"If the experimenter would not be prepared to use a human infant, then his
readiness to use non-human animals reveals an unjustified form of discrimination on the
basis of species, since adult apes, monkeys, dogs, cats, rats and other mammals are more
aware of what is happening to them, more self-directing and, so far as we can tell, at
least as sensitive to pain as a human infant."
Peter Singer, ANIMAL LIBERATION
What are the ingredients of conscious mentality? Do unconscious minds matter? Why is
consciousness ethically important?
In common with many philosophical treatments of the nature of mind, the
neglect of a well worked out theory of perception leads DeGrazia to omit the greater part
of organic life's mental furniture altogether. For the default option of classical
perceptual realism doesn't just amount to a false theory of the world. It also leads to an
impoverished conception of mind. By way of contrast - and in defiance of our ingrained
direct realist intuitions - if the existence of the mind-independent world can only ever
be inferred from our individual virtual world models, and not directly apprehended or
"perceived", then the properties which one normally ascribes to classical
macroscopic objects are inherently mental and covertly autobiographical. This is so even
when one is "awake". The "awakened" condition is a mysterious mode of
consciousness in which minds/brains are popularly supposed to attain a state of direct
self-transcendence lacking while they're dreamfully asleep.
More soberly, "out there" and "in here" don't mean
what they seem. Natural selection has indeed harnessed fields of neurally organized forms
of consciousness and worked them into simulating something else. It has modeled the
fields of macroscopic, "medium-sized dry objects" whose patterns occupy
quasi-classical branches of the quantum mechanical Multiverse; and whose (partly) causally
covarying simulations stretch beyond the somato-sensory homunculus into the wider reaches
of the neocortex as a whole. Yet each simulation is still ineradicably mental and
indexical to its creator. So it's still an adaptive con-job. If classical realism is
indeed false, and quantum mechanics is the sovereign theory of the whole cosmos, then
mental life is presumably biologically ancient; even pre-Cambrian. This is on the
assumption that there's an unreflective "perceptual" mentality which runs (at
least) a long way "down" the phylogenetic tree. Most notably, in creatures with
central nervous systems, this mentality takes the guise of species-specific virtual
worlds. These are vivid "experiential manifolds" centered around a
Naturally, the billions of noisy, colorful, refractory, virtual worlds
churned out by evolution through self-replicating DNA are not recognized and
by their host vehicles as [more-or-less] functionally organized modes of consciousness.
For the most part, recognition of their mind-dependence would be functionally irrelevant
to the organism. The cognitive skills which recognition entails demand a form of
meta-representational capacity which would be neither energy-efficient nor cost-effective
in genetic terms. For the functional role of most aspects of animal (and human) mind is to
do duty for the non-mental as efficiently as possible. Natural selection, blindly as ever,
spawns the machinery for generating dynamic simulations of the local environment. Most
intimately, simulating this local environment involves running toy bodily self-models of
throwaway DNA vehicles (aka living organisms) themselves. Neurally-active genes code (in
vertebrates) for egocentric "somato-sensory" simulations of the host organism's
body. And if any intelligent organism is ever tempted to wonder why the whole world seems
to be centered on itself, then it's worth asking where else, if anywhere, in a world-model
would it be more advantageous for purely selfish genes to travesty one's significance in
the great scheme of things.
The virtual world of a gazelle or a chimpanzee may not be complex as
that of a mature adult human. Yet it is still subjectively immense and vastly complex.
Awake or dreaming, the greater part of each experiential manifold in which such
simulations consist will often seem harshly or indifferently mind-independent. Each
virtual world dwarves the egocentric body-image at its center. This sort of
self-alienation is hugely adaptive for the host vehicle whose mind/neural network is
running the simulations. It doesn't make the modeling process anything less than a
genetically predisposed charade. Perhaps it will take the routine accessibility and
long-term habitability of "artificial" virtual worlds - immersive, multi-modal
and generated by (non-organic) VR-optimised computers - for the nature of this hard-wired
perceptual realist illusion to sink in. Or perhaps, for many of us, its illusoriness never
will; inferential realism is a philosophical position to be contemplated, not a form of
life to be lived.
DeGrazia discusses animal minds minus their virtual worlds at some
length and considerable depth. With his "coherence-based" approach to ethics, he
appraises the moral status of animals, not in terms of the straightforward foundations of
a pleasure-pain calculus, but in the light of the surprising richness and unsuspected
diversity of mental life as defined even within the shrunken confines of an orthodox
perceptual realist conception of mentality. Again, though fascinating and informative,
DeGrazia's discussion is - I think - fundamentally skewed. This is because of his implicit
reliance on an untenable realist theory of perception and his consequent diminished
conception of the realm of consciousness. The more mental properties which get palmed off
onto the rest of the world, the less there is to occupy one's mind - or non-human animal
Classical realism, however, is hopelessly at odds with what quantum
mechanics, quite aside from a priori philosophical argument, tells us about the
mind-transcendent world. Hilbert space and common-sense folk-physics are inconsistent; and
ultimately it's common sense which has to be sacrificed if any unitary world picture is to
be salvaged from the epistemological wreckage. Our quasi-hard-wired theatre of classical
macroscopic objects leads most of its subjects to locate the contents of their visual
fields in the spuriously accessible Outer World rather than in their world-selected
organic minds. It is this mistaken theory of perception which gives rise to the
intractable mind-body conundrum in the first instance.
At least we recognize there's a problem here. Philosophers in the grip
of the ancient World-Knot ask: How can a cheesy gray mass of warm porridge - exquisite
functional organization notwithstanding - possibly give rise to consciousness, to this
thought or that sensation? And the simple answer is that it can't. Classical brains - as
apparently disclosed by the deliverances of naive realist perception augmented by hi-tech
microscopy - are a mind-dependent artifact of particular sorts of QM-coherent quantum
minds. Acknowledging this dependence isn't a disguised plea for Idealism or
It's just a call for sophisticated realism-by-inference-to-the-best-explanation.
[Philosopher Bryan Magee describes his thought in the school chapel that, by blinking, he
effaced his entire perceptual world, as an "indescribably awful" realization. He
then succumbs to transcendental idealism. But surely it's better to treat the inferred
mind-independent environment which presumably gives rise to each microcosm as a
theoretical posit in good standing. It's a hypothesis with a whole lot of explanatory and
predictive power.] Within the hugely vaster Multiverse, tiny mind-dependent classical
worlds of "medium-sized objects" are themselves a highly adaptive facet of
primordial-DNA-driven psychology. They get neurally activated in living organisms. In
common with a schizophrenic's voices, a classical world as a whole is apprehended by its
host's pre-frontal cortical module(s) as "out there" and not inside one's
[somato-sensory-cortical] head. Unlike schizophrenic voices, however, these shifting
classical constructs tend causally to co-vary pretty closely with particular gross
macro-patterns in local regions of the Multiverse as a whole. This is why classical
world-minds - not a chimerical Classical World - have flourished.
There are natural mechanisms, not daily miracles, at work here.
Classical mental macro-worlds are predisposed - but are not, strictly, genetically
pre-programmed - to self-assemble if their constituent neurons get their weights and
connections trained by appropriate sequences of stimuli from surface transducers.
Formally, virtual world-minds can be described with the mathematical tools of artificial
neural nets. Their behavior mimics the implementation of powerful learning algorithms.
Organic virtual worlds aren't classically programmed; their nets get "trained
up" by peripheral input. And naturally they have a different ontology from that which
the cognitive modules they interface with normally suppose; for we can't hop outside our
Such loose talk will appaul anyone with a horror of "Cartesian
materialist" homunculi. Are they all watching an infinite regress of mini-TV screens?
There certainly is a real mystery here. But anyone who doubts the existence of little men
in the head [irrespective of their theory of perception] should try a spell of lucid
dreaming. They sure ain't anywhere else.
Virtual world prototypes stretch a long way back into the evolutionary
past. Certainly, they extend far further than fully-fledged second-order representations,
such as beliefs and desires, which function as though they were "about" the
worlds on which they focus. These occurrent beliefs and desires, however, tend to serve as
our foremost exemplars of mental states. It's these relatively late arrivals which act as
simulated vehicles for "propositional content". Most mental life involves more
mundane features than anything so exotic; although sometimes its features can be gruesome.
When someone wantonly kills a mouse, for instance, the killer extinguishes an entire
virtual world too, albeit a murine macro-world rather than its humanoid counterpart.
One of the reasons we have an impoverished conception of the mental
life of animals, then, is that our individual egocentric visual worlds aren't construed as
part of our mental life at all in everyday existence. The non-consensual and more
environmentally-autonomous virtual worlds of the schizophrenic or well-frazzled acid-head
are the exception, not the rule here. We readily grant that the voices etc in a
schizophrenic's "external" environment are autobiographical features of the
troubled individual's mental life. But the consensus-hallucinations of more typical types
of virtual world enjoy no such recognized status; because much of us is constituted by
these very hallucinations. If they were to let slip their true colors, the inference to
their mind-dependence might interfere with their functional role in the informational
economy of the organism. "Indescribably awful" realizations are unwholesome.
Perhaps the covertly mental status of what are often thought of as
paradigmatically "physical" properties is most readily disclosed in lucid
dreaming. Within a given dream, the huge rock-face, say, which one is climbing is the
virtual rock-face of a virtual mountain. One measures kilometers; one is dealing in cubic
centimeters. How the metrics of phenomenal spaces can arise embedded in crumpled-up neural
minds defies our present understanding. But the mentality of putative "physical"
properties is just as real if, to take a more savage example, one is all too awake on the
African savannah and being mauled by a lion while a corresponding virtual lion is tearing
bits off one's body-image. For if one is awake and being chased by a virtual lion [or a QM
superposition of virtual lions etc], then its very probable causal covariation with [a QM
superposition of] a real-world hungry predator(s) means it is highly adaptive to treat
one's simulation as a mind-independent reality. Think about the difference for a second or
so; and you're lunch.
A cruel but striking experimental procedure is instructive here.
Vivisectors sometimes surgically abolish an animal's capacity for muscular atony. This
state of effective paralysis normally stops our bodies acting out our dreams. Permanent
surgical ablation of the region responsible for the functional decoupling of the bodily
musculature from its neural command centers during dreams, on the other hand, ensures that
the dreaming organism unwittingly enacts its inner psychodramas as it sleeps; just as,
controversially, we all do quasi-veridically when awake. Thus the cat doesn't just have
simple beliefs and desires about the virtual mouse it chases. Its virtual body-image image
chases the virtual mouse within the vast virtual spaces of a feline dreamworld. Its
beliefs have both 'narrow' mental content and narrow 'perceptual' content too. Sweeping
aside lots of complications, they are beliefs about first-order representations expressed
under another description; though since the cat's fleeting murine representations are
neither "transparent" or "projectible", post-classical AI sometimes
drops the "representational" tag altogether. Common-sense distinguishes, within
each experiential manifold/virtual world, between experience and the object of experience.
This supposed object of experience is something non-experiential to which we fancy we've
got shared direct access and with which we are mysteriously 'presented'. In fact, our
solid, refractory chairs and tables, sticks and stones - and squishy grey brains - are
themselves distinctive modes of experience. They can be neuronally fired up by electrodes,
psychedelic drugs, dreams; or selected from the psychoneural menu while one is awake by
peripheral input from the mind-independent environment. Yet that environment is only
inferred as the best possible explanation of the experiential evidence.
Hence a cat does not have simple beliefs and desires about a
mind-independent mouse. Instead, a crude feline mouse-simulation is taking place; together
with a relatively undeveloped non-verbal system of second-order representations. First and
second-order representations interact and partially interpenetrate as each simulation
dynamically evolves in feline neural nets. When the cat is awake, key features of its
world-simulation tend to causally covary with a vastly more complicated creature - the
living mouse. Yet mystical feats of feline self-transcendence are no more feasible than
human clairvoyance. It can be known from the evanescence of dreams that Nature can conjure
up and destroy whole CNS immensities of virtual worlds in milliseconds. These feats of
destruction and creative world-making happen whenever we are awake and blink. Animal minds
are no less gappy but equally real.
So what happens to the virtual world of the dreaming cat which chases
phantom mice? Does it disappear and get replaced by the real world when the car wakes up?
No. But the virtual world now gets tightly sculpted, and its shifting contents neurally
selected, by peripheral input. A catworld is a quite simple toy world compared to human
virtual worlds. But it is still an intensely sentient mental microcosm in its own right;
and, tragically, it is a killer-world with intensely sentient victims.
Why does this matter ethically?
It wouldn't do so at all, if it weren't for the fact that virtual
worlds and the extended cortical minds they embody have been "emotionally
encephalised" thanks to natural selection. The limbic system insinuates its processes
into the furthest reaches of cortical mind. What happens in virtual worlds inherently
matters because they're shot through with limbic-driven emotional meaning and
significance. The encephalisation of emotion has extended not just to the cortical regions
playing host to second-order representations typified by the occurrent belief-episodes of
folk psychology. Our limbic processes, most notably those of the monoaminergic neurons,
also infiltrate each egocentric virtual world and its vast cortical arrays too - in man
and mouse alike. This infiltration accounts for the circumstance that neither we nor other
animals merely "project" our feelings and values onto the [virtual] world. For
many of each world's most striking features don't just seem inherently terrifying,
delightful, beautiful, desirable, nasty, etc. They are inherently terrifying, delightful,
beautiful, desirable nasty, etc. Thanks to the outgrowths of of our limbic emotional
powerhouse, that girl [wart-hog/hippopotamus,gazelle etc], for instance, does not just
seem sexy. She possesses the inherent property of sexiness as part of her very essence
[or, more precisely, as part of her fleeting psychochemical excitation]. This is
identification is possible only because virtual worlds are strictly mental: in the realm
of phenomenology the difference between seeming and reality dissolves. Just so long as the
relevant causal covariation with the mind-independent world is retained, the emotional
saturation of a [virtual] world tends also to be highly adaptive. Our genes have
outrageously biased what matters to their neural creations - us - so as to differentially
further their own reproductive prospects. None of this would be possible if classical
perceptual realism were true; but then its intellectual sell-by date has now passed, even
though the hard-wired illusion remains.
The philosophical and scientific story of mind-making is much more
complicated than the simplistic outline offered here. Yet it's abundantly clear that
natural selection has ensured that many organisms have horrible minds, live in horrible
virtual worlds, and suffer horrible deaths. Is this an immutable law of Nature? Probably
5. The Post-Darwinian Transition
"There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the
-- Henry David Thoreau
Within the next few centuries, a quite startling option will become
technically feasible. Nanotechnology and genetic-engineering will allow us to abolish the
biological substrates of suffering in all sentient life. The unpleasant forms of
consciousness are set to pass into evolutionary history. Potentially, unhappiness and all
its vestiges will become biologically obsolete.
Bombastic fantasy? Like most predictions of events more distant than a
few years ahead, prophecy of this nature all sounds rather fanciful. In reality, how
likely are we ever to implement a biological blueprint for universal bliss?
The Hedonistic Imperative outlines why and how tomorrow's
biotechnologists will be equipped to practise systematic paradise-engineering. Its
consequences will be of a beauty and a grandeur we can scarcely begin to comprehend. Here,
a more narrow issue will be discussed. If we do decide biologically to naturalise the
sublime, will we consider it ethical to sustain in other species the barbarities of
Darwinian regime we've chosen to abandon ourselves? Is it likely that any notion of
ethical progress will end when we've liberated purely members of our own particular race
from the gene-driven malaise of the past? Or instead, mercifully, will a serotonergically
enriched capacity for empathy incalculably deepen our compassion for the sufferings of
others, while a genetically amped-up "dopaminergic over-drive" propels
post-humanity's cross-species biological rescue-job into the Post-Darwinian Era? In the
latter scenario, our descendants in the transitional phase are likely to be vastly more
moral as well as happier than us. This is because they will be capable both of greater
empathy and a greater capacity to act upon it. Such parameters are genetically tunable;
and can be drastically enhanced. So what are the odds of this happening? Are we stuck with
the selfishness of a Machiavellian ape from the African savannah until the end of time; or
is something else better in store?
First, consider how we might react if we discovered an
extra-terrestrial civilisation of organic creatures, let's call them Ecstatics. Their
geneticists long ago banished the biological substrates of extreme anguish and everyday
malaise alike. Ecstatic life is utterly wonderful. Gradients of well-being animate how
they think and act; unpleasantness has simply been written out of the script. Their whole
existence is endlessly exciting and profoundly fulfilling, day and night. Ecstatics think
of physical and mental pain as bestial hangovers from evolutionary history. More commonly,
they find it hard to conceptualise such severe mental illness at all.
Let us suppose that these angelically happy super-beings aren't
electrode-studded wireheads hooked up to pleasure-machines. So they don't spend their
lives like lever-pressing laboratory rats, frantically practising intra-cranial
self-stimulation. Nor are they dull-witted opiated dupes of a ruling elite a la Huxley's
Brave New World. These are the two simple-minded scenarios typically evoked by the
prospect of getting rid of life's nastiness; and they tend to exhaust our normal range of
imaginative possibilities if asked to evaluate what eternal happiness would amount to on
earth. Instead, Ecstatics are genetically pre-programmed to enjoy rapturous states of
consciousness every day for life. Joy is a background precondition of daily existence.
Their everyday textures of awareness have a diversity, intensity and sublimity which our
own human legacy wetware cannot normally glimpse, still less sustain. The rock-bottom
baseline of Ecstatic mental health still ensures that each moment of their lives comes as
an exhilarating revelation. Boredom is neurologically impossible. Moreover, Ecstatics
aren't merely happier than DNA-driven emotional primitives from the Darwinian era. They
enjoy biologically enriched neural substrates of motivation too. Thus Ecstatics are driven
by a willpower far stronger than anything of which contemporary humans are physiologically
capable. So they don't sit around all day in a contented zombified stupor. On the
contrary, their raw dynamism and irrepressible appetite for life far exceeds our own.
Now what sort of arguments might we try and use to convince Ecstatics
that they should restore, or create, a taste of the suffering and everyday discontents
that pervade our own late-DNA world? How might we explain and justify any potentially
ennobling and life-enriching properties which [we sometimes tell ourselves] unpleasant
modes of consciousness often possess; and which Ecstatics are in danger of forgetting?
Would we try and compel them to rewire their minds for genetically predisposed suffering -
for their own good, naturally. Or is the very idea itself monstrous?
Ecstatics themselves, we may suppose, regard experiential nastiness of
any kind as coarsening, brutalising, and pornographic. Their ancestors abandoned such
obscenities a long time ago. So how might we persuade them that their intuitions of
unnatural obscenity and immorality are wrong? What valuable but nasty properties precisely
might we identify within our own mode of existence that richly fulfilled Ecstatic lives
were lacking? We may suppose that, for their part, Ecstatics treat our reluctance to share
irresistible happiness as part of a hereditary, mood-congruent thought-disorder. Have they
committed a terrible collective mistake? If we argue the case for traditional life's
fitful mayhem and misery over the new gene-driven paradise, could we be rationally
confident we were acting as anything nobler than vehicles - and byzantine mouthpieces -
for selfish DNA?
Perhaps; but it's not easy to show how.
Ecstatic aliens are science-fiction, to the best our knowledge at any
rate. The impending need to justify suffering - as and when electing to retain its neural
mechanisms becomes a life-style choice rather than brute biological fate - isn't fictional
at all. Of course, the idea that something as apparently inevitable as suffering will ever
require ideological justification may seem a cruel joke today. Yet as we understand and
progressively manipulate the substrates of mood and emotion, we will need, sooner or
later, to defend the deliberate infliction or conservation of their nastier modes of
operation on others. For it will be late-/post-humans who decide when, where and how other
life-forms will suffer. And if we aren't prepared to tolerate such tampering with our or
anyone else's DNA-driven psychophysiology, then we will need to think hard about what laws
or other punitive sanctions to use against people who do want eternal happiness. A cry of
"Just say no!" probably won't prove discouragement enough to stop them.
Realistically, the use of systematic coercion to enforce
legacy-Darwinism is unlikely to work indefinitely. Ethics aside, that's one pragmatic
reason why it shouldn't be tried. Yet if life-long super-ecstasy is genetically codeable
[as, of course, would be life-long tortured hellishness or depression; for there are
solutions to the (generalised) Universal Schrodinger Equation which make Auschwitz look
like a fun-filled utopia], should the unprecedented well-being it delivers become the
hereditary birthright of only a single trans-human super-species? Or should it be
zoologically universalised? In centuries ahead, should we intervene in the rest of the
living world to rescue its entrapped life-forms from the "natural" horrors of
which they are the helpless and blameless victims? Or should we just leave them to it? Is
there anything morally wrong with applying nanotechnology and genetic engineering
systematically to reorder the natural world so that it's a fabulous place to live for the
whole lot of us? Or is this sheer hubris, since selfish DNA makes a morally better world
than anything conscious mind can engineer by design? What are the arguments for and
against creating a naturalised heaven-on-earth for all our fellow creatures, and all our
states of consciousness?
Such questions today have a pronounced air of unreality. Doesn't this
guy have a job? If getting rid of human suffering sounds wild, scrapping animal suffering,
too, sounds positively flaky. Actually, the moral argument for abolishing non-human animal
suffering as the technical obstacles come to seem less mountainous is stronger than for
humans. For at least sophistical arguments can be concocted to justify the need for
obligate human malaise. One will be told how it builds the character, ennobles the spirit,
and leads to great works of art and literature etc, though if one listened to some critics
of the prospect of universal happiness, one might be forgiven for supposing that
humanity's consuming passion was producing great literary classics, not pursuing money,
power, drugs, and sex. Yet animal suffering is not character-building, nor does it lead to
life-affirming works of art etc. It is just nasty and pointless. The nearest it gets to
mimicking any kind of Meaning is the way it serves as though it had the purpose of helping
self-replicating DNA leave more copies of itself. But that's as far as it goes. It's not
good for anything but some twisted bits of DNA. So the case for abolishing unpleasantness
in animals is at least as compelling as it is for humans once mature biotechnology turns
its abolition into an implementation-problem rather than a hare-brained philosopher's
But won't a world without traditional predatory carnivores in all their
bloody and savage glory be less diverse and therefore more boring? Aren't cats cool?
The boredom issue is a gigantic red herring. If we wanted to, future
neuroscientists could make a lifetime spent watching grass grow into a nailbiting
psychological cliffhanger; although, as it happens, no such contrivances will be needed.
Stripped of its predisposing genes and neuronal substrates, boredom will become
physiologically inaccessible to anyone. Its peculiar vapid texture was just a phase
certain forms of early DNA life went through. The particular kinds of neural negative
feedback mechanism which boredom reflects will become obsolescent too. By contrast,
everything in the post-Darwinian world will be much more vividly intense than today's
"normal" life. Moreover, as a bonus, naturalised biological paradise will be a
far more richly differentiated place too. For we've scarcely even begun to explore the
galaxy of wonderful experiences it's possible to savour and delight in. These won't be
only the sparkling deliverances of newly-engineered senses. They'll include new modes of
introspection and meditative consciousness extending way beyond the shallow reveries of
anything neurochemically accessible today, even by the deepest-dyed mystic. Natural
selection previously stopped us accessing these outlandish modes of experience. This is
because because coding for their substrates would have involved either occupying, or
crossing, maladaptive gaps in the genetic fitness landscape. For now, however, we're stuck
unwittingly ringing the changes in our own mediocre repertoire.
It's true that the post-Darwinian world won't be maximally diverse.
There won't be any suicidal despair, jealousy, bubonic plague or child-abuse. Moreover if
we did want to maximise ecological diversity, we could breed creatures that naturally prey
on humans. For if we arrange matter and energy in the right way, it's feasible to design
obligate predators who can thrive only on human flesh. But who cares? What's the point?
The absence both of vileness and the mundane deformations of consciousness which we
presently take for granted would be morally bad only if diversity were inherent good. But
it's only good today insofar as it stops hyper-dopaminergic novelty-seekers from getting
bored. When boredom is impossible, and bliss biologically ubiquitous, then why adulterate
perfection with ugliness?
For his part, DeGrazia is right, I think, to argue for the intellectual
incoherence of many of our traditional intuitions. He is also right to argue we must
radically change our attitude to non-humans. Yet then - understandably perhaps - his
intellectual nerve fails. He falls back on a conventional conservatism when contemplating
the fate of victims of the primeval Darwinian order.
Until recently, it's true, the only appropriate response after
absolving oneself of any direct personal complicity in the suffering of other life-forms
has indeed been be to leave things to Nature. The trouble is that this approach amounts to
a far less benign solution than its soothing verbal formulation suggests. Urban-dwelling
animal activists are, on the whole, far too romantic about the natural world. With our
cloistered, media-filtered conception of the Great Outdoors, we implicitly rely on a
filter of sanitised wildlife programmes to tell us what the animal kingdom is supposedly
In fact, Nature documentaries are mostly travesties of real life. They
entertain and edify us with evocative mood-music and travelogue-style voice-overs. They
impose significance and narrative structure on life's messiness. Wildlife shows have their
sad moments, for sure. Yet suffering never lasts very long. It always gets offset by
homely platitudes about the balance of Nature, the good of the herd, and a sort of
poor-man's secular theodicy on behalf of Mother Nature which reassures us that it's all
not so bad after all.
That's a convenient lie. If you had just gone through the horror of
seeing your loved one eaten alive by a predator, or die slowly of thirst, you would find
such clich? empty. Yet in Nature this kind of thing happens all the time. It's
completely endemic to the prevailing red-in-tooth-and-claw Darwinian regime. Lions kill
their targets primarily by suffocation; which will last minutes. The wolf pack may start
eating their prey while the victim is still conscious, though hamstrung. Sharks and the
orca basically eat their prey alive; but in sections for the larger prey, notably seals.
An analogous scenario in which intelligent extra-terrestrial naturalists turned the
stylised portrayal of our death-agonies into a lyrical spectacle for popular home
entertainment is repugnant. Yet as long as we revel in the production of animal
snuff-movies in the guise of wild-life documentaries, that is often the role we play in
the tragic lives of photogenic members of other species here on earth.
There is, of course, a danger in harping on about the terrible extent
of suffering indigenous to Nature. One runs the risk that such accounts may used by
hunters and non-obligate meat-eaters as a license for our massively adding to the
savageries which already exist. It's simply the way of the world, we are told. There's so
much suffering around already that increasing it a bit won't make much difference.
This sort of cavalier attitude to the fate of others is morally
catastrophic. Any reversion to the traditional cruelties of a primordial selfish-DNA
regime after abolishing its ghastly late-industrial culmination would amount to a
calculated act of barbarism - possessing all the ecological naturalism of a
heritage-industry theme-park without any of its redeeming folksiness.
This passive abdication of responsibility - directed at humans it would
be called culpable neglect - is still a popular option among animal advocates. It is
encouraged even though Nature is so often frightfully cruel - in its effects though not
through some purposive malevolence. Nature is nasty not because most creatures have the
sophisticated theory of mind and higher-order intentionality required to encompass
human-style sadism. The reason is merely that natural selection has placed no check at all
on how bad suffering can be wherever its existence - or any behavioural capacity
associated therewith - has let some gene coalitions leave more copies of themselves than
others. Encephalising horrific modes of experience so they get conditionally activated is
a very effective way of spurring living vehicles to behave in ways likely to maximise the
inclusive fitness of their DNA. It's utterly vicious and compelling. But life doesn't have
to be like that.
It is only quite recently that a strategy for genetically engineering
the complete abolition of aversive experience in humans has even been mooted - let alone a
strategy extending the rescue-mission to non-human animals. But then it is only quite
recently that earthly blueprints for its biological implementation could be devised.
Happily, a completely unprecedented revolution is in the offing. First,
the option of world-wide genetically preprogrammed sublimity is no longer technically
inconceivable. Scrapping the root of all evil in its biochemical manifestation is winning
acknowledgement as at least a theoretical possibility; even though the prospect is
typically regarded as wild and eccentric. Certainly, the mass-use use of long-acting depot
contraceptives, cross-species retroviral gene therapy, self-reproducing micro-miniaturised
nano-robots with supercomputer processing power and therapeutic bioengineering
capabilities, etc, all sounds outrageously sci-fi - certainly not practical politics
today. Yet this credibility-gap may close quite abruptly. The call for world-wide
paradise-engineering isn't an empty plea for new physics, biological wonder-tissue or
superluminal warp-drives. At first, of course, the family of ideas underlying the whole
post-Darwinian enterprise will seriously occupy the minds of only the [currently-defined]
scientific and political fringe. The technical challenges posed by abolishing all of
what's wrong with the world are far less formidable than the alteration in mind-set needed
to plan the post-Darwinian biological project in the first instance. Yet as
meta-paradigm-shifts go, getting rid of aversive experience isn't conceptually difficult.
Paradoxically, it's the tender-minded people who care most about animals who are also the
folk likely to be most appalled at the hard-headedness required to implement the
indefinitely sustainable psychological and physical well-being in prospect for life on
earth. Gung-ho testosterone-driven technophiles, on the other hand, are less likely to
care about the suffering of lesser creatures which their own personal technical expertise
makes preventable. The conservatism of the tender-minded is understandable; but profoundly
reactionary. If triumphant, its living victims will continue to be sacrificed on the altar
of a Mother Nature whose existence in rose-tinted guise has no place outside the romantic
imaginations of its creators. For if our cars and computers should be
precision-engineered, then why shouldn't the biomolecular architecture of consciousness?
Well-being is too important to be left to selfish DNA.
DeGrazia, in discussing the our alleged lack of positive obligations to
animals, uses the pejorative phrase "meddle with nature" (p277) Certainly, if
trying to subvert the biological status quo meant starving the lion to save the gazelle,
it is mostly futile. Preventing suffering for the one is effectively causing suffering to
the other. (The situation of obligate predators such as cats is very different from
omnivorous humans. Indeed, as DeGrazia aptly notes, "while many steak-loving humans
like to regard themselves as part of this vast chain of carnivorousness, they neglect the
fact that omnivores do not need meat to survive with good health. Indeed, overall, meat
may do us more harm than good")
Yet a much more revolutionary imagination is needed. DeGrazia simply
doesn't entertain the possibility that genetic-engineering might enable us to abolish all
aversive experience and replace the monotony of the hedonic treadmill with a fabulous
diversity of enjoyable states. His implicit conservatism is perhaps understandable: the
notion of a race of beings who are animated wholly by pleasure gradients is - for now at
any rate - a figment of otherworldly dreamers, in spite of its biotechnical feasibility,
and - as millennial global species-projects go - technical simplicity. It's worth
recalling that physicists and visionary AI buffs routinely discuss proposals far more
exotic. Huxley's static and dystopian vision of Brave New World - where the
chemically-tranquillised masses were all sedated and opiated dupes of the power elite -
has had the unfortunate effect of asphyxiating professional scholarly thought and
political action on the immense range of paradise-engineering options in prospect.
A host of down-to-earth practical objections to making paradise happen
do of course spring to mind. Suffering might seem too widespread and diverse in the animal
kingdom ever to be eliminated altogether. Inside the ghetto of malaise, its modes can
sometimes seem infinitely varied. We can readily understand how a fellow creature can be
always in some way unhappy or in pain - most of us know someone whose life is spent in
such a state. The idea that the reverse condition is ubiquitously feasible - that each of
us could always feel happy and gloriously well - initially strikes us as bizarre.
Yet our intuitions are utterly misplaced. We elevate one generic yet
parochial feature of consciousness, albeit a feature which has pervasively innervated the
mammalian neocortex thanks to evolution - to the status of timeless feature of the world.
Moreover the idea that the only way to ensure perpetual happiness would be to turn us into
incapacitated wireheads is no more realistic than the correlative notion that the only way
to make someone perpetually miserable would be to implant electrodes into their pain
centres. Alas, this simply isn't the case.