Saturday, May 02, 2009

David Pearce - A World Without Suffering?

If you could be free of suffering, forever, would you do it? Take a pill, implant an electrode, whatever it is, would you want to end all of your suffering for all time?

I'm not sure about this. I have learned to embrace my suffering as a tool of growth. Without suffering, would I cease to grow as a person?

All interesting questions to keep in mind as you read this article from David Pearce - A World Without Suffering?

A World Without Suffering?

George Dvorsky

George Dvorsky

Sentient Developments

Posted: May 2, 2009

“If it was possible to become free of negative emotions by a riskless implementation of an electrode—without impairing intelligence and the critical mind—I would be the first patient.” - The Dalai Lama

This article, by guest author David Pearce, is re-posted from George Dvorsky’s Sentient Developments blog. Pearce, a British philosopher, co-founded the World Transhumanist Association (since renamed Humanity+) in 1998, and is the author of The Hedonist Imperative.

In November 2005, at the Society for Neuroscience Congress, the Dalai Lama observed, “If it was possible to become free of negative emotions by a riskless implementation of an electrode—without impairing intelligence and the critical mind—I would be the first patient.”

Note that the Dalai Lama wasn’t announcing his intention to queue-jump. Nor was he proposing that high-functioning bliss should be the privilege of one special group or species. Unlike the Abrahamic religions, but in common with classical utilitarianism, Buddhism is committed to the welfare of all sentient beings. Instead, the Dalai Lama was stressing that we should embrace the control of our reward circuitry that modern science is shortly going to deliver - and not disdain it as somehow un-spiritual.

Smart neurostimulation, long-acting mood-enhancers, genetically re-engineering our hedonic “set-point” (etc.) aren’t therapeutic strategies associated with Buddhist tradition. Yet if we are morally serious about securing the well-being of all sentient life, then we have to exploit advanced technology to the fullest possible extent. Nothing else will work (short of some exotic metaphysics that is hard to reconcile with the scientific world-picture). Non-biological strategies to enrich psychological well-being have been tried on a personal level over thousands of years—and proved inadequate at best.

This is because they don’t subvert the brutally efficient negative feedback mechanisms of the hedonic treadmill—a legacy of millions of years of natural selection. Nor is the well-being of all sentient life feasible in a Darwinian ecosystem where the welfare of some creatures depends on eating or exploiting others. The lion can lie down with the lamb; but only after both have been genetically tweaked. Any solution to the problem of suffering ultimately has to be global.

In the meantime, I think the greatest personal contribution to reducing suffering that an individual can make is both to:

1. Abstain from eating meat
2. Make it clear to his or her entire circle of acquaintance that meat-eating is abhorrent and morally unacceptable

Such plain speaking calls for moral courage that alas sometimes deserts me.

I know many readers of Sentient Developments are Buddhists. Not all of them will agree with the above analysis. Some readers may suspect that I’m just trying to cloak my techno-utopianism in the mantle of venerable Buddhist wisdom. (Heaven forbid!)

In fact the Abolitionist Project is just a blueprint for implementing the aspiration of Gautama Buddha two and a half millennia ago: “May all that have life be delivered from suffering”. I hope other researchers will devise (much) better blueprints; and the project will one day be institutionalized, internationalized, properly funded, transformed into a field of rigorous academic scholarship, and eventually government-led.

I’ve glossed over a lot of potential pitfalls and technical challenges. Here I’ll just say I think they are a price worth paying for a cruelty-free world.

George Dvorsky serves on the Board of Directors for the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. George is the Director of Operations for Commune Media, an advertising and marketing firm that specializes in marketing science. George produces Sentient Developments blog and podcast.


Solastilian said...

I've read about this before. I still find it VERY unsettling. I'd normally want to provide good rational reasons for disliking something but in this case, it just feels wrong.

It may be similar to my impression of holosync - I feel that progress should be self-directed and 'organic'. We shouldn't skip ahead or have some piece of technology or genetic engineering do the work for us.

Regarding the "abstain from eating meat" thing - did you make a decision on giving up meat?

Steve said...

In a world without suffering, why would you NEED to keep growing as a person?

william harryman said...


My sense is that growth is why we are here - I would be OK being as evolved (or not) as I currently am for the rest of my life, but I would much rather be MORE evolved. So I'm not down with this idea.


william harryman said...


Yeah, I agree - as near as I can tell, Holosync is like using drugs, a temporary state experience, not a sustained stage experience.

I'd rather "earn" it.

On meat: Gave up red meat, but couldn't quit eating meat altogether. Doing free-range and all-natural chicken and turkey, and still eating fish. I don't feel as "grounded" without meat in my diet (not sure what that even means).


Steve said...


Suppose you had a choice between being "more evolved" but unhappy and less evolved but happy. Which would you choose? Furthermore, suppose you could take a magic pill and instantly become as fully evolved as you possibly could. Would you take it, or would you turn it down and try to earn your evolution the hard way?

william harryman said...


I'd like to believe that I would choose to earn it through effort and learning. For me, and I might be a little weird, happiness is tied to learning and growing - no struggle, no reward. So I think I would choose to be less happy and keep growing through the struggles.


Anonymous said...

I came here to have a human experience. That includes negative emotions and suffering. The kind of attitude espoused by the Dalai Lama is one of the things that turns me off of Buddhism. It seems that many people who follow these practices are trying to escape their humanity.

If we only ever experienced positive emotions, regardless of what was going on around us, what would be the impetus for change? A solution like an electrode that eliminates negative emotions -- without actually dealing with the situations that caused those emotions in the first place -- sounds dangerous. It could end up being a means to ignore to all sorts of atrocities; nobody would care about what was really going on or trying to change it, because they couldn't feel negatively about it.

I'm sure very few people become vegetarian because they feel good about killing animals and eating their flesh. Negative emotions have their place... as catalysts for change.