The End of Suffering?

A computer science undergrad who reads this blog recently emailed me about an anxiety he’s been feeling connected to the Singularity—not that it will destroy all human life, but rather that it will make life suffering-free and therefore no longer worth living (more Brave New World than Terminator, one might say).

As he puts it:

This probably sounds silly, but I’ve been existentially troubled by certain science fiction predictions for about a year or two, most of them coming from the Ray Kurzweil/Singularity Institute types … What really bothers me is the idea of the “abolition of suffering” as some put it. I just don’t see the point. Getting rid of cancer, premature death, etc., that all sounds great. But death itself? All suffering? At what point do we just sit down and ask ourselves, why not put our brains in a jar, and just activate our pleasure receptors for all eternity? That seems to be the logical conclusion of that line of thinking. If we want to reduce the conscious feeling of pleasure to the release of dopamine in the brain, well, why not?

I guess what I think I’m worried about is having to make the choice to become a cyborg, or to upload my mind to a computer, to live forever, or to never suffer again. I don’t know how I’d answer, given the choice. I enjoy being human, and that includes my suffering. I really don’t want to live forever. I see that as a hedonic treadmill more than anything else. Crazy bioethicists like David Pearce, who want to genetically re-engineer all species on planet Earth to be herbivores, and literally abolish all suffering, just add fuel to my anxiety.

… Do you think we’re any closer to what Kurzweil (or Pearce) predicted (and by that I mean, will we see it in our lifetimes)? I want to stop worrying about these things, but something is preventing me from doing so. Thoughts about the far flung (or near) future are just intrusive for me. And it seems like everywhere I go I’m reminded of my impending fate. Ernst Jünger would encourage me to take up an attitude of amor fati, but I can’t see myself doing that. My father says I’m too young to worry about these things, and that the answer will be clear when I’ve actually lived my life. But I just don’t know. I want to stop caring, more than anything else. It’s gotten to a point where the thoughts keep me up at night.

I don’t know how many readers might have had similar anxieties, but in any case, I thought my reply might be of some interest to others, so with the questioner’s kind permission, I’m reproducing it below.

1. An end to suffering removing the meaning from life? As my grandmother might say, “we should only have such problems”! I believe, alas, that suffering will always be with us, even after a hypothetical technological singularity, because of basic Malthusian logic. I.e., no matter how many resources there are, population will expand exponentially to exploit them and make the resources scarce again, thereby causing fighting, deprivation, and suffering. What’s terrifying about Malthus’s logic is how fully general it is: it applies equally to tenure-track faculty positions, to any extraterrestrial life that might exist in our universe or in any other bounded universe, and to the distant post-Singularity future.

But if, by some miracle, we were able to overcome Malthus and eliminate all suffering, my own inclination would be to say “go for it”! I can easily imagine a life that was well worth living—filled with beauty, humor, play, love, sex, and mathematical and scientific discovery—even though it was devoid of any serious suffering. (We could debate whether the “ideal life” would include occasional setbacks, frustrations, etc., even while agreeing that at any rate, it should certainly be devoid of cancer, poverty, bullying, suicidal depression, and one’s Internet connection going down.)

2. If you want to worry about something, then rather than an end to suffering, I might humbly suggest worrying about a large increase in human suffering within our lifetimes. A few possible culprits: climate change, resurgent religious fundamentalism, large parts of the world running out of fresh water.

3. It’s fun to think about these questions from time to time, to use them to hone our moral intuitions—and I even agree with Scott Alexander that it’s worthwhile to have a small number of smart people think about them full-time for a living.  But I should tell you that, as I wrote in my post The Singularity Is Far, I don’t expect a Singularity in my lifetime or my grandchildrens’ lifetimes. Yes, technically, if there’s ever going to be a Singularity, then we’re 10 years closer to it now than we were 10 years ago, but it could still be one hell of a long way away! And yes, I expect that technology will continue to change in my lifetime in amazing ways—not as much as it changed in my grandparents’ lifetimes, probably, but still by a lot—but how to put this? I’m willing to bet any amount of money that when I die, people’s shit will still stink.

76 Responses to “The End of Suffering?”

  1. aviti Says:

    Interesting dialogue. If I may ask, is the undergrad scared of going to heaven? Because end of suffering sounds more like what we are promised in one famous book, by god, of course if one followed it.

  2. Alyssa Vance Says:

    “I’m willing to bet any amount of money that when I die, people’s shit will still stink.”

    Any amount of money? Hmmmm, at what odds?

  3. Vadim Says:

    The end of suffering I could handle (you know, if I had to). The immortality thing has me worried, though. If we got to the point where that became possible, would anyone still choose to die? Would dying be socially acceptable? What would happen to Malthus’s law if people just kept being born and never dying? What would happen to progress if stuffy ideas never passed on with their adherents? But yeah, if humanity were to ever ponder these questions more than hypothetically, then I think humanity will have done very well for itself.

  4. eray Says:

    Ray Kurzweil is a washed-up wind bag. If he could predict the future with any certainty, he’d make a fortune investing in biotech, or whatever. Instead, he makes money writing fantasy books.

  5. Scott Says:

    Alyssa #2: I was just thinking 1:1 odds, though I’ll offer 3:1 since I’m feeling generous. The practical problem with such a bet is that, by definition, I can’t collect on it until after I’m dead, though maybe I’ll have to pay if, due to technological progress, everyone’s shit stops stinking while I’m still alive. (On the other hand, if shit starts smelling with roses because of a general technological singularity, then I’d also imagine that, if we’re still here at all, inflation will have made the original bet amount worth quite a bit less.)

  6. wolfgang Says:

    It seems that the CS undergrad is mostly worried about life being endless or eternal (no suffering = no death) and I can only add that this is also one of my worst fears.
    I do not understand why most people find the religious idea of eternal life in heaven so appealing – I think it would be a nightmare.

  7. Matthias Says:

    Scott, you can collect your bet before your death, if you manage to convince someone (younger or a company) to buy your bet from you.

  8. wolfgang Says:

    I guess on this blog I should make a more rational argument.
    Let’s say you really like math or singing hymns or whatever it is they do in eternal heaven.
    So you do it for 100 years or 1000 years. But if the probability that you lose interest is non-zero there must come a point when you stop enjoying it.
    From that point on you have to keep doing something for eternity which you no longer enjoy.

    If we assume that our consciousness can only be in a finite number of different states, then things are even worse, because we would have to repeat the same experiences over and over – just like in Nietzsche’s nightmare scenario.

  9. Huck Bennett Says:

    I am strongly anti-singularist and anti-transhumanist, but I think it is likely that some futurist visions will come to pass in the relatively near future. Because of this I hope that more people start to think about these issues intently, including considering the ethics of their own work. It’s extremely important for scientists and engineers to develop technology which improves the human experience rather than replaces it.

  10. Lyle Says:

    Malthusian arguments, like those for quantum imortalality, have such depressing implications they must be true.

  11. Abdullah Khalid Says:

    I am not quite sure if a post-scarcity society of immortal humans will be suffering free, or as the undergrad claims full of pleasure. Cory Doctorow’s Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom explores such a society. It is filled with characters who have very interesting lives filled with as much sadness as happiness. For the simplest example, even in that society we will sing songs of the type I-love-her-she-does-not-love-me.

  12. Job Says:

    I am ok with living in a world where everyone is happy and well off, as long as i’m happier and better off.

  13. Bruno Says:

    When I hear people say that they enjoy being human, including their suffering, I am always suspicious that the human suffering they supposedly enjoy refers to some abstract, idealized notion, but never seems to include whichever suffering they might be going through in the present moment.

    For instance, I fail to see why he is asking for help about his anxiety and loss of sleep… Shouldn’t he just be basking in the deep gurges his own humanity?

  14. John Sidles Says:

    The questions raised in the present Shtetl Optimized essay “The End of Suffering?” are natural follow-ons to questions raised by GASARCH and Scott in comments to the previous essay “Five Announcements”, in which the following rhetorical exchange occurred (edited for concision):

    GASARCH (#42)  Are [new ideas] good news or bad news?

    Scott (#45)  You mean, when you became an academic, you didn’t sign the pact that says that learning the truth is always good news?

    The consolidated GASARCH/Aaronson proposition that “new ideas for the relief of suffering are good news” is tougher to defend than many young researchers realize.

    A sobering case study is David H. Price’ Threatening anthropology: McCarthyism and the FBI’s surveillance of activist anthropologists (2005), in which freedom of inquiry is ardently defended, and threats to that freedom are scrupulously documented.

    In effect, Price’s work answers the question “What has happened when academics have sought to reduce suffering incrementally?”

    The weak link of the [American Association of University Professors (AAUP)] 1940 — and present — statement is its insistence that along with the rights of academic freedom come inherent “responsibilities.”

    Thus the AAUP offered academic freedom to “responsible” faculty who agree to “at all times be accurate,” “exercise appropriate restraint,” and “show respect for others.” In 1970 these “responsibilities” came to include the need of faculty “to foster and defend the academic freedom of students and colleagues.”

    While the stipulations that professors have the responsibility to strive for accuracy is paramount to any academic endeavor, wnd while each of the identified “responsibilities” appears reasonable under principles of collegiality, the notion that freedom is contingent on social definitions of “responsibility” illuminates the AAUP’s view that academic freedom is an allotted privilege, not a fundamental right, available only to those who act and think in a “responsible” manner.

    The requirement of “responsibilities” clarified that academic are only leased the alienable right of academic freedom under that condition that they agree to problematically undefined standards of “responsibilities.”

    As shown by the cases […] discussed in the volume, interpretations of these “responsibilities” were subjugated by a given era’s sense of crisis.

    As Scott notes, our present era’s sense of crisis includes “climate change, resurgent religious fundamentalism, large parts of the world running out of fresh water.”

    Yet as Price documents, academic discourse that seeks to address these crises is commonly decried, opposed, and even suppressed outright.

    And the academic community’s resistance too-commonly is ineffectual … perhaps Ed Wilson is right in saying:

    “Nowhere do people tolerate attacks on their person, their family, their country … or their creation myth. […] Our leaders, religious, political, and business, mostly accept supernatural explanations of human existence. […] Scientists who might contribute to a more realistic worldview are especially disappointing. Largely yeoman, they are intellectual dwarves content to stay within the narrow specialities for which they were trained and are paid.”

    Conclusion  Academics who seek to reduce suffering encounter plenty of difficulties, obstacles, and resistance. Individual academics are better-off when they stay within the narrow specialities for which they are trained and paid … yet when every academic does this, the results aren’t good. Hopefully, not every young academic will choose to play-it-safe.

  15. Sune K. Jakobsen Says:

    “What’s terrifying about Malthus’s logic is how fully general it is: it applies […] to any extraterrestrial life that might exist in our universe or in any other bounded universe”

    I also applies to any infinite universe with a speed limit and a finite number of dimensions, because the amount of resources you can reach in time t only grows polynomially in t… And even in universes where the amount of resources you can reach in time t is exponential in t, uniformity of the universe might prevent you from solving the problem:

  16. Kaj Sotala Says:

    As one of those crazy transhumanists referenced in the email, I would like to emphasize that I only want to remove involuntary suffering. So if someone would prefer to go on suffering, I have no objection!

    With regard to Scott’s Malthus response: it assumes that people having insufficient resources would always cause suffering, which seems true given the current human mental architecture. But it doesn’t seem obvious that people couldn’t experience something akin to happiness even if they were, say, starving. Even today, there are plenty of people who run into all kinds of hardship, yet manage to remain happy. It seems possible in principle to create minds which would react to a lack of resources and continue to strive for something better, yet not suffer.

    David Pearce talks about achieving this via “gradients of well-being”: roughly, you could have a mind that felt mildly positive even when it was starving, and really good when it was not starving. This would still motivate it to take action to have a good life, and avoid the “sit down and activate our pleasure receptors for eternity” situation that the original asker describes, while also avoiding the need to experience suffering.

  17. James Cross Says:

    John Cage attended a concert by a fellow composer who wrote in the program notes for the concert, among other things, that he hoped his music might somehow go towards diminishing the suffering in the world. After the concert Cage told him that he loved the music, but hated the program notes. “But don’t you think there’s too much suffering in the world?” the composer asked. “No,” Cage replied, “I think there’s just the right amount.”

  18. Rahul Says:

    This is like being banished to the Siberian winter & worrying about heat stroke.

  19. Arpan Saha Says:

    I think this fear largely stems from the fact that pleasure, happiness, and meaningfulness (in the sense described by Viktor Frankl) aren’t really interchangeable. We know this at an intuitive level, but there seems to be no good way to pin down what exactly distinguishes one from the others. Here are some really speculative thoughts on how we could think about the difference between them quantitatively.

    It’s fairly uncontroversial to regard our sense of self as an emergent outcome of the strands of thought running through our heads, which themselves are emergent outcomes of neural activity. We don’t know yet what sort of organisational mechanisms are involved in how the self arises, but it seems reasonable to claim that there is a natural timescale associated with it. It makes no sense to speak of a self in the firing of a couple of synapses over a millisecond after all.

    Here comes the speculative part: I think there are a bunch of distinct selves with distinct associated timescales all bundled together in our brains. It isn’t completely absurd to speak of a short-term self which says, “This cake is delicious and I’m glad I’m eating it,” a medium-term self which says, “How idyllic it is to be able to work on something I love and come home to a wonderful family,” and a long-term self which says, “How extraordinarily moving it is to have led my people to freedom and be regarded as an embodiment of some of humanity’s most prized virtues.” There is not only Malthusian competition between various actors as you have pointed out but also internal conflict between these selves. This conflict is particularly palpable when it comes to things like overcoming addiction or speaking out at the risk of persecution.

    What the undergrad seems to be afraid of is the possibility that we’ll eventually have much longer lives than we do now but still continue to optimise the experience only for our short-term selves. This is legitimately terrifying, but I think by the time we reach the Singularity, we would have figured out how to make the distinction between our various selves precise and allocate resources accordingly so that as we grow older, it’s the longer-term selves which will be given preference over the shorter-term selves. Personally, I am quite enthusiastic about living an extremely long life, to the order of say 10,000 years, because I am really curious about what my super-long-term selves will be like; they haven’t even had the chance to be born yet.

  20. ramsey Says:

    I think that part of the problem is that the word “suffering” is so broad. I might use that word for the experience of being on the losing end of an intense chess game, or wrestling with a math problem for an afternoon with limited success. But then I might use the same word to describe painfully dying of some horrible disease.

    My take is that when people talk about eliminating suffering, they’re mainly talking about the second type, but when people talk about suffering giving meaning to life they often mean something short of that (though maybe not so inconsequential as the first).

    Perhaps we just need to use other words for the “good” type of suffering? Maybe things like struggle and challenge. I don’t think eliminating all struggles and challenges would be good, but I would like to eliminate type 2 suffering.

  21. fred Says:

    I think this debate will become relevant very soon in the context of virtual reality (Valve will release a customer product end of year, and Oculus by Spring next year).

    More than any technologies so far, good VR puts the focus back on empathy and the human condition, and the technology itself disappears.
    Experiencing extreme situations while physically safe is one intereting aspect of VR (like racing, flying, etc), but what’s fascinating is how VR has the potential to remove traditional emotional protection barrier.
    Any feeling in VR is multiplied compared to any other medium (book, movie) because my brain interprets the experience as true at a deep unconscious level.
    Flying through the rings of Saturn brings up tears, and playing the most cliched horror demo is *truly* terrifying (so VR isn’t that “physically safe” after all if it can induce panic and heart attacks).

    some good links for those interested
    Great talk from Michael Abrash (Oculus)

  22. ramsey Says:

    I also wanted to separately comment on the question of immortality. While I agree with many that the idea of immortality is frightening to contemplate, and indeed nearly impossible to comprehend, I think most people would prefer it to the alternative.

    My experience suggests that pretty much every healthy, non-clinically depressed person, facing fun challenges, and having friends and family, would prefer to live one more day than to die tomorrow. Then by induction…

  23. Joshua Zelinsky Says:

    Huck Bennett #9,

    Can you explain why you consider yourself anti-singularist and anti-transhumanist?

  24. John Sidles Says:

    Arpan Saha opines “I think there are a bunch of distinct selves with distinct associated timescales all bundled together in our brains.”

    Marvin Minsky’s celebrated book of AI essays The Society of Mind (1986) develops this theme. Not too many AI books are still worth reading thirty+ years on … Minsky’s book is one of the valuable exceptions (as it seems to me).

    Particularly as the original poster is troubled by “intrusive thoughts” — an experience that happens to very many people, young people especially — Minsky’s essays explain such thoughts in terms of runaway cognitive “agents” that can be tamed with the help of therapy, medications, “tincture of time” (as MDs call it), and even most simply and effectively, the sharing of a patient and sympathetic listener.

  25. Daniel Armak Says:

    The undergrad is just denying the assumption of the scenario. If they starts suffering from boredom or ennui after living for too long, then the post-Singularity world will make sure to remove that suffering 😉

    Also: many people today want to die and are prevented, e.g. by social norms, family and friends, anti-suicide advisors, and prison force-feeders. Is the undergrad troubled by this as much as he is by the post-singularity scenario (times the probability of ending up in such a situation)?

    Should suicide be discouraged or forbidden? Should we modify people’s brains (e.g. chemically) to make them less suicidal, and should we do so against their will? These are open questions: I only want to note that the general concern isn’t limited to post-singularity scenarios, and for most people likely anchors on these very horrible images – being forcibly kept alive though wanting to die.

  26. Mateus Araújo Says:

    I never understood these people that conflate the absence of ageing and death with the obligation to live forever.

    I mean, there are lots of fantasy stories where people literally can’t die no matter how hard they try, but I hope nobody thinks that’s plausible.

    Even if you remove ageing, you still have a death rate of roughly 1/10000 by traffic accidents; and this death rate (or any nonzero one for that matter) will make you die within a short amount of time with overwhelming probability. For this death rate, for example, you have probability 0.5 of dieing before reaching 7 000 years, or probability 0.9 of dieing before reaching 23 000 years.

    And if you do somehow have the ability to actually live forever, you can always kill yourself if you get bored after some millions of years; that doesn’t seem remotely as bad as our current obligation of dieing within ~100 years.

  27. jonas Says:

    If you can avoid poverty and bullying, sure, go for it. But “one’s Internet connection going down” can be occasionally useful because of what you can learn from it, such as

  28. Sandro Says:

    even after a hypothetical technological singularity, because of basic Malthusian logic.

    Malthus was never right, and I’m surprised to hear you agree with his argument. Population growth is logistical, not exponential [1]. It merely appears exponential at first, but passing a certain affluence threshold yields a marked *decrease* in population growth rate. This is well documented, so resources are not really a concern unless either this threshold is above sustainable levels, which doesn’t currently appear to be the case, or we stop dying entirely.

    When this affluence threshold is surpassed globally, we might even face a population crisis since immigration can no longer be used to shore up our falling population numbers.


    (We could debate whether the “ideal life” would include occasional setbacks, frustrations, etc., even while agreeing that at any rate, it should certainly be devoid of cancer, poverty, bullying, suicidal depression, and one’s Internet connection going down.)

    I have mixed feelings about the question of suffering too. I have a hard time conceiving of an education that could supplant proper experience, such that all people truly value a world without suffering.

    It’s like the Mary’s Room argument, but applied to suffering instead of colour. We can know an infinite number of facts about suffering, but truly experiencing some degree of suffering is needed to fully understand and appreciate it.

    Although I also agree that such a world is probably impossible, enough people could live in local pockets free of suffering that it’s still a “concern” of sorts.

  29. Hook Says:

    We’re just a few years away from heroin producing yeast. On the scale of decades, all of the perfume industries raw materials will be produced by single celled organisms. Then some enterprising bio-hacker will move that genetic machinery to an organism that can live with the other human micro biota. Ok, so the end product will still stink, but it will stink in an entirely different way.

  30. Chris Roberts Says:

    Pretty much agree with Scott’s thoughts. Life is meaningful because, well, of the meaningful things we do, not because of suffering. Suffering has been described as another of life’s spices, but it’s a spice I could do without. While in some ways suffering does drive people to perform (discoveries made through war, the struggle against disease, etc), human curiosity also plays a significant role. I don’t think that will ever go away.

    As for living forever, why does that have to be an absolute? It is possible that I would eventually want my life to end, so why not end it? The paradigm regarding suicide would likely shift quite a bit. I much prefer having the choice of when to die after living for hundreds of years over having no choice and dying after a few decades.

  31. Alex Says:

    Your Singularity is Far reasoning seems similar to what I’ve worked out.

    That gives me a little confidence boost.

    I think meta-inquiry into these topics is interesting. Why did Kurzweil craft flawed arguments but still become popular? What alarms this computer science student? Why am I writing this post?

    I feel like the most influential current futurists are best understood as self-promoters or propagandists. I’m not saying there could not be useful inquiry into a singularity, but I have yet to find any.

    If we want to hone intuitions, why not just construct thought experiments like the Trolley Problem?

  32. Saul Says:

    “There are people that you’d expect to hype the Singularity, like Ray Kurzweil. He’s a futurist. . . . But he has not contributed anything to the science of AI, as far as I can tell.” – Yann Lecun (Director of AI Research at FB)

  33. Eggo Says:

    People used to think that human suffering and barbaric behaviour would end once food was plentiful and cheap.
    I suspect our friends in modern social movements will find plenty of ways to keep us miserable after the Glorious Transhuman Revolution.

    There will always be a Martin Latsis around to turn any surplus of resources towards exterminating problematic classes of people.

  34. Joshua Zelinsky Says:

    Eggo #33,

    People have become less barbaric as food and other resources have become plentiful. They haven’t become perfect, but they have improved. See Pinker’s “The Better Angels of Our Nature” for one fairly strong argument that violence levels have gone down over time.

    Note also that if anything, your Latsis example reinforces this point: Russia was in absolutely terrible shape in the lead up to the revolution.

  35. Huck Bennett Says:

    Joshua Zelinsky #23: I dislike those things because (by definition) they spell the end of humanity and the human experience. Of course whether one values the human experience is a matter of philosophy. My own arguments favoring it are far outside the scope of a blog comment.

  36. Joshua Zelinsky Says:

    Huck @ 35,

    What do you mean by human experience and humanity that you think they would spell the end of either?

  37. vzn Says:

    “end of suffering”? HAHAHAHA
    suffering will be around as long as humans are. some of it will be “self inflicted” in the sense of “do unto others before they do unto you”!
    the singulatarians are a lot of fun & amusing & ahead of the curve in thinking about implications of AI but lets face it, its nearly a RELIGION.
    why is it with massive productivity increases for decades, some due to IT/ technology advances, wages are FLAT? there is a REASON…
    why is wealth inequality at RECORD levels in the US?
    instead of kurzweil, read some Marx! the capitalists own the economies, and virtually own entire govts.
    and unfortunately, extraordinary technology & innovation (so far) doesnt counteract that (thinly veiled) near-plutocratic social order/ system!

  38. Huck Bennett Says:

    Joshua Zelinsky #36: It’s tautological. If we’re transhuman then we’ll be past the human condition. From the Wikipedia transhumanism article’s introduction:

    The most common thesis put forward is that human beings may eventually be able to transform themselves into beings with such greatly expanded abilities as to merit the label posthuman.

    Maybe I misunderstood your question, though.

  39. Aaron Sheldon Says:

    Neither suffering nor pain respects ones station in life. Even the wealthiest and wisest of men suffer and feel pain. All that changes with advancements in technology and material wealth are the causes of pain and suffering, not its presence.

    Perhaps what is most telling is that I do not regret the pain and suffering I have experienced, rather I regret my own idiocy, stupidity, and self serving deceit, in short when I acted shamefully.

    If I could remove anything from this world it would be stupidity, idiocy, and self serving deceit, not suffering and pain. After all suffering and pain can be transcended, stupidity, idiocy, and self serving deceit cannot.

    That is not to say that I harbor no linger anger or resentment to those that caused me to suffer; the bitter pills of which still haunt the corners of my psyche. More than anything, however, my experience of pain and suffering has given me a greater empathetic perspective on life, sculpting the raw materials of my identity into a more compassionate, generous, loving, accepting, and forgiving person. Over time my experiences with pain and suffering has also made me more adept at recognizing and bring into my life those who will reciprocate emotionally.

    …and then there are those who touch at the limits of humanity; if you desire to explore the physical, intellectual, and emotional limits of life you must embrace the experience of suffering and pain. Whether it is enduring the rigors of the necessary training to prepare for those limits, or the time spent at those limits it all comes at the cost of physical and mental taxation and isolation.

    Yet, there is also no denying the brotherhood of pain and suffering. There is a kinship formed in the shared experience of pain and suffering, as they are among the most intimate emotions one can experience. It can be as simple and subtle as a shared look between runners hitting the wall “dude, yeah I’m there too” to the immensely incomparably complex, brutal, and overwhelming of genocide survivors telling their stories to truth and reconciliation committees. More than just forming bonds with others, recognizing a common experience of pain and suffering helps alleviate the pain and suffering itself.

    We will never be without pain and suffering, nor should we ever be, but I hope some day that we will be free of people who act shamefully towards others.

  40. Alex Says:

    Joshua @ 36
    Huck @ 35

    It seems we have some bona fide transhumanists and anti-transhumanists here. Anyone want to meet my request in the postscript to this?

  41. Aaron Sheldon Says:

    I suppose I should add one more thought, in the voice of Hemingway:

    There is nothing noble in the moment of pain and suffering. I was not noble two hours after dark grovelling my way up detached pillar of ice and rock, on the side of some now long past godforsaken mountain. Groping by headlamp for the next hold, and the next, and next, hoping to find a bivy spot. No I was not noble, snot oozing through the stubble of a face that had not seen a razor in 8 days. I was not noble when tears of exhaustion bit my checks in the stinging snow, while my breath shook with fear and agony, and my mind pleaded for relief. I was not noble in that moment, reeking of urine because the last stance to relieve myself was a hanging belay where the wind whipped my piss back at me. No there was nothing noble in that moment, and no objective observer calmly taking in the scene from the sidelines would have ever recognized any nobility in that moment. But how I choose to comport myself in the moment after that, and the one after that, and after that, and in all the other succeeding moments, as the pain and suffering faded into a dream, that was when I was noble. The nobility was found in how I faced my pain and suffering; and the resolve it endowed in me to live out the rest of my life as fully as possible.

    That last line is written with a tad bit of irony considering that Hemingway ended his own life.

  42. Aaron Sheldon Says:

    This discussion has also conflated pain and suffering with unnecessary intentional harm; neither of which humanity will be free of anytime soon. While western societies have progressively become more physically safe, we are no more free of intentional harm than we were 100, 1000, or 10000 years ago; in fact it maybe more pervasive now, with the ease with which we can anonymously exerted incredible social harm via social media. Our advanced technologies have allowed us to migrate from more direct active intentional physical harm to more indirect passive but no less intentional social and emotional harm.

  43. anonymous Says:

    “If you want to worry about something, then rather than an end to suffering, I might humbly suggest worrying about a large increase in human suffering within our lifetimes. A few possible culprits: climate change, resurgent religious fundamentalism, large parts of the world running out of fresh water”

    Perhaps if you lived in Europe, you would realize that a much more immediate threat are the people governing the US empire, where you happen to live (I live in one of its European satellite states myself, under US de facto dictatorship – via IMF, its huge military infrastructure and other means of control). They have a great part in “resurgent religious fundamentalism”, starting with Afghanistan and ending with the coup in Libiya (culminating with the inhuman public lynch of its former governor, organized by US/UK), and the horrible carnage in Syria, for which is partly responsible also our “historical homeland” (I am a jew like yourself). Some of them speak openly of a possibility of a “preventive nuclear strike” against Russia, and if this still leaves you more or less indifferent, I can attribute it only to the most massive Orwellian brainwash you undergo from the six or so corporations which own the “mainstream media” in US.

  44. fred Says:

    #41 #42 Aaron

    I think we’ve lost track that life is all about survival. Survival is what’s been driving humanity forward since the dawn of time. It gave us focus and dreams.

    What’s noble is working through the disgraces of pain and suffering in order to survive. The alternative is to give up, lay down, and die – there is also nobility in recognizing that it’s all over and accepting it, or doing it as a personal sacrifice for the survival of a bigger entity.
    Modern society does a great job at sheltering us from all the massive suffering and dying that’s constantly happening around us (facing that stuff would make us sub-optimal consumers).
    Sure, the western world has managed to delay death by a few decades on average, but sooner or later everyone is put in a position where it’s *still* all about one’s survival.

    Even if we manage to make individual lives super safe by uploading minds to servers and whatnot (assuming we don’t turn ourselves into carrots with no dreams and motivations in the process), there will still be the question of survival of the species as a whole, so the anguish of one’s mortality will never disappear.

    The John Borman 1974 scifi movie “Zardoz” deals with a lot of those themes:
    The world is divided between the “Eternals” and the “Brutals”.
    The Eternals are an isolated minority of scientists who’ve reached limitless lifespan and maximum boredom thanks to their supercomputer AI (the Tabernacle).
    The Brutals is the rest of humanity, living in a savage wasteland, barely surviving.
    And the status quo gets broken in a surprising way…

  45. JimV Says:

    Aaron Sheldon @41: Thanks for the Hemingway excerpt, which I had not seen before. In “For Whom the Bell Tolls” his main character disparages the cowardice of suicide, to add to the possible irony, but in his defense he had two or three very serious head injuries and and could no longer pursue an active life or gather his faculties to write and may have been descending into Alzheimer’s disease. Similar things have happened to American Football players who have had multiple concussions.

  46. domenico Says:

    It is interesting, a singularity give the possibility to reduce problems for the humanity, and extended life, pain reduction, and … no problem.
    But this is the problem, each technology can only reduce the problems, but cannot delete them (it is sufficient to wait enough time because they happen, just change the life time scale); this remind me the Struldbrug in Gulliver’s Travels: the immortality with the aging, that can be applied to each technology: the dvd is almost indestructible (immortal), but there is deterioration and hardware aging, and disappearance of the information in geological eras, so it happen for each imaginable technology.
    The computer science undergrad should not worry.

  47. Joshua Zelinsky Says:

    Huck Bennett #38,

    That’s not really helpful though, because different people define “human” and “post-human” differently. For example, prior to about a 100 years ago, women dying in childbirth was a common problem to the point where one could easily have included it as part of the “the human condition” I’m pretty sure you don’t include that. So when you object to transhumanism, what do you mean by the human condition and why is it valuable?

  48. Joshua Zelinsky Says:

    Alex #40,

    I’m not sure I’m the person to ask about that, because I’m generally inclined to have almost no restrictions. But it is I think a very interesting question.

  49. Alex Says:

    Joshua @ 48

    There are policies inside a Libertarian framework that still allow you to (maybe drastically) boost or reduce enhancement, like tax rates. I want to know how much genetic enhancement we should do. Currently it’s less than 1.5% of US births. Should we increase this, decrease it, or neither?

  50. Sniffnoy Says:

    Honestly I still think Eliezer Yudkowsky gave the best answers I’ve seen so far to a lot of these questions. I mean, I doubt that I’d call his “fun theory” sequence the right answer, but at least it’s a more serious attempt to answer the question than I’ve seen elsewhere.

  51. Joshua Zelinsky Says:


    Phrased that way, definitely more than we are doing now. There are lots of very basic changes where making the changes seem to be almost morally compelling.

  52. MadRocketSci Says:

    Is anyone attempting to make serious progress at slowing aging? I’ve seen the occasional pop-sci article where they’ve gotten lab rats to live X times longer than their standard 2 years by tweaking things with their metabolism or telomeres.

    I’ve often joked that in 20 years, we’ll have definitely cured cancer, and regrown organs, repaired spinal injuries – in lab rats. We’ll be able to drastically increase intelligence – in lab rats. I for one welcome our immortal genetically engineered lab-rat overlords. 😛

  53. MadRocketSci Says:

    I’ve been thinking a bit about some transhumanists, who, rather than wanting to enable people to live longer and do more themselves with drastically improved technological tools, instead seem to want to remove agency from people and leave everything up to super-powered AIs, relegating humans to the status of some sort of cared for pet. I find those sorts of visions of the future very off-putting.

    Better technology that extends the range of things I can do? Awesome. Arbitrarily long lifespan (so that *I* get to decide when to call it quits, if ever?): Sign me up (or my grandkids, as the timeline may have it). Summoning robot Cthulhu to remake the universe in your image before those other fools summon robot Cthulhu to remake the universe in their image, and (benevolently, they swear!) sweep humanity aside? Errr …

  54. Sniffnoy Says:

    Is anyone attempting to make serious progress at slowing aging? I’ve seen the occasional pop-sci article where they’ve gotten lab rats to live X times longer than their standard 2 years by tweaking things with their metabolism or telomeres.

    Well, Aubrey de Grey is certainly trying, though I can’t speak for how well it’s going.

    Summoning robot Cthulhu to remake the universe in your image before those other fools summon robot Cthulhu to remake the universe in their image, and (benevolently, they swear!) sweep humanity aside? Errr …

    I think you’re mixing up a few things here. The “summon benevolent Cthulhu before someone else summons malicious or indifferent Cthulhu” part sounds like you’re trying to describe Eliezer Yudkowsky (or more generally MIRI). But Eliezer Yudkowsky is explicitly opposed to AIs that would “sweep humanity aside” and “relegate humans to the status of some sort of cared for pet”. (Although, you may have a broader notion of that than him.) But how exactly to make those two goals work together is, I think, an open problem…

  55. MadRocketSci Says:

    (PPS – recognizing that all this hypothetical transhumanist technology is science fiction, until someone does the hard work of actually making it work… Science fiction is fun to speculate about though:)

    If in the future we obtain the ability to seriously modify our natures (going at our fundamental motives to tweak the things we find desirable, for instance), then N generations down the road, people might find entirely different things desirable/worthwhile/valuable than in generation 1 (or pre-self-modification iteration 1). Evaluated from the standpoint of generation 1, generation N’s goals might seem incomprehensible or heading directly against generation 1’s goals.

    It reminds me of this experiment I read about once (maybe in psych class back in undergrad) where monkeys were given a button to self-administer cocaine. After enough presses of the button, all the pre-button normal monkey motivations were replaced with a desire to just keep pressing that button ad-infinitum. If you adhere to a sort of local-utilitarian measure of how good post-button-monkey’s actions/results are, then post-button-monkey is doing great, because post-button monkey is getting something he desperately wants, even if pre-button monkey would find his behavior incomprehensible. (General utilitarian relativity?: some hypothetical parallel transport of utility to take into account modifications to the utility measure as a function of the state, history?)

    How do we know that generation N is pursuing something worthwhile, as opposed to pursuing what they do because they’ve gotten mode-locked somehow?

    What prevents the shortest-path to solving a problem (say overcrowding, for example) to be redefining your evaluation of your situation so that it’s not a problem for you anymore? Is that actually dealing with the issue?

  56. Darrell Burgan Says:

    I remain convinced there will be no Singularity. I won’t even argue all the reasons I think humanity won’t be able to ever create one. I’ll simply point to the cosmos and ask “where are they?”. If a Singularity could occur, it would have already occurred, and it would be a threat to far more than humanity.

  57. Scott Says:

    Darrell #56: There are plenty of good arguments that one can raise against Singulatarian ideas, but I’m not sure that’s one of them. What if human-level intelligence is unlikely enough to have only arisen once in our entire observable universe (a possibility consistent with all our observations, though of course not entailed by them)? What if, as a result, other technological singularities do occur, but all of them are outside our past light-cone?

  58. Darrell Burgan Says:

    Scott #57: isn’t the essence of the Singularity that it is a positive-feedback chain reaction? If so, surely such an unbounded exponential process would leave a mark?

    I suppose I am implicitly arguing that consciousness itself is not rare. To me, it seems very strong-anthropic to suppose we are special in such an inconceivably vast space-time as the one in which we inhabit. If the presumption holds that intelligence has occurred a huge number of times, then it seems to me very logical to assume that a Singularity must have occurred a huge number of times – if one was possible at all.

    Maybe I’m missing it?

  59. Mike Johnson Says:

    Hi Scott,

    I think the puzzle of suffering is a problem in information theory. Here’s Tegmark on the topic, via

    Quantum effects aside, a truly well-defined goal would specify how all particles in our Universe should be arranged at the end of time. [But] what particle arrangement is preferable, anyway?
    … One possible exception is that for most reasonable definitions of “meaning”, our Universe has no meaning if it has no consciousness. Yet maximizing consciousness also appears overly simplistic: is it really better to have 10 billion people experiencing unbearable suffering than to have 9 billion people feeling happy?
    In summary, we have yet to identify any final goal for our Universe that appears both definable and desirable.

    My interpretation: some patterns of consciousness (…or data structures in qualia space…) feel better than others. Why?

    We don’t have the answer to this question at this point, but it seems (to me, at least) like a question that should have a proper, rigorous sort of answer.

  60. James Cross Says:


    The First Noble Truth of Buddhism is: “Life is suffering.”

    I think it is likely that intelligent extraterrestrials have either extinguished themselves or become Buddhists. In either case, they won’t bother us.

  61. Scott Says:

    Darrell #58: Well, there’s still causality! Even Eliezer Yudkowsky, in his writings, doesn’t imagine the effects of a technological singularity propagating outward from their source at any faster than the speed of light.

  62. David Pearce Says:

    1) As people become happier, life tends to seem more meaningful – sometimes too meaningful. Compare euphoric mania, where everyday experience is charged with an extreme sense of purpose and significance. By contrast, chronic low mood is associated with a sense of emptiness and futility which shades into the nihilism of severe depression.

    Needless to say, we don’t want to create a world of euphorically manic people. But _if_ our genetically enriched descendants are vastly happier than contemporary humans, then they will most likely find life hugely more significant too. In a nutshell: take care of (un)happiness and the meaning of life takes care of itself.

    2) An effectively unlimited abundance of material goods will not – by itself – cheat the hedonic treadmill and abolish suffering. There is little scientific evidence that contemporary humans are typically (un)happier than our ancesors on the African savannah. Humans are social primates. We crave positional or status goods, which are finite by definition. Whether competitive football, chess, politics, war – or the brutal struggle for tenure-track faculty positions in academia – there will be “winners” and “losers”. Hence the persistence of suffering might seem inevitable. To imagine that posthuman social life might be akin to us all being “loved up” on MDMA is (probably) naïve.

    However, one advantage of using biotech radically to elevate hedonic set-points is that your core values and preference architecture can in principle be preserved while _also_ radically enriching everyone’s quality of life. Shifting the upper and lower bounds of your hedonic range, and your typical hedonic set-point, needn’t involve sacrificing anything you value. So long as “informational sensitivity” to good and bad stimuli is retained, critical insight and social responsibility can be preserved too. Indeed, there is no technical reason why experience below “hedonic zero” need be conserved at all. For an existence-proof that life based on gradients of intelligent bliss is feasible, we need merely study extreme outliers: some of the very happiest and most productive “hyperthymic” people alive today. We know from twin studies that hedonic set-points have a high degree of genetic loading. If you were choosing via preimplantation genetic screening the attributes of your future children, which variants of the following genes would you select: (COMT) (serotonin transporter gene) (ADA2b deletion variant) (pain-sensitivity)
    And so forth.
    Selection pressure in favour of “happier “genomes is likely to accelerate as the reproductive revolution gathers pace.

    Pitfalls? Yes, lots.
    But every child born today is a unique and untested genetic experiment too.

    3) Talk of a living world without suffering sounds ecologically illiterate. Don’t transhumanists understand the thermodynamics of a food chain!?

    But just as Malthusian predictions of “inevitable” human immiseration were confounded by family planning, likewise an analogous use of fertility regulation is possible via cross-species immunocontraception in tomorrow’s wildlife parks. No technical reason exists why sentient beings must harm each other indefinitely. _If_ we want to phase out the biology of suffering throughout the living world while at the same time preserving a recognisable approximation of today’s “charismatic mega-fauna”, then the real obstacles will be ideological – and perhaps simple status quo bias. The CRISPR revolution in biotech, and the imminent computational accessibly of every cubic meter of the planet to surveillance, micro-management and control, mean that whether intelligent agents choose to preserve the biology of suffering is ultimately an ethical choice.

    Here are four policy options:
    1) “Pleistocene rewilding” – restoring much of the planet to its state before the human impact.
    2) The status quo – essentially an extension of existing conservation biology: more wildlife parks, minimal intervention – conservation with no regard to the subjective well-being of individuals, just the abstract health of species and ecosystems.
    3) Compassionate biology, ultimately extending to all free-living sentients: cross-species fertility regulation via immunocontraception, genetic tweaking and/or in vitro meat for obligate carnivores, a pan-species welfare state in tomorrow’s Nature reserves, in short, “high-tech Jainism”:
    4) Phasing out free-living nonhuman sentients altogether.
    (cf. “Why improve nature when destroying it is so much easier?

    4) Transhumanists have radically different conceptions of posthuman superintelligence.
    Crudely oversimplifying, here are three.

    (a) The I.J.Good / Yudkowsky / MIRI / Bostrom “Intelligence Explosion”. AGI goes ‘FOOM’: a “replacement” scenario.
    (b) A Kurzweilian “fusion”, scenario where humans and our machines effectively merge. Mind uploading, etc.
    (c) A biointelligence explosion, where posthuman superintelligences are our cybernetically-enhanced biological descendants. Recursively self-improving organic robots (i.e. us) master their own genetic source code and bootstrap their way to full-spectrum superintelligence.

    Whatever option (if any) you favour, the proposal that we use biotechnology and infotech to phase out suffering does _not_ depend on invoking a “Technological Singularity”, an “Intelligence Explosion”, or any other deus ex machina to solve all our problems. Rather, phasing out the biology of suffering will be technically feasible later this century and beyond with recognisable extensions of existing technologies. (cf. “Genetically Engineering Almost Anything”:
    Whether phasing out suffering will ultimately prove sociologically feasible is a harder question I won’t attempt to answer here.

    Sadly, I share Scott’s tentative prediction of an increase in suffering this century.

  63. fred Says:

    About the “singularity”, lots of natural/biological processes are “geometric”, but they’re all very bounded by some actual resources in their environment. They’re all some kind of transformation of something into something else.
    An atomic chain reaction.
    Virus/cell reproduction is geometric (each splits in 2 every x unit of time), bounded by the available nutrients.
    Apparition of life on earth and the human species taking over the earth could be considered a singularity given how fast it happened on the cosmic scale. We’re limited by the earth resources, but if we could colonize the entire galaxy at the current population growth, we would saturate it in a few thousand years.

  64. Jr Says:

    Aren’t games invented precisely to give us a challenge when nature does not necessarily provide one?

  65. Orange Says:

    These comments remind me of the The Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect ( Be warned it has quite a bit of adult content, but it addresses this issue very well.

  66. mjgeddes Says:

    Scott #57

    I think the Fermi paradox applies to SAIs as well – why don’t we see obvious signs of them?

    Did you recently see the big news item about the scan of 100,000 galaxies for signs of waste heat – nothing was found.

    “For the research, Wright and his colleagues analyzed a vast catalog of observations made in 2010 by NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) space telescope. The team looked at the heat emitted by the 100,000 “most promising” candidates of the all-sky catalog’s nearly 100 million entries.”

    And these were the most promising candidates out of 100 million entries! Still nothing! By the laws of thermodynamics some infrared heat seems an unavoidable side-effect of *any* advanced technologies.

    It’s most odd and disconcerting. I mean, it’s credible that we’re alone in this galaxy, but no intelligent life in 100 000 other galaxies either?

    Either intelligent life is much much rarer than commonly supposed, or we are forced to conclude that there is some huge gap in our understanding about the universe, or that something extremely weird is happening.

  67. James Cross Says:

    A brief comment on this:

  68. quax Says:

    At what point do we just sit down and ask ourselves, why not put our brains in a jar, and just activate our pleasure receptors for all eternity? That seems to be the logical conclusion of that line of thinking.

    A conclusion that was indeed gamed out in a Sci Fi story many years ago:

  69. Yawner Says:

    I find it amusing what some people fret about. Oh no, someone wants to abolish suffering! Whatever will we do?!?

    It’s even more absurd because it’s such an unrealistic pipe dream. Not only will there never be a consensus to do this, they will also never get the technology right. And if they did, the “enhanced” organisms would die.

    The right answer is, “Quality over Quantity”: A small world population with high living standards.

  70. Virendra Says:

    “Suffering” in the discussion above is taking various meanings. Some referring to death while some are referring to pain and poverty and scarcity. Suffering to me is the state of not being in control of my own environment and that is eternal for us humans. We are constantly in transaction with our environment and we wish it to respond in a certain manner every moment. So suffering is constant. The relevant question to ask would be “Why is suffering there in the first place?” It has some purpose in the evolutionary scheme of things. That is why we as a species have not evolved out of it. It certainly has a role to play in a major way. We can not even think of causing an end to suffering unless we know what is its role in evolution. If I have to offer an explanation to the question I have raised; I suspect it is present because it is fundamental reason of our existence. It acts as a motivation for us to study our environment and try to stop all the dynamic change which occurs in nature which nature does not like because of its inertia. We are devices which nature evolved to study those changes and try to find ways to stop those changes. Suffering has given birth to religion and science and with the latter we seem to be on the right track. Once we figure why is so much dynamic change in our environment, suffering will end automatically. It can not be ended artificially.

  71. James Cross Says:


    One of your links begins with a quote from Buddha.

    Yet you seem to be forgetting the major lesson of Buddhism. The Buddha was raised as a prince and shielded from suffering. Eventually he encountered old age and sickness. The experience shocked him to renounce his life as a prince and to search for a Truth that would free him from suffering.

    There is no freedom from suffering in technology or societal engineering because suffering is built into the nature of human existence. At its root, it arises from awareness of our own ultimate dissolution.


    The evolutionary point of suffering is that without it we would have no evolution. See my more extended comment in the link I gave earlier.

  72. Joe Says:

    Isn’t it important to distinguish between physical and psychological suffering? It’s easy to imagine a technologically driven significant reduction of the former. But psychological suffering? No matter how much technology changes, human beings will continue to suffer from the seven deadly sins of pride, envy, gluttony, lust, anger, greed, and sloth, and all of those sins can lead to considerable psychic distress and, yes, suffering. I suppose one could argue that human brains could be rewired to eliminate those drives, but then the resulting creature could hardly be called a human being. So fear not! Suffering is here to stay.

  73. David Pearce Says:

    Even malaise-ridden people are prone to status quo bias. One way to correct such bias is to imagine a thought-experiment where we encounter an advanced civilisation that has abolished the biology of suffering. Its members enjoy lives animated entirely by information-sensitive gradients of intelligent bliss.

    What exactly are these super-happy extraterrestrials missing? Should we urge them to reintroduce a genetic predisposition to depression, anxiety disorders, and others nasty psychological states from their evolutionary history? Are their compassionately run wildlife parks boring in the absence of violence, predation and famine? Would their sublime aesthetic creations be more “authentic” with a bit of tormented artistic angst?

    I suspect they’d regard humans who advocated re-introducing such horrors as emotional primitives in the grip of a depressive psychosis.

  74. Michael Gogins Says:

    Suffering cannot be extinguished it is rooted in an awareness that death is inevitable.

    Death is inevitable with or without a technological singularity, because even the entire universe that we live in and which underwent cosmic inflation 13.7 billion years ago will decay into a state that will not support any kind of life or intelligence at all. This will take an absurdly long time. But it will not take forever. Therefore no matter what you do you will die.

    If there is an end to suffering it cannot come from science or technology.

  75. Joshua Zelinsky Says:

    James Cross #71,

    So far. The technology during the time of the Buddha was nothing like ours today. We have longer life spans, and have such low childhood mortality rates that we’d be considered a utopia by many ancient cultures. Biologists have almost slain one of the four Horsemen of the Apocalypse And we are doing better and better.

    And given a few trillion years, we might even find a loophole to deal with the whole heat-death of the universe thing. So even that’s not definite. Note also that this is all implicitly taking part of your premise for granted, that inevitably of death implies inevitably of suffering. This is not obvious.

  76. SidSeal Says:

    I would say my own concerns are pretty much the opposite of the undergrad’s. I am 27 years old and in good health, and I am very fearful that I will not be able to see the Singularity. I do think that if my lifespan is limited to a very optimistic 100 years that I won’t see the Singularity. My hope is that science will progress enough in my lifetime that I will be able to extend my life long enough to eventually assume a cybernetic form, or genetically evolve into an advanced human form.

    The idea of death is so undesirable to me, and I want to know the mysteries of science and of the universe that will be discovered in the next several hundred years. I have done some research, and there is a cryonics institute in Michigan that will keep a person’s body frozen in liquid nitrogen until such techniques exist for reviving them and curing whatever “killed” them in the first place. The fee for this is around $30000, but I read somewhere that a person can purchase an insurance policy that pays for this treatment on death for as low as $100 a year.