Every Utopia ever constructed—in philosophy, fiction, or religion—has been, to one degree or another, a place where you wouldn't actually want to live.  I am not alone in this important observation:  George Orwell said much the same thing in "Why Socialists Don't Believe In Fun", and I expect that many others said it earlier.

    If you read books on How To Write—and there are a lot of books out there on How To Write, because amazingly a lot of book-writers think they know something about writing—these books will tell you that stories must contain "conflict".

    That is, the more lukewarm sort of instructional book will tell you that stories contain "conflict".  But some authors speak more plainly.

    "Stories are about people's pain."  Orson Scott Card.

    "Every scene must end in disaster."  Jack Bickham.

    In the age of my youthful folly, I took for granted that authors were excused from the search for true Eutopia, because if you constructed a Utopia that wasn't flawed... what stories could you write, set there?  "Once upon a time they lived happily ever after."  What use would it be for a science-fiction author to try to depict a positive Singularity, when a positive Singularity would be...

    ...the end of all stories?

    It seemed like a reasonable framework with which to examine the literary problem of Utopia, but something about that final conclusion produced a quiet, nagging doubt.

    At that time I was thinking of an AI as being something like a safe wish-granting genie for the use of individuals.  So the conclusion did make a kind of sense.  If there was a problem, you would just wish it away, right?  Ergo—no stories.  So I ignored the quiet, nagging doubt.

    Much later, after I concluded that even a safe genie wasn't such a good idea, it also seemed in retrospect that "no stories" could have been a productive indicator.  On this particular occasion, "I can't think of a single story I'd want to read about this scenario", might indeed have pointed me toward the reason "I wouldn't want to actually live in this scenario".

    So I swallowed my trained-in revulsion of Luddism and theodicy, and at least tried to contemplate the argument:

    • A world in which nothing ever goes wrong, or no one ever experiences any pain or sorrow, is a world containing no stories worth reading about.
    • A world that you wouldn't want to read about is a world where you wouldn't want to live.
    • Into each eudaimonic life a little pain must fall.  QED.

    In one sense, it's clear that we do not want to live the sort of lives that are depicted in most stories that human authors have written so far.  Think of the truly great stories, the ones that have become legendary for being the very best of the best of their genre:  The Iliiad, Romeo and Juliet, The Godfather, Watchmen, Planescape: Torment, the second season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or that ending in Tsukihime.  Is there a single story on the list that isn't tragic?

    Ordinarily, we prefer pleasure to pain, joy to sadness, and life to death.  Yet it seems we prefer to empathize with hurting, sad, dead characters.  Or stories about happier people aren't serious, aren't artistically great enough to be worthy of praise—but then why selectively praise stories containing unhappy people?  Is there some hidden benefit to us in it?  It's a puzzle either way you look at it.

    When I was a child I couldn't write fiction because I wrote things to go well for my characters—just like I wanted things to go well in real life.  Which I was cured of by Orson Scott Card:  Oh, I said to myself, that's what I've been doing wrong, my characters aren't hurting.  Even then, I didn't realize that the microstructure of a plot works the same way—until Jack Bickham said that every scene must end in disaster.  Here I'd been trying to set up problems and resolve them, instead of making them worse...

    You simply don't optimize a story the way you optimize a real life.  The best story and the best life will be produced by different criteria.

    In the real world, people can go on living for quite a while without any major disasters, and still seem to do pretty okay.  When was the last time you were shot at by assassins?  Quite a while, right?  Does your life seem emptier for it?

    But on the other hand...

    For some odd reason, when authors get too old or too successful, they revert to my childhood.  Their stories start going right.  They stop doing horrible things to their characters, with the result that they start doing horrible things to their readers.  It seems to be a regular part of Elder Author Syndrome.  Mercedes Lackey, Laurell K. Hamilton, Robert Heinlein, even Orson Scott bloody Card—they all went that way.  They forgot how to hurt their characters.  I don't know why.

    And when you read a story by an Elder Author or a pure novice—a story where things just relentlessly go right one after another—where the main character defeats the supervillain with a snap of the fingers, or even worse, before the final battle, the supervillain gives up and apologizes and then they're friends again—

    It's like a fingernail scraping on a blackboard at the base of your spine.  If you've never actually read a story like that (or worse, written one) then count yourself lucky.

    That fingernail-scraping quality—would it transfer over from the story to real life, if you tried living real life without a single drop of rain?

    One answer might be that what a story really needs is not "disaster", or "pain", or even "conflict", but simply striving.  That the problem with Mary Sue stories is that there's not enough striving in them, but they wouldn't actually need pain.  This might, perhaps, be tested.

    An alternative answer might be that this is the transhumanist version of Fun Theory we're talking about.  So we can reply, "Modify brains to eliminate that fingernail-scraping feeling", unless there's some justification for keeping it.  If the fingernail-scraping feeling is a pointless random bug getting in the way of Utopia, delete it.

    Maybe we should.  Maybe all the Great Stories are tragedies because... well...

    I once read that in the BDSM community, "intense sensation" is a euphemism for pain.  Upon reading this, it occurred to me that, the way humans are constructed now, it is just easier to produce pain than pleasure.  Though I speak here somewhat outside my experience, I expect that it takes a highly talented and experienced sexual artist working for hours to produce a good feeling as intense as the pain of one strong kick in the testicles—which is doable in seconds by a novice.

    Investigating the life of the priest and proto-rationalist Friedrich Spee von Langenfeld, who heard the confessions of accused witches, I looked up some of the instruments that had been used to produce confessions.  There is no ordinary way to make a human being feel as good as those instruments would make you hurt.  I'm not sure even drugs would do it, though my experience of drugs is as nonexistent as my experience of torture.

    There's something imbalanced about that.

    Yes, human beings are too optimistic in their planning.  If losses weren't more aversive than gains, we'd go broke, the way we're constructed now.  The experimental rule is that losing a desideratum—$50, a coffee mug, whatever—hurts between 2 and 2.5 times as much as the equivalent gain.

    But this is a deeper imbalance than that.  The effort-in/intensity-out difference between sex and torture is not a mere factor of 2.

    If someone goes in search of sensation—in this world, the way human beings are constructed now—it's not surprising that they should arrive at pains to be mixed into their pleasures as a source of intensity in the combined experience.

    If only people were constructed differently, so that you could produce pleasure as intense and in as many different flavors as pain!  If only you could, with the same ingenuity and effort as a torturer of the Inquisition, make someone feel as good as the Inquisition's victims felt bad

    But then, what is the analogous pleasure that feels that good?  A victim of skillful torture will do anything to stop the pain and anything to prevent it from being repeated.  Is the equivalent pleasure one that overrides everything with the demand to continue and repeat it?  If people are stronger-willed to bear the pleasure, is it really the same pleasure?

    There is another rule of writing which states that stories have to shout.  A human brain is a long way off those printed letters.  Every event and feeling needs to take place at ten times natural volume in order to have any impact at all.  You must not try to make your characters behave or feel realistically —especially, you must not faithfully reproduce your own past experiences—because without exaggeration, they'll be too quiet to rise from the page.

    Maybe all the Great Stories are tragedies because happiness can't shout loud enough—to a human reader.

    Maybe that's what needs fixing.

    And if it were fixed... would there be any use left for pain or sorrow?  For even the memory of sadness, if all things were already as good as they could be, and every remediable ill already remedied?

    Can you just delete pain outright?  Or does removing the old floor of the utility function just create a new floor?  Will any pleasure less than 10,000,000 hedons be the new unbearable pain?

    Humans, built the way we are now, do seem to have hedonic scaling tendencies.  Someone who can remember starving will appreciate a loaf of bread more than someone who's never known anything but cake.  This was George Orwell's hypothesis for why Utopia is impossible in literature and reality:

    "It would seem that human beings are not able to describe, nor perhaps to imagine, happiness except in terms of contrast...  The inability of mankind to imagine happiness except in the form of relief, either from effort or pain, presents Socialists with a serious problem. Dickens can describe a poverty-stricken family tucking into a roast goose, and can make them appear happy; on the other hand, the inhabitants of perfect universes seem to have no spontaneous gaiety and are usually somewhat repulsive into the bargain."

    For an expected utility maximizer, rescaling the utility function to add a trillion to all outcomes is meaningless—it's literally the same utility function, as a mathematical object.  A utility function describes the relative intervals between outcomes; that's what it is, mathematically speaking.

    But the human brain has distinct neural circuits for positive feedback and negative feedback, and different varieties of positive and negative feedback.  There are people today who "suffer" from congenital analgesia—a total absence of pain.  I never heard that insufficient pleasure becomes intolerable to them.

    Congenital analgesics do have to inspect themselves carefully and frequently to see if they've cut themselves or burned a finger.  Pain serves a purpose in the human mind design...

    But that does not show there's no alternative which could serve the same purpose.  Could you delete pain and replace it with an urge not to do certain things that lacked the intolerable subjective quality of pain?  I do not know all the Law that governs here, but I'd have to guess that yes, you could; you could replace that side of yourself with something more akin to an expected utility maximizer.

    Could you delete the human tendency to scale pleasures—delete the accomodation, so that each new roast goose is as delightful as the last?  I would guess that you could.  This verges perilously close to deleting Boredom, which is right up there with Sympathy as an absolute indispensable... but to say that an old solution remains as pleasurable, is not to say that you will lose the urge to seek new and better solutions.

    Can you make every roast goose as pleasurable as it would be in contrast to starvation, without ever having starved?

    Can you prevent the pain of a dust speck irritating your eye from being the new torture, if you've literally never experienced anything worse than a dust speck irritating your eye?

    Such questions begin to exceed my grasp of the Law, but I would guess that the answer is: yes, it can be done.  It is my experience in such matters that once you do learn the Law, you can usually see how to do weird-seeming things.

    So far as I know or can guess, David Pearce (The Hedonistic Imperative) is very probably right about the feasibility part, when he says:

    "Nanotechnology and genetic engineering will abolish suffering in all sentient life.  The abolitionist project is hugely ambitious but technically feasible.  It is also instrumentally rational and morally urgent.  The metabolic pathways of pain and malaise evolved because they served the fitness of our genes in the ancestral environment.  They will be replaced by a different sort of neural architecture—a motivational system based on heritable gradients of bliss.  States of sublime well-being are destined to become the genetically pre-programmed norm of mental health.  It is predicted that the world's last unpleasant experience will be a precisely dateable event."

    Is that... what we want?

    To just wipe away the last tear, and be done?

    Is there any good reason not to, except status quo bias and a handful of worn rationalizations?

    What would be the alternative?  Or alternatives?

    To leave things as they are?  Of course not.  No God designed this world; we have no reason to think it exactly optimal on any dimension.  If this world does not contain too much pain, then it must not contain enough, and the latter seems unlikely.

    But perhaps...

    You could cut out just the intolerable parts of pain?

    Get rid of the Inquisition.  Keep the sort of pain that tells you not to stick your finger in the fire, or the pain that tells you that you shouldn't have put your friend's finger in the fire, or even the pain of breaking up with a lover.

    Try to get rid of the sort of pain that grinds down and destroys a mind.  Or configure minds to be harder to damage.

    You could have a world where there were broken legs, or even broken hearts, but no broken people.  No child sexual abuse that turns out more abusers.  No people ground down by weariness and drudging minor inconvenience to the point where they contemplate suicide.  No random meaningless endless sorrows like starvation or AIDS.

    And if even a broken leg still seems too scary—

    Would we be less frightened of pain, if we were stronger, if our daily lives did not already exhaust so much of our reserves?

    So that would be one alternative to the Pearce's world—if there are yet other alternatives, I haven't thought them through in any detail.

    The path of courage, you might call it—the idea being that if you eliminate the destroying kind of pain and strengthen the people, then what's left shouldn't be that scary.

    A world where there is sorrow, but not massive systematic pointless sorrow, like we see on the evening news.  A world where pain, if it is not eliminated, at least does not overbalance pleasure.  You could write stories about that world, and they could read our stories.

    I do tend to be rather conservative around the notion of deleting large parts of human nature.  I'm not sure how many major chunks you can delete until that balanced, conflicting, dynamic structure collapses into something simpler, like an expected pleasure maximizer.

    And so I do admit that it is the path of courage that appeals to me.

    Then again, I haven't lived it both ways.

    Maybe I'm just afraid of a world so different as Analgesia—wouldn't that be an ironic reason to walk "the path of courage"?

    Maybe the path of courage just seems like the smaller change—maybe I just have trouble empathizing over a larger gap.

    But "change" is a moving target.

    If a human child grew up in a less painful world—if they had never lived in a world of AIDS or cancer or slavery, and so did not know these things as evils that had been triumphantly eliminated—and so did not feel that they were "already done" or that the world was "already changed enough"...

    Would they take the next step, and try to eliminate the unbearable pain of broken hearts, when someone's lover stops loving them?

    And then what?  Is there a point where Romeo and Juliet just seems less and less relevant, more and more a relic of some distant forgotten world?  Does there come some point in the transhuman journey where the whole business of the negative reinforcement circuitry, can't possibly seem like anything except a pointless hangover to wake up from?

    And if so, is there any point in delaying that last step?  Or should we just throw away our fears and... throw away our fears?

    I don't know.

    New Comment
    106 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since:
    Some comments are truncated due to high volume. (⌘F to expand all)Change truncation settings

    Have you read The Worthing Saga by Orson Scott Card? It's one of my favorite books of his and deals with a world in which a few humans with special power act as gods and watch over everyone, not allowing any pain. One day these "gods" decide that such a world has no stories, and they stop acting as gods, allowing the people to experience pain. (The book contains may of Orson Scott Card's earliest stories, I believe, certainly from before he started from Older Author Syndrome.)

    See also "Alpha Ralpha Boulevard" by Cordwainer Smith.

    Without pain can there be heroism?

    Of course. Isn't heroism the overcoming of fear? Not all fear is fear of pain.

    Is there any value in heroism other than that it (attempts to) cease (some) pain (for some, at the expense of the actor)?

    It is fun to be seen by others as a hero. It is fun to see oneself as a hero.
    True. I don’t quite remember this post, but I think I meant value assigned by others to the (potential) hero.

    "I sense damage. The data could be called pain." -- The Terminator, who is not wired like humans.

    I'd say the primary bad thing about pain is not that it hurts, but that it's pushy and won't tune out. You could learn to sleep in a ship's engine room, but a mere stubbed toe grabs and holds your attention.

    That, I think we could delete with impunity.

    --Sam Hughes, Fine Structure

    …One could imagine a conscious nervous system that operates as humans do but does not suffer any internal strife. In such a system, knowledge guiding skeletomotor action would be isomorphic to, and never at odds with, the nature of the phenomenal state — running across the hot desert sand in order to reach water would actually feel good, because performing the action is deemed adaptive. Why our nervous system does not operate with such harmony is perhaps a question that only evolutionary biology can answer. Certainly one can imagine such integration occurring without anything like phenomenal states, but from the present standpoint, this reflects more one’s powers of imagination than what has occurred in the course of evolutionary history.

    From a nonfictional paper.

    There's something I wanted to say about the dusk speck in a Knuth notation number of eyes versus torture for one person; something as light as a speck of dust wouldn't even register, it's noise level, in practice doesn't affect someone one way or the other. A bit in the same idea that you need a signal to reach a certain strength to make a neuron fire. So to make it work, you'd need something that at least makes a difference, even the smallest of differences, in terms of pain.

    Now with that being said, different people have different sensibilities. This may... (read more)

    If a dust speck isn't enough, pick your favorite: A staple into your cheek? I do find the Rawlsian solution tempting though: is it wrong to torture one person to save 3^^^3 people from staples in their cheek, because the one tortured person is unfairly disadvantaged. Maximize the minimum and you'll find you really can't torture anybody at all. On the other hand, 3^^^3 is a lot of people...
    Being a noise level means you don't notice. It doesn't mean it doesn't register. If it's small enough, it literally won't register, but there's more to that than just being small. If you get to the point where it registers, and move back epsilon, then all it takes is an epsilon difference. Unless you were very, very careful about how you chose your people, there's going to be an unimaginable number who are within epsilon. Even if you made sure all the people were exactly identical, there's still a chance that they're all within epsilon.

    The way stories work is not as simple as Orson Scott Card's view. I can't do justice to it in a blog comment, but read 'The Seven Basic Plots' by Christopher Booker for the first accurate, comprehensive theory of the subject.

    Yes. Clearly no one would enjoy a story where someone is just continuously tortured without change.
    You have clearly never heard of "ero-guro" manga - you are, in fact, describing a specific subgenre of it.

    Is that... what we want?

    To just wipe away the last tear, and be done? For the last time, yes! Wake up from the Dragon-Tyrant's spell!

    You could cut out just the intolerable parts of pain? It is all tolerable. Or intolerable. You'd better define your terms.

    Keep the sort of pain that tells you not to stick your finger in the fire Just regenerate the finger.

    grinds down and destroys a mind Does pain actually do that? Have we done experiments showing that's the case?

    Or configure minds to be harder to damage One of Judith Harris' points is that minds are designed to be resilient, which is why child abuse doesn't have the effect many assume it does.

    No child sexual abuse that turns out more abusers. Are you sure you've got the causation right there? Couldn't it be that abusive people are likely to be related to other abusive people?

    or AIDS This is a less serious criticism of Eliezer than the others, but it's funny how often people go on about this rather easily preventable disease that kills a lot fewer people than diseases that get much less attention (various tropical diseases in Africa, a huge list of cancers in the U.S). Other diseases need better marketing and market segmentation resea... (read more)

    Could it be that pain-filled stories carry literary value exactly because (to a reader) they're filled with bearable pain? But I have little idea as to how we'd go about setting the threshold for "tolerable pain."

    Without pain can there be heroism?

    If you want to save anyone from really serious trouble, act now, your window of opportunity won't last forever.

    Are you sure you've got the causation right there? Couldn't it be that abusive people are likely to be related to other abusive people?

    Certainly not all abused children become abusers, and people are indeed more resilient than some myths would have it. But TGGP, if we're going to be all evo-psych anyway, then it's often stepchildren who get abused. If they tend not to continue the cycle of abuse, that would certainly be news to me.

    This is a less serious criticism of Eliezer than the others, but it's funny how often people go on about this rather easily preventable disease

    AIDS goes on grinding you down - separating you from other people socially, even. Most cancers kill you quicker.

    If you have the good fortune of being wealthy, AIDS is slowly becoming more and more like contagious diabetes rather than something that robs your (now shortened) years of most of their meaning.
    But that just means we're achieving the transhuman goal by pieces. AIDS is no longer the terrible disease it once was... and one day it won't be a disease at all.
    I was nitpicking and sharing some good news.

    Hrm... I'm pretty sure that, at least initially, losing the capacity for pain is a change I would not want. There're definite changes I would want in myself, but I don't think, at least initially, I would want that.

    I'd want more to be, well, "stronger" than I am, better able to handle it, for lack of better terminology. Not so much less pain so much as so much more, well "me", that the pain can't fill it. (Yes, this is obviously imprecise. I'm simply trying to appeal to how I currently imagine the desired state "feeling from the in... (read more)

    Throwing away the circuitry behind tears means throwing away the circuitry that allows one to sympathize with the tears of others. To ignore the objection any virtue ethicist that might be reading this currently for a little while, obviously in a world without tears such sympathy may not be needed. But as you point out we still have our memories and great tales that we'd probably like to go on appreciating somewhat for a long time to come.

    Cory Doctorow's Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom is a pretty good utopia. Also, I would happily live in the extreme post-singularity of complete AI control off all matter and energy from The Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect.

    Doctorow's Utopia has few drawbacks that don't exist in modern society, and Metamorphosis is an issue of what friendly AI means. Eliezer, you'd probably like Metamorphosis if you haven't read it -- it's about an obscenely strong AI programmed to follow Asimov's three laws. It touches on a number of issues that you write about here, lik... (read more)

    I enjoyed Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom quite a bit! I'm glad Kevin7 posted this link. However, the insanity portrayed as being beneficial and desirable in The Metamorphosis is too egregious to ignore - even if the rest of the story had made good on its promise of providing an interesting look at a posthuman world. (It doesn't. We don't even get to see anything of it.) At first, I thought "oh, great; more cached-thought SF"... but it was worse than that. I forced myself to finish it just so I could be sure the following is accurate. Worse than the already-irritating "death gives meaning to life!" reasoning replete in the work, we find either actual insanity or just a blithe disregard for self-contradiction: * Technology is bad, because one day the universe will die. (What's the connection? No fucking clue.) * We should live like cavemen, because technology (and knowledge itself - no reading!) will lead to murder (but certain arbitrary tools are okay); but death is fine when it's a bear or disease that kills you. * Reality isn't "really real" if it's created or controlled by an AI, even if it's indistinguishable from... uh... other reality. * And, of course, we save the most obvious conclusion for last (sorta-spoiler warning): despite item #2, it's okay to murder billions of happy immortals because you're unhappy that life is safe and everyone is free at last. Merits as a story? Well, at first, it's even a little exciting, as we are treated to a glimpse of a post-Singularity world (the only glimpse we get, as it turns out), and then some backstory on how the AI was created. That's cool; but after that, it's not worth reading, in this reader's humble opinion. It's very formulaic, the characters (all ~three of them) have no personality (unless you count angst), and any technical or imaginative details that might be interesting are... well, either not there at all, or waved away with the magic Correlation Effect Plot Device. (It's first used to explain one t
    You may enjoy A Casino Odyssey in Cyberspace--it's based in part on the author's history of card-counting--but then, you might not, as the Casinos don't seem like a very Fun place to go.

    I was just going to chime in with Down And Out in the Magic Kingdom. There's a Utopia where there's striving, and existential pain.

    But I shouldn't comment too much on it, because I got too bored to finish it. In the first page it is revealed that characters will survive until the "heat death of the universe." Given that premise, I quickly surmised that any dilemmas would be sort of, well, boring without the threat of imminent death. Based on that one small example I would say there is something necessary about the threat of death and lesser f... (read more)

    Eliezer, are you asking if we think universal boredom is a worse fate than world suffering? ;) How terribly emo of you.

    Also, you seem to be describe pleasure and pain as a sliding scale- moving towards pleasure means moving away from pain. But there are already humans where that isn't the case, where pain bleeds into pleasure. People whose humiliation makes them proud, whose submission gives them control. Do they sound bored to you? (That brief foray into BDSM was incredibly simplistic. Naughty boy.)

    "Would they take the next step, and try to eliminate the unbearable pain of broken hearts, when someone's lover stops loving them?"

    We already have an (admittedly limited) counterexample to this, in that many Westerners choose to seek out and do somewhat painful things (eg., climbing Everest), even when they are perfectly capable of choosing to avoid them, and even at considerable monetary cost.

    A lot of this post hinges on storytelling, which as we all seem to agree is different than actually living life. Perhaps the reason people are interested in tragic stories and news is related to Prospect Theory. We are more interested in curing and preventing tragedy than increasing from 10,000 to 20,000 hedons.

    Of course people to this day read all sorts of self-help books even if they don't have much tragedy in their lives. They just don't read them as you would a "masterpiece." I suppose people in the future may do the same, hoping to glean som... (read more)

    In one sense, it's clear that we do not want to live the sort of lives that are depicted in most stories that human authors have written so far. Think of the truly great stories, the ones that have become legendary for being the very best of the best of their genre: The Iliad, Romeo and Juliet, The Godfather, Watchmen, Planescape: Torment, the second season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or that ending in Tsukihime. Is there a single story on the list that isn't tragic?

    In many stories, things go horribly wrong and characters hurt, badly, but in the end,... (read more)

    TGGP: One of Judith Harris' points is that minds are designed to be resilient, which is why child abuse doesn't have the effect many assume it does.

    Didn't Harris explicitly make the point that yes, obviously actual abuse is an exception to the "family doesn't have that big of an effect" rule? (At least she did in The Nurture Assumption.)

    [...]my experience of drugs is as nonexistent as my experience of torture.

    There's something imbalanced about that.

    Agreed. I'm sure both can be procured somewhere in the Bay Area though. Great material for blogging too!

    Is the equivalent pleasure one that overrides everything with the demand to continue and repeat it?

    Yes. And that's as horrible an idea as eternal torture. I'm surprised you haven't cited any of the studies about relative happiness of lottery winners, (compared to their expectations) though I seem to remember references in some of the posts ab... (read more)

    I suspect climbing Everest is much more about effort and adventure than about actual pain. Also, the vast majority of people don't do that sort of thing as far as I know.

    If I'm 50% sure that the asymmetry between suffering and happiness is just because it's very difficult to make humans happy (and so in general achieving great happiness is about as important as avoiding great suffering), and 50% sure that the asymmetry is because of something intrinsic to how these things work (and so avoiding great suffering is maybe a hundred times as important), should I act in the mean time as if avoiding great suffering is slightly over 50 times as important as achieving great happiness, slightly under 2 times as important as achieving great happiness, or something in between? This is where you need the sort of moral uncertainty theory that Nick Bostrom has been working on I think.

    Beyonder here. The "unbearable pain of broken hearts" sounds like an interesting experience. I'll take one of those, and one "defeated in a fist fight". The "Romeo and Juliet just seems less and less relevant" sounds interesting too, but I'll try that later.

    Towards the end of the essay, Orwell writes:

    "The real objective of Socialism is human brotherhood. This is widely felt to be the case, though it is not usually said, or not said loudly enough. Men use up their lives in heart-breaking political struggles, or get themselves killed in civil wars, or tortured in the secret prisons of the Gestapo, not in order to establish some central-heated, air-conditioned, strip-lighted Paradise, but because they want a world in which human beings love one another instead of swindling and murdering one another. And the... (read more)

    @Eliezer, why not try certain psychoactive drugs?

    It is unclear to what extent, or even whether, being a victim of sexual abuse causes people to perpetrate sexual abuse. That said, I would personally be surprised if there wasn't some effect.


    I would suggest that this book, and the two books immediately preceding it, are an examination of the difference between what people believe they want the world to be and what they actually want and need it to be. When people gain enough power to create their vision of the perfect world, they do - and then find they've constructed an elaborate prison at best and a slow and terrible death at worst.

    An actual "perfect world" can't be safe, controlled, or certain -- and the inevitable consequence of that is pain. But so is delight.

    John Derbyshire has a review up of a book that addresses these types of problems, that is evolutionary psych arguments about the arts including fiction. http://www.johnderbyshire.com/Reviews/HumanSciences/artinstinct.html

    I'd say the primary bad thing about pain is not that it hurts, but that it's pushy and won't tune out. You could learn to sleep in a ship's engine room, but a mere stubbed toe grabs and holds your attention. That, I think we could delete with impunity.

    If we could learn to simply get along with any level of pain... how would it constitute an obstacle?

    Real accomplishment requires real obstacles to avoid, remove, or transcend. Real obstacles require real consequences. And real consequences require pain.

    In that case, we'll never get anything done, because you only count something as "real accomplishment" if we have things that prevent us from doing it. Once we get rid of the obstacles and do it, now it's not a "real accomplishment" anymore.

    Best thought-out utopia ever:

    In the Big Rock Candy Mountains, all the cops have wooden legs And the bulldogs all have rubber teeth and the hens lay soft-boiled eggs The farmer's trees are full of fruit and the barns are full of hay Oh I'm bound to go where there ain't no snow Where the rain don't fall, the wind don't blow In the Big Rock Candy Mountains

    In the Big Rock Candy Mountains, you never change your socks And little streams of alcohol come a-trickling down the rocks The brakemen have to tip their hats and the railroad bulls are blind There's a lake ... (read more)

    Offhand, I can't think of any fictional universe that I haven't classed as "a great place to visit, but I wouldn't want to live there."

    But that's why I go visiting. I want to see people defeat real obstacles, face real consequences, and feel the pain.

    I just don't want to live there. I like my small-to-nonexistent obstacles, with consequences and pain to match.

    I don't want to be The Guy On The Airplane Who Stops The Terrorist. I don't want to be The Person Who Saves The World.

    I want to be the guy sitting at his computer, doing accounting things... (read more)

    I can think of lots of fictional universes I'd love to live in. Either civilization in Against the Fall of Night is pretty nifty, and I wouldn't mind living there, even during the events of the story. Both could use improvements, sure, but a lot less than our civilization! But that's not exactly a thrill-a-minute book. Less far-futuristically, The Door into Summer seems pretty cool too, and as long as you're not the main character you're just your own person. More often, I'd restrict it to not during the story. Like, Foundation. Sounds pretty swell, if you live in the thousands of years before it starts, or on Gaia. The Hyperion-verse is just great before Hyperion and more so after Rise of Endymion. The worlds of Schild's Ladder and Incandescence are fine except when you have reasonable concerns that everything is about to end, and in the latter case very few people are put in that situation at any point. Similarly, Glasshouse's world is very nice whenever there isn't a massive galactic war going on and you haven't been kidnapped.

    Aaron, sad as it may seem to say, I think George Orwell's imagination simply failed him at the last. As Orwell also wrote:

    In the last part, in contrast with disgusting Yahoos, we are shown the noble Houyhnhnms, intelligent horses who are free from human failings. Now these horses, for all their high character and unfailing common sense, are remarkably dreary creatures. Like the inhabitants of various other Utopias, they are chiefly concerned with avoiding fuss. They live uneventful, subdued, 'reasonable' lives, free not only from quarrels, disorder or insecurity of any kind, but also from 'passion', including physical love. They choose their mates on eugenic principles, avoid excesses of affection, and appear somewhat glad to die when their time comes. In the earlier parts of the book Swift has shown where man's folly and scoundrelism lead him: but take away the folly and scoundrelism, and all you are left with, apparently, is a tepid sort of existence, hardly worth leading.

    If what Orwell wanted was a sense of "human brotherhood" in place of "swindling", he needed to say more clearly what distinguishes that from the Houyhnhnms or McCarthy's "ants marchi... (read more)

    Orwell preferred to write about the horrible things that happen when you do it wrong; but yes, I would have liked to see what he thinks is doing it right.

    Why are you biased toward the status quo for this human desire for "meaning" or "intensity" (both of which boil down to "emotional motivation"). The vast majority of terminal goals that I can imagine can be better pursued if fewer people (in the wide sense; people = sentient actors) are struggling to have an effect on the universe because they're more afraid of meaninglessness than of doing harm.

    Caledonian: "If we could learn to simply get along with any level of pain... how would it constitute an obstacle?"

    It would still hurt. You'd still not want it. It just wouldn't forcefully intrude itself on your every thought.

    Compare a loud noise in your house - bubbles making the pipes howl, perhaps. You could put it off, even learn to sleep through it, but without an urgent reason you'd certainly prefer to call the plumber. If you did have an urgent reason, say you were scrimping money for something vastly more important, you would have the abil... (read more)

    TGGP: why are you opposed to the idea that we may want to retain parts of pain?

    If we could get rid of the 'painfulness' of pain, and keep the informative part of pain, that'd be ideal. With no pain at all, we're in the situation of someone with nerve damage who might lose a limb to gangrene when she accidentally damages something but doesn't notice it. (Anyone for The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever?)

    Painless pain isn't all that strange an idea:

    'The second pain pathway is a much more recent scientific discovery. It runs parallel to the sensory pathway, but isn't necessarily rooted in signals from the body. The breakthrough came when neurologists discovered a group of people who, after a brain injury, were no longer bothered by pain. They still felt the pain, and could accurately describe its location and intensity, but didn't seem to mind it at all. The agony wasn't agonizing.

    This strange condition - it's known as pain asymbolia - results from damage to a specific subset of brain areas, like the amygdala, insula and anterior cingulate cortex, that are involved in the processing of emotions. As a result, these people are missing the negative feelings that normally acco... (read more)

    On the other hand, there must be some downside to pain asymbolia, or we'd all have it. (Plainly the mutation exists; why isn't it selected for?)
    Perhaps it is selected for, but selection hasn't had long enough to operate to disseminate it throughout the population.
    Probably because the negative feelings about the pain are what strongly motivate you to avoid it, and hence avoid physical damage.
    There may be disadvantage, yes. But it could also be that pain asymbolia is fine in a creature as high-level as a human - but without any selective fitness advantage, what would drive it to fixation in a selective sweep? Given zero reproductive advantage and possible disadvantage, it's no surprise that it's rare.

    Because a child who doesn't find pain unpleasant is really, really handicapped, even in the modern world. The people who founded A Gift of Pain had a daughter with pain asymbolia who is now mostly blind, amongst other disabilities, through self-inflicted damage. I'm not sure whether leprosy sufferers have the no-pain or no-suffering version of pain insensitivity (I think the former) but apparently it's the reason they suffer such damage.

    This book seems to be a useful source for people considering the question of whether pain could be improved.

    Ancient conversation on #sl4 (ran across it when checking my quotesfile):

    <yed> brings up the important fear, of not knowing what to do when everything is easy, nothing to resist and conquer. <outlawpoet> if people aren't interested in intellectual pursuits, then they'll sit on earth eating 95 billion potato chips a second and playing quake 9 <Michael^2> if not having problems around to solve turns out to be a problem, then that problem too will quickly be solved <Michael^2> existential dead ends only happen when someone's imagination runs out <outlawpoet> yed, are you just trying find the downside to solving all major human problems, or what? <outlawpoet> people don't really like pain. <outlawpoet> removing it won't make them unhappy. <yed> outlaw, did you read prime-intellect? <outlawpoet> yeah. I read ender's game too, should i be afraid of insectoid aliens?

    It is important to note that while emotions are triggered by relative perceptions, they are not themselves relative -- and what they are triggered by can be changed.

    Tony Robbins tells an interesting story of how a class he was teaching kept being interrupted by a train thundering past (this was before he made enough money to be booked in nicer venues). After he and the class had been annoyed by it for a while, he announced a new rule: when the train passes, it's time to celebrate!

    They then proceeded to cheer and whoop and jump up and down like crazy peopl... (read more)

    Really? You think we can get rid of, say, the pain of a broken heart, in one generation?

    Yudkowski, I'm going to have to disagree with you on the intensity of pleasure. Done properly, orgasms can sometimes be so intense that you lose track of your personal narrative for a moment - though I'm no expert on experiencing torture, I'd wager that our capacities our comparable on the pleasure/pain scales.

    The big difference between the two is duration - our pleasure centres naturally revert to boredom, while pain is unceasing. Perhaps a modification that made pain as brief as an orgasm, before subsiding into throbbing? Then you'd know that you just... (read more)



    I am starting to be sort of frightened by your premises - especially considering that there is non-zero probablity of creating some nonsentient singleton that tries to realize your values.

    Before going any further, I STRONGLY suggest that you think AGAIN what might be interesting in carving wooden legs.

    Yes, I like to SEE MOVIES with strong main characters going through the hell. But I would not want any of that.

    It does not matter that AI can do everything better than me. Right now, I am not the best carving the wood either. But working with wood is ... (read more)

    David Pearce has written extensively on the topic of the elimination of suffering - e.g. see: THE ABOLITIONIST PROJECT and Paradise Engineering.

    If a human child grew up in a less painful world - if they had never lived in a world of AIDS or cancer or slavery, and so did not know these things as evils that had been triumphantly eliminated - and so did not feel that they were "already done" or that the world was "already changed enough"... Would they take the next step, and try to eliminate the unbearable pain of broken hearts, when someone's lover stops loving them?

    Here is a more instructive thought experiment. Suppose a human child grew up in a painless world and did not feel that pain was already there or that the world had already changed enough. Should she try to create, in that possible world, the kind of pain that Eliezer doesn't think we should destroy in the actual world?

    That's a good point. Except I'm not sure why I should care about hypothetical humans that develop from a different set of starting conditions. How is that different from regular speculating of what different kinds of minds might want? (If its not obvious I think that biologically normal human brains might end up with very different values, different enough for several kinds of future universes preferred by any one such brain to be utterly worthless to many of the others.)

    If pain were 'programmable', rather than delete it altogether, how about a shorter half-life ? Your finger still hurts when you stick it in the fire, but for hours or minutes afterwards rather than days ?

    I intuitively sympathize with the complaints of status-quo bias, though it's of course also true that more changes from evolution's current local optimum entail more risk.

    Here is another interesting reference on one form of congenital lack of pain.


    Is there a point where Romeo and Juliet just seems less and less relevant, more and more a relic of some distant forgotten world?

    Aren't we already there for people who know the details rather than the outline? She was thirteen, they knew each other for less than a week, and he spent Act One mooning about a different girl. We no longer consider romantic difficulties between college boys and middle school girls to be the pinnacle of tragedy.

    While we are arguing fictional evidence, I will take the third season of Buffy as its pinnacle, and that ends in triumph rather than tragedy (although again triumph over adversity). It might say more about your preferences if you think all the great works are tragedies; I know someone who thinks the sixth season of Buffy was the best, which is definitely a statement on her sense of life.

    Gwern, why do you think we have those emotional responses to pain in the first place?

    Yes, I'm aware of forms of brain damage that make people not care about negative stimuli. They're extraordinarily crippling.

    Nothing in the link indicated that pain asymbolia (as opposed to other conditions like aboulia or not feeling pain at all) is 'extraordinarily crippling'. Why don't we come with asymbolia by default? I don't know. Possibly the same reason we feel pain even while dying, at which point there's no productive purpose to feeling pain - because evolution is dumb and doesn't care about us.
    What would be the point of signaling pain if the animal does not care about it?
    'Caring', whatever that is, doesn't have to involve 'pain'. I care about many things that do not trigger pain neurons.
    Now there's one for "Shit Rationalists Say."
    Having reread your reply several times, I still have no idea how it is related to what I said.
    You are a much more powerful consequentialist than our evolutionary ancestors which first evolved pain. They probably couldn't care about avoiding events which had not previously caused them pain.
    I am also an animal.
    You are an animal of the first species to invent computers. You have superpowers not posessed by other animals.
    So pain asymbolia means something else than “being able to feel pain but not caring about it”?
    It means "being able to feel pain but not suffering from it."
    Where “pain” and “suffering” are defined, respectively, as... what?
    Roughly, pain is a sensation typically associated with damage to the body, suffering is an experience of stimuli as intrinsically unpleasant. I do not suffer if my room is painted a color I do not like, but I still may care about the color my room is painted.
    Agree, with the assumption that "stimuli" as relevant to suffering includes internal stimuli generated from one's own thoughts.
    Yeah, that's certainly a fair clarification. It'd probably take a lot more space to give a really robust definition of "suffering", but that's close enough for gummint work.
    "When pain does not hurt"

    Pablo's analogy is very thought-provoking and the best argument I've heard for ending suffering.

    I'm surprised that none of the other commenters suggested "What if you just invert the human sense of pain, causing it to become a new form of pleasure, and then write stories about that?"

    You might think that would turn a horribly tragic story into a deliciously pornographic story, but I've personally tried this trick, and it doesn't seem to work well. When the story keeps reminding you that the people are in fact suffering, and not at all enjoying the experiences, then it's hard to keep imagining the pain being inverted as pleasure.

    But if you w... (read more)

    You haven't dove deep enough into asstr yet. Some of them are truly transhuman, most of them are more like, "We terraformed a dozen planets or so, now we need to fill them up! And the best way is to start early, therefore pedo incest is the way of the future."
    that's awesome! thanks! do you have links to any of these stories? you can send them by private message if you prefer. :) and yay for someone daring to write a story about transhuman pedo incest :) but maybe I shouldn't say that until I actually read the story. pedo incest is really hard to write a story about without it feeling all evil and squicky. The final chapter of Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect is an example of how to do it right. Though in that story it wasn't actually pedophilia, there were practical reasons why the incest was necessary. They were trying to repopulate a planet starting with only 2 people, and they were trying to maximize genetic diversity. heh, and compared to the evilsquickiness of the other chapters, that last chapter felt almost wholesome by comparison... Also, I should make it clear that this is not a general endorsement of incest or pedophilia. Incest and pedophilia are extremely dangerous. Though I wouldn't be too quick to label them as so evil that incestuous or underage sex should never hapen ever ever. That last chapter of MoPI shows an example of when underage incest is the lesser of two evils... and the way it's portrayed in the story, I'm not sure if I would even call it evil. To me, that scene felt mostly pure and inocent, though I happen to be kinda creepy that way. Anyway, I've already gotten myself into lots of trouble by writing this, I had better stop writing now... Edit: yeah, I know that this is likely to get lots of downvotes, and will probably make most readers really uncomfortable, and give me a really bad reputation, but I'm still undecided about whether censoring this would be a bad idea...
    I think you'd get Crossed. It makes sense, at least through the first book (I haven't read the others), that the infection makes every experience pleasurable, and since painful or horrific experiences are more intense and memorable than good ones, it makes people into Reavers, pretty much.

    Though I speak here somewhat outside my experience, I expect that it takes a highly talented and experienced sexual artist working for hours to produce a good feeling as intense as the pain of one strong kick in the testicles - which is doable in seconds by a novice.

    True. I always believed that it takes much more skill to make people laugh than it takes to make them cry or suffer, which, I guess, would put comedians above most fiction authors.

    But then, what is the analogous pleasure that feels that good? A victim of skillful torture will do anything to stop the pain and anything to prevent it from being repeated. Is the equivalent pleasure one that overrides everything with the demand to continue and repeat it?

    Another possible definition is that it makes you feel so good that you can endure the previously unendurable torture.

    Discussion of stories without pain for the characters

    I think there'd be no cost to eliminating PTSD. Not everyone gets it from a given trauma, and vulnerability to it goes up with repeated traumas, so not getting PTSD seems to be well within the human range, and getting it doesn't have any obvious advantages.

    One of my friends describes one of the worst things about pain is that it's boring-- she has a bad hip. The pain from it is enough sometimes that she can't think about anything else.

    Pain like that-- or worse-- all the time might well be mind-breaking.

    World without pain? The good news is that if you allow individual autonomy, everyone isn't going to try giving up pain at the same time. There will be a chance to observe the effects on the early adopters.


    All that and no reference to Nietzsche. Didn't he say everything above? That is, with different case studies. Why presented as original?

    Nevermind...deleting this comment (after this edit, in case its logged...) I think in general this community is irrational rational when it comes to irrationality.

    There we go. Gotta know whether you cut yourself, but you don't need to know MORE about how someone broke your finger. Knowing is knowing.

    I was told Romeo and Juliet was conceived as a Black Comedy, and indeed the protagonists seem to firmly grasp the Idiot Ball throughout the story. It was revived in the Elizabethan Britain as a tragedy because Romeo and Juliet seemed to embody the weird "morality" and sensitivity of that era.

    Mm, Planescape:Torment. Hope you've played it with all the fixes and restorations.

    If there's one fictional universe I'd like to live in it's Planescape. A reality shapeable by willpower and belief. Give me a karach blade and I can, in principle, do anything. But sadly, *knowing* this would not in any way help me design a better future for this reality...


    And if so, is there any point in delaying that last step? Or should we just throw away our fears and... throw away our fears?

    Because as you would say, growing stronger is fun. Slowly, and with much effort, throwing away your fears one by one seems like a potentially rich mine of fun for a mind. At the very least it sounds like a good story.

    Ironically, this post about how hard it is to write good stories about things that have good outcomes has given me inspiration on how to write those stories.

    The biggest revelation I had? Use the reader's uncertainty as a source of conflict..

    If you can make the reader uncertain about what you're writing about, then there's a perceived conflict in the story by the reader, making him/her ask, "Is this really a good thing?" This perceived conflict between reality and what the reader wants is definitely enough to drive a story, as now the reader wan... (read more)


    I suggest that a story needs suspense, dissonance, and strong emotional reactions. These need not necessarily be pain. Some stories are interesting because they provoke wonder - ideas clicking together, strange worlds being explored. A lot of science fiction and fantasy stories accomplish this.

    I've been mulling this over for a while. I'm posting this now because I just thought of a concrete example of a story which is popular and contains no pain or conflict:


    What makes the story work is the "mind-blown&q... (read more)

    I just thought of another, larger and more unsettling problem. Although it's kind of hard for me to explain, but I'll try.

    If the following statements are true:

    1. The only reason we need pain is to notify us of damage to ourselves or to things that matter to us.
    2. The only reason we need fear is to motivate us to avoid things that could cause damage to ourselves or things that matter to us.
    3. The only reason we need happiness or pleasure is so that we are motivated to seek out things that would help us or things that matter to us.
    4. The only reason we need beliefs
    ... (read more)
    That may be the only reason we evolved happiness or pleasure, but we don't have to care about what evolution optimized for, when designing a utopia. We're allowed to value happiness for its own sake. See Adaptation-Executers, not Fitness-Maximizers. Worthwhile goals are finite, so it's true we might run out of goals someday, and from then on be bored. But it doesn't frighten me too much because: 1. We're not going to run out of goals as soon as we create an AI that can achieve them for us; we can always tell it to let us solve some things on our own, if it's more fun that way. 2. The space of worthwhile goals is still ridiculously big. To live a life where I accomplish literally everything I want to accomplish is good enough for me, even if that life can't be literally infinite.* Plus, I'm somewhat open to the idea of deleting memories/experience in order to experience the same thing again. 3. There's other fun things to do that don't involve achieving goals, and that aren't used up when you do them. *Actually, I am a little worried about a situation where the stronger and more competent I get, the quicker I run out of life to live... but I'm sure we'll work that out somehow. I guess technically the real goal is to be "close to perfection", as close as possible. We pretend that the goal is "perfection" for ease of communication, and because (as imperfect humans) we can sometimes trick ourselves into achieving more by setting our goals higher than what's really possible.

    I'm curious as to what, more specifically, The Path of Courage looks like.

    If broken legs have not been eliminated... Would a person still learn, over time, how to completely avoid breaking a leg - and the difference lies in having to learn it, rather than starting out with unbreakable legs? Or do we remain forever in danger of breaking our legs (which is okay because we'll heal and because the rest of life is less brutal in general)?

    If the latter... What happens to "optimizing literally everything"? Will we experience pain and then make a conscio... (read more)

    Rewrote Elder Author theorum, to Long-term Success theorum & it's now mentally Kosher. I've seen the same pattern reflected in music, movies, & most art that traipses near scientific-emulation. The greatest artists can be so Machiavellian, pain-exegesis as the impetus, that they become magicians, potion-sellers. Once they are paid enough they rejoin the rational & shutup. We have a deal for regulating emotions in slightly fringe & treatable class differences. The problem that arises is that typically the well off & intelligent aren't al... (read more)

    I am aware of the 14 year difference between the time of this essay's writing and that of my comment.

     When one reads Siddhartha, they find that the commands to be naïve to the pain one experiences and enjoy the pleasure bestowed upon them would be difficult to adhere to in the presence of extreme pain (Anyone after learning about Buddhist tenets questions what to do when you lose a loved one or touch a gympie-gympie) Some ideals of the eightfold path would be easier to adhere to where pain is present but not unbearable.  Buddhist tenets also inst... (read more)

    [+][comment deleted]00