Sunday, April 29, 2012

Why We Believe Suicide Is Easy

In 1969, three sadistic researchers investigated the human stress response to loud sounds. Summarized in Baumeister's Meanings of Life at p. 43:
Participants in this experiment tried to solve problems while subjected to random blasts of unpleasant, unpredictable, loud noise. Working under these conditions was quite stressful, and most participants showed harmful aftereffects during the hour after the noise stopped. These harmful effects included lowered frustration tolerance, poorer concentration and persistence, and unpleasant feelings.

One group of subjects, however, chosen individually at random, had been told by the experimenter before the study that there was a button on the desk that would turn off the noise. The experimenter said he'd prefer that they not press the button—but if the noise got too bad, they should feel free to shut it off. These individuals were much less bothered by the noise, and they showed no harmful aftereffects. Ironically, none of them had pressed the button. In fact, the button was not even wired, so the noise would not have stopped even if they had pressed it.

Thus, these individuals had been given an illusion of control. They had been told, falsely, that they could turn off a source of stress if they felt it necessary. This false belief in their ability to control the situation greatly improved their capacity to bear up under the stress with minimal effects. The implication is that illusions of control have important benefits for one's inner states.

The subjects in the experiment falsely believed they could stop the unpleasant noise at any time, and this helped them to regulate their emotional states. Only the illusion of control was necessary to change the meaning of the painful noise from an alien imposition to an annoyance they were choosing to bear out of helpfulness to the experimenter. In this small study, none of the subjects actually pressed the button - doing so would have revealed, and probably destroyed, the illusion.

Analogously, this experiment might help us understand why, based on little evidence and in the face of a great deal of contradictory evidence, people persist in believing that suicide is easy as a practical matter.

The belief that suicide is easy is, I suspect, widespread among ordinary, non-suicidal people. Bryan Caplan has made the case explicitly, stating that "there are so many cheap and easy ways to stop existing" and, more specifically, that "[t]all buildings and other routes to painless suicide are all around us." A common sentiment expressed in response to encountering antinatalism is surprise that we haven't all killed ourselves; a necessary implication for this to make sense is that suicide is easy to accomplish.

People tend to overestimate the ease and lethality of jumping from heights and gunshots to the head. In fact, inflicting traumatic injury on oneself is very difficult (for reasons including strong evolutionary ones). As Thomas Joiner reports in Why People Die By Suicide, people must in a sense train themselves to commit suicide, engaging in progressively more dangerous, painful, or provocative behaviors (such as cutting oneself) before finally working up the nerve to inflict lethal injury. The vast majority of those who attempt suicide fail; of course, some suicide attempts are insincere, but it's doubtful that all or even most failed suicide attempts are carefully calculated to be nonfatal. The truly easy, reliably lethal methods for suicide are heavily regulated (e.g., barbiturates), and, as with tall buildings and gunshots, one is always in danger of being "rescued" (forcibly prevented from committing suicide) with the full legal backing of one's government. More importantly, those who wish to commit suicide are deprived of the help of others, because while suicide is nominally legal, assisting another to commit suicide is illegal. Suicide is the only act that fits this description; every other act that's legal is also legal to help someone else perform. Suicide is culturally defined as either morally wrong or as an act of insanity. Barriers of all kinds - literal as well as legal - are erected by societies in an attempt to make suicide more difficult. Such barriers are sometimes lifted for especially innocent, sympathetic would-be suicides, such as the terminally ill; in their case, suggesting they simply jump off a building is not seen as socially appropriate. The abundance of allegedly easy methods of dying are not seen as easy enough when we are motivated to care about the person choosing to end his life.

In the face of this evidence, many still maintain that suicide is easy. I propose that believing suicide to be easy is more than just a factual mistake. It is an important belief that helps people feel that they are alive by choice, just like the experimental subjects felt they had a choice to experience the noise. Belief in "free disposal," as Bryan Caplan puts it, has the function of maintaining the subjective experience of life as a fully voluntary enterprise, not an alien imposition by one's parents and other outside forces. Only those for whom the illusion has been broken (by, for instance, a serious suicide attempt) will lose this helpful, though incorrect, belief. Those whose suffering has been so extreme as to push the button, so to speak, discover at their time of greatest need that it was a placebo button all along.

Forcible hospitalization for suicidality is the ultimate realization that the button is a lie. A recent commenter describes his experience after hospitalization:

The hospitalization was so undignified especially when two oafs grabbed me by my hands and forced me into the bandwagon. Inside the place I got so angry at everyone I busted both my hands against a wall and now can barely move any of my fingers. After my "visit" I want to die more than I've ever had.

I experienced a very similar negative-awakening eight years ago after waking up in the hospital after a suicide attempt that should have ended my life. The experience of waking up in the hospital dramatically altered the meaning of my life from the illusion of being a free person to the reality of being a prisoner. I understand the importance of believing one to be a free person who voluntarily chooses to be alive, because I have lost that belief, and pain and emptiness characterize its absence.

I do not wish to inflict pain or emptiness on others. However, in addition to providing a benefit to the individual, the belief that suicide is easy is sometimes used as a justification for reproduction. What could be wrong with bringing a new creature into the world when the creature can freely dispose of its life? It's like handing someone a lollipop - he can just throw it away if he doesn't want it.

The belief that suicide is easy, while factually incorrect, serves a valuable purpose by framing life as voluntary, and may help those who never attempt suicide to live more subjectively meaningful lives. However, this factually incorrect belief is employed to ignore the suffering of those who genuinely want to die and are unable to do so. In addition, it is used to justify the unconsented creation of life on factually incorrect grounds. If the creation of life is to be justified, it will not be based on its "free disposal."

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Ethics of Strong VR: Experience Machines and Curated Dreams

Both of the topics that I work on - suicide and human extinction - function as reminders that each of us will die. Death reminders - mortality salience inductions, in the technical jargon - can increase thoughts and behaviors that interfere with open-minded thinking and learning. This may contribute to the poor quality of public discussion of death-related matters like suicide. In particular, and most disturbing given my project, is that being reminded that one will die causes people to desire more children (Study 1, Study 2).

How can we explore ethical issues related to existence and death without reminding people of death, hence triggering a worldview defense response?

I have a proposal: let's think about the ethical implications of something similar (in interesting ways) to life-creation and life-ending, but without the scariness: immersive virtual reality experiences. Virtual reality, unlike birth and death, is fun to think about, and does not trigger worldview defense. Simulated experiences are not yet institutionalized and are wide open for ethical investigation.

There are many differences between entering a virtual reality simulation and coming into existence, and between exiting a virtual reality simulation and death. What I do NOT propose to do is to make "gotcha" arguments along the lines of "oh, you'd want to CONSENT to entering a VR simulation? THAT PROVES ANTINATALISM!!!" What I DO propose to do is to explore our attitudes toward simulated experiences, and in the process, explore how good of a metaphor it is for life creation and ending. Rather than assuming no difference, we should identify and explore the differences and their import.

A survey (respond to some or all of these in the comments):
  1. What would it take to get YOU to sign up for an immersive virtual reality experience, of the kind that would give sensory information to all your senses and feel just like reality? I'm interested both in contract terms you'd demand and in evidence you'd accept that the contract terms would be honored.
  2. Would you require the ability to exit out of the VR experience as a precondition? Is there anything that would convince you to give up this "off switch" capability, such as the hope that the experience might help you learn something or be more meaningful?
  3. If you entered a VR experience with an off switch, what would you think about the possibility of deciding in-game to give up your off switch? Would such consent be meaningful, or would it be problematic?
  4. What would you think about the possibility for extremely negative experiences within the VR story, such as being gang raped for hours or kidnapped and tortured for months, as sometimes happens in real life? Would you want these experiences to be impossible? Would the (small) possibility of these experiences give meaning to the story for you?
  5. What about children? Should children be allowed to have VR experiences? Should special safeguards against especially bad experiences be in place for them?
  6. Is there something special about base reality that makes strong VR experiences immoral or undesirable?

Of course, please also help me brainstorm other related questions and topics.

As an aside - in fact, we enter immersive virtual reality every night for several hours, with no obvious off switch. These dreams are chosen by the monkey brain, presumably based on what it thinks will most benefit our reproductive fitness in our waking life (frequently featuring unpleasant content and negative affect), rather than by our conscious selves. Shall we begin to curate our dreams - and, perhaps, our other experiences as well?

As suggested by estnihil below, if you're interested and feeling social, feel free to post some version of these questions elsewhere, like on forums and stuff - cut and paste verbatim or put them in your own words, and you certainly don't have to link to this or credit my walking-mortality-salience-induction self. Post a link in the comment thread or send me a link, or don't. <3

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Baumeister's Meanings of Life

I'm reading Meanings of Life, by Roy F. Baumeister - one of the most meta- minds I'm aware of in the social sciences (see his mind-blowing papers like "Bad Is Stronger Than Good" and "Conscious Thought Is for Facilitating Social and Cultural Interactions: How Mental Simulations Serve the Animal–Culture Interface").

I don't recommend a lot of books, but this one provides the most coherent, insight-rich, mind-reorganizing explanations of the human notion of meaning that I've ever seen. The book came out in 1991, when I was entering high school - I wish someone had turned me on to this book back then!

The only other social science book I recommend as strongly is Daly & Wilson's Homicide, an early (1988) attempt at a rigorous evolutionary biological account of killing among humans.

From Chapter Three, "The Four Needs for Meaning: An Existential Shopping List":
There is thus a need for some firm grounding for moral values. Something has to be capable of justifying other things without needing further justification itself. These "somethings" can be called value bases. A value base serves as a source of value without needing in turn to derive its value from another, external source. A value base is accepted without further justification.

A value base is a sake, in the sense of doing something "for the sake of" it. The hierarchies of justification can be expressed in terms of sakes, which are justified for the sake of yet other things. A value base is a sake in itself. People may speak of doing things for the children's sake, for the sake of honor or love, or for God's sake. These "sakes" are accepted as value bases, for they do not need t import their value from somewhere else. In most religions, for example, God's will is accepted as a value base. The believer may do things for the sake of God's will, and the believer does not ask why anyone should do what God wants. God's will can thus justify and legitimize many other actions (or prohibitions), but it does not need to be justified or legitimized on some other basis.

A value base is thus a very important cultural resource. It can justify a set of rules and prohibitions, and it can endow other actions with positive value. Without value bases, people may not see any reason to act in socially desirable ways. This can create problems, for example, for governments that want to regulate the behavior of citizens but lack the value bases to present these demands as justified. In particular, corrupt governments that have seized power by force and seek to alter the social order have chronic difficulties in providing their citizens with justification. As a result, many such governments have to resort to oppression, police action, and institutionalized terror to force the people to accept their policies. People then support the rulers' policies, not because they regard them as good and right, but because they fear the knock on the door during the night the arrest without warrant, the torture and disappearance. In the long run, governments are more secure and successful if the citizens comply because they believe the policies are just and good and right, rather than out of intimidation. But governments need effective value bases to achieve that security and success.

In an important work on value, J├╝rgen Habermas argued that modernization tends to destroy many traditional value bases, leaving modern society unable to provide sufficient justifications to to get by. Governments may thus often have problems like the preceding example, which lead to conflict with uncooperative citizens. Individuals experience a decay of values and confusion about the proper behavior. As Habermas argues, value bases are rare and difficult to create so their loss can throw a state into crisis. This problem of modern society is important for understanding how people today struggle to find value in their lives....

A value base provides a guideline for making moral judgments.... Ideologies thus tend to need value bases. Without a strong value base, an ideology loses much of its power and effectiveness, and people will not follow it or use it.

[Meanings of Life, p. 40-41. Emphasis in original; citations omitted.]

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