The Pleasure Deficit
Pleasure, second only to existing in the first place, quite simply is the point of human existence. It should be the explicitly stated goal of the human race, and has long been treated unfairly as something outside useful human society by those wishing to secure for themselves the same pleasurable life we all deserve, only at the expense of others. Indeed, at times they claim that fun is something worthless, decadent and harmful. This could not be further from the truth. In our evolutionary past all things which felt good usually were good for us, pleasure and the things that caused it were adaptive. For centuries we lived successfully by the tenet “if it feels good, do it” and we prospered as a result. But as we made the shift from a biological to a technological way of life, our instincts and pleasure systems which served us so well for so long, could not adapt even remotely fast enough. Agriculture was the beginning. Because while eating from a field certainly was pleasurable, planting it was not, we had to suspend our avoidance of displeasure in order to acquire a survival trait. Further, because agriculture and other techniques and technologies allowed us to stock pile what were, until then, isolated rare experiences flanked by limiting factors, over indulgence became a pleasure encouraged possibility. -The root of gluttony?As a result things that felt good actually became bad for us, like fat, sugar, and salt because they could be acquired and consumed in harmful amounts. This is the source of the often written about loss of enjoyment and meaning associated with technological life. This conflict between what was once good for us, and what is now good for us has given rise to the Amish, the Taliban, Ted Kaczynski and a host of other fundamentalisms and anti-technology ideals. All of these being proponents or versions of Luddism, based on the premise that our way of life is decaying emotionally, that technology because of its disregard for the human ‘spirit’ will leave us unfulfilled, emotionally crippled, and ethically bankrupt. It naturally follows, if you grant these premises, that the answer is to stop technology, and adopt a more primitive lifestyle. The problem is that this ‘solution’ negates our primary survival advantage. Which is the ability to imagine a better environment and then manipulate the environment to suit our own ends. The anti-technology movement continues to acquire supporters because simply, it works. But why? There are countless examples of people leaving technological society and coming back with stories of unmatched contentment. However, I think many people
miss the reasoning behind why this happens, and the harm caused by staying in these settings, or advocating a ‘return to nature’ permanently. We modify ourselves to fit our setting, first via natural selection which proceeds at a speed faster than the environment. This is the core of evolution. The thing which allows us to adapt ourselves to the environment -or the environment to ourselves- faster than the environment can adapt to us, thus assuring our survival and dominance. But it’s still a conflict, and physical adaptation isn’t fast enough, just ask bacteria or roaches. So, knowledge which gives rise to actions one can take and pass on which create a survival advantage emerges. This is the birth of instinct, and learning. Since the amount of knowledge one can hold is directly linked to the physical capability of the life form, this method’s speed is also tethered to the environment. But it’s not enough, just ask ants and every other form of life up to us. This is what separates us, We have the imagination to picture a new world. Technology is born. Which for the first time severed the evolutionary chain leading from our necks to the earth we walk on, and flipped things completely upside down in that instead of us adapting to life, it became life adapting to us. There was an unexpected drawback, which exposed a fundamental weakness that transfer to a new substrate can correct. Suddenly our ability to adapt our environment began to outpace our ability to adapt to that environment ourselves. We didn’t really notice this right away on a deep pleasure level because the gap was very small and our needs were still being met. We still had all our natural mechanisms and the world still generally fit us. We took no more than we needed and our neurological systems served us by rewarding adaptive behavior and punishing non-adaptive behavior, mostly. Then however our technology started to become our environment almost completely, and suddenly we were required to adapt to that thing, which we created, which allowed us to exist and continue adapting in the first place. Technology by its very nature is faster to adapt than we are naturally capable of, that’s why it imparts a survival advantage in the first place. This produces a serious problem when our neurological adaptations clash with the new setting because it’s very hard to see what’s wrong with something using the very thing that apparently has something wrong with it. So instead of blaming our slow adaptation, and our brains which are effectively evolutionary relics compared to the technology and society we’ve built with them, we blame what we can clearly see, the outside.
This tendency to blame ‘everything else’ and return to a setting where we perfectly ‘fit in’ is what gives rise to religion, cults, drug use, sports obsession, tribalism and virtually every other form of escapism. Luckily some have the answer, mostly science fiction writers, or those who study neurochemistry and neuropsychiatry. I won’t try to reproduce their arguments in detail here except to say that our brains, and how they process and regulate desire, fear, pleasure, and pain, adapted to serve us in a totally different environment than we live in now and as a result pain, emotional and physical, has become far more common than it needs to be in order to protect our survival. To correct this problem we must excise from ourselves the pathological neurochemical limitations identified as not adaptive to our style of living or ethical abstract goals. Basically if you look at your life and think “this should make me happy” but it doesn’t, then realize that there isn’t anything wrong with you, or your life, you’re experiencing a maladaptive pathological neurochemical limitation. There’s a mechanical problem at work in your brain as a result of millennia of evolution preparing you for an environment that no longer exists. And I say problem not in the sense of a malformation of how your brain is designed to be, but a problem in that your brain’s design is not what you would like it to be. We have the potential to correct this, but we fear very deeply exploring it because of the power it could grant us. If you wish to be happy and keep the advantages afforded you by technological civilization then you must realize that drugs and psychotherapy, religion, living in the woods, football, World of Warcraft, or any other forms of escape simply won’t help you. The basically healthy brain has a great many evolutionary throwbacks that need to be removed or modified. And virtually all of them center on how we are rewarded and punished by our actions with pleasure and pain. We need to make life fun again, and to do this we shouldn’t change our lives so much as we should change ourselves. Excruciating chronic pain is not adaptive, general depressed suffering is not adaptive, fear is typically not adaptive, nor even is an acceptance of death. We can make life plentiful and fun and it is our responsibility to do so. Having fun is why we are here. Anyone who says differently is probably trying to talk you into doing something that helps them at your expense. Now, that's not to say that we need to avoid working or things which may cause suffering at all costs, it just means that enjoyment should be the measure of our success as a species, not our monuments. If we know something is good for us, why not make it feel good enough to motivate that action in the whole populace? Imagine a
pill that made exercise almost as pleasurable as eating a good meal. Imagine making it so that helping someone felt as good as, or better than helping yourself. I think it’s obvious that pleasure is the core of human motivation and that can be said of every human profession as well. Hell, even a professional torturer’s goal is to increase pleasure for whatever organization he’s working for or even himself if he’s doing it for gratification. Ethics become a function of pleasure if you look closely enough and keep in mind our origins. The reason torture, murder, rape etc. are immoral is because the harm caused costs more than the fun. Which is why the law itself needs fundamental goal revision because when looked at this way, the drug war and other long standing collective emergent human behaviors become a sort of crime in and of themselves. Enforcement of drug law for example produces a pleasure deficit far in excess of any potential drug abuse, or related use casualties. So ask yourself, why does it exist? Who is having fun because of it, and how much does it cost you? Knowledge is the answer. A more knowledgeable (not necessarily skilled) person knows how to have fun. Technology can and will provide the tools that will enable the whole human race to have a good time while bettering ourselves by our own definition, instead of living at the whim of a small string of molecules buried deep within our cells, or a small number of tyrants buried deep within our society. Encouraging this future and doing what I can to conceptually prepare my species and those around me for this type of thinking is the goal of my life. And in a way is the goal of every respectable human ever produced.