Kenny put out an interesting essay that throws out some thought experiments to challenge the common notion that happiness is the ultimate goal of human life ("Happiness is Not the Purpose of Life", October 5, 2009). His latest addition to his large stock of thought experiments is the happiness-stimulator: a neurological mechanism that actually exists that can directly stimulate the human brain to create ecstatic happiness, euphoria, and endless orgasms. If the technology exists to create such super-charged happiness, why isn't everyone chomping at the bit to get wired up? The prospect of spending the rest of our days drooling in a corner, happy as all get-out but totally useless, is something most people find creepy and pathetic. Ergo: people want to be happy, but they care more about something else, something that transcends their personal satisfaction – truth, beauty, goodness.
If you're spiritually inclined, or even just a conscientious secular humanist who wants to do good, you might think this little proof helps to justify your philosophy. People care about the truth! People care about being useful and good! As one of those spiritual do-gooders, I would welcome such affirmation.
Unfortunately . . . it doesn't prove as satisfying as you might hope. At least, it doesn't definitely prove our human instincts are more elevated than those of a rat. Happiness usually correlates with whatever promotes our survival and the survival of our families: health, wealth, opportunity, friendships, food, sex. Evolutionarily, that is the purpose of happiness: to provide a positive feedback loop on behaviors that promote survival. Likewise, all those things beyond happiness that we consider inherently good – saving lives, curing cancer, feeding the hungry, educating the youth, enlightening the masses – are all in some way promoting life. All the things we consider evil – killing, destroying the environment, oppressing the weak – are fundamentally anti-life. So, our notion of goodness does transcend our notion of happiness, but not by much – it's still all fundamentally about propagating the genes.
What makes humans interesting is that our thinking allows us to examine the very nature of our happy emotions. No other creature is so self-reflective that it can contemplate its own happiness, and even see its current happiness as a barrier to survival. We look at the test subject wired up to have their pleasure-circuits stimulated, and we think, "Uh-oh, that guy is not going to survive long if he stays in that chair." The fact that we can rationally differentiate happiness from survival makes us very special animals . . . But still animals.
Humanity has continually engineered newer and more efficient ways at artificially stimulating the brain to create pleasant sensations, often to the detriment of our survival. Television, pornography, junk food, illicit drugs, video games -- all means of artificially creating pleasures that, in our "natural" environment, would be associated with behaviors that promote our genetic survival. I think the only reason we haven't yet moved to directly stimulating the brain is:
People have an instinctive fear of having themselves cut open.
Very few people have the knowledge, skills, and materials necessary to do direct stimulation of the brain.
If the brain-stimulating technology became as cheap and available as crack cocaine, I have no doubt we would have a national epidemic of people self-stimulating themselves into oblivion. (Which is, after all, what crack and heroine are already doing.) Some people, witnessing the deaths of others due to the technology, will avoid the stimulators and escape death. (Probably the same people who are eating low-fat diets and doing yoga.) Our intelligence can lead us into self-stimulating oblivion, but it can also lead us out of it.
Like Kenny, I care mostly about the personal consequences for these thought experiments. What does it mean for me, to realize that my instincts are designed to promote survival? More on that tomorrow.