by David Pearce
Reality is big. So our optimism must be confined to sentient beings in our forward light-cone. But I tentatively predict that the last experience below “hedonic zero” will be a precisely dateable event several hundred years hence. Here are five grounds for cautious optimism:
We Shall Soon Be Able To Choose Our Own Level Of Pain-Sensitivity
It’s hard to convey in words the frightfulness of unrelieved physical pain. Millions of people with chronic pain syndromes suffer severe physical pain each day. However, a revolution in reproductive medicine is imminent. We’ll shortly be able to choose the genetically-shaped pain thresholds of our future children. Autosomal gene therapy will allow adults to follow suit. Clearly, our emotional response to raw pain is modulated by the products of other genes. But recent research suggests that variants of the SCN9A gene hold the master key. Thus in a decade or two, preimplantation diagnosis should allow responsible prospective parents to choose which of the SCN9A alleles they want for their future children — leading in turn to severe selection pressure against the SCN9A gene’s nastier variants.
At present, we can’t envisage safely choosing one of the (extremely rare) nonsense mutations of SCN9A that eliminates physical pain altogether. A future world of nociception without any phenomenal pain at all will depend on advances in neuroprosthetics and artificial intelligence — and an ethical / ideological revolution to match. Yet by selecting benign alleles of SCN9A both for ourselves and our children, the burden of suffering can be dramatically diminished.
2) We Can Soon Choose How Rewarding We Want Our Daily Life To Be
The brain is a dauntingly complex organ. Yet the biological roots of mood and emotion are primitive and neurologically ancient. Their metabolic pathways are strongly conserved in the vertebrate line and beyond. This paper illustrates how the presence or absence of a single allele may dramatically enrich or impair the quality of one’s entire life.
If you were in a position to choose, which COMT allele would you pre-select for your future offspring? I predict most prospective parents will pick the “happy gene”. Or would you prefer to play genetic roulette as now?
Of course, pitfalls abound. How can we guard against unanticipated side effects from novel gene therapies? What will be the inevitable “unintended consequences” of life changing innovation? And what will be the societal implications of a population biologically predisposed to enjoy richer and happier lives? But the ethical pitfalls of seeking to preserve the status quo are no less troubling.
Genetic tweaking to promote richer experience is just a foretaste of posthuman sentience. I predict that our descendants will enjoy gradients of genetically preprogrammed bliss every day of their lives.