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Happiness in Brave New World
Huxley implies that by abolishing nastiness and mental pain, the brave new worlders have got rid of the most profound and sublime experiences that life can offer as well. Most notably, they have sacrificed a mysterious deeper happiness which is implied, but not stated, to be pharmacologically inaccessible to the utopians. The metaphysical basis of this presumption is obscure.
There are hints, too, that some of the utopians may feel an ill-defined sense of dissatisfaction, an intermittent sense that their lives are meaningless. It is implied, further, that if we are to find true fulfilment and meaning in our own lives, then we must be able to contrast the good parts of life with the bad parts, to feel both joy and despair. As rationalisations go, it's a good one.
But it's still wrong-headed. If pressed, we must concede that the victims of chronic depression or pain today don't need interludes of happiness or anaesthesia to know they are suffering horribly. Moreover, if the mere relativity of pain and pleasure were true, then one might imagine that pseudo-memories in the form of neurochemical artefacts imbued with the texture of "pastness" would do the job of contrast just as well as raw nastiness. The neurochemical signatures of deja vu and jamais vu provide us with clues on how the re-engineering could be done. But this sort of stratagem isn't on Huxley's agenda. The clear implication of Brave New World is that any kind of drug-delivered happiness is "false" or inauthentic. In similar fashion, all forms of human genetic engineering and overt behavioural conditioning are to be tarred with the same brush. Conversely, the natural happiness of the handsome, blond-haired, blue-eyed Savage on the Reservation is portrayed as more real and authentic, albeit transient and sometimes interspersed with sorrow.
The contrast between true and false happiness, however, is itself problematic. Even if the notion is both intelligible and potentially referential, it's not clear that "natural", selfish-DNA-sculpted minds offer a more authentic consciousness than precision-engineered euphoria. Highly selective and site-specific designer drugs [and, ultimately, genetic engineering] won't make things seem weird or alien. On the contrary, they can deliver a greater sense of realism, verisimilitude and emotional depth to raw states of biochemical bliss than today's parochial conception of Real Life.
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If desired, too, designer drugs can be used to trigger paroxysms of spiritual enlightenment - or at least the phenomenology thereof - transcending the ecstasies of the holiest mystic or the hyper-religiosity of a temporal-lobe epileptic. So future psychoactives needn't yield only the ersatz happiness of a brave new worlder, nor will their use be followed by the proverbial Dark Night Of The Soul. Just so long as neurotransmitter activation of the right sub-receptors triggers the right post-synaptic intra-cellular cascades regulated by the right alleles of the right genes in the right way indefinitely - and this is a technical problem with a technical solution - then we have paradise everlasting, at worst. If we want it, we can enjoy a liquid intensity of awareness far more compelling than our mundane existence as contemporary sleepwalking Homo sapiens. It will be vastly more enjoyable to boot.
If sustained, such modes of consciousness can furnish a far more potent definition of reality than the psychiatric slumlands of the past. Subtly or otherwise, today's unenriched textures of consciousness express feelings of depersonalisation and derealisation. Such feelings are frequently nameless - though still all too real - because they are without proper contrast: anonymous angst-ridden modes of selfhood that, in time, will best be forgotten. "True" happiness, on the other hand, will feel totally "real." Authenticity should be a design-specification of conscious mind, not the fleeting and incidental by-product of the workings of selfish DNA.
Tomorrow's neuropharmacology, then, offers incalculably greater riches than souped-up soma. True, drugs can also deliver neurochemical wastelands of silliness and shallowness. A lot of the state-spaces currently beyond our mental horizons may be nasty or uninteresting or both. Statistically, most are probably just psychotic. But a lot aren't. Entactogens, say, [literally, to "touch within"] may eventually be as big an industry as diet pills; and what they offer by way of a capacity for self-love will be far more use in boosting personal self-esteem.
"Entactogens", "empathogens", "entheogens" - these are fancy words. Until one is granted first-person experience of the states they open up, the phraseology invoked to get some kind of intellectual handle on Altered States may seem gobbledygook. What on earth does it all mean? But resort to such coinages isn't a retreat into obscurantism or mystery-mongering. It's a bid to bring some kind of order to unmapped exotica way beyond the drug-naïve imagination.
One can try to hint at the properties of even seriously altered states by syntactically shuffling around the lexical husks of the old order. But the kind of consciousness disclosed by these extraordinary agents provides the basis for new primitive terms in the language of a conceptual apparatus that hasn't yet been invented. Such forms of what-it's-likeness can't properly be defined or evoked within the state-specific resources of the old order. Ordinarily, they're not neurochemically accessible to us at all. Genetically, we're action-oriented hunter-gatherers, not introspective psychonauts.
So how well do we understand the sort of happiness Huxley indicts?
Even though we find the nature of BNW-issue "soma" as elusive as its Vedic ancestor, we think we can imagine, more-or-less, what taking "soma" might be like; and judge accordingly. Within limits, plain "uppers" and "downers" are intelligible to us in their effects, though even here our semantic competence is debatable - right now, it's hard to imagine what terms like "torture" and "ecstasy" really denote. When talking about drugs with (in one sense) more far-reaching effects, however, it's easy to lapse into gibbering nonsense. If one has never taken a particular drug, then one's conception of its distinctive nature derives from analogy with familiar agents, or from its behavioural effects on other people, not on the particular effects its use typically exerts on the texture of consciousness. One may be confident that other people are using the term in the same way only in virtue of their physiological similarity to oneself, not through any set of operationally defined criteria. Thus until one has tried a drug, it's hard to understand what one is praising or condemning.
This doesn't normally restrain us. But are we rationally entitled to pass a judgement on any drug-based civilisation based on one fictional model?
No, surely not. Underground chemists and pharmaceutical companies alike are likely to synthesise all sorts of "soma" in future. Licitly or otherwise, we're going to explore what it's like; and we'll like it a lot. But to suppose that the happiness of our transhuman descendants will thereby be "false" or shallow is naïve. Post-humans are not going to get drunk and stoned. Their well-being will infuse ideas, modes of introspection, varieties of selfhood, structures of mentalese, and whole new sense modalities that haven't even been dreamt of today.
Brave New World-based soma-scenarios, by contrast, are highly conceivable. This is one reason why they are so unrealistic.