Unquestioned Assumptions About Happiness and Motivation – The Water We Swim In

The following are assumptions that most of us hold as iron truths:

  1. Happiness is only made possible because of its opposite: Pain. Without pain, there is no real happiness.
  2. If anyone could ever experience continued pleasurable states (no pain), this would diminish all of their motivation to do, create, or discover anything at all.

When I speak with people about the possibilities of brain-machine interface (tinkering with consciousness), and the transhuman transition generally, people often hold those two truths as being self-evident, unquestionable constants.

I argue that this is merely our ever-present experience, the water we swim in, and that both of these factors may be radically alterable in the coming decades, and that we may be obligated to experiment and test their limits.

Any conversation that talks about editing human experience to lean towards continued states of bliss is met with common objections relating to those two assumptions:

  • “I don’t think anyone could ever really be happy continuously.”
  • “Being happy all the time would just be the new set-point of happiness, it can’t be maintained.”
  • “Happiness is not what life is about, it’s about struggle, and challenge, otherwise it is meaningless.”
  • “I would hate to be happy or fulfilled all the time, I’d never want that.”

While I could challenge each of the statements above directly, I’ll instead challenge the two core hypothesis upon which they are upheld.

Unquestioned Hypothesis 1: Pleasure Requires Pain

As humans, it is undeniable that pain and pleasure exist in a constant gestalt, a balance between the two. Bliss (or any positive emotion) cannot be realistically sustained without some unhealthy reliance on drugs, and pains and challenges are important points of contrast to let us know when we have it good.

I concede the following: “With our current mental hardware and software, pleasure (in any variety) probably cannot exist without the pain (in its myriad forms).”

I do not concede the following: “Pain and pleasure are baked into the essence of the universe itself, and no possible sentient mind could ever exist which does not experience a balanced gradient across both of these poles.”

It is hypothetically possible to build a mind (in artificial intelligence, or with cognitive enhancement) that experiences only gradients of positive emotion, without negative motion. Such an entity owuld still respond to stimuli (i.e. pull its hand [if it has one] away from fire), but without the conscious experience of pain – only with varying gradients of rich, powerful, positive conscious experience.

In mammalian brains (at least unaugmented ones), this is likely to be near impossible, but the laws of physics don’t seem to bar this from being possible if neurotech and AI continue to progress.

Our AI PhD poll showed over 50% of our 33 researchers believe that conscious AI will be possible by or before 2060 (see the full set of responses in the link below). Of course, this is conjecture, but it shows that it’s not just sci-fi writers who consider conscious AI – it’s AI researchers themselves.

Conscious machines
We asked 33 AI researchers: “With a 90% confidence, when do you suppose machines would become conscious (subjectively aware) in the same way that humans are?” Source: Emerj.com – Could Artificial Intelligence Become Conscious? 33 Researchers Contribute Their Opinion

It is also hypothetically possible for such a mind to experience massive, vast reaches of positive qualia (positive conscious experience) that human beings cannot possibly access. Just as goldfish can’t appreciate an oil painting or a poem from Ralph Waldo Emerson, there are an infinite number of potentially rich and enriching emotional experiences that humans are not privy to, but which a hypothetical future mind could be.

When I say “pleasure” here, I am referring to more than the feeling of having sex or eating chocolate ice cream. I am talking about:

  • The tranquility felt while walking in the woods at daybreak, in perfect quiet
  • The tears of joy when learning that a friend survived cancer treatment and is on the road to recovery
  • The satisfaction gained from cleaning one’s room and organizing the house
  • The warm, nostalgic, mixed emotional glow of remembering a past love
  • The fun and excitement of skiing in powder down a fresh and untread path
  • etc…

Now, imagine all the varieties of peak and powerful positive experiences that humans have which field mice cannot experience. Now, imagine going one step above humans, to a blooming realm of possible conscious experiences of bliss, meaning, creativity, and more – which we cannot possibly access with our meagre hominid hardware and software.

However, the issue of “pain being required for pleasure” isn’t just about pain and pleasure being linked, it’s about kinds of pleasure (namely, “meaning”, “challenge”, “achievement”, “pride”) that come from kinds of pain (physical or emotional effort or pain, heartbreak, tragedy, etc).

This topic deserves its own essay, but I’ll summarize my position as best I can here.

“Challenge” and “meaning” as we know it is unlikely to be the same forever if we are able to radically cognitively enhance humanity. Future “challenge” may not require physical or mental pain, it may simply imply continued blissful action, or working on a hard and worthy problem. In addition, there are likely to be experienced that are “post-challenge”, kinds of “meaning” that humans cannot possibly access, but which drastically transcend our sense of meaning.

We assume that our sense of meaning would surely be experienced by any potential life ever conjured forth into the world – but we are forgetting that our conception of wellbeing in “meaning” is merely the water we are swimming in, it is unlikely to be baked into reality itself.

I have written about my ideas of “the idea of challenge in a post-human future” in a previous essay – originally written for Philosophy Now magazine. You can download the word doc of that essay here. I imagine I’ll write more on this topic in the future, but I’ll leave it at that for now.

Unquestioned Hypothesis 2: Pleasure Inherently Reduces Motivation

As humans, it seems reasonably clear that satisfaction and satiation of our desires might reduce our motives for action. Pain seems to be the primary prod to get animals to do nature’s bidding (surviving, breeding).

While some humans are driven by enthusiasm and interest, my own (admittedly anecdotal) assessment of biography has made it clear that the extremes of human achievement (from Bonaparte to Gandhi to Newton, and on and on) are in large part driven by dissatisfaction and pain, not by joy and interest.

I concede the following: “With our current mental hardware and software, strong motivation to action probably cannot exist effectively without the pain and discomfort (in their myriad forms).”

I do not concede the following: “Of all possible minds that could ever exist in our universe, satisfaction and pleasure must, in all cases, and always, correlate to a decrease in motive force and drive.”

Could we study all the animals on earth today, we would probably fund thousands of them whose “satisfaction — motivation” circuits are radically different than our own, and counter to our own experience. In addition, even within human beings, the correlation between satisfaction and motivation is not as simple as “satisfaction or pleasure decreases motivation or drive.” This is far too simple.

We can imagine an artificial intelligence, or a cognitively enhanced human being, whose focus, creative energy, and motive force work in parrallel with experiencing bliss… where increases in positive qualia only add to drive and motivation. Nature may not have built us this way, but nature is a savage experiment (read AGI and Suffering – Potential Responses to the Violence of Nature), and cares not for our wellbeing.

This is among the few core ideas of my 2017 TEDx at Cal Poly (see minute 12:23 below).

Pain has served it well to get Mammalia (and possibly most animals of any kind) to do its bidding (survive, breed), and so it runs with pain. I argue that this should not be accepted as the only possible mode of motivation in the universe.

Indeed if we are to try to create new kinds of consciousness (through cognitive augmentation or artificial intelligence), I believe we are damn well obligated to explore how to build bliss into the system, rather than relying on cruel negative qualia. Maybe this can’t be done – but it would need that nothing in the laws of physics would prevent such a “blissful and motivated” mind from existing.

The Importance of Questioning the Water We Swim In

“For when he saw that almost all things necessarily required for subsistence, and which may render life comfortable, are already prepared to their hand, that men may abundantly attain wealth, honour, praise, may rejoice in the reputation of their children, yet that, notwithstanding, every one has none the less in his heart and home anxieties and a mind enslaved by wearing complaints, he saw that the vessel itself was in fault, and that all good things which were brought into it from without were spoilt by its own imperfections.”—Lucretius, On the Nature of Things

The hedonic treadmill – and the inability for humanity to maintain consistent wellbeing despite our conditions – is a shame, in utilitarian terms. One in 10 Americans is on antidepressants, the richest and most powerful nation of all time. My full essay on this topic is aptly titled The Vessel is Flawed.

We are all after wellbeing, and at some point – when cognitive enhancement becomes normal (assuming such a thing happens) – people will stop asking for what they think will make them happy – and will ask for happiness itself.

I have argued that at some point in the next 50 years, the citizenry of many first-world nations will no longer ask for more money, or more opportunity, or more options – but they will ask for happiness itself (through nanotechnology, neurotechnology, pharmacology, genetics, or whatever other means of treatment). Read: Universal Basic Happiness.

A hundred years ago many people were still using bedpans and pumping water from wells – we live like gods but we know it not. We suffer mercilessly and arbitrarily because of the circuits we were built with.

If proliferating long-term wellbeing (and decreasing long-term suffering) of sentient beings is the point, then we eventually have to move beyond “providing what should make us happy/fulfilled” and get down to how to get at more happiness/fulfillment from our core hardware and software.

It may well be impossible to untangle pain and pleasure, they may always have to exist 50-50 in some yin yang “harmony” (though I doubt this severely).

It may well be impossible to have pleasure/fulfillment without correlating decreases in motivation and action (though I doubt this severely).

But if vastly more blissful, and vastly more capable minds are possible to create – wouldn’t that be the grand crescendo of moral value? Wouldn’t that be worth striving for not just for human super-happiness, but for the fulfillment and blooming of blissful experience in any future post-human entity (even if those take thousands of years to come about)?

The United Nations has all of its Sustainable Development Goals (education, poverty alleviation, clean water, etc) – but to what ultimate end?

Let me ask it another way: How well has technology and science addressed our wellbeing thus far?

Suicide and depression are rife in the first world, because our vessel is flawed. I merely posit the following:

We eventually need goals that involve moving beyond providing what should lead to happiness – to providing happiness itself (direct positive, rich, conscious experience). This may not be a panacea, but in my opinion it absolutely must be part of the “menu” of options for improving the human condition.

We take our hedonic norms to be concrete realities, baked into the universe itself… but it is merely the water we’re swimming in.

We are so concerned with making the best of the murky pond we exist in now – but some effort must be allocated to exploring other oceans altogether.


Header image credit: JSTOR Daily