modern day Transhumanism. His articles are foundational, even if only perceived merely speculative philosophical treaties. In one speculation (which I will overly simplify in the context of this particular article) David Pearce has repeatedly illustrated he asks if human ingenuity and engineering may possibly be used to alter this mechanism of pleasure & pain. David Pearce concludes (and I am paraphrasing here) that a combination of neurological interventions, genetic science, prosthetics and other technologies may allow deliberate creation of human, transhuman or posthuman mental states that are no longer “held hostage” by the evolved tyranny of suffering.

Arguably, the singlemost bad aspect of the human state is the pervasive presence of states of discomfort, unease, pain, suffering and misery. Maybe humans evolved to be dissatisfied. Maybe a single defining characteristic of the human state is dissatisfaction – maybe the prevalence of suffering in the human dimension is what compels individual humans forward in such an unprecedented manner. Human minds signify are a very strange phenomenon on this planet, and clearly the ambitions of single humans have completely changed the face of the planet to an increasing degree in the last tens of thousands, thousand years, centuries and decennia. There is a self-reinforcing mechanism at work that is clearly a irreversible break with many patterns that were previously routine in nature. Clearly humanity has set out on an experiment in managing (or mismanaging) the planet in a manner of which the eventual outcome is completely uncertain.

In this impetus to accumulate change (Nietzsche might have labelled this “the will to power”) humanity is driven ever forward by degrees of dissatisfaction. This dissatisfaction is driven forward by a whole ecology of positive and negative emotions that, by some measure, have run amok on the biosphere. It is no surprise that in the past an assortment of mechanisms have been used to curtial the ambitions and urges of “other people”. I have argued in an earlier article that humanity has evolved to facilitate tyranny. There is a docile component in human populations, and there is a psychopathic component. Human beings more prone to docility have found themselves increasingly out-competed by people with a more competitive (and less empathetic) streak. My earlier argument is that current pervasive world wide culture is infused (or contaminated) by this predisposition.

I have a feeling that humanity is an evolutionary kludge, where modern society, advanced technology, globalism, capitalism ( are all manifestations of a certain inconsiderate ruthlessness running amok. The relative success of the human beings on this planet is increasingly based on taking actions where actors do not care about long term implications for the future, or the implications of their actions for others than themselves.

This isn’t all bad. Clearly human progress was founded by a category of people that didn’t accept status quo. Clearly much progress has been made by restless, imaginative, ruthless or intransigent people. It is obvious that a lot of people world wide (if not most of them) have a far happier, more blissful existence these days than equivalent populations of human beings had in the corresponding past.

But now Transhumanist speculation arrives with a new way to look at pleasure. These questions evoke immediate unease. What if select groups of people have the relative freedom to experiment with states of human bliss, where the end result would be a human mental state that is more functional than our current one?

David Pearce speculates that it might become possible in the near future to start experimentations with human mental states where subjects experience vastly expanded states of euphoria and well-being. It is no secret that in the past I have experimented with euphoric states myself, as induced by MDMA. My first such experience with MDMA was in 1987 and the experience has left an indelible question in my mind – what if I would be able to feel like that forever?

MDMA is a substance that makes the human mind flood with seratonin. On MDMA the subject feels extremely accepting of other people, his or her ego and confidence is considerably increased. I experienced a pure tidal wave of bliss and harmony. More importantly the first episode of MDMA I suffered no hangover or depression. I was elated for days afterward.

Sadly, substance abuse is a lie. The mechanism of narcotic hacking of the mind is crude, often damages the precarious neurological balance of the psyche, and nearly always results in long term damage, no matter how subtle. Regular MDMA use induces a marked reduction of short term memory and has negative effects on some major organs. While not as addictive, MDMA (or Ecstacy) abuse can be deadly and is most certainly pathologically habit forming in many users.

If MDMA is a blunt crude instrument, equivalent to a flint axe, can we then speculate on my precise instruments that permanently change the human neurology in such a manner that the subject is able to enjoy these wonderful states perpetually, without the relevance and functionality of the experience fading over time ? Can we induce mental states in humans where pain and discomfort is diminished and where pleasure is increased, while still producing productive, cognitive and societally functional behavior? Can we come up with these treatments and not succumb to a missionary zeal where the users feel evangelically compelled to force these mental states on other people?

These questions are prime examples of explorations that “freak most people out”. These questions touch upon inborn natural prejudice and anxiety. Most people are born with a superstitious fear of other people acting driven by insanity, radical politics, hysterical religion or intoxication. It is a staple of horror fiction – a cult develops a means to change minds (and these speculations often involve phobia of authoritarian mind-control) and the cult takes over the world.

The Borg. Stepford wives. Hippies. Scientology. The “gay”. Reefer madness. Communism. Hare Kishna. These are examples of alternative real or speculative groupings of human beings that have become (or are perceived to be) ‘victims’ of mind control techniques. These deliberations cause fear in most people. There is a tendency in human beings to externalize “a change of the mind” and regard it with superstition. I can argue that “the war on drug” is driven in large part by mass hysteria on part of “normal people”. In all cases it is people that insist on not being coerced in to some sort of new mental paradigm.

Nevertheless if I could I would want to change a lot of fundamental aspects of my mental functioning. I would most certainly risk some form of pathology if only I could increase my general euphoria, and considerably increase my everyday discomforts. Of course I’d want to change myself gradually (cautiously), or implement only well-tested modifications. Having experienced the immense joy of Ecstacy I will forevermore be left longing to that indescribable mental clarity.

There is such a treatment that duplicates the effects of ecstacy, and it is known as Wireheading. It is possible to surgically embed a wire in the brain of a subject and affect the state of mental bliss in a fairly safe (insofar brain surgery can ever be “safe”) and predictable manner as to universally increase experienced wellbeing. This treatment has been used to treat severe depression. The scary thing (for most people, not for me) is that these treatments work.

So it is possible (if not expensive) to engineer unambiguously better neurological states with existing technologies. These treatments may not be yet marketable, but they are no longer speculative. So what if we would be able to create affordable products that alter mental states in a functional and predictable manner, without causing disfunction. So in other words – make people happier by default, make them starter, decrease discomfort, do so without side effects, and not as a result not inflict damage on the subject or society.

This brings us to the great prejudice we don’t dare to voice. These are all variants of a pervasive genetic fear in all humans, in particular in the western world. These questions manifest in subsidiary expressions of discomfort such as “should we play god“, and yes, these questions are also postulated as universal for atheists. My answer is simple – why not play god? someone has to!

Prohibitions do not work. The consequence of fear is legislation. We have seen where legislation leads us. It leads to “prohibitions”, and prohibitions do not work. Unregulated black markets for a product is in demand only makes criminals better off, and everyone else suffers as a consequence. If we legislate research in to “mind hacking” in to a new Prohibition, then we end up with massive black markets for mind hacking.

I’d say – no, pain is not necessary. Yes we can (and should) experiment with creating humans and human states where the subject take part in voluntary and transparent experimentation in to new states where the subjects

– feel less pain, less boredom, less depression, less anxiety
– more motivation, more happiness, more joy, more pleasure.

The end result may be a human state that is fundamentally better, without any of the negative consequences of forced religious conversion in to some cult, or without the health consequences of severe substance addiction.