Friday, September 13, 2013

EMTR V: The Evolutionary Biology of Experience Machines

The biological phenomenon of the supernormal stimulus (superstimulus) has a great deal in common with the Experience Machine. An Experience Machine is, in fact, a type of supernormal stimulus.

In biology, some bees are tricked into fertilizing flowers because the flower triggers the mating instinct of bees more than even a female bee. The flower is experienced by the bee as better than nature; it is a superstimulus. Of course, a stuperstimulus (like a parasite) ought not to get too good, such that it disrupts the survival and reproductive patterns of the organism it depends on.

An ideal Experience Machine like Nozick imagines would allow the user to jump in and forego survival needs and mating opportunities. Natural Experience Machines, aesthetics and religions, are generally much milder a drag on their hosts' evolutionary goals than this ideal Experience Machine. Superstimuli in nature, just like parasites and naturally evolving Experience Machines, must achieve an equilibrium in which the host species expends enough energy to support its own needs, while also expending plenty of energy supporting the reproduction of the parasite, superstimulus provider, or Experience Machine. (The reproductive needs of the Experience Machine can be substantial. It must not only reproduce by being passed to each successive generation, but must also be defended from new or invasive neighbor Experience Machines.)

And so our co-evolved Experience Machines are demanding, but mild. The most effective, intense Experience Machines would likely interfere with our survival and reproductive processes so much that they would never exist stably in nature, any more than an extremely virulent parasitic organism. If we are willing to enter these new (hypothetical), powerful, addictive Experience Machines, we must be willing to abandon the "evolutionary goals" of survival, organism-level status, and reproduction - to declare them not our own goals. Effective Experience Machines may mean the end of our species, as better and better Experience Machines begin to out-compete other humans (including possible offspring) for human attention. However, this need not be the case. A society that could continue to reproduce itself despite the availability of every kind of experience imaginable for its members could come very close to being a just society. Extinction or not, this is the kindest path for humanity.


  1. Great topic.

    I'd say as humanity's memetic experience machines evolve, so do its reproductive and productive technologies. Therefore, a system crash need not be inevitable. Working and nursing fast-growing hyperintelligent children two hours a day is compatible with having a perfect experience machine. The economic coordination seems realistic, too.

    There is also the possibility that some memeplexes provide strong resistance against experience machines. If everyone enters the Matrix and dies out, the Amish will still flourish.

    What I don't understand is how such regulation happens in nature. A parasite that kills its host quickly has less time to spread, so it is selected for less deadliness. But a flower that can attract bees more than other flowers and/or bee mates seems to have a straightforward selection advantage. Since evolution has no foresight, how would the flowers be selected to stay at less-than-optimal attractiveness so that the bees still reproduce?

  2. What I've been calling co-evolving Experience Machines (religions, aesthetics, etc.) need to infect an entire reproducing group of humans, whereas the flower just needs some time from a small percentage of the bees. The resource to be divided is the host animal's time, and you can either take ALL of it from a few individuals (like a carnivorous flower) or some time from most individuals, but what virulence means here is you can't take all the time/resources from all the individuals, or of course you'd stop spreading because they would all be dead.

    Monasteries are an interesting example of a cultural item that lives off surplus humans from the main population, never reproducing its own members but absorbing the unneeded humans from the outer world. The monastery wouldn't last long if there were not a great deal of excess population, but given a surplus of population, it can survive indefinitely by taking the entire lives and reproductive capacities of its members over in order to reproduce itself.

  3. We should have experience machine monasteries where superfluous people like me feel constant intense pleasure. :D


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