March 17, 2008

A Pill for a New Reality

dw00mats.jpgDana Wyse @ aeroplastics (via Bad Science). Lots of pills, patches, teas and injections to solve every small and big problem of life - dead goldfish resuscitation powder, eye colour pills, pills for accepting the fact that you are ageing, to enjoy the taste of exotic food, become a successful entrepreneur, fly a Boeing 747 or feel ecstatic everyday forever!

This is of course satire over our quick-fix, pill-popping culture, but what if they were real? (discussion below the fold)

The standard assumption most people make is that anything achieved through a quick remedy is not going to be "real" or as worthwhile as when achieved through hard work. But a pill that stimulates the pleasure system certainly produces real pleasure, and a memory enhancer will help laying down memories more strongly. The authenticity of their effects depend on how they link up with the rest of the person: their past, their desires, their activities etc.

Real pills cannot contribute more than stimulation or inhibition in particular brain subsystems, so they can at most trigger existing mental programs or affect how they are executed. They do not provide more than a few bits of information. Much of the importance of hard work is just that it supplies information, and that this information links up with the rest of the extended person. Learning how to fly internalizes the skills of flying but also links them to personal values, styles of thought and social attributions. This is far more complex than a simple drug would be able to provide, and presumably often valuable in terms of personal growth and the ability to use the new skills flexibly and for personal goals.

Yet even a bare skill set may be useful. If anybody could pop an emergency pilot pill, many air accidents could likely be avoided even if the piloting skills were inauthentic and limited. A language learning pill would in reality need to connect the representations of sounds to internal concept representations and add a variant grammar (a pretty tall order), but even a crude improvement of understanding can be helpful in some situations. A pill that temporarily removed the fear of death might be extremely useful to teach people it can be handled (and enable some really stupid stunts, of course).

I think we are both overvaluing the importance of authenticity and underestimating the extent advanced neurotechnology could in the future induce complex mental states (but it is going to take quite a while!). This blinds us to the really subversive potential of Dana Wyse's pills. If faith, courage, sexual orientation, attitudes to grandmother and understanding of contemporary art could be changed quickly and easily, would we do it, would it be good, and would the resulting society be stable?

Of course, Stanislaw Lem has already explored the idea in The Futurological Congress. But he doesn't allow himself to fully explore the ultra-fluid society pharmocracy, likely because it is more exciting for author and reader alike to do wild plot twists and invoke dystopia.

I think the "would it be good" question is actually problematic, because if you have an ethical system putting human happiness as the prime good, then you have a system with a potentially adjustable mental state as the prime good. With the right tools human happiness can be achieved. After all, eudaimonia (and simple pleasure) is a particular mental state (possibly very complex and individual), and could in principle be achieved by adjusting the brain. One might invoke Robert Nozick's Experience Machine to argue that such a happy state would not be true happiness or incomplete, but Nozick's three reasons are all vulnerable to Wyse pills: we may want to do certain things for real, but using pills we could change what we want - or make it easier for us to do them. We want to be certain kinds of people, but pills could make us want to be a different kind or make us the kind of person. And while the pill might constrain our thinking in some respects, it does not necessarily lock us into a man-made reality with limited possibilities. Sober's counter-argument that we might be more happier with the idea of a non-ignorant life than the actual state of being non-ignorant also suggests that we might want to seek out peculiar mental states where we are aware about our illusions and manipulations, yet fully enjoy them. And so on. Similarly deontology can be enhanced by taking courage or truthfulness pills - while not grounded in a "real" moral decision at the time of courage or truthfulness, the decision to take such a pill in order to be moral in the future seems to be a moral decision. Sufficiently powerful mind-editing seems to make any value system problematic.

In practice people are unlikely to take everything, and the pattern of what superdrugs they would use would to a large extent determine what they would be. It is not unlike Sasha Chislenko's idea of a "" - your desires and meta-desires allow you to shape yourself to fit them, picking up abilities as needed. You can change your desires and meta-desires, but you will do so based on them; most likely stable attractor states would correspond to possible identities. These could be relatively simple ("I am myself, and I refuse to take any drug that changes my self in any essential way!") or exceedingly complex time evolutions (the A desire makes the being change to B desires, which lead to C desires, which leads to D, E, ... until one of the desires leads to A or any of the earlier).

I don't know whether such a society would be stable or not. Our current society is based on the assumption of relatively slowly changing humans with fixed identity; transitions in identity (from childhood to adulthood, death, mental illness, gender changes) are relatively rare and have either been surrounded by a mediating social context or tend to cause trouble. But if attitudes and abilities were easy to modify, we could also adapt to many changes in other people rapidly. My guess is that the social volatility would be far greater, and that might make such a society unstable. But it remains to be seen. This is where we can learn a lot from the peculiarities of online cultures.

By chance, I came upon the short story "Moral Kiosk" today. Here the drugs are metaphors for virtues, and hence totally unproblematic. But even if the pharmacopoeia only includes virtues, the resulting society would be terribly strange. Imagine a world where everyone in a crisis situation become calm, collected and courageous (the emergency personality). And it raises the question why we think virtues in bottles makes a nice metaphor, while we think understanding mother pills are satire.

Posted by Anders3 at March 17, 2008 05:15 PM