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Progress and Tradition, pt. 2

by Niklas Haas on December 4, 2020

Tagged as: life, philosophy, society, politics.

After writing my last post on the hedonic treadmill, I had the idea to try synthesizing this concept with the idea of drawing the analogy between human individuals and human society, and I liked the thoughts that resulted.

To cut a long story short, the basic premise I’m operating under is that civilization itself forms a sort of meta-consciousness in which the entire human species ends up being a self-aware goal-directed agent - causal influences between individuals functioning not unlike causal influences between neurons. This meta-entity would indeed be more intelligent and quite possibly more conscious than even what we think individual humans are capable of.1 But the reason I was heading down this rabbit hole is to wonder how the nature of happiness evolves - not just on an individual level, but on a species-wide level, and I think I made the connection that the hedonic treadmill of the species level is literally just the march of progress.

I’ve written before about how dependent on progress we are, but I’ve never before really tried articulating what progress is. In trying to do so I managed to convince myself that the following terms are equivalent: progress, increased survival, and happiness. To summarize, I believe the basic premise behind human emotion is, at its core, survival values. We think what we do because evolution gave us, as axioms of thought, heuristics that are good for survival. So disentangling ‘survival’ from ‘happiness’ seems fundamentally impossible, at least once fluctuations dissipate: Natural selection selects for those individuals that experience joy from surviving and fear death. By extension, given enough time for evolution to adapt to circumstances, the only people left alive are those who desire things good for survival. Incidentally, one of the interesting points of data to help back up this claim is the realization that happy people live longer, which I suspect has a profound causative link: That people good at creating happiness for themselves are, essentially, good at survival. On the other end of the hierarchy, ‘progress’ is a term that also just seems to encapsulate this idea of ever-increasing chances of survival: The invention of new technology to solve existing problems, the ever-increasing quality of life and life expectancy, etc.; all of which are just effects enhancing our survival as a species. The reason the iron boot of progress crushes everything under its path is because the mutations with the greatest fitness are the ones that survive, thereby out-winning the fight for resources versus its competitors. The only possible conclusion I can think of is that ‘progress’, i.e. beneficial change, and ‘happiness’, i.e. an influx of positive stimuli, are literally different words for the same concept.

Now, by medieval standards our lives are insanely luxurious, yet all that seems to imply is us adapting to perceive this level of abundance as relatively normal and benign (“abundance denial”). Essentially, hedonic adaptation is required as a species-wide mechanism to stop us from decaying into some pit of complacency and irrelevance and being driven out of the evolution game by a species without this shortcoming. The reason we’re still alive is because all of our ancestors ended up adapting to their circumstances enough to find a new reason to continue evolving, even though they could have just been content in their relative bliss. So no matter how much we evolve, our happiness set point will never change - because if it did, natural selection would provide negative feedback. And yet, to use this argument to conclude that we should stay as we are, instead of trying to advance further and further towards no goal in particular, is a flawed argument. The reason is the same as why personal inaction is a net loss: the happiness obtained from progress still feels momentarily good before hedonic adaptation takes it away from us, and that fact alone is enough to ensure that its integral is positive.2 Maybe it’s one or two generations, maybe even just a few years, but somehow having our standards of living changed for the better makes us happier as a species. Of course, natural selection, being the clever demon that it is, will find a way to ensure some of us grow restless and bored and end up evolving even further, thus locking us into the spiral of continued progress.3

Radical/extreme conservatism, on the other hand, would imply the absence of this evolutionary reward mechanism, i.e. stagnation of our rates of survival. It essentially is equivalent to the ‘default’ principle of inaction. A true radical conservative would feel no emotion, essentially, neither positive nor negative. For any positive emotion would be an indication that something is benefiting my survival, and thereby, by my argument, equivalent to progress - a change in circumstances, an external influence. Conversely, any negative emotion would be degeneration/decay, since negative emotions exist merely to ward against death. The summary of these lines of thought is that a happy species requires continued progress, and therefore, it’s in our best self interest to make sure it doesn’t stop.

Now, the more realistic conservative question is: Is there a rate of progress which is too quick? Should we be slowing down our progress? On this count, quantitative answers are hard to imagine being possible. But if we invoke the analogy to subjective hedonic adaptation, we might be able to intuit, at the very least, some limiting behaviour. For starters, I assume that progress which is too slow (approaching zero) reduces our net utility to zero as well, precisely because the hedonic envelope filters out emotions as a result of changes that are ‘too slow’ to notice.4 But on the other hand, I also assume that progress which is too quick (approaching singularity) doesn’t give us enough time to truly appreciate the progress, because hedonic adaptation failed to make it the new ‘normal’ for us, so the excess in potential joy just caps out and gets wasted.5 I conclude that there exists an optimal rate of progress, both on the individual level and the societal level, from which changes in either direction would reduce our total happiness experienced throughout the course of the universe’s evolution.

Side note, since beneficial mutations (of any sort, not just genetic) spread sigmoidally, it’s not entirely unreasonable to conclude that the net happiness currently being experienced by a population receiving this mutation is, essentially, the time derivative of this curve (this makes sense if you consider that progress, and therefore happiness, is the time derivative of our ability to survive). The time derivative of a sigmoid function is a gaussian function, of which the fourier transform is another gaussian function. Perhaps this yet another hint of there being a maximal frequency of progress for ensuring our continued happiness.

Incidentally, if there exists an optimal rate of progress, I assume natural selection would find it and program it into our intuitions. While I realize the dangers of trying to argue based on your reference class, I think it’s justified to speculate that we may have already been around for long enough that evolution optimized this part of our collective decision making. Perhaps our day-to-day squabbles between progressives and conservatives is merely the mechanism that ends up fine-tuning this balance, with the average we manage agreeing on being that optimal rate?6 In any case, I think the argument is sound that giving progressives everything they want might end up spiralling progress towards singularity too quickly for us to really experience the full significance of our changes. Whether or not this is the case, though, I think, boils down to a question too difficult to capture at this scale. The precise differential function we live in needs to be more closely analyzed for its chaotic dynamic.

In any case, I think the conclusion, for me, personally, is clear: Regressionist and conservative ideals are inherently unethical, since they imply either the cessation of human happiness or, worse, the active suffering of our collective consciousness. Some amount of progress is fundamentally required to experience any amount of happiness whatsoever.

  1. Indeed, I can’t help but wonder if our local perception of conscious experience is not itself a product of living in an highly evolved linguistic civilization. The world models required to enable conscious thought processing might themselves be too complex to have come up with on our own.↩︎

  2. And obviously, if there are mutations that make people happier, there are also mutations that make people less happy. But as long as the happy people sufficiently outsurvive the sad people, we are gaining more collective happy thought than we’re gaining collective sad thought. We seem to be on a good track record for that - which makes sense given that, if it were the other way around, we’d have died out already. Though I suspect that e.g. voluntary euthanasia services might help improve that even further.↩︎

  3. As a side note, I think that this evolution towards restlessness is, essentially, in a positive feedback loop with the powerful human emotion of curiosity. Basically, no matter how much we think we have everything we need, the sheer curiosity of wanting to find out more about the world continues motivating us. I sort of conceptualize a post-scarcity society as one in which curiosity has overtaken survival as the inherent reason to do anything at all, and in which boredom has replaced hunger as the most dominant negative emotion in our lives. Which, incidentally, sounds a lot like the reality of privileged westernized societies when you phrase it like that. Isn’t it great living in a post-scarcity world?↩︎

  4. Not to mention the heat death of the universe necessarily capping our total happiness experienced, the longer we attempt taking to experience that happiness.↩︎

  5. One might argue that speeding up the rate of conscious information processing (by, say, inventing faster and faster AIs) might be a way to get around this limitation, allowing us to ‘chase the singularity’. In doing so, we might be able to squeeze more net happiness into the limited amount of information we end up being able to cheat from the second law of thermodynamics. Although it’d be important to emphasize that approaching the Landauer limit would be more important than simply creating the fastest machines possible. There’s a reason the human brains have evolved to maximize their use of available energy, rather than being the fastest possible computers. As such, using a naive machine revolution to colonize the universe may be a net decrease in total happiness versus something like biological spaceflight. That said, I assume that, if this is true, any superintelligence would quickly realize this fact and optimize itself into a state of energy efficiency as well - so the concern is probably moot. And besides, humans are hardly optimized for efficient spaceflight, so some form of synthetic life will have to replace us at some point. It’s just unlikely to be silicon, essentially.↩︎

  6. I think it’s a very profound point of view to see societal laws and legal systems as, essentially, semaphores - mechanisms to not only ensure coherence and synchronization within a civilization, but also effectively limiting the total rate of progress by making sure it needs to happen collectively rather than individually. And, incidentally, the extra coherence provided by this synchronization might be part of the all-important signal processing network that gives rise to our collective consciousness. Perhaps the ‘brain’ of society would literally not work without a government, because anarchic thought is too disorganized to evolve the type of coherent structure required for intelligence? Hard to overstate the importance of this thought, because it may be a solid counter-argument against any sort of anarchist philosophy, if explored further. Abstract, hierarchical legal entities might quite literally be the correlates to our brain’s own top-down information processing network of consciousness!↩︎