More thoughts on the future of pain

There’s no doubt many megabytes of speculation and debate to come on the issues of suffering and transhumanism that I was musing over yesterday. I’ll certainly not exhaust my own thoughts with one more post; but I felt there were a few key observations I missed, and that more than one post on the subject would help to underline my commitment to a multi-dimensional, non-monolithic approach.

I missed a clarification of my thoughts on anti-depressants. Just as I think that anaesthetics are a valuable, if possibly ambivalent, tool in the upkeep of our physical aspects, anti-depressants and related mood drugs are surely at least useful, at times, for some people, in maintaining good mental health. The crucial point to bear in mind seems to be the fact that anaesthetics would be positively dangerous to our physical being if they could be instantiated as permanent alterations to our capacities. Nineteenth century opponents of anaesthesia claimed that pain was an essential aid to diagnosis: however unpleasant the sensation, it’s nice to know when part of your body has fucked up and needs urgent attention. Equally, the pharmacological or genetic elimination of our capacity for emotional pain would have disastrous consequences, as we blundered around unwittingly harbouring nascent neuroses, and blindly riding roughshod over the feelings of others that hadn’t registered on our one-dimensional emotional radar. But still, just as the pain of surgery is unnecessary for the success of surgery, there may be times when we would benefit greatly from the artificial dampening of emotional pain.

The author of ‘Utopian Surgery‘ is prudent enough to address these obvious issues. The gist of their response is to distinguish between the functional role of pain and suffering, and their "textures"—the actual feelings associated with them. There seems to be a reasonable point here. Its roots lay in the view that biological evolution works on slow enough time scales for our basic capacities as organisms don’t significantly differ from those of our remote ancestors. The human genome was thrashed out on the African savannah over the two million or so years from Homo habilis to Homo sapiens. However, culture, and its ever-complexifying impact on the environment and our technological "exoskeleton" of habitation and vehicles, has catapulted us along some dizzying paths. The differences between these paths and the situation of early hominids in Africa can be overestimated, but is certainly crucial in debating the issues raised by transhumanism.

In short: do we really need to feel all the pain we feel, given our current situation? Do the sensations generated by our nervous systems, evolved to enable small bands of hunter-gatherers to thrive on open grasslands, do their job of alerting us to physical or emotional hiccups just as well in our current, densely urbanised, technologically advanced situation? Or might they be doing their jobs a little too well, potentially hindering the evolution of human culture?

The information-theoretic role of our nastier emotions (jealousy, spite, etc) can in principle be replicated without their current sinister textures as bequeathed by evolution—though it may be wondered whether the "functional role" of modules mediating some of our baser feelings can’t be discarded altogether along with their vicious "raw feels". It’s hard to see what jealousy is good for beyond its tendency to maximise the inclusive fitness of our genes in the ancestral environment of adaptation. Our descendants may make the judgment that neither its texture nor functional role have any redeeming value; and may therefore elect to discard both.

It’s easy to see that, once you’re on the way to Accident & Emergency with your badly broken leg, there’s very little functional purpose for the pain—and anyone standing up for their non-functional "texture" is apt to seem a little odd to say the least. It’s harder to draw the line with emotions, I think. Maybe our social fabric is under undue strain due to outdated emotional responses; maybe an impoverished consciousness of these responses is holding us back from a healthier society. I suspect there are elements of both. The question is, who will stand up and say they fully comprehend human emotional life not only within the individual, but across its whole range of cumulative interactions in the social sphere?

It’s a truism that life is inherently insecure, and any step into the future involves risk. Transhumanists—as the people most passionately concerned with our position on the brink of self-directed evolution—should be the first people to assess and outline the risks involved in this leap. They shouldn’t defensively react to fear-mongers and end up as cheerleaders for things they don’t fully understand. Rationalism is at the heart of the transhuman agenda, and a fully rational approach would involve extensive risk assessment. In terms of the manipulation of emotional suffering, this would involve a full and honest appraisal of whether we have a genuinely rounded knowledge of this loaded, potent landscape. What of those who have consciously plumbed its depths for useable tools, the shamans? Is their alliance with the demons of human suffering purely an expedient, contigent upon their brutal environment? Or is it evidence of a very sophisticated understanding of the nature of consciousness, as the echoes of the shaman’s death and resurrection in alchemy’s solve et coagula seem to testify? Let’s bring in the experts and see what they say.

As it is, I think the transhumanist’s agenda may be pushed forward not only by rich people terrified of death, and hedonist tech-heads, but by the pressing need for drastic measures in the face of social meltdown—caused not necessarily by obsolete neural structures, but by the devastating impact of ecological catastrophes and resource depletion. There may not be time for a full risk assessment if we are to make it through the evolutionary bottleneck that such (very likely) events would create. Even outside this scenario, a "full risk assessment" may not be possible. Transhumanism, for all its rationalism, may inevitably involve leaps of faith as lacking in evidence of likely success as any shaman’s plunge into unchartered depths of consciousness. Once again I say we need dialogue: between transhumanists and those who have most thoroughly explored humanity (shamans, poets, depth psychologists, anthropologists); between rationalists and those who are still mapping the other 90% of existence; between the upstart intellect and the absurdly experienced body and ecosystem.

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