Empyrean Chapters 22 and 23
Just to explain, a trog is a person who has had their brain replaced by a functionally identical electronic copy which is fed a virtual reality by a computer. The novel suggests that, in the future, significant numbers of people will choose this lifestyle in which they can choose their experiences unconstrained by the need for physical resources. Aging, sickness, death, ugliness, disability and most negative things that can plague biological life do not have to be part of a trog life.
Chapter 22: A Cat’s Life
After the parachutists had landed, Hannah looked at Misha and said, ‘A trog’s life is very hedonistic, isn’t it?’
‘Totally,’ Misha replied.
That wasn’t quite the response she was hoping for. ‘Is that a good thing?’ she continued.
‘If what you want out of life is to enjoy yourself, then yes.’
‘But do we just want to enjoy ourselves.’
‘Yes’ Misha replied, ‘we just want to maximise pleasure – nothing more, nothing less. Life generally is totally devoted to the pursuit of pleasure.’
‘Rubbish,’ Hannah said. ‘There’s a lot more to life than that.’
Misha looked at her for a moment, then asked ‘Can I try to convince you?’
‘Be my guest,’ Hannah answered, seemingly quite assured that she would fail.
‘Ok . . . You’re probably aware of the pleasure response experiments done on animals like cats.’
‘A classic experiment was performed in the 20th Century – and similar things have been done since. They put electrodes into a certain part of a cat’s brain and found that, when a current was applied, it produced a reaction of obvious pleasure.’
‘In the experimenter?’ Narlo interrupted.
‘No, in the cat,’ Misha replied with a laugh and an expression that said Silly boy.
‘Ah right . . . what sort of cat was it?’ he asked.
Just a common domestic tabby.’
‘Yes, it probably belonged to the janitor,’ Misha said facetiously.
‘Shut up Narlo, I wanna hear this,’ Hannah interjected jovially.
‘Sorry, keep going.’ Narlo decided to be serious.
‘Right.’ Misha continued, hoping Narlo had finished. ‘Anyway, they set up a device with which the cat could administer the current for itself by pressing a lever with its foot and holding it down.’
‘Mm . . .’
‘The cat just sat there with its foot on the lever and with the sort of expression on its face that a cat gets when you rub them under the chin.
‘But then they changed the set-up so that the cat got just a one-second burst of current when it pressed the lever. So if it wanted more it had to release it and press it again.’
Misha went on, ‘The cat soon learnt to keep pressing and releasing the lever and in fact kept doing so until it was totally exhausted. It ignored food and water and any other attractions that were offered. These other things would have provided pleasure, but obviously not as much pleasure as pressing the lever.
‘The conclusion was that a cat’s actions are motivated entirely by stimulation of its pleasure centre. It seemed that all a cat’s actions were just an attempt to maximise pleasure and minimise displeasure.
‘Of course, in normal life, this is best achieved by doing the normal things a cat does – eating when it needs to, sitting by the fire when it’s cold, rubbing its nose on someone’s leg, keeping away from the dog and so on. The feeling of being fed would stimulate the cat’s pleasure centre to a certain level – say 30 points. Being warm as well would stimulate it a bit more – say 50 points. Having a leg to rub against would raise it a bit more still – 60 points. Seeing the dog would counter these effects and reduce the pleasure level – to say 10 points. Feeling the dog’s teeth in its neck would reduce it quite drastically – maybe to minus 80 points.
‘All the cat’s actions are just an attempt to get the highest pleasure level it can.
‘Pressing the lever produced an instant pleasure level of 100. The electrode produced more stimulation than any of the normal activities the cat engaged in or stimuli it experienced. The normal activities stimulate the pleasure centre to some degree. But the electrode stimulated it totally. Why would the cat get off the lever to go and eat something when doing so would take its pleasure level from 100 down to 30? It wouldn’t. And it didn’t.’
‘Does that work for all cats or was that just an odd one?’ Hannah asked.
‘The experiment has been repeated quite a few times on different cats, rats, rabbits etc. and it appears that this is the way all these animals work.’
‘Mm . . .’ Hannah said again.
‘It makes sense when you think about it,’ Misha continued. ‘Cats in the wild don’t know that they need to eat and keep warm to survive. They certainly don’t know that they need to find a mate and copulate to ensure the continuation of the species. What’s more, they probably wouldn’t care about the continuation of the species, even if they did realise that there was such a thing as a species.
‘So any system that depends on cats working out what they need to do to survive is not going to lead to the survival of cats. This is where the pleasure mechanism comes in. Cats’ brains are wired in such a way that the situations that are likely to lead to survival stimulate a certain part of the cat’s brain. Their brains are also wired so that they are motivated to do what leads to the greatest stimulation of this part of their brain. This successfully enables cats to survive as individuals and as a species.
‘Theoretically, cats wouldn’t need to be conscious of this stimulation, but for some reason, they are – or at least they seem to be. The consciousness of the stimulation takes the form of pleasure.
‘The pleasure mechanism seems to be the survival mechanism for most animals, certainly the more complex animals like mammals. It would be the mechanism used in apes, and it would have been inherited by humans.’
‘Humans can work out what they need to survive though,’ Hannah suggested.
‘That’s true,’ Misha continued ‘but knowing how to survive is no guarantee that we would survive. We might know how to produce and raise children, but if we got no pleasure from sex or from having children around, would we reproduce?
‘[Not that there is any fundamental reason why our species should survive – it’s just that species which don’t have a strong built-in survival mechanism will become extinct in favour of those which do – so inevitably the world becomes filled with species which do.]
‘So, whatever we think about it, everything a cat does is aimed at maximising pleasure. And the same would be true of humans – everything a human does is aimed at maximising pleasure.’
All this made sense to Narlo, though Hannah seemed less convinced.
‘If this doesn’t seem right,’ Misha went on, ‘think about the things we do. Given a choice of two things which produce different amounts of pleasure, most people would go for the one that gives the most. If you were cold and hungry and you had the choice of going into a pub, sitting by the fire and having a hot meal on the one hand, and sitting outside in the rain on the other hand, if you chose the latter, you probably wouldn’t be considered normal, would you?’
‘No, not really,’ Hannah said with a bit of a smile. She thought for a moment then said, ‘Has the same experiment been done on humans?’
‘It has,’ Misha answered. ‘And it works the same way, though of course letting humans starve themselves to death tends to be considered less ethical than letting a cat starve itself to death. Besides, humans have better higher reasoning powers than cats and realise that they need to stop pressing the leaver occasionally and have something to eat.
‘One of the greatest boosts to a human’s pleasure level comes from using drugs like heroin. This is probably a similar experience to what the cat has when it presses the lever. Addicts will neglect their other needs to keep getting that high. Often they will end up killing themselves.’
*   *   *
‘But,’ said Hannah, ‘most people don’t take heroin even though it would raise their pleasure level. Doesn’t that counter your argument?’
‘That’s a good point,’ Misha replied. ‘As babies our motivation is for raising our pleasure level in the here and now. As we get older we learn to take the future into account as well. If we didn’t do this, most of us would never go to work. We would always be getting ourselves into trouble by doing what is fun now and not heeding the consequences down the track. We wouldn’t survive very long.
‘We don’t take heroin because we know that it will reduce our pleasure more in the long term than it will raise it in the short term. If we view our actions as being chosen to maximise our total pleasure over time, then not taking the heroin makes sense.
‘We’re quite often good,’ Misha went on, ‘when being bad would be more fun – and the reason is that being bad will generally lead to consequences which will be less pleasant in the long term.
‘Of course, not everyone gives equal weighting to all times between now and death. Most of us put more importance on the near future than on the distant future.’
‘This makes sense,’ Narlo said, ‘because we know we’re alive now, but we might not be in 10 years time.’
‘That’s right,’ Misha agreed. ‘People who heavily favour the near future are often either delinquent or about to die.’ Narlo looked thoughtful then asked, ‘About to die because they don’t think of the future or don’t think of the future because they’re about to die?’
‘Could be either.’
*   *   *
Hannah came up with another thought. ‘What about when people make sacrifices for others – giving away something they need because someone else needs it, putting themselves in danger to rescue someone else, bravery in battle, risking their own life for others. Don’t these things show that there is more to us?’
‘Maybe,’ Misha accepted. ‘But we won’t usually give away things we need if the person we give them to doesn’t need them more. And we won’t risk our lives unless someone else stands to gain through our actions.
‘These are our so-called higher motives. These lead us to act in a way that may well lower our own pleasure level or chances of survival. But we will generally only act that way if the action will increase someone else’s pleasure or survival chances. So we can at times be motivated to sacrifice ourselves for others. But the motivation for our actions is still pleasure. It’s just somebody else’s pleasure rather than our own.
‘This self-sacrifice for others is built into our cerebral programming to help with the survival of our gene assemblage and the species as a whole. It’s particularly strong when the sacrifice is for our own children: they carry the closest approximation to our own gene set.’ Hannah said, ‘Mm . . .’
‘We generally place a higher value on our own pleasure and the pleasure of our loved ones than on the pleasure of people we don’t know, particularly if those people live a long way away and look different from us. This makes sense when we consider that the result of the survival instinct is the continuation of our own gene assemblage. We have that assemblage exactly; our relatives have a close approximation to it, people from other races have less of it still, but they still have a lot more of it than members of a different species, which we might quite happily eat to ensure our own survival.’
*   *   *
‘What about people who forgo worldly pleasure for religious reasons?’ Hannah asked. Misha had an answer to that too. ‘Religious people tend to maximise their pleasure over eternity rather than just over their lifetime. For those who believe in an after-life, most of existence is after death. These people will sacrifice pleasure before death for the reward of greater and longer-lasting pleasure after death. ‘The basic motivation system is still the same though – maximising pleasure.
‘So there’s no getting away from it: we live for pleasure. We do everything we can to maximise pleasure. The more pleasure we can produce, the better. Pleasure is our ultimate aim in life. Nothing else takes priority over it. In fact, nothing else really matters at all.
‘Pleasure is the meaning of life – the only meaning of life,’ Misha said with a distinct air of triumph. ‘So living a trog life can be seen as the ultimate fulfilment of the human life,’ she concluded.
‘Well I’m glad we sorted that one out,’ Rory chirped up. ‘Somehow I never did think the meaning of life was 42.’
‘What?’ said Misha, but Narlo knew what he meant.
Chapter 23: Too Much Pleasure
Hannah still wasn’t completely satisfied. ‘People who are brought up with everything they want tend to get bored with life: nothing excites them; they’re spoilt and they are often less happy than people who have to struggle a bit.’
‘That might be the case,’ Misha conceded. ‘But it generally happens only if people get everything they want handed to them on a plate without having to work for it. Trogs have to work for what they want in life and even then they don’t always get everything they want. As well as money, a lot of experiences require the trog to have certain knowledge and skills; these might take time and effort to develop and some may be quite beyond the trogs ability however long he works at it: you may never get that job you would just love, or hit it off with that person you would love to have a relation with.
‘As well as that, luck and misfortune are still factors in trog life. You might spend a while working to earn enough to climb Mt Everest, but then fall down a crevasse and kill yourself before you get a quarter of the way up. You then forfeit the rest of the expedition and have to pay for it again. Personal relationships can be a source of great pleasure, but also of great personal grief when they change or end.
‘So all in all, trogs generally appreciate what they get and don’t suffer the bored spoilt child syndrome.
‘Many trogs have long-term goals. These might be part of their work or might be personal ambitions. These goals provide a sense of purpose in their lives . . . for those who need a sense of purpose.’ Hannah looked quizzical. ‘Are some people happy not having any purpose?’
‘Yes. I would say most Morinyans and trogs wouldn’t have an ultimate purpose if you asked them.’
‘Doesn’t having no purpose make life a bit meaningless and pointless?’ Hannah asked.
‘In the sense that ‘meaning’ and ‘point’ are other words for ‘purpose’, yes, I suppose it does. But being without purpose doesn’t stop it from being worthwhile and certainly doesn’t stop one from enjoying life and being happy.’ Misha looked at Rory and Rory spoke. ‘I went through a bit of a crisis as a teenager when I realised that my life had no purpose. The logical conclusion was that, if it served no purpose, then I might as well just end it – kill myself. The fact that I wasn’t enjoying life that much just seemed to help justify that conclusion.
‘The conclusion was more a logical curiosity than a deep commitment, so I never actually got to the point of planning my own demise. But I did keep thinking through the issue and eventually came to the conclusion that having no purpose in life was actually not a bad thing. A purpose involves responsibility: if you’re here to perform a certain role, you have a bit of an obligation to perform it – and performing it may not be what you would want to do.
‘On the other hand, if your life has no purpose, then you don’t have any obligatory task to perform and your life is yours to do whatever you want with.
‘It was quite liberating for me in a way to realise that my life had no purpose and that it was mine to do with as I pleased. What I wanted to do with it was improve my situation so that I was less miserable and enjoyed life more. And later on I did manage to improve it.
‘I still see my life as mine to do with as I pleased. What I want to do with it is things like enjoy myself, make a mark on the world for the better, come to understand life and the universe as much as I can, do my job well etc. I think other people might call these things their purpose in life. In a sense they are, but in a sense they're not. The 'deeper' meaning of purpose (purpose in the sense that I was looking for when I was a teenager) involves a responsibility placed upon me to do something for some interest outside of me - like for God or some human cause. The 'less deep' meaning of purpose is just the things that I decide to devote myself to and put effort towards in my own life. Goals might be a better term for these ‘less deep’ purposes. My main goals is to enjoy myself – pleasure.’
*   *   *
After a moment’s silence Misha continued, ‘To many bobs, unless they have doubts about whether they will be conscious and keep their identity as a trog, the trog life seems more desirable than their bob life. This is especially the case if they don’t have a particularly good bob life, say because of disability, sickness, poverty, lack of success with relationships or whatever.
‘This guarantees that some people will take the plunge and convert. Then, the more that convert, the more that the remaining bobs get to see their lives as better versions of their own, and so the more new converts there will be.
‘Once the technology becomes available, it is pretty well guaranteed that people will use it and that trogs will begin to accumulate. Because they don’t die and because they take up so little of the Earth’s resources, it’s also guaranteed that the number of trogs will keep growing and that they will eventually outnumber bobs.
‘In a sense, trogs might be seen as an inevitable consequence of man’s development of technology. In fact many consider it likely that any life form which gets to the evolutionary stage that humans have reached will get similar advantages from converting to an electronic form and living in a virtual world.
‘Before you left Earth, it was a mystery why Earth hadn’t been colonised (or seemingly even visited) by aliens, even though billions of Earth-like planets have had billions of years longer than us to develop intelligent life and to travel the galaxy. This was known as the Fermi paradox. A possible explanation is that, once life is intelligent enough, it will choose to move into a virtual universe of its own making rather than spread out and colonise the real one.’ There was a lot there for Hannah and Narlo to think about and they sat quietly mulling it over for a while.
*   *   *
‘You mentioned happiness before,’ Hannah said to Misha. ‘Isn’t that more important than pleasure?’
Misha thought for a moment. ‘Happiness is a form of pleasure.’
Hannah gave her a questioning look..
Misha started to elaborate. ‘Happiness is a feeling that life is good. In other words that life is mostly the way you would like it to be, in other words mostly pleasant. Pleasure, the memory of past pleasure and the prospect of future pleasure, for you and those you care about, are what generally makes people happy. Happiness is a sense of satisfaction and well being, but the reason we want it is because it is a pleasant feeling. Happiness just provides a bit of positive feedback to our striving for pleasure.’
Hannah mulled over that idea.